Johanna Bennett’s and Mandy Ward’s third annual celebration of first time filmmakers concluded on March 9 with a tribute to no one other than Harvey Weinstein. The festival, one that puts forth newly formed filmmakers with the audience they deserve, makes sure that all aspects of filmmaking are met and that the aspiring filmmakers know what to do with their next film. Weinstein, of the famed The Weinstein Company, along with his brother Bob, has shown himself over the years to have supported first time filmmakers when no one else would. And his trust in these filmmakers have only proven themselves to be some of today’s best directors, writers, actors, and more.
In many ways, Weinstein’s support of such filmmakers has created them. Quentin Tarantino would not be a household name had Weinstein not decided to produce Reservoir Dogs, the same goes for Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Billy Bob Thorton’s Sling Blade; Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts, and many more. In his thirty plus years of producing films and writing two scripts, he’s come to be recognized as the best producer imaginable; someone every aspiring filmmaker hopes to get to know; let alone work with. With his amazing career in hand, he was honored at the First Time Fest and gave a brief look into his love of movies and what new filmmakers can do now.
I do want to thank Tony [Bennett] since he has been a great inspiration in my life, as well as the man next to him; Gay Talese. Now I remember when I was in trouble at the New York Times, I quoted Kingdom and the Power verbatim and it got me out of a jam. He’s one of the greatest writers that’s invented a new form like Hemmingway or Fitzgerald. He reported journalism and the way he wrote was incredible. I’m honored to be in front of someone like him. But The 400 Blows, when I was a kid, I was fourteen years old, I went to John Bowne High School in Queens and you know, I had a sort of randy group of friends and my little brother, he was twelve at the time. And we used to see everything; you know, we used to go to Lowes mostly and see Hercules, Hercules Unchained, Hercules Unchained Again, One More Hercules, you know, one of those movies. As much as we loved the action, there would also be the girls who were very cute in those. So we heard that there was a movie called The 400 Blows and there was this movie theater called the Mayfair Movie Theater and none of knew where the hell the Mayfair Movie Theater was, sort of off the beaten path. So there was no GPS in those days, we started walking ten miles in concentric circles and finally found the theater. And we thought The 400 Blows was honestly about something a lot different.
The Mayfair did become a porno theater later on.
That’s what we thought The 400 Blows was! When you’re fourteen years old, what do you know? You’re crazy and you’re hormones are working. So we walked in, like six of my buddies and my brother and this beautiful movie, black and white by Francois Truffaut started, which had nothing to do with sex but had everything to do with how I was feeling. Adolescence and rebellion and I was captured by it. And my four, five buddies thought I was mad to stay; my brother stayed and the two of us had this amazing experience and every week we would go back to this theater. And years later, I would distribute and work on a film called Cinema Paradiso and it so reminded me of my own youth at the Mayfair Movie Theater because every week I would go back and see Fellini . . . just some of these great films. In the sixties, I was a young kid and they would let me in. Sometimes they were adult ratings so we’d go with my dad who’d go to sleep and we would watch the film. I got my education like according to Paradiso at the Mayfair Movie Theater.
When we were kids we were brought up to respect your elders. My elders- my eye got poked. I was poked when I was 12. I was so bored of my life watching black and white soap operas, I didn’t want to go to school, I looked like Quasimodo. And the woman next door was a librarian and she started my life long obsession with reading and I started reading. By the end of six months when I got to school . . I made it through Tolstoy. And it was always a passion of mine to do War and Peace correctly, and I’ve been shooting it for the last two months. And I finally got the right people to do War and Peace with and it’s ten hours, which is what I need to tell that story, probably twenty hours is what I really need, but I’ll do it in ten. So your life long obsessions fuel you. I went to school at the University of Buffalo and I took filming and that’s what I wanted to do and I got into music purely by accident. . . I had to do something to make money fast and that’s what I did.
Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape shows that he’s had a great career, but you took him when no one else did.
We found him at Sundance and we were passionate about it; my brother and myself; and I guess we were more passionate than anybody else that we thought it could break all the rules and it did. It went to Cannes, it went to Palme d’Or, it did fantastic box office and it changed the paradigms of independent films. . . In one year, we did Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Cinema Paradiso and then there’s another film by first time director; it’s called Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot with Daniel Day Lewis. And that was my first Best Picture Nomination. Cinema Paradiso was foreign language- it was just a remarkable year, 1989 and 1990 was when everything changed for us.
Well Cinema Paradiso had the worst reviews in the history of the New York Times. Oh yeah, they called it like an episode of Rin Tin Tin. . . .And in those days, when an art film got a bad review, that was that. So Cinema Paradiso, what do we do? I knew- I had just produced another movie that was first time, Marty Scorsese produced it, called The Grifters, Stephen Frear’s directing. This is an action con movie and . . all the theaters wanted it. So I guess we just said to these guys right out of The Godfather, “We’re gonna make them an offer they can’t refuse.” If they didn’t take Cinema Paradiso, they weren’t getting The Grifters. A long time ago, the corporate motto was Burn Them because I read Kurt Vonnegut’s book The Cat’s Cradle and it said “Good can triumph over evil if the angels were as organized as the mafia.” And that one single act of telling the theaters “You’re not going to get The Grifters unless you take Cinema Paradiso, I guess we realized that Bob and I had talents that he [Gay Talese] writes about. . .. But it was more Camelot than it was Corleone.
You say that you’re in the Quentin Tarantino business and you discovered Reservoir Dogs. So how’d you discover him?
Well I think with Quentin, it’s beyond- we’ve produced every movie- its been a family business. He’s a brother, he built my company, and he’s the most ethical and has the most integrity. In an industry where there’s no such thing as loyalty, Quentin Tarantino is loyal. And he’s loyal to his friends and he’s loyal to us, good times and bad times. And subsequently, we’ve been loyal right back, good times and bad times. We’ve gone through some bad times together and we’ve mostly gone through amazing times together. And we have that relationship with . . Roberto Rodriguez and so many great filmmakers along the way and we’ve been a lot more equipped and continued to do great.
Where do you learn all of your tricks?
It’s instinctive when you have to protect yourself. .. When you fight for the things you believe in, it’s easy to come up. They’re not even tricks, they’re just action.
What advice do you give to these filmmakers?
You gotta write. At the end of the day, it’s about writing. Every great first time filmmaker, Jim Sheridan wrote My Left Foot, Soderbergh wrote Sex, Lies, Quentin Reservoir Dogs, Larry Clark wrote Kids, Ryan Coogler wrote Fruitvale Station. . .comes with the writing.. That really is the case in terms of material- you don’t have to pay royalties- Jane Austin- when you’re poor and starting out- William Shakespeare, all those guys, they don’t need the royalties.