Every Producer's Worst Nightmare: David Yarnell Details Troubled Road to Oscar for 'Can You Forgive Me?'

Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox; Roy Rochlin/WireImage
'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' (Inset: David Yarnell)

It took 10 years to get the film off the ground, dying days before shooting only to be reborn with a different cast.

Producer David Yarnell first met the prickly and cantankerous author Lee Israel 20 years ago, when he asked to option her book Kilgallen. That was the beginning of an unusual friendship in which the two would get together several times a year and chat twice a week, and the often-broke writer would turn to Yarnell for help. But he never expected their relationship would lead one of the most acclaimed films of the year, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in the true story of how Israel came to forge letters by the rich and famous, selling them to pay her bills.

Here, Yarnell, 89, a TV veteran whose credits include the Anne Bancroft-starrer Deep in My Heart and the American Masters documentary Billy Wilder: The Human Comedy (he’s also married to ICM agent Toni Howard), explains how the movie crashed four business days before the start of principal photography and how, with the help of fellow producers Anne Carey and Amy Nauiokas, it was reborn a year and a half later.

You knew Lee Israel. How?

Lee wrote a biography of [journalist and game show panelist] Dorothy Kilgallen. And I wanted to option it. So I called. I said, “I’m interested.” “Oh, somebody has optioned that.” A real cold, icy voice on the other end. And I said, “OK. If it becomes available…” And about three months later, [she called and said], “Do you still want Kilgallen?” So I optioned that about 20 years ago, and then Lee became rather dependent upon me. I would send her money and voluntarily increase the option price so that she would not feel like a charity case. And I slipped into the unenviable role of being a key adviser and probably a friend — to the point where, when she died [in December 2014], I was the one that took her off the life support system. They couldn't find anybody else. She had a bad heart. And then her lungs were collapsing.

What kind of person was she?

She was an intellectual, there's no question about that. Kind of Dorothy Parker-ish in the snarkiness of her attitude. But I had a warm spot in my heart for her. One day we're in this tiny place in New York City and she said to me, "You know, I did something in my life that I'm not really proud of.” I said, "What?" "Oh, I don't want to talk about it." And then I fed her two scotches and it flowed. "Well, I was really hard up and I started forging letters and then it became more sophisticated and I had 12 typewriters that matched the various people I was working on." I said, "Oh, my God!" She was hard up for money and being rejected all over the place. I said, "This could spark interest because it's a perfect Vanity Fair story, you know?" It took a year and a half of pressure on my part for her to get this done. It started out as a proposed magazine article and was rejected by Vanity Fair, which really surprised me.

Why didn’t they want it?

They never really clarified that. But it went to The New Yorker, two editors, a guy and a woman. And he liked it and the woman said, “Oh, we can't encourage people to steal things from libraries” [Israel was also taking genuine letters] and made this a really emotional crime that she could not condone, almost as though she deserved the electric chair. Then the male editor said, “Let me make a call for you to Simon & Schuster.” And that's the way it went. Then Lee's agent brought it to Anne Carey. Anne got Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener to write it, and Fox Searchlight said, “Let’s go forward with the script.” We were ready to go shoot this thing with Julianne Moore in the lead [and Chris O'Dowd playing opposite her in the role Richard E. Grant later took as the gay man who befriends her] and Nicole was going to direct.

Days before principal photography, the movie collapsed. What went wrong?

Nicole and Julianne clashed. Nobody is quite sure what created that unworkable situation. And the project collapsed with everybody signed up contractually — all the locations locked in, costuming, camera tests performed. And Fox Searchlight took a sizeable financial hit on this because of these commitments. Maybe $2 million. The budget was around $8 million.

Films don't usually die four days before shooting.

It just did not work. The chemistry between Nicole and Julianne [was one issue, along with questions such as] how close the character was going to look like Lee, which would probably be prosthetics, adding another hour of time for the production. It just became untenable. We were prepping at a warehouse out on Long Island, getting the cameras ready. And Julianne said, “You don't really think I'm right for this part, do you?” And Nicole said, “You're not right for the part.” And she said, “Well, do you want to fire me?” She said, ”Yes.” And that's what happened. And what a shocker that was. I felt the ripples while we were prep at the warehouse. And then I got back to my hotel and Anne called to say that it was over.

You must have just felt flattened by a bulldozer.

Oh, it was a horror. It was really disappointing. Just a deep disappointment for everybody to finally get this thing on its feet and then it's over. And there's very little hope that these things revive. It was hard to repair at that moment. Frances McDormand, she was thought of. And she said, “There's not enough preparation time.” Then Anne Carey put it back together. She’d done The Diary of a Teenage Girl [with director Marielle Heller, and got Heller to helm]. And Kevin Huvane, who was the agent for Julianne Moore and also Melissa McCarthy, called and said, “What do you think of Melissa?” I said, “Brilliant!” I was ready to take [Gone With the Wind’s] Hattie McDaniel at that point! He says, “She's very interested in doing this.” Her husband had already been locked in as one of the actors, so she knew the script. She [and Heller met] and fell in love with each other immediately. And so we started shooting two years ago, a 28-day shoot, and it was the most harmonious situation I've ever witnessed.

Let’s talk a bit about you. You’re one of the oldest active producers in Hollywood.

I'm going to be 90 in March.

How did you get into the entertainment business?

I started in radio and jumped into being a program director for Channel 5 in New York, without knowing very much. They pretty much let me have what I wanted. I reached out to William F. Buckley in the early 1960s, and he agreed to do a weekly show. And I give myself credit — or I condemn myself — for getting an authentic conservative voice on [the air]. Then I did specials and I became a hired hand and worked with David Frost. I did a boxing match with Muhammad Ali, who was still under his original name of Cassius Clay. And I kind of whispered to him, “I need seven rounds to get all the commercials in.” And he winked — and knocked him [Zora Folley] out in the seventh round. Then I was doing a weekly rock and roll music show and I decided I should be in Los Angeles.

Any regrets?

I did a pilot with Lenny Bruce. He was not heavily into drugs at that time. So we did this pilot and my boss said, “I don't understand it.” But he was friendly with [NBC president Sylvester] “Pat” Weaver. He says, “I want to get his opinion.” So Pat came over and said, “The guy is a genius, but television is not ready for him.” My huge regret is that the tape was wiped so that we could use it again.

What’s next?

I'm in with Bob Balaban, we have a good script for Kilgallen. He's director and producer with me. I'm not giving up on that. I think it's a terrific script. And there’s another [project]: Tennessee Williams had a brother, Dakin, who wrote a book [Tennessee Williams: An Intimate Biography] where he claims that Tennessee was murdered and it was not an accidental death. So we're going along on the premise that that's possibly true.

Is it still fun?

Yes. What could be more fun than this?