Everybody's a producer, but Weintraub's the real McCoy
EmptyWeintraub words: In a business where everybody claims to be a producer, Jerry Weintraub's the real McCoy.
Unlike those who get producer credit because they own the rights to a book or play or control a star's participation or financed the development of a screenplay, Weintraub's truly a working producer. With his latest production, "Ocean's Thirteen," opening in first place via Warner Bros. to $36.1 million last weekend, I was happy to be able to talk to Weintraub on Sunday morning about the making of "Thirteen," the business of producing movies and his next production, "Nancy Drew," opening wide Friday via Warners.
Clearly, Weintraub's a producer in the classic sense of the word. He's there from the inception of a project and not only puts together its studio deal, but assembles its cast and creative team. He's on the set daily throughout production, putting in long hours working hand-in-hand with his directors. And when a film's in the pipeline for release, he's a key player in the marketing process.
Weintraub's producing career stretches back to the mid-'70s with some 40 film and TV productions, according to IMDb, including the first two "Ocean's Eleven" franchise episodes and four "Karate Kid" movies. Among his upcoming productions is a remake of his 1977 hit comedy "Oh, God!," which was directed by Carl Reiner and starred George Burns in the title role.
A good indication of Weintraub's status as a producer came earlier this month when he became the first producer ever honored by having his hand and footprints put in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Also immortalized at that ceremony were George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, who starred in "Thirteen" for Weintraub and director Seven Soderbergh.
"There's a lot of things going on here," Weintraub told me. "It's a big hit. It's not just a hit. It's going to do very, very good numbers and the number this weekend's great. First of all, I think we'll have a bigger first week than we had on 'Eleven' or 'Twelve' because we have summer play days this week, which we didn't have on 'Eleven' or 'Twelve.' Remember, we opened Dec. 7 and Dec. 10, which is maybe the worst time you can open a movie (in the pre-Christmas period when adult moviegoers are busy shopping and going to holiday parties). So we'll do far better this week. And then next weekend you've got 'Nancy Drew,' which is mine (directed by Andrew Fleming and starring Emma Roberts), and then you've got 'Fantastic Four' (the Marvel comic book franchise sequel opening via 20th Century Fox), which both skew very young. 'Fantastic Four' will probably be the number one picture in the marketplace. But we're going to be (with 'Thirteen') the number one picture with adults in the marketplace.
"Danny (Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman) positioned this movie very, very well from a distribution standpoint. He really did a fantastic job with it. So we got a big number and I think because it's the summer time and because my stars are who they are, we're going to run for a long time. I think this is going to have the best legs of all three movies (in its franchise)."
Looking back at the first two "Ocean's" episodes, the 2001 original grossed $183.4 million domestically and about $261 million more while 2004's "Twelve" did $125.5 million domestically and another $351 million-plus abroad, according to Media By Numbers. Together, "Eleven" and "Twelve" have grossed nearly $800 million worldwide.
"Thirteen" is unique in these days of one-big-star movies for having a roster of multiple top stars like Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle and Bernie Mac, all of whom reteamed with Weintraub and Soderbergh. The film also has some additional star power from franchise newcomers Ellen Barkin and Al Pacino. "These guys are great together and they're great with me," Weintraub observed. "And I love working with them. They're all my friends. I couldn't ask for more. You know, I don't have to work. This is an environment that I love. You know me for a long, long time. I love making movies. I really relish it. I love the creative process and I love the actors and the directors and the writers and the whole process of the film. And I feel really blessed and lucky to be able to do it. Now, I'm 69 years old. So if I can say that now and I have a whole bunch more pictures I'm making, you've got to think, 'The guy must really enjoy what he's doing.' So that's what it's about."
Although Barkin and Pacino are new to "Thirteen," they both go way back with Weintraub. When I told Weintraub how great I thought Barkin looked in "Thirteen," he agreed readily and said, "She looks fantastic. You know, I gave her her first (credited movie acting) job in 'Diner' (in 1982, directed by Barry Levinson). So we're old, old friends. And Al worked for me in 'Cruising' (in 1980, directed by William Friedkin). So they're not new to me. They're people that I know for a long time. Al's a buddy of mine. We hang out together. I was really happy that we had a role that was exactly right for (Barkin). And she looks wonderful. She looks fantastic. There's not a 50-year-old woman in the world who shouldn't look at her and say, 'Hey, wow! Look at how sexy she is. I can be just as sexy.' And I think that's a good thing."
