On May 1, Jake Gyllenhaal announced he'll play Leonard Bernstein in The American, a biopic about the legendary conductor and West Side Story composer that director Cary Fukunaga intends to start shooting this fall for Bron Studios.
But before Gyllenhaal could even put together a full orchestra, symbolically speaking, a rival Bernstein biopic was announced on May 10 – this one to be directed by and star Bradley Cooper, who will produce Bernstein alongside Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, among others.
Behind the scenes, both projects raced to secure music rights from the Bernstein estate. For the estate, it was an embarrassment of riches as two of Hollywood's most in-demand actors presented their case.
Cooper's team prevailed, and the estate awarded exclusive rights to Paramount and Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, which are partnering on Bernstein. That means that The American doesn't have permission to feature any music that Bernstein composed, including West Side Story.
Paramount actually had the rights for years before they lapsed in recent months. Producers Fred Berner and Amy Durning have spent the better part of a decade trying to make a Bernstein film for the studio, with Josh Singer coming aboard to write the script five years ago. At point, Scorsese wanted to direct Bernstein, but he departed to helm The Irishman.
The project got renewed life in the past two months after Cooper showed a cut of his upcoming directorial debut, A Star is Born, to Spielberg. The elder filmmaker was impressed, and told Cooper he should direct Paramount's Bernstein biopic. Cooper was sold, with Amblin coming aboard as well, along with Spielberg as a producer.
Berner and Durning reengaged the Bernstein estate, which is carefully guarded by Bernstein's three children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina. Spielberg and Cooper also met with the estate, which was shown A Star is Born. (Spielberg is hardly a stranger to the Bernstein brood, since he has a separate rights deal for his planned West Side Story remake.)
"In our father’s centennial year celebration, we are delighted to form an exclusive and unprecedented partnership with Paramount Pictures, Amblin and this extraordinary group of filmmakers to create a Leonard Bernstein biographical film. They understand our father and are passionate about telling his story," Jamie, Alexander and Nina Bernstein said in a Paramount and Amblin press release earlier this week.
Bernstein isn't expected to start shooting until fall 2019. Cooper intends to do further work on the script in conjunction with Singer and the producers.
The American may have lost out on the music rights, but it isn't waving the flag of defeat. And, if all goes as planned, Fukunaga and Gyllenhaal's film will hit the big screen first, or in 2019.
Insiders close to Gyllenhaal and Bron say they fully intend to proceed, despite not being able to use any music from West Side Story. They note that Bernstein was just as famous for being a conductor, and that much of the music he conducted is in the public domain. (However, they likely can't use any of his orchestral recordings.) The indie film will be financed by a combination of sources, including foreign presales. Sierra/Affinity is currently shopping the project to international distributors at the Cannes film market, where it is receiving keen interest.
The American is a passion project for Gyllenhaal, who developed the film with his partner, Riva Marker, at their New York-based production company, Nine Stories. When the Paramount film seemed to be off the table, the music rights were suddenly free again.
“Like many people, Leonard Bernstein found his way into my life and heart through West Side Story when I was a kid,” the actor-producer said in a May 1 press release. “But as I got older and started to learn about the scope of his work, I began to understand the extent of his unparalleled contribution and the debt of gratitude modern American culture owes him. As a man, Bernstein was a fascinating figure — full of genius and contradiction — and it will be an incredible honor to tell his story with a talent and friend like Cary Fukunaga."
Michael Mitnick's screenplay for The American is based on Humphrey Burton's definitive biography, Leonard Bernstein. The film will a paint an intimate portrait of the man behind the music, including Bernstein's homosexuality.
At age 25, Bernstein became the youngest music director in the history of the New York Philharmonic. In addition to his prolific career as a conductor, he composed numerous stage musicals, including On the Town and Wonderful Town. He also composed the film score for On the Waterfront.