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59th ACADEMY AWARDS : BEATING THE ODDS : They Gambled Their Time and Energy, and Didn't Give Up

March 29, 1987|PAUL ROSENFIELD

Haines understood, but executives misunderstood. Especially at Universal where management changes were unusually (for MCA) unpleasant. Meaning Robert Rehme departed and Frank Price arrived. And as Tanen puts it: "The project went into disfavor. Randa went into disfavor. And me? I'm always assuredly in disfavor. So I left Universal to come to Paramount. The first two things I did were say yes to 'Top Gun' and try to get the rights to 'Children.' "

Here comes Hollywood politics at its murkiest. Industry thinking had it that Tanen's Paramount contract included the rights to "Children," that the project was a sweetener to get the executive to jump ship from MCA. "Not true," said Tanen categorically. " 'Children' was not even discussed in the contract negotiations. When I came here, I had to buy the rights back."

What that meant exactly: "There was still no script. But I remember the day a check was messengered to Universal for $3 million. I mean, was that a lovely move?" That was the price Universal--which didn't want to make 'Children'--made Tanen pay because Tanen did want to make 'Children.' (The Spanish proverb, "Take what you want but pay for it" comes to mind.) Tanen knew all along "this was not going to be 'Raiders,' but once (screenwriter) Hesper Anderson was on the script, I knew we had a movie. Hesper had been with it at Universal, but at Paramount, we had to start from scratch, and did."

Then the luck changed. "Bill Hurt came to us. Marlee Matlin came to us, almost by accident, after another actress was practically cast. Marlee tested with Bill, and all of us knew. . . . Randa was fearless, or rather she hasn't been around long enough to be scared. Finally it was the movie I wanted it to be."

Will lessons be learned from the success of "Children"? The movie's cost "all in" was $10.5 million; the U.S.-Canadian box office take is $30 million so far, with foreign revenues unexpectedly promising. "One lesson is that people say women can't direct difficult movies. Here's one who can. This was a difficult movie. But other lessons? No. The truth is the game is the game. The community wants magic--but worse, it wants generalizations. And they never work."

But what magic kept Tanen hooked on "Children"? "To me this was a love story," said Tanen simply. "Any love story is about communication, or the lack of it. Always, love is about misunderstanding each other. But with hearing-impaired people it's difficult to get into the nonsense of relationships. Games don't really work with hearing-impaired people." Tanen took a breath and added, "That's the wonderful thing about this. It's a love story in black-and-white, so to speak."

'ROOM': A CASE OF MERCHANT-IZING

The Polo Lounge these days is rather like a watering hole without water--or people--and the circular booth in the very back corner can be the quietest corner in town. Thus it was the perfect spot for producer Ismail Merchant ("A Room With a View") to discuss the breakthrough movie of a 25-year-old troika--Merchant, director James Ivory, writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The corner was apt because Merchant is a big, booming Bombay-born salesman, as he calls himself, and right now the wares are selling: In 1985, Merchant and Ivory invested $200,000 in the E. M. Forster classic novel "Room," and 55 weeks after its early 1986 release it's still grossing upwards of $45,000 a week in New York alone. It's one of the two longest-running films ever to play Dallas. North American film rentals should exceed $20 million by early April--on a $3-million film rejected by virtually every Hollywood studio.

Not surprisingly a phone call detained Merchant in his Beverly Hills Hotel suite on a recent morning; the irony was that the call was from Universal. That studio, as well as six others, passed up "Room," as it has passed on almost every one of Merchant-Ivory's 18 pictures ("Shakespeare Wallah," "The Europeans").

Merchant remains unperturbed. His enthusiasm is built-in and shockproof--the enthusiasm of the salesman who never stops ever . "The same people who turn me down one year I go back to the next year," he said, sipping a mid-morning Perrier. "They think of me as an elephant perhaps. But so what? You can't resist a stubborn elephant!"

The imagery is deceptively simple, of course. Merchant and Ivory have been forever resistible; as recently as "The Bostonians" (1983) the team began filming without financing. "The first week of production a friend wrote us a check for $50,000," remembered Merchant, wincing. "But me, I wasn't worried. When you believe in what you are doing--money follows you. People say 'Merchant is a madman but even if we say no, he is going to do the film anyway.' To get a film financed is truly a miracle, which is why people in Hollywood live 15 years on development deals without ever making movies. . . . I want to become rich from my films not from my fees."

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