Weintraub's especially pleased with his ongoing relationship with Warner Bros., pointing out that, "Right now, at this particular time in my life, Warner Bros. has really been tremendously supportive of me and given me a lot of love and embraced me so much that I don't even know how to explain it. They're just great executives. They've done a super, super job for me.
"They all came out for my hand and footprints ceremony. They turned out to make these premieres right and they worked hard. You know, I did four premieres with ('Thirteen') and while I was doing that we were raising money for Darfur, which we did. We started the Not On Our Watch project (to provide humanitarian aid in Sudan's Darfur region), which has really now taken off. We're raising millions and millions of dollars (donating $2.75 million earlier this month to the International Rescue Committee to support its programs in Darfur). You've got George, Brad, Matt, Don Cheadle and myself (working together on this). So there was an awful lot going on in the last year and a half or two years for me. Making the two films and having them open a week apart is a lot of work, but you can't do it by yourself. And I had a tremendous amount of love and support from the company."
In producing "Thirteen," Weintraub not only had to convince his roster of top stars and Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh to do another sequel, but also had to juggle their packed schedules to make it possible after they said yes. "You know, I keep saying this, everybody thinks I'm some kind of genius to be able to do this. I'm not," he confided. "It's not rocket science. The fact is that these guys all like to be together. There are no egos that come to the set versus every other film that they make. They all hang out in the morning. They drink their coffee together. They get their makeup put on together. They get their hair done together in one trailer. Nobody comes with an attitude.
"Even Ellen (was hanging out with the guys). It's rare for a female actress (and especially) for a star to sit in a trailer with a bunch of guys and get made up. You know, they like to be by themselves. She came in and hung out with us and stayed in the trailer in the morning. She had breakfast with us (while she had her) hair rollers in. It's a different thing when we make these pictures. It's a camaraderie and a respect. I think the word respect is important -- a respect that they have for each other and they give to each other on screen, which is what makes the pictures work. And we got fantastic reviews on this movie. It's better reviewed than any of the others. I mean, it really got great reviews. We nailed reviews that you would never think in a million years we would get -- like the New York Times and Rolling Stone. Big time reviews right across the country."
The film's screenplay by Brian Koppelman & David Levien has attracted its own share of critical compliments. Newsweek's David Ansen, for instance, wrote, "There's actually a coherent script and there are some real laughs." In my May 23 column here I had the pleasure of talking to Koppelman & Levien, who both said how much they enjoyed working with Weintraub and added that they'd learned a lot from him about producing, which they do as well as write screenplays. They told me how Weintraub had directed them to buy a jumbo bag of popcorn and some Cokes to have in their office while they were writing the screenplay and meeting about it with Soderbergh to help them remember they were supposed to be writing a popcorn movie.
Talking about "Thirteen's" stars, Weintraub observed, "The thing is that they have this respect for each other, which is great. And these are arguably the biggest movie stars in the world. I mean, yes, there's Tom Hanks. Yes, there's Johnny Depp. Yes, there's Tom Cruise. But, you know, these guys are right in there in the top five or 10 of the world. So for them to come to the set and have that kind of respect for each other is a great thing. And then they obviously have that (same respect) for Soderbergh. He's a wonderful director. I think the best director working today. And I think that they have that (respect) for me. So when you put that all together it spells M-A-G-I-C and that means that it's all going to come out of the mix the right way if we all do our jobs. And when you get a bunch of pros together like us, we all do our jobs. And when we do, we make it work."
Doing his job means being there throughout production: "All day long every day. I never leave the set. I do that on every movie I make. I don't make five movies at a time. I'm not that kind of producer. I worked very closely with Soderbergh. I worked closely with the writers. I worked very closely with the actors. I worked with wardrobe. I do everything. And then I do (the same with) the marketing."
