Authors: Art Linson
What Just Happened?
Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line
Copyright Â© 2002, 2008 by Art Linson
Foreword copyright Â© 2008 by Art Linson and Peter Biskind
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eBook ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9867-9
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For Fiona for countless reasons
What Just Happened?
is an account of your tenure as a producer at Twentieth Century Fox in the second half of the 1990s, during which you made movies like
. Why did you write it?
: I actually wrote the book because I was always being asked the question, âWhat does a producer do?' Those on the outside know what a writer or director does or, in some cases, they even know what a grip does. My sense is that most know they can't direct, can't act or can't write, but THEY CAN produce!! To most, it feels like something they could do if they only knew what the hell it was. After about thirty years of endless attempts to explain myself and realizing there was no winning here, I decided to write something where I took you into the room with me, let everybody see what goes on when you're pitching an idea, what goes on when an actor acts up, what happens when the script isn't working, or when everything works but it bombs at the box office, or what happens when you've disappointed so many PEOPLE that you are asked to move your office off the lot. You get to follow me around for a year, and see what happens. So a reader could go âOh, so that is what the producer did then,' and if you have enough of those examples you could go, âOkay, I kind of get the picture here, this is what you do.' The sum of all of it is some sort of portrait of a producer.
: The book is a pretty cynical, insider's look at how Hollywood operates, and you don't mince words. You were really tough on certain people, and you named names. Did any of your friends say, âYou're crazy to do this? You'll never work in this town again?'
: Well, when I sent a manuscript to Graydon Carter at
, he called and said, âI want to excerpt this in our Hollywood issue, and by the way, when it comes out, you may have to change occupations.' I laughed. I guess I was a bit naive. If you're saying to me, âIf you provide a window into this world, no one's going to trust you any more'âto tell you the truth, and I know you're not going to believe it, I actually was extremely naive about it. Maybe there is a kind of a real masochistic self-destructive side to me that needed to come out but I must tell you at the time I was surprised at how thin-skinned everybody was. I don't think I was that vicious toward people. What I learned was that Hollywood businessmen more often than not have less of a sense of humor about themselves and are more vain than young starlets. It's open season on Sean Penn or any other celebrityâcritics can abuse them, the paparazzi get into their homes, photograph them, and expose every embarrassing situation they find themselves in, but if someone on the inside actually refers to an agent by name in print and says, âHe's still wearing that same skinny tie that used to be in fashion in 1985,' you would get a phone call or you would get snubbed.' It's like âOh my God, who let that fucker in the room?' I didn't accuse anybody of committing felonies. There is an arrogance and a comedy in this town as to the way business is conducted. We have all acted badly at times. It's not merely naming names, it's just giving people a chance to see how it feels to be on the inside of this merry-go-round. Besides, I was harder on myself than I was on anyone else.
: But they don't give a shit about you. Trash yourself, fine, but don't mention my tie.
: That might have been a mistake.
: How was it received at Fox? Tom Rothman couldn't have been happy.
: Let's just say Tom Rothman, who continues to be a very successful studio head, and I don't celebrate Passover together. Put it this way. I've never produced another movie at Fox.
: There are only six studios â¦
: Believe me, I did the math. Perhaps in retrospect I would have been a wiser man had I not done that. But I did it. And now I have to stand the gaff.
: And yet you're still in the business. This year you produced
Into the Wild
for Sean Penn.
: Well, yes, what was already tough just got a bit tougher. I've been taken aback not necessarily by people who were mentioned in the book, but by people who I didn't write about who wanted to make sure I didn't write about them in the future. I've made deals with people where they said âLook, I'll make it, but on the condition we'll put it in writing that you won't put me in a book.' Written into my contract! I didn't know you were allowed to give up your civil liberties for a deal. My book was not supposed to take people in the business apart. I might have done it accidentally or unintentionally, but it's not what I want my work to be. It was more likeâI find it funny to see how silly we all are and how desperate we all are and how treacherous we are willing to be to keep our acre of the little plot that we have in Hollywood, wherever it is. I'm amazed at what we are all capable of doing to hold on. I actually thought it was entertaining enough for everyone to get a good chuckle about it. I don't think anyone would say anything I described didn't actually happen. It's like, of course it happened, so if people are upset they're upset by the truth, not that I misrepresented them. No one ever said to me, âI never did that,' because had they I would have retracted it
immediately if it weren't true. I never saw it as an indictment of anybody.
