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How 'Casualties of War' Survived : Dawn Steel walked the point and kept the project alive for Columbia Pictures and Brian DePalma

Hollywood And The Exercise Of Power.

August 13, 1989|PAUL ROSENFIELD

Suddenly, the director shifted gears. He went from stone to soft. "Where we were fortunate was with Dawn. She's a great believer in me and the project. She's an entrepreneur, and yet she understands the cry of the last decade: What are the numbers? What's brave about Dawn is that she knows there are no mistakes in the movie business. You make a mistake and you are watching it the rest of your life. This is a tough call, this movie. This is Dawn's baby. Usually you start a movie and when you finish, the executive is no longer there. In that case, it's better to be paid off than to make the movie. You should not spend time with administrations without heart."

Heart isn't a usual label for the director. So you have to ask him what are the usual adjectives for Brian DePalma? He answered spontaneously: "Master manipulator, wry, cackling, witty, violent, anarchic, which means I'm from Anarchica, I guess. Outrageous. I'm like Dan Quayle, it'll never change. Once the media gets a fix, they get control. That's the whole problem."

That's why DePalma never stops. Next year, he shoots Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" ("The best book in a decade," DePalma calls it). "The search for Sherman will be like the search for Scarlett. I never made a great book before. It's the 'Lolita' challenge."

And meanwhile?

"I like our word-of-mouth. Three months ago, 'sex, lies, and videotape' had word of mouth, but that was three months ago. Our movie gives you an emotional pounding. Have you had an emotional pounding this summer?

The image led to a mention of DePalma's mentor Orson Welles (whom he directed in "Get To Know Your Rabbit"). "The lesson I learned from knowing Orson so well was 'Don't try to do it all yourself.' " The problem is, success gives strong directors complete control. It's dangerous how your ego grows," admitted DePalma. "You get successful enough, you say to yourself, 'Oh no, I don't want to do another meeting with that guy.' When that guy might be the ultimate right guy."

The right guy, the producer, just now for DePalma is--unsurprisingly--Art Linson. Both of them come from '60s sensibilities, and "The Untouchables" took both of them to another level. Linson knows who the artist is, and so does DePalma, and Linson knows how to handle an artist. His "relationships" with complicated people like Robert De Niro, David Mamet and Sean Penn are enough to give him a status of sorts.

Mamet wrote "Speed-the-Plow" about Linson and his long friendship (dating back to the music business in the late '60s) with Paramount's Ned Tanen. Though the roles as written aren't really flattering--Mamet being Mamet--Linson doesn't mind. He's one of the luckiest people in Hollywood and knows it, and has so far stayed lucky. He's also a pragmatist. When his directing career didn't work ("Where the Buffalo Roam," "The Wild Life") he stayed a producer; his 3-year production deal with Paramount is exclusive, which meant the studio had to approve his taking "Casualties" to Columbia. Linson got the approval. He has it both ways--he lives at Paramount and has now worked at Columbia.

In the Robert Evans-Otto Preminger office on the Paramount lot, Linson looks the part: cashmere socks, cuffed khakis, tan silk shirt. He says Ron Silver, the actor who played Linson in the Mamet play on Broadway, is better-dressed, but that's debatable. Why this producer in cashmere socks wanted to make a war movie in Thailand (where one sweats profusely) is a question.

"The theme of this movie is, a guy turns on the men who befriended him," said Linson. "What a dilemma. Originally I said to Brian: 'What a tough movie. Must we pick this one?' It's a dilemma that could have happened in high school, but the fact of it being in Vietnam makes it a whole other kind of movie."

That could be the same question Paramount was asking, once the budget hovered at around $20 million.

"I didn't want to walk across the street," Linson said, referring to his momentary segue to Columbia. So what happened? "This is vague, this is speculation. But frankly, Paramount, and every other studio, felt the elements weren't as certain as they now are. 'Colors' wasn't out yet, and Sean (Penn) hadn't had a box-office hit since 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High'--which he did with me. But then suddenly you have Sean in a successful movie. So if you talk to the guys here now, it's a different story. But at the time nobody wanted this movie. Look, I know this story from scratch. The guys here said, 'We have enough on our plates.' And Dawn said, 'I will make this picture.' "

The producer sees an object lesson here: "Studios should be judged on the movies they make and not the ones they passed on. I'm not an executive, and nobody ever asked me to be. The only given I see right now in Hollywood is that they all want to make sequels to hits."

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