Producer Jerry Weintraub at his Beverly Hills home. (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
Über producer Jerry Weintraub will receive the Zurich Film Festival's Golden Eye lifetime achievement award Wednesday, which is also his 75th birthday. Known for producing memorable films — from "Nashville" and "Diner" to the "Ocean's Eleven" and "Karate Kid" franchises — and promoting such stars as Elvis Presley, Weintraub is the subject of the HBO documentary "His Way," which is up for an Emmy. He's now producing a Liberace biopic for HBO and a live-action Tarzan film for Warner Bros. due out next year.
So, I understand that congratulations are in order, and also happy birthday. How did that documentary come about?
I wrote a book that was a big bestseller — "When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead." It came out in 2010, and then [Vanity Fair Editor in Chief] Graydon Carter came to me with two fellows named Alan Polsky and Gabe Polsky, and they wanted to do a documentary about my life. I said, "Great, as long as I don't have to be involved in the production of it or call anybody to do it. I'll be happy to stay out of the way and not give you any notes. I only have one rule: I do one take." So they came to me with a list of directors, and one of them was Doug McGrath. I never had a serious production discussion with him because I didn't want to get in anybody's way.
Is that how you manage when you're producing?
I'm in charge of everything when I'm producing. I work with the director, of course. I'm a hands-on producer. Both hands.
Can you connect the dots between this documentary and your upcoming TV movie, "Behind the Candelabra"? They're both HBO.
The one they made about me, after they made it, they sold it to HBO. I sold "Behind the Candelabra" to HBO before I made it. They financed it and they were my partners in the movie. I produced it and Steven Soderbergh directed it, and Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are in it. Richard LaGravenese wrote it.
It's about Liberace's personal life?
It's about his professional and personal life, which were one. It's a difficult story to get made, but I was intent on getting it made. I knew Liberace, and it's a great story. It's a story about a tortured man; he couldn't come out of the closet while he was alive. He died of AIDS and on his death certificate they had heart failure. It's a hard subject matter for a film — everybody gets frightened of those things. It will air in May. I'm doing a number of things at HBO.
You came out of nowhere to become Elvis' promoter. How did that happen?
I had a dream one night in the late '50s, and I saw a billboard and it said, "Jerry Weintraub presents Elvis at Madison Square Garden." The next morning, I called Col. Tom Parker, his manager, and I called him every day for 365 days. He said to me, "No," but we got very friendly on the phone. I said, "You don't understand. I'm going to be the promoter." After one year, I got a call from him. He said, "Do you still want my boy? Well, meet me in Las Vegas tomorrow with a million dollars and we'll make a deal."
What did you think was missing from the original "Ocean's Eleven" that inspired you to do the remake?
I thought it was a great idea for a movie. I was there when they shot it, and they kind of phoned it in because they were working at night, all the guys, [Frank] Sinatra, Dean [Martin], everybody. I thought I could do a better movie, and I thought if I could assemble a group of movie stars, I could do a much better movie, so I did.
How did you line up so many big stars?
It was so simple. The first ones that came aboard were Soderbergh and [George] Clooney. When you have Soderbergh, all the actors want to come because he's a great director. Clooney called Brad [Pitt], then we called Matt Damon and we called the rest of them. We sent Julia Roberts the script with a $20 bill in it, and we said, "We heard that you get 20." She got $20 million. She said, "I'm in."
In the documentary, you say that when the Weintraub Entertainment Group failed 20 years ago, you found that failure actually wasn't an orphan, but that people reached out to help you.
All the people in this town who ran studios and networks called me and said, "You're a talented guy. You have a deal with me." The one I took up was Steve Ross, who had Warner Bros., who said, "Do me a favor. Go down to Florida, rest for three or four weeks. I'm sending over a contract to your office. When you come back from Florida, move to Warner Bros. and make movies. I'll give you anything you want, whenever you want, whatever you need. You write your own contract." And I did.
Do you think Hollywood gets a bad rap as a shark tank?