Weintraub's very happy with the marketing campaigns for both "Thirteen" and "Nancy" orchestrated by Warners' marketing president Dawn Taubin and her team. "Her staff was remarkable on both of these movies," he said. "Juli Goodwin (senior vp, Publicity) runs my stuff on 'Ocean's.' She's great. And she has Jan Craft (director, Publicity) working for her and she was great. And Dennis Higgins (vp, Publicity) was on the movie. You put all those pros together (and the results are terrific). And then on 'Nancy Drew,' I had a woman (doing publicity) who I just idolize. I think she's fantastic. Dawn and Juli asked me to use her on this movie -- Suzanne Fritz (vp, Publicity). She did a (fabulous) job for me on 'Nancy Drew.' I'm telling you, she started from no place (with no big stars in the film) and if you pick up the (Los Angeles Times) Calendar section this morning, Emma Roberts' face is on it (on the front page). In the middle of the summer, in the middle of everything that's going on, that's where they went (for a Calendar section page one profile). And with everything that's happening right now with Paris Hilton and all the stuff in the news, this 'Nancy Drew' movie is what mothers are going to take their girls to. It's a wholesome movie.
"I've got to tell you, we've gotten great reviews on this movie -- except (in the trades). I don't care. I premiered the picture yesterday at Grauman's. I had 1,400 people that came. I had to go into an overflow house because Grauman's seats (only about) 1,100. I had all kids in there -- all mothers and fathers with their kids. I don't think five people got up to go to the bathroom! It was great. They just loved the picture. Now I can understand some guy who's 50 years old and reviewing the movie and is not going to like it. That's fine. I didn't make it for him. But I'm getting good reviews around the country."
Although he's happy about those good reviews, Weintraub isn't really hung up on what the critics write about his films: "I'll tell you the truth. I'm at a point in my life now where I've instructed the studio and my people who work for me -- and I have a great (staff). I've had the same people for 30 years -- don't send me the good reviews and don't send me the bad reviews. Don't send them to me because when I finish a movie now and I watch it and I like it and I'm satisfied with it -- end of story. You've got to operate that way because reviews are so subjective. You can't even go there."
When I observed that the way he works as a producer is quite different from the way many other people who call themselves producers operate these days, Weintraub replied, "And that's why my hands and footprints are in front of Grauman's and the other guys aren't. I'm the first producer ever there (in cement). I love this and I really produce. But that's why these actors and directors and writers want to work with me -- because they know that they're going to get a fair shot from me and I'm going to give it my all and I'm going to put myself into the mix. I'm not afraid to put myself out there. I'm not afraid to get run over. I don't throw somebody else under the truck. If there's a mistake, it'll be my mistake because my hand will be all over it."
Asked about the differences between making "Thirteen" and "Nancy," he explained, "Well, first of all, the budgets are entirely different. One is a high-budget movie and one is not. Also, I was working with a brand new star (in 'Nancy'). Emma Roberts is brand new and she's great. I have two more pictures for her and I think she's going to be a giant star. I think she's the new kid of the future and the kids love her. So that was very exciting to me and that's what Suzanne Fritz was able to sell to the press, which I enjoyed doing. I've discovered a lot of people over the years that went on to win Academy Awards and went on to make some of the best pictures in the world. And I don't think this one's any different. I think this girl will be up there getting an Academy Award in the next 10 years."
How did Weintraub find Roberts, who, by the way, is Julia Roberts' niece and looks remarkably like her? "We saw her on Nickelodeon and Andy Fleming, the director, and I looked at her," he said. "We fell in love with her. She came in to see us. Andy and I were sitting there and David Sweeney, who's her manager, brought her in. He's a very good manager. He does a very, very good job for her and I'm a guy who should know good managers (having had his own personal management company early in his career before he started producing movies). He believes totally in the girl. He introduced us to her. We sat and talked to her. We had already interviewed, I'd say, six other actresses -- three or four of whom were very well known. And when we met her we looked at each other and Andy said, 'She's...' and I said, '...Nancy Drew.' And that was it. I don't think we talked to her for more than five minutes before we looked at each other and said, 'That's it!' That's how we first brought her in. She's just a star. I know a star (when I see one and) she's a star."
