Scent of Toast

I haven’t done any serious calling around about embattled Paramount Pictures president Gail Berman, but I received a letter this morning [Sunday, 2.12] from a woman who seems very knowledgable and connected to people in the creative community, and what she says about Berman and her situation (as well as the perceptions and management skills of Paramount chairman Brad Grey) is fairly damning.
The letter-writer feels that two big stories about Berman so far — Laura Holson’s piece in the N.Y. Times (which was mainly about Grey but touched on Berman) and Anne Thompson’s recent “Risky Business” column — have missed what’s really happening.

Paramount president Gail Berman.

I’ve spoken to the letter-writer and I’m convinced that she’s right in the thick of things and knows whereof she speaks. She has motives for saying what she’s saying, obviously, but who doesn’t? You can half-tell she’s credible by the insider-sounding information and her down-to-it prose style, but I wanted to make sure of this and now I’m 98% certain she’s legit.
The letter-writer feels that Thompson’s “flattering portrait of Gail Berman is quite one sided…towards Gail.
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“The problem with Gail Berman is that not that she is overwhelmingly honest or intelligent or forthright, which are admirable qualities when used well. The problem is two fold — she is all these things but she doesn’t like movies. I repeat: film is not a language she speaks. And she is brusque and insensitive and not on the same page with people who do.
“Ask her what her favorite films are. She can’t tell you. Ask Stacey Snyder or Nina Jacobson or any of the other women who are running studios the same question, and they will talk for an hour about the first time they saw a film. They thrive on that connection made in the dark to a story on a big screen. That is not the case with Gail.
“I doubt she has ever seen a film she has ever loved. Or could let herself love. It is not in her DNA. She has no idea what a good script is. She doesn’t even like to read them.

“The other problem is that which Thompson refers to as ‘honesty.’ I refer to it as insensitivity, rudeness, and an unexamined loathing that lurks just under the surface when she deals with artists.
“Instead of learning the medium and the people she is to work with she comes in with zero experience and proceeds to rip projects apart that have been in development for years with no sensitivity to all involved. No sense that she may want to work with these people again.
“Brutish honesty and insensitivity are not the issues. If combined with good taste and a deep knowledge of film and the film business it means you are Scott Rudin. Berman being a woman is the least of her problems.
“The artists of Hollywood are not fools. They know when they are being treated horribly. Her cruelty to artists, her disrespect and ignorance of their body of work, her padding of her own resume…her need to use her power in unrelenting ways and then if you dislike her mask it behind ‘directors and agents are sexist’…that is the problem.
“Paramount was not in a horrible mess in terms of development when Gail arrived. Gail killed every project on the shelf because her ego didn’t allow for Donald Deline’s work to go forward and because she doesn’t have a feel for what is good and what isn’t.
[I was asked to delete three or four examples of Berman having killed some prrojects or pissed this or that person off, which I did.]

Paramount chairman Brad Grey, studio president Gail Berman

“As for Nacho Libre, Gail tried not to make that film left over from Deline’s development slate. She wanted to ‘redevelop it,’ which is what Gail is famous for. Only when Jack Black marched into her office and demanded she make up her mind — either make it or let it go in turn around — did she reluctantly agree to make it. Now she says in Variety, “I just want to make more films like Nacho Libre.” They were in hysterics down on the set in Mexico [when they heard] that.
“Ridley Scott almost imploded on the lot after a meeting with Gail. The stories are true and endless and yet [Thompson’s] article maintains it has to do with her honest and being a woman.
“As a woman who is honest in this industry I resent the implications. I have no problems working with either writers, agents, directors, executives and producers I encounter. I just know what I am talking about and treat others and their work with respect. I do my homework and I love movies.
“Gail needs some self examination before she starts trotting out ‘I’m a powerful woman and that is why people don’t like me.’ People have never liked her. They have had to endure and succeed in spite of her. She is also a deep grudge holder which has nothing to do with being a woman and is why Jeffrey Katzenberg doesn’t want to be in business with her.

