The Most Feared Man in Town

Issue 53 - The Most Feared Man in Town: Scott Rudin
Jennifer S. Altman/Contour by Getty Images

Scott Rudin

Scott Rudin, in his first one-on-one in years, opens up about his career, 'Social Network' and, of course, his reputation.

The stories are legion.

There’s the time Scott Rudin was driving an assistant and became so angry he slammed on the brakes, allegedly sending the young man careening into the windshield. There’s the former staffer who was forced to take ulcer medication to cope with the stress. There’s the executive who drew Rudin’s wrath by turning away some of the producer’s guests at a premiere, prompting Rudin to write, “The only thing separating my hands from your neck is the fact that there are 3,000 miles between us.” That’s not to mention the occasion during the late 1990s when Rudin was on the phone with this reporter, calling me “a pathological liar” while not quite telling the truth himself.

So it comes as a shock to discover — meeting him in person for the first time — that Rudin is utterly, almost dazzlingly charming.

It’s lunchtime, late October, and we’re sitting in an unpretentious Italian restaurant buried in the heart of New York’s theater district. Rudin, 52, bearded and somewhat rumpled in loose-fitting jeans and a casual blue sweater, has agreed to participate in his first magazine profile in years — perhaps because he has not one but two films in Oscar contention this year: The Social Network and the Coen brothers’ True Grit.

He laughs at the tales but doesn’t discount them. Are they true, false or exaggerated? “Probably all,” he quips.

Asked how many assistants he has fired this year — he’s notorious for plowing through dozens at a time — he answers none. A moment later, he admits there may have been two or three pushed out of his company, though not necessarily by him. “People who do fantastically tend to end up going on to very strong, illustrious careers,” he says, “and the people who wash out tend to not be heard from again.”

One of the most prolific producers of our era — responsible for such films as There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men and The Firm — Rudin is in a league entirely of his own. “Scott’s the best living movie — and theater — producer, and he gives the dead ones a run for their money, too,” says his Social Network writer, Aaron Sorkin. “He’s a sensational script editor who brings out the very best in writers; he gets the movie made and at a sane budget; and there’s no one you’d rather have in the quarterback position in the weeks leading up to the release.”

He’s also famous, however, for his volcanic temper and almost compulsive need to control; one associate says he recently e-mailed her 1,400 times over a nine-day period. But you’d never guess from his easy laughter and unaffected openness. How does one reconcile these different Rudins?

“There are two Scott Rudins,” says a longtime colleague who asks not to be identified. “There’s the Scott that has an incredible sense of material, the one who visits [late director] Sydney Pollack every day when he’s sick. And there’s the one who beats up the marketing department and says [to a well-known executive], ‘I’m going to burn your house down!’ You’d be having this perfectly wonderful conversation, then he’d erupt. I used to think he was bipolar.”

“I was once a fairly angry person,” Rudin acknowledges as he picks at a tiny piece of fish on his plate, saying that his longtime relationship with theater publicist John Barlow has mellowed him. “I don’t think I am now. I feel sanguine about the things I know I can achieve and the things I know I won’t be able to. ... I used to think everything needed me, and when I was confronted with the reality [that this wasn’t the case], it used to really bother me. I was inconsiderate of the needs of other people and didn’t, honestly, latch [onto] the basic understanding that ... I had people’s livelihoods in my hands. I didn’t understand it.”

He also notes that he’s “not that social.” “I don’t particularly have a wide social circle,” he says. “I get up around 4:30, I’m in the office at 6 or 6:30 in the morning, and I leave at 9 at night” — just like those assistants, who maintain the same hours.

True, Rudin occasionally gets away in the summer to a beach house in Quogue on Long Island, N.Y.; but otherwise, work consumes his every minute. It is this combination of single-minded purpose and social quirkiness that may explain his attraction to Social Network and its brilliant yet troubled hero, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Rudin sparked to the underlying material, a book proposal for Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, when an agent sent it to him. He says he was unaware that two other producers were attached.

“Unbeknownst to us, it had also been given to [Kevin Spacey’s production partner] Dana Brunetti, who brought Michael De Luca to it,” Rudin says. “Dana had worked with Ben on the proposal. I called [Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal] about it, and Amy didn’t know that. De Luca and Brunetti were very generous — they didn’t have to include me; they did.”

