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CRITIC AT LARGE

Spotlight on a State-of-the-Art Film Producer

January 07, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

New York's Museum of Modern Art, which more often presents film retrospectives celebrating the work of directors and actors, on Friday opens a fortnight's tribute to a producer: a 44-year-old producer who does not fit the traditional model and whose name is thus far a household word only in industry households.

Edward R. Pressman is slim, shy and balding. He speaks slowly, weighing his answers carefully in a vocabulary singularly lacking in cliches or glib phrases. In his houndstooth jacket and his British public school spectacles with their thin, dark tortoise rims, he could be an Oxbridge philosophy don--and except for an insidious love of films, he might have been.

In just over 20 years in the business, he has been the producer or the very active executive producer of 25 films as diverse and interesting as Oliver Stone's current "Wall Street" and Alex Cox's "Walker," David Byrne's "True Stories," the Taviani Brothers' "Good Morning, Babylon," David Hare's "Plenty," Wolfgang Petersen's "Das Boot," the John Milius-Oliver Stone "Conan the Barbarian," Rainer Werner Fassbinder's only English-language film, "Despair," Sylvester Stallone's "Paradise Alley," Brian DePalma's "Sisters" and "Phantom of the Paradise," Joan Tewkesbury's "Old Boyfriends," Terrence Malick's "Badlands" and Paul Williams' "The Revolutionary" and "Dealing."

It is a filmography remarkable for the number of new faces it presented on both sides of the camera and for the risk-taking themes and uncompromised execution that characterized the great majority of the work. Many of the films were made independently and then dealt to distributors.

Pressman can fairly claim to have invented Arnold Schwarzenegger as a major star, having spotted him in the muscle-builder documentary "Pumping Iron" and then locating the Robert Howard "Conan the Barbarian" stories as the perfect vehicle for him.

He later sold the "Conan" sequel rights for close to $5 million, giving his Edward R. Pressman Film Corp. the financial ease to keep several projects in development. In 1987 he produced five films and will likely do about the same number this year, including "Paris by Night," a political thriller by David Hare starring Charlotte Rampling as a British Conservative politician with a double life on the Continent.

Pressman qualifies as a mini-major, although his Burbank Studios and New York offices have a combined total of 12 staffers. The decision-making is all his and almost always begins with direct creative discussions with a writer-film maker, rather than with submitted projects or packages.

"I establish the context for the film maker to realize his vision," Pressman says. "Sometimes I have to introduce a new film maker to the whole process, help him find a cinematographer and so on. Other times the focus is just on the script. As a producer I function differently on different projects.

"The hardest thing to learn is how not to be something the film maker doesn't need. The ideal is the partnership of the producer and the film maker."

Pressman majored in philosophy at Stanford and went on to the London School of Economics to take its master's degree triad called PPE (politics, philosophy and economics). "I was trying to figure out what to do with my life."

He was already a film lover, but "film seemed unattainable." An uncle owned three second-run cinemas in Manhattan, two on 181st Street. In his youth, Pressman helped at the concession stand for the pleasure of seeing four movies a day. " 'Francis the Talking Mule' and the early Martin and Lewis movies," he remembers.

At a dinner in London given by a mutual friend, Pressman met Paul Williams, a Harvard graduate studying at Cambridge. "We talked about film half the night. He'd made a documentary at Harvard and had an idea for a short film. I was working a non-paying job at Columbia on Wardour Street, just to be around the business. He was very impressed by that."

Pressman and Williams formed a partnership and made the short film, "Girl," from the Beatles tune, about a boy and girl passing on the street, each fantasizing romantically about the other but never stopping.

It will be shown in the MOMA retrospective and Pressman, seeing it again for the first time in years, says, "It's so much a part of its time." For Pressman, that's a significant comment because he thinks it's a hallmark of good film makers that they are particularly in touch with their times.

After London, Pressman and Williams opened an office in New York and Pressman raised $225,000 to finance Williams' first feature, "Out of It," a semi-autobiographical story about growing up on Long Island. The star was Jon Voight, who had previously only made a very low-budget film in Chicago called "Fearless Frank's Greatest Adventure" for Philip Kaufman (who later did "The Right Stuff").

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