“The underlying issue is why would [chairman and chief executive of Paramount Pictures] Brad Grey hire her at all.
“Here is one theory from someone who has worked with Brad for over a decade. If Gail succeeds, Brad looks like a visionary. If she fails it won’t reflect badly on him because she was so ignorant and inexperienced in movies to begin with. He took a chance and she let him down.
“The truth is Gail was so loathed at Fox she had become ineffective. She needed to move. Brad is in way over his head and didn’t know how to look for the right person and wanted someone quickly.
“After starting the Paramount job Gail went to the agents at the Big Five agencies with Brad Westin and Ali Shermur and held court. She brought out charts like they were at the Network Upfronts explaining where their clients projects stood. Graphs and charts, graphs and charts.
“The agents were horrified at the way she spoke to them and the way she spoke about their clients. Brad and Ali tellingly never said a word. Either it was because Gail wouldn’t let them or they were too embarassed. Again this behavior is going to engender hostility because it is so impersonal and condescending. It has nothing to do with being a woman. Or being honest. It has to do with being a jerk.
“If I was Gail I would get some good therapy. And take a class at AFI. And maybe subscribe to Netflix.”

This is a juvenile and cheap-ass thing to say in a caption, but doesn’t Grey look like a puppet next to his boss, chairman and chief executive officer of MTV Networks Tom Freston? Grey is so much smaller with such a smaller head, I mean.

The writer said the following when we spoke this morning. Here are portions of what she said:
“[Holson and Thompson] are not doing their job because all we’re reading so far is puff piece after puff piece, but what I’m hearing is a consistent stream of frustration.
“No one wants to dislike anyone who’s the head of production at a studio. You want to love them and for them to be your best friend. But everyone has met with this wall of nothingness and hostility, and she doesn’t have the guts to let things go or leave them alone. She has that need to put her stamp on things.
“When you have a competent executive [in the job], they know what to leave alone. And Berman doesn’t seem to understand that when a movie gets made that’s left over from anotehr regime, Berman gets the credit for it.
“She was a big credit hog at Fox. She’s come a long way so far because she’s strong and presents herself so beautiuflly, but she can’t build an individual relationship and understand what an artist does, and it’s really unfortunate.
“The creative community isn’t upset because she’s a woman or because she’s from TV. She doesn’t have movies in her bones. Scott Rudin is blunt and can be impossible, but he loves movies and he understands what artists are about. Gail is missing that piece in her DNA that would make this all really easy for her.
“Instead of firing her, people should help her do her job better, to admit she made a mistake.”

Berman with 24 star Keifer Sutherland (far right) when she was based at 20th Century Fox television.

I broke in during our chat and said that the Berman situation is mainly due to Grey’s not being all that perceptive. It makes it appear as if he didn’t give the matter of hiring her for the top Paramount job very much thought, and in fact makes him look like a thoughtless studio chief.
“Mike Ovitz was Grey’s mentor,” the letter-writer said, “and he doesn’t reveal who he is or where he’s coming from. It’s incredible that they handed him the job [that he has]. He doesn’t go out on a limb for anybody. Hiring Berman was easy for him. If it works out he’ll look like a visionary genius, but if she takes a fall it’s easy for him too.
“Relationships are everything in this town, and Berman doesn’t care about relationships. She only wants to discover people. She doesn’t want to deal with people who are already there. [When she’s in the room] it’s all about shutting down the conversation. I know a lot of people who are feeling crushed by her…and I’ve heard it across the board since she got the job. A lot of people have just given up on her.
“You can be an asshole in this town and do well if you have really good taste and you love movies and your instincts are really good. If you make the grade on these terms people will love you anyway. This business is about pushing rocks up hills, and when you have someone who doesn’t push rocks, who stops rocks….that’s a problem.
“Everyone has a learning curve. The Weinsteins are in a new learning curve, and Gail is in a community and she needs to take her place in it, and it’s a humbling process, but that sense of humility is missing at Paramount right now.”

Show & Tell

Saturday’s Santa Barbara Film Festival panel discussions — one featuring writers and the other producers — were intriguing and stirring with a fair supply of zingers. Tectonic plates didn’t exactly shift under our feet and nobody poured a pitcher of ice water over anyone else’s head, but some interesting truths came through.
The funniest panelist was 40 Year-Old Virgin director-writer Judd Apatow, with Good Night, and Good Luck writer-producer Grant Heslov a close second. The most heartfelt and straight-shootin’-est testimony came from Brokeback Mountain cowriter-producer Diana Ossana. And the wisest and most perceptive comments came from Crash co-wroter Bobby Moresco.
These three all scored during the writer’s panel, which was sagely moderated by Hollywood Reporter columnist Anne Thompson.

Portions of Crash co-writer Bobby Moresco, Brokeback Mountain co-writer Diana Ossana, Memoirs of a Geisha screenwriter Robin Swicord, and History of Violence writer Josh Olson — Saturday, 2.11.06, 11:35 am at the Marjorie Luke theatre.