All knew that turning a website’s creation into a compelling film wouldn’t be easy; its path to the screen illustrates just how effective Rudin can be. It was he who orchestrated the first key move, bringing Sorkin (The West Wing) on board as writer. “This obviously screamed for him, like few pieces of material scream for anybody,” he says.

What followed was a protracted pirouette as Rudin and his colleagues sought to obtain the involvement of another writer working on a book about Zuckerberg, David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect, which Rudin now dismisses as “essentially a press release.” (Kirkpatrick calls this “offensive bulls**t. He has no idea what he is talking about.”)

Kirkpatrick in turn introduced Rudin to Facebook vp global communications Elliot Schrage, who told Rudin, “ ‘We’ll cooperate if you don’t call it Harvard and you don’t call it Facebook,’ ” Rudin recalls. “But it took a long time for them to say that. We had months of meetings and conversations. We were in a very elaborate dance with each other. Then, after a period of time, I said: ‘We’re ready to start. Are you in or not?’ And that’s when he said, ‘Not if it’s called Facebook.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think we’re done.’ ”

Throughout, Rudin was trying to obtain Facebook’s support, holding off on signing Sorkin. “I didn’t want Aaron to start if there was going to be cooperation, so I kept trying to stall him until [Sorkin’s agent Ari Emanuel] said, ‘If you don’t press the button, he’s going to take another job.’ ”

Rudin pressed the button.

But his dealings with Facebook didn’t end there. “I said to Elliot, ‘We’re clearly not going to agree to agree, but I’ll show you a draft of the script,’ ” Rudin says. “ ‘You can come to New York and read it in my office.’ ”

Schrage did, Rudin believes, on at least two occasions. “He sat in [my] conference room and took very copious notes over many hours,” he says. “I know he went back to Zuckerberg.”

The Facebook executive helped explain several crucial aspects of his boss. “There was an enormous amount written about Zuckerberg, but no one had ever really described what it is he does,” Rudin reflects. “[Schrage explained] he’s a code writer and fundamentally a hacker-turned-CEO. The hacking stuff — the pure, anarchic, f*** off, anti-authoritarian thing that’s at the center of him — [he was] very helpful in making us understand [that].”

He adds, “One of my favorite lines in the movie came from Schrage, which is, ‘Creation myths need a devil,’ which I think is the best defense of Zuckerberg in the entire film.”

Rudin tried to meet the 26-year-old Zuckerberg “for a long time, and he refused. Elliot kept saying: ‘He doesn’t want to do it now. Maybe later.’ And I said: ‘I need you to understand this: There is no later. Once the writing starts, it’s [Sorkin’s], and you will have no place in it.’ And of course, two weeks before the movie started, they asked for a meeting. And we said no.”

“After speaking with Scott,” a Facebook spokesperson says, “Facebook concluded that it would not cooperate with the movie because the producers had committed to adapt a book that was clearly acknowledged as fictional.”

Today, the producer says he is glad it didn’t. “It would have clipped our wings.”

Rudin’s wings rarely have been clipped.

Born in 1958 in Forest Hills, N.Y., and raised in Baldwin, a town on the south shore of Long Island, he grew up the son of a menswear salesman and a mother who inculcated his lifelong love of theater.

“[She] took me to tons of stuff when I was kid: Took me to ballet, took me to opera, took me to theater,” Rudin says. “It was that Jewish upbringing.”

Like one of his heroes, writer-director Moss Hart,  his mother and an aunt shaped him — though he admits he resembles his father far more. “I’m scarily like him,” he says. “Impatient. Temperamental. Fundamentally asocial.”

Alone, except for a younger brother (now a doctor), Rudin plunged into theater. “I was 10 years old, taking the train by myself to see Saturday matinees, something you’d never let a kid do now. I got very hooked on it.”

In his teens, he started working unpaid for Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarden and then for producer Robert Whitehead. “There was an opening [with Whitehead, and Rudin went for an interview],” he says. “And I saw Bob come out of his office and say to his assistant, ‘Who played Billy Budd on Broadway?’ No one in the office knew — and I knew. So I said, ‘Charles Nolte,’ and landed the job.”

