'Purple Rain' Exec Recalls Traveling the World With Prince, Late Nights on Mulholland (Guest Column)

Mark Canton and Prince in Purple Rain - H 2016
Getty Images; Photofest

"To call him an icon feels like an understatement," says former Warner Bros. production executive Mark Canton.

When I was a production executive at Warner Bros., sometime around 1983, the legendary chairmen of Warner Bros. Music Mo and Michael Ostin asked me to meet an emerging artist named Prince. When Prince arrived, he had a screenplay in his hand and a guitar over his shoulder. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was in the rarified company of an artistic giant. After reading the screenplay, I appealed to my Warner Bros. colleagues and my esteemed bosses, Bob Daly and Terry Semel, convincing them with passion and persistence that we had to make Purple Rain. 

All movies are difficult to make, but those that stand the test of time are rarely an accident. For this one, Prince and his management team, led by Bob Cavallo and Purple Rain director Albert Magnoli, were always clear about their desire to raise the bar in terms of the film’s music and the story’s emotional resonance. As we wove our way through the arduous process, we discovered a rare synergy between a movie company and their sister record company, and at the end of it all we had exactly what we wanted: A powerful movie with an awesome companion album, both of which will live on forever as hits. [For me and my fellow Warner execs] Lucy, Bruce, Billy, Rob, Barry, Dan, what a moment. The result of this process is the stuff of mythological legend.

In the years since, I’ve had the good fortune to be involved with all the movies that Prince directed and starred in. I also traveled around the world with him and remember fondly an astounding night in Paris when Prince wrote an original song for the fashion runway that just crushed it. I was with him at the 1985 Oscars when he won for best music, original song score for Purple Rain. I spent some time with him while he was rehearsing for a tour that showcased his virtuoso guitar playing. I was at the Super Bowl when he did the halftime show.

Even if you didn’t know him personally, there’s no disputing it: Prince was a genius, a word that is thrown around all too lightly in our business. I knew him as a kind and funny person who fought for song rights and artist independence like few others at his level. He was incredibly focused. He was sometimes not easy, like all the greats. He was a fashion icon. He loved basketball. He loved Minnesota. Most of all, he loved making and performing music.

My favorite personal memory was having Friday night dinners with him and meeting acquaintances at the fabulous Helena’s (a private supper club). He would often spontaneously invite me to jump in his 1969 purple Cadillac with his friend and driver, a 6’ 9” cool guy named Chicky, and we would end up in Silver Lake or the top of Mullholland. He’d either take out a guitar or pop in a cassette and play something absurdly brilliant. Then he would simply ask me, in his quiet and honest way, “Well, what do you think?” I always responded in a cross between “What the f—? Why are you asking me?” or “How is it that you are just so damn awesome?” It was always magical, and I felt incredibly honored.

When you operate on that level of greatness and set the bar so high for yourself, one imagines that it ain’t easy to stay so inventive and so good for so long. I never saw or heard of him not playing all night every night, no matter what the venue — even if it was just for himself. Behind the beautiful purple piano, purple guitar and singular outfits was a man, born to music, who connected freely to audiences of all sizes and all kinds around the world.

It is an overwhelmingly sad day. We have his work forever, but still he left us too soon. To call him an icon feels like an understatement. Prince, your talent was prodigious and you inspired all other artists. The man formerly known as [ ] was a great man indeed.

— Producer Mark Canton is a former Warner Bros. production executive who oversaw the development of such films as National Lampoon's Vacation, Batman and the Lethal Weapon film series. Canton, whose recent films as producer range from 300 to Cake, worked with Prince to convince Warners to make his Purple Rain screenplay into the iconic film that it became.