Jerry Weintraub on Cannes and his Liberace Biopic (Q&A)

Jerry Weintraub Portrait - H 2013
Austin Hargrave

Jerry Weintraub Portrait - H 2013

The legendary producer opens up about his reported $23 million budget from HBO, whether the flamboyant singer could be "out" today and what he thinks of awards: "The Academy hates it when I talk that way."

This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When the Cannes Film Festival rolls around each May, Jerry Weintraub usually finds himself in the south of France. But he doesn't come to work, he insists: "It's one of my playgrounds. I don't go to be in Cannes. I'm just usually in the south of France that time of year, usually on a yacht. So I'll go in to see friends, go to the du Cap, have lunch with people I know. I'm lucky in that respect."

But this year, Weintraub does have red-carpet duties that will keep him in town a little longer. Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra, which Weintraub executive produced and which stars Michael Douglas as flamboyant pianist Liberace and Matt Damon as his boyfriend, will have its world premiere at the fest before airing May 26 on HBO.

Weintraub, 75, began his show business career as a personal manager, handling acts from Joey Bishop to singer Jane Morgan, whom he married in 1965. Hitching up with Elvis Presley during the '60s, he turned concert promoter, handling headliners from Frank Sinatra to Neil Diamond to John Denver. Then, in 1975, he segued into film producing with Robert Altman's Nashville.

In a sense, with Candelabra, his career has come full circle: To re-create Liberace's world, the producer, who lives in Beverly Hills with his companion Susan Ekins, returned to Las Vegas, where he enjoyed much of his early success.

PHOTOS: 'Behind the Candelabra': How HBO Re-created Liberace's Over-Opulent Lairs

The Hollywood Reporter: Were you surprised to get the call inviting the film to Cannes?

Jerry Weintraub: No. In a word, no. I know the festival. I know Thierry [Fremaux, the festival's artistic director] very well. This is a perfect film for Cannes. It's a great film. It's a piece of art -- it's different, it's bold, so why not have it at Cannes? Now, the competition, that was another phone call because I didn't particularly want it in the competition, and Steven didn't want it in the competition, but Thierry wanted it in competition very much. And so Steven called me and said: "It can't hurt us. If we win, great. If we don't win, we don't win. So why don't we let him do it?"

THR: Why didn't you want to be in the competition? Steven Soderbergh won the Palme d'Or for his first film, sex, lies and videotape.

Weintraub: I don't like competitions, particularly in the film business. That's not what it's about. It's an art film. The Palme d'Or in Cannes, and the Academy Award here, the Golden Globe and the Emmy, it's great when you win. But that's not why we do it. Those awards are there for business, they are not there for art. I know the Academy hates it when I talk that way, but that's too bad.

THR: So how did the movie come about? You've been involved with it since 2000.

Weintraub: It was around the time Steven was doing Traffic. He called me and said: "I read a book you ought to pick up. See if you like it. I think there's a movie in it." [It was Scott Thorson's memoir about his life with Liberace.] I did. I said I knew Liberace. Let's go for it. He had Michael Douglas on set, and he showed it to Michael, who said that sounded like a great idea.

STORY: Liberace At Home: How HBO Recreated the Pianist's Gaudy Digs

THR: So what happened when you took it to the studios?

Weintraub: Every studio turned it down. I had Douglas, Damon, I had Soderbergh, I had an extraordinary script by Richard LaGravenese, and I had Jerry Weintraub. But they just didn't want to take a chance on it. The movie business has changed dramatically. This is a bold movie. They all liked the script. They just didn't know how to sell it or how to get their money back. So then I was with Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo at HBO because I had done work with them, and I love them and Len Amato, who runs the film division. They read the script and called me and said, "Let's do it." They're great to work with. They are not intrusive, they are very supportive -- they let us do our thing.

THR: You reportedly had a budget of $23 million. Did you have to scale it back for HBO?

Weintraub: I don't talk budgets, but Steven and myself and Michael and Matt were very stingy with the money we took for ourselves. We wanted it up on the screen. But, no, we didn't scale it back. We're going theatrical with it all over the world. HBO and myself, we sold most territories, and what we haven't sold, we'll sell in Cannes.

THR: After the three Ocean's movies you made, this is the fourth movie you've made with Soderbergh. How do you feel about his retiring from filmmaking?

Weintraub: This is just my opinion, I can't speak for him. I think he should take some time off; he's been working on one film after another. He's had a lot of hits -- Contagion and Magic Mike -- but he's had some misses like we all do. But I don't think he'll retire. He's too good to retire. I'd love to work with Steven again.

PHOTO: Matt Damon and Michael Douglas Strike a Pose in First Image From HBO's 'Behind the Candelabra'

THR: The movie is about a gay man who was afraid his secrets might be exposed, but it also suggests Liberace and Scott Thorson had a marriage of sorts. Do you see the film becoming part of the debate about marriage equality?

Weintraub: I'm not trying to send messages to anybody. Liberace was a very nice person. But he was a homosexual, and he could not come out of the closet in those days. You just did not do that. Rock Hudson couldn't do it, either. You'd lose your audience. And Liberace's audience was all female. They didn't know he was gay. If he had lived today, the way Elton John and David Furnish live, he could do it. But he couldn't do it then.

THR: How well did you know him?

Weintraub: He was a great host. I went to his home many times for drinks and dinner. He was very nice to me and my wife. He was a wonderful performer. Very flamboyant onstage as well as offstage. He was a happy man. He enjoyed his success, but he also was a tortured man.

THR: Both he and Elvis played the Las Vegas Hilton. Were there any similarities between them?

Weintraub: Only in the costume design. But they were both great showmen. I went back to the Hilton to do this, and I stood backstage right on the spot where Elvis stood every night before he went onstage. I stood there and looked out. I was a kid then, and I'm 75 now. I had tears in my eyes. I wanted to see Elvis and Sinatra and John Denver and everybody else I worked with. I just remembered all that history, all those nights.