One week before leaving for Brown University, Rudin, just 16 years old, changed his mind. “I had no money [but] got a full scholarship, and then I went downstairs and said to my parents: ‘I’m not going. I’m going to stay in my job.’ ” Rudin’s education-minded mother was beside herself. “She said, ‘[I] can’t force you to go, but if you’re not going to school, you can’t live here.’ I moved out that day.”

Looking back, he says, “It was a smart thing because it tested my commitment.” But for years, he admits his relationship with his parents was strained, a situation that only has turned around in the past decade or so.

After that initial phase in New York, where he quickly became a casting director, he moved to Los Angeles at 21 to work for another famously volatile producer, Edgar Scherick, then joined producer Larry Gordon before following Gordon to 20th Century Fox as an executive. He was heading production by the almost unheard-of age of 26.

“A lot of the lucky things that happened for me early in my life really couldn’t happen now,” he says. “When I was a baby producer, people like [late producer] Don Simpson [were] incredibly helpful to me, [and] Jeffrey Katzenberg, when he was at Paramount. These people were unbelievably generous. I got taken seriously with no reason to be taken seriously. I don’t know if those opportunities exist now.”

His executive experience didn’t last long. Was it his own decision to leave Fox? “No one leaves those jobs on their own,” he quips.

Soon, he was producing such films as 1990’s Flatliners and Pacific Heights. In the late ’80s, he signed a deal with Paramount, where he remained for 15 years, largely while the studio was run by Sherry Lansing. When he renewed his pact in 1995, the rich terms became the stuff of legend.

Rudin’s contract granted him about $2.5 million a movie, plus a reported 7.5% of the backend (the studio’s share of box-office revenue). It also gave him a discretionary fund of $3 million to buy whatever material caught his eye. At Paramount, he made such hits as The Addams Family, Clueless, The First Wives Club and The Truman Show.

Shortly after Lansing left Paramount, however, Rudin left too, signing another lucrative deal with Disney in 2005 for $8.75 million a year, sources say. The arrangement made sense: Then-studio chief Dick Cook had wooed him, essentially to provide product for its specialty division, Miramax.

“I want to make serious work that engages with serious subjects,” Rudin says. “I’m very lucky: I get to more or less make what I want. And with that comes an obligation to engage with the world and say something about it. That’s the whole job. That’s the mandate.”

At Miramax, occasionally in association with other studios, Rudin made some of his most memorable movies including There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, which won him an Oscar, solidifying his reputation not only as a maker of commercial films but also as Hollywood’s most effective producer of original and challenging material.

Curiously, it was with the former head of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, that Rudin had one of his most celebrated conflicts over The Reader, the Holocaust drama starring Kate Winslet and directed by Stephen Daldry.

Weinstein, head of the Weinstein Co., already had clashed with Rudin over 2002’s The Hours and issues like whether Nicole Kidman should have a prosthetic nose for her role as Virginia Woolf. Now he was eager to release their new movie in late 2008, giving it time to compete for the Oscars. Daldry and Rudin were opposed — and Rudin ended up exiting the project, removing his name as producer.

“Daldry and I worked incredibly hard to get the movie as good as we could by the date Harvey wanted,” Rudin recalls. “I didn’t think it was good enough, and in my gut I didn’t think it really worked. Harvey didn’t agree. His need to have the movie, I thought, trumped what was best for the movie. I didn’t want to be a drag on the process, and I didn’t want to be fighting with him anymore.”

The movie ended up grossing $109 million worldwide and winning a best actress Oscar for Winslet. Asked whether he would work with Weinstein again, Rudin says, “I think I’d rather have dinner with him.”

He pauses. “You can look at it as a show of strength or a show of weakness — I’m not sure which. Probably some version of both. I just didn’t want to be there and felt it was taking a toll on my life. I was miserable every day.”

But there’s something else. “It’s also a piece of material I never understood as well as I should have,” Rudin says. “I tried very hard to understand it, and I don’t think I ever really did. So I probably made a mistake doing it. It was not good producing. I failed.”

Failure is not a word one often associates with Rudin.

We’re in his office now, a space whose extraordinary blandness seems at odds with Rudin’s personality. The seagrass-covered walls are bare, the furniture modern without being modernist. Other than the obligatory posters of past films that line his hallway, the only distinguishing thing about it is the code Rudin punches to enter his space.

