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'Hello, He Lied' Tells Truth About Producers

Television* An American Movie Classics special based on producer Lynda Obst's 1996 best-selling memoir outlines the lives of Hollywood dealmakers.

January 07, 2002|LYNN ELBER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Take the telephone firmly in hand and dial the first of some 60 calls. Take a half-dozen meetings, often at chic restaurants where the point is the deal, not the meal. Be rejected countless times.

This is the life of a Hollywood producer as jauntily outlined in "Hello, He Lied," an American Movie Classics special loosely based on producer Lynda Obst's 1996 bestselling memoir.

Moviemaking is hell for the man or woman who sees a film through assembly, production and distribution, according to the documentary from Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.

"Hello, He Lied" jumps lightly over the subject that Obst's book covered in intimate detail. Instead, it offers Obst as host and the experiences of other top producers to explain how the game is played.

The game, at first, seems very fuzzy. As veteran producer David Brown ("Jaws," "The Sting") acknowledges, "Nobody knows what a producer does, including the producer's wife."

Schmoozing apparently takes up a good part of the day, with writers, agents and studio decision-makers among the producer's chief targets.

This frenzy of fellowship is aimed at locating good material, convincing a studio the idea is worth pursuing and persuading actors and directors to enlist in your cause.

Between script and the green light for production comes what Hollywood fondly refers to as "development hell."

There's one particularly telling scene in "Hello, He Lied" in which a veteran writer warily fields suggestions from fresh-faced studio executives.

One exec comments that he's cool toward the story about Napoleon because "this era just never appealed to me on a visual level."

The clearly annoyed writer parries: "I don't take that personally because I feel like your tie defines your ... taste."

A script that passes through development takes a huge step toward getting the green light if a big star can be "attached" to the project, so it's back to networking for the producer.

The documentary supplies a list of four top Los Angeles-area schmooze spots, including a yoga center, parents' night at a particular private school and the In-N-Out Burger on Sunset Boulevard.

All this effort and not a minute of film has been shot.

Given that the average Hollywood movie costs about $65 million, most of the scripts bouncing around town will never see the dark of a movie theater.

If a film does get made and, by a miracle, is a hit, the general public likely will applaud the stars, the director, even (rarely) the writer before the producer gets a nod.

And the money, Obst suggests, is not all it's cracked up to be.

So just what is the attraction of producing?

"My theory is that when producers were really young their mothers dropped them on their head," a wry Obst said in an interview, before getting serious.

"I think there are people who are in love with making movies, with the sort of Irving Thalberg ideal of being a producer, of managing something into existence and then being a sort of den mother to its talent."

Producing calls for an entrepreneurial instinct, Obst said. "It's people who feel they can get their best work done managing talented people rather than being the talent themselves."

She has experienced the highs and lows of her chosen career. There are films she's proud of, including "Sleepless in Seattle" and "The Fisher King," some of which had the added bonus of being box-office hits.

Obst's greatest disappointment came when a long-nurtured project, "The Hot Zone," stalled after she had Robert Redford and Jodie Foster attached, as well as director Ridley Scott ("Alien").

A rival Ebola virus drama, "Outbreak," beat Obst to the punch and "The Hot Zone" went cold. Such heartbreak is not included in AMC's "Hello, He Lied," but there are signs aplenty that producing is a tough gig.

But listen to the soft-spoken, intelligent Brown and you get the impression there's some room for art and passion in Hollywood. It's the likes of Brown and Saul Zaentz ("The English Patient") who serve as inspiration, young producer Gary Foster comments in "Hello, He Lied."

They are "producers that cared about the material, nurtured the material and found a way to get their movies made, no matter how long it took," Foster says. "That, to me, is what a producer does."

*

"Hello, He Lied" can be seen Tuesday at 7 and 10 p.m. on AMC.

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