: Well, studio executives have to make money just like everyone else.
: Yes, but producers are in a little different situation than executives. Most executives and most agents, they get a check every week. They have contracts for two or three or four years, so they're not scurrying around trying to make that part work. But writers and directors and producers, most of the time they are in the situation where if what they are selling doesn't get green-lit, very, very few of them will get paid. That automatically means there is a little more hysteria on the one side than on the other. Because you're struggling to get the money, and you know that things fall apart, money falls out. You got this actor, so you know it's going to get made and you're finally going to get paid for two years of work, and then the actor says âI found this other thing, I'm going to do that,' and you say âOh shit!' If you're in a meeting, and what you've worked on is being dismissed rather casually and with no attempt to help you, you could get bitter quick because, âHey, fuck face, you're getting paid, I'm not.' This isn't a casual thing here, this is real important to us, we're laying ourselves out naked, we're stripped down, we're exposed. I understand for you it's like, âI hope I'm not going to be late for my one o'clock,' but for us it's real fucking important!
: So how do you deal with the fact that you are so much more dependent on them than they are on you?
: If you think you're a special snowflake that matters, and you have this original spark that matters, that's not how the other side is perceiving it. For them, it's a means to an end: get some product, get it out there, make some money, and hold on to their jobs. But we can't put out twenty movies this year and if one of them works, say, âLook what I did,' and not have to account for the other
nineteen. We only have that one, so I don't think it's something casual, it's life or death. New Line put out a lot of movies during the year. I don't know if Bob Shaye remembers any one but
Lord of the Rings
. It's like, âOh you mean, the other twenty-five movies that you said yes to that went right into the toilet, you're not going to have take responsibility for those? I don't blame Bobâthat's the game. How smart for the press to buy into it. But, eventually it catches up with all of us.
Unfortunately, if you are a producer or a screenwriter, if you are responsible for one of those nineteen that didn't work, you may go three years before you get another shot at it. And that's if you are thick-skinned and uninsultable. The struggle to get something written, made, is so hardâI think that's why Scott Rudin calls me every time I put out one of these things, and says, âIt's fantastic. I can't wait to see the movie.' He probably meant, âI'm so glad you're doing this instead of me.' Smart fella.
Sometimes the opposite happens, everything is easy, and the movie bombs.
is an example. I came up with this idea off a
New York Times
article about how stressed air traffic controllers are, and I get Fox, through Laura Ziskin's company, Fox 2000, to buy the thing, which she loved. No matter what we did through this whole process, everybody said yesâme, them. There was no going wrong. We got Angelina Jolie, we got John Cusack, Cate Blanchett, Billy Bob Thornton, Mike Newell's directing, terrific script. At every turn, when I said, âI need this,' I got it. Everyone was sweet to me, I was sweet to everyone else. Mike was easy to work with, Laura was great, a fantastic executive, did everything she was supposed to do, she fought for the movie, she helped us on the material, and she was truly a nurturing person, trying to help you to get the script better. Then we screened it. One of the things you can tell at a test screening is how many people want to comeâfor nothing. I've had hit movies where the movies are bad, but you turn away 250 people at the preview. Everybody wants to see it. The first sign of trouble with
was when everybody at the preview liked it but only half a house came, and [then] for the first time I was worried. Mike
Newell turned to me and said, âYou know, this was a great movie, but we may have just made a movie about something that no one wants to see.' I thought âI think he's right.' The indication was not the NRG numbers, but the fact that we couldn't get anybody to comeâfor nothing.
: So how did this book become a movie?
: If I was just reading this book, I would go âThere's no movie here.' Where are the elements you'd look for in a movie? Who are the characters? What's the story? There is none of that, so I never thought it was a movie. It was Bob De Niro who read the book and said âYou know, there is a movie in this book.' I said, âWhat? It's just a bunch of anecdotes about Hollywood.' He said, âNo, it's a movie, you should do this.' I dropped the thought for months and months and months, figuring Bob didn't get the inner workings of the drama of the story, like it's smart to underestimate Bob. Then we talked about it again later, and again he said, âYou could do this.' âDo what?' âThere is a character in here that you could flesh out, that I can do. Give him a life.' He let me know that even if the book doesn't necessarily have a story, it can still have the spark of a take on a character. And he added, âLook, if you do this, let's be partners. If you do this, I'll do it.' And I went, âWow, okay, now that's an incentive.'