Time and again, he mentions how hard it has become to produce the kind of films that most matter to him; repeatedly, he looks ahead to the point when his run at the top will end.

Something may indeed end soon: his deal with Disney. Since Rich Ross replaced Cook as movie head, there have been rumors that Disney has tried to extricate itself from its first-look deal with Rudin, which has resulted in no films since the studio shuttered Miramax. The producer declines to talk about his arrangement, which runs through 2013, but acknowledges: “I know those deals are over; this is the last gasp for those [kinds of] deals in this town.”

Insiders say he has met with Ross but offer no more details. Ross turned down repeated requests to comment for this story — hardly a ringing endorsement.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” Rudin reflects. “If you care about just getting stuff done, that’s hard enough, but if you want to create a body of work that is of quality, it’s very hard.”

Nowhere was Rudin’s ability to do so more apparent than with his upcoming adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s global best-seller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, shooting in Stockholm with Social Network’s David Fincher directing.

Unlike most books, which are presented to Rudin before they’re even published, he didn’t know anything of Girl until he found his partner of 12 years, Barlow, immersed in it. “He was reading at our house, and I said, ‘Do you want to go get some lunch?’ And he said, ‘Yes — in a week!’ ”

Obtaining the rights took much longer.

“We started what was almost two years of trying to get [them],” Rudin says. That began “with Miramax, and Miramax couldn’t make a deal. Then I was in the process of making a deal with the producers [of the Swedish film version, along with the late author’s family] to develop it independently. And [Sony Pictures chairman] Michael Lynton called and said, ‘I just read these books and heard there was somebody negotiating, and I figured it had to be you.’ ”

Rudin and Sony joined forces again. But every aspect of the negotiation was complicated, from the money to the differences between American and Swedish copyright law.

“There were so many things: all the deals, including the deal the publisher had with the family; the deal the producers had with the publisher; the deal the producers had with their investors,” Rudin explains. “All had to be redone from scratch because copyright law is so different in Sweden, [and] you couldn’t be protected in perpetuity. Everyone had to come back to the table.”

He adds, “We spent another seven or eight months putting it together, and they were unbelievable. I mean, it closed with 30 people — senior management at Sony, myself, the Swedish publishers, the Swedish producers, representatives of the family — 30 people in a room for four days straight to get the papers signed.”

After all this, Rudin and Fincher still had to find the right actress to play the lead, Lisbeth Salander. They spoke to all “the usual suspects” but, like Sony, preferred to go with an unknown. In the end, that meant Rooney Mara, who has a small but significant role in Social Network.

“She tested brilliantly, repeatedly,” Rudin says. “There was not just the size of her talent but also [how she kept] coming back. You have to keep climbing for it, which was a big thing because of the physical demands. It spoke to her, and that’s why she was fighting for it. [She] was fantastic.”

He leans back, thrilled at the memory.

Today, Rudin is at the peak of his powers, with a slew of projects including Paramount’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock; a new biography of Cleopatra that may star Angelina Jolie; his Brad Pitt starrer Moneyball; and The Dictator, a comedy that will team him with Sacha Baron Cohen.

He seems relaxed and calm in a way he never was before. Yet he returns to the sense that this is ephemeral, that “It won’t go on forever.” Sitting on a brown leather couch, he reflects: “My standard has always been probably [a] delusional fantasy of what I believe I’m capable of. I measure my value against, have I done the best job I think I can do? Sometimes I think I [have], and many times I think I haven’t. I’m way harder on myself than anybody else is.”

What Rudin has achieved is enormous. But in an increasingly corporate business, who will support him?

True, there are reports that his former employee, Pascal, would snap him up for Sony if the Disney deal expires; but Pascal belongs to a filmmaker-friendly breed of executive that’s diminishing at the speed of light. The very characteristics that have propelled Rudin to the top — anger, ferocity, obsessiveness — are the ones some executives fear. If he stumbles, who will come to his rescue?

He shrugs, unperturbed.

“People end amazing careers angry and bitter and feeling overlooked because they could not get their head around the idea that it was no longer their time,” he says. “The smartest thing you can know is when it’s over.”


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