Weintraub was also a continuing presence during production on "Nancy," he said, "All day every day. Dailies, every day. Conversations, every day. Meetings, every day. You know, I don't believe that you can be a producer and make a movie and sit down with a director or a DP or any of the people who work for you and say to them, 'Why did you have that girl in a yellow dress in that scene? It doesn't work' unless you're there when she puts on the yellow dress the first time. So I am a very, very hands-on guy. And my directors welcome it. All these directors who have final cut and who are important directors -- people I work with all the time -- welcome me into the creative process because they want a partner. They're all looking for a partner if they can find somebody who's opinion they trust and who they respect. Now they don't necessarily respect, and I can't blame them, somebody who just puts deals together and then goes to the south of France and calls them every four days. You know what I'm saying? In the old days, when I started in this business, I was taught to make a movie. If you started out to make a movie, you made a movie. Could I make an extra $5 million a year making another two pictures? Yes, probably. But that's not what it's about for me. I've got plenty of millions. I'm fine. And when I make hits like this, I get more money. I'm not in the volume business."
Clearly, Weintraub takes pride in what he does. "And if you look at my body of work, you'll see that every title that I've made, including the ones that didn't work, you'll know every title -- even the ones that didn't make it. And I've had pictures that didn't work like everybody else has. You don't bat a thousand in this business, but I'm batting pretty good. I'm around 700. And each one of those pictures I've made and the ones I'm going to make in the future are pictures that I wanted to make and that I stayed with and made. They're not pictures that I made just to get a payday. I mean, do I want to make money? Yes. Do I want to make hits? I love making hits.
"You know, I went against the grain here (with 'Thirteen'). I opened an adult movie in a kids market. I'm going to have a much better hold than these kids pictures have. I put myself out on the line here (with Warner Bros. in doing an early summer release for 'Thirteen' instead of a December release like the first two had) because we believe it's got legs and it's going to run through the summer and people are going to go see it like they did this weekend. For us to open to (over $36 million) in the beginning of the summer when everybody's thinking about 'Spider-Man,' 'Shrek,' 'Pirates,' 'Transformers,' whatever they're thinking about, (wasn't easy). We went out and sold this movie and it paid off."
Filmmaker flashbacks: From July 17, 1989's column: "In the 27 years since James Bond first took to the screen in 'Dr. No,' the four actors who have played Bond have had to face four times as many villains -- the likes of such classic killers as Auric Goldfinger, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Mr. Big and Hugo Drax. None, however, seemed quite so true to life as Robert Davi who plays drug lord Franz Sanchez in United Artists' 'License to Kill,' which opened Friday at 1,575 screens.
"As a Bond buff from the start, it was my great pleasure to have as my guests on Sunday's Hollywood Reporter series on the Movietime cable network Robert Davi and John Glen, director of 'License' and the previous four Bond films.
"The amount of work that goes into making any Bond film is extraordinary. A case in point is 'License's' climactic battle between Timothy Dalton as 007 and Davi while driving monster-size trucks. How many vehicles did Glen destroy in order to get what he needed on film?
"Ten. They cost $100,000 each,' he told me. And how long did it take to shoot what went by in mere minutes on the screen? 'Well, we had a unit working continuously in Mexico in the mountainous area for six weeks doing all that stuff. I went up there with my actors for one week and we worked solidly with Robert and Timothy...'
"The relationship between Bond and the villains is something, Davi points out, that Bond creator Ian Fleming established in 'Casino Royale,' the first of his Bond novels: 'Fleming sets the tone for Bond and his adversaries. There's a chapter in that book on the nature of good and evil where he talks about how Bond and the villain at a certain point become mirror images of each other. I like that. I saw both of these characters as existentialist nihilists, improvisers of a moral code. Bond is much more on the right side of truth. What we discussed (during filming) with John was to capture this crossover and to bring in underlying subtleties...'
"Over the years the Bond films have come to begin with a sequence before the titles -- all of which, including the new one, have been gloriously designed by Maurice Binder -- in which 007 is seen in an episode that has nothing to do with the movie that follows the credits. With 'License,' however, that's changed and the film starts pretitles. 'It sets the story up,' explains Glen, 'which is a jolly good thing for me. You know, we would spend about $3 million doing a little mini-film before the main film starts. It's something we started on 'Spy Who Loved Me' (1977), a scene that I shot (as action director). From that day on the public (came to expect) that they had this little film before the main film.'"
Update: "License to Kill" opened July 14, 1989 to $8.8 million at 1,575 theaters ($5,571 per theater). It went on to gross a modest $34.7 million domestically, making it the year's 36th biggest grossing film. Of the 22 films in the Bond franchise it ranks 18th.
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.