I can’t honestly say that the riffs and confessions in the producers panel, hosted by Patrick Goldstein, the industry columnist for the L.A. Times, were quite as memorable, but that’s because the thing that really stood out during this session (and it’s strange to admit this but some observations just stick in your brain and others don’t) was a technical problem involving the sound.
I was sitting in the front row at the Victoria Theatre as Goldstein started the session, and right from the start you could hear rock music coming faintly out of a speaker on stage right…not loud enough to make it difficult to hear the panelists, but just loud enough to be irritating, like a mosquito that won’t stop flying into your ear. Goldstein and the panelists seemed oblivious, but I was saying to myself, “What the…?”
I went out to the lobby and asked what was going on, and they said, “We’re work- ing on it.” So I went back in and waited and waited, and then somebody from the audience finally said, “Will somebody please turn that music off?” and suddenly the dam burst — people had been suppressing their frustration for about 15 minutes — and revolt was in the air. “Unplug the speaker, please!”…”C’mon!”…”this is very irritating”…”we can’t hear you!”

L.A. Times columnist Patrick Goldstein (far right) and producer panelists (Walk the Line‘s James Keach and Brokeback Mountain‘s Diana Ossana are to his immediate right) during the people’s uprising over the sound problem that slightly marred the discussion at Santa Barbara’s Victoria theatre — Saturday, 2.11.06, 2:25 pm.

Suddenly a “whoa” look came across Goldstein’s face. A situation! Everything would have been fine if Goldstein had just unplugged the offending speaker, but for some reason he didn’t want to so finally a young tech guy came up on stage and just shut everything off, and the session continued without microphones.
I could hear much of the what was said after this (Diana Ossana, who had just finished the writers’ panel an hour earlier, kept forgetting to project from the diaphragm) but I had to cup my ears from time to time.
The only real producers’ zinger came when The Chronicles of Narnia producer Mark Johnson chided Goldstein “and your friend John Horn” (i.e., the formidable Los Angeles Times industry reporter) for passing along what Johnson felt were inflated reports of Narnia‘s budget.
Why don’t we forget the producers and go back to the writers? Better material, functioning equipment.
Apatow said The 40 Year-Old Virgin worked “because I knew the terrain of being a 40 year-old virgin [in my own life] all too well.”
At one point Thompson asked Heslov to tell how he met and bonded with Good Night partner George Clooney, and he replied, “Don’t you think that’s a little personal?”

Walk the Line screenwriter Gill Dennis, Good Night and Good Luck writer-producer Grant Heslov, The 40 Year-Odl Viring director-wrter Judd Apatow at Santa Barbara’s Lobero theatre — Saturday, 2.11.06, 11:50 am.

I loved the recollection by Josh Olson, screenwriter-adapter of A History of Violence, about his first time seeing the David Cronenberg-directed film with an audience at the Lumiere theatre in Cannes, and how it went over like gangbusters with everyone cheering at the closing credits.
Ossana talked about the feelings of enormous relief and satisfaction that she and partner Larry McMurtry have gotten from the widespread acceptance of Brokeback Mountain since it opened in early December. “We had hoped before it opened that we might get into 400 theatres,” Ossana said, “but right now it’s playing in about 2000 theatres.”
Ossana said because of the Brokeback heat a script she and McMurtry wrote a long time called Pretty Boy Floyd was “back from the dead” or something along those lines.
Apatow facetiously said he saw parallels between The 40 year-old Virgin and Memoirs of a Geisha. With a bit more sincerity he also explained the story, character and thematic parallels between Virgin and Brokeback Mountain. The second analogy sounded reasonable, but don’t expect me to repeat it….too much work.
Apatow’s next film, he said, “is about a guy who gets a woman pregagnt on the first date,” and will therefore “be a little more grounded” than The 40 Year-Old Virgin. “It’s a tragedy,” commented Geisha screenwriter Robin Swicord.

(l. to r., top row) Backstage at the Marjorie Luke: Walk the Line‘s Gill Dennis, writers’ panel moderator Anne Thompson, Brokeback Mountain co-writer Diana Ossana, Memoirs of a Geisha screenwriter Robin Swicord, A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson, and a talented and well-respected Italian screenwriter whose name temporarily escapes me (and I don’t mean this as a slight); (l. to. r., bottom row) Crash co-writer Bobby Moresco, Good Night, and Good Luck‘s Grant Heslov, The 40 Year-Old Virgin‘s Judd Apatow.

There was one other bizarre occurence on top of the sound problem at the Victoria, and that was getting thrown out of the outdoor luncheon for the writers after the Marjorie Luke theatre session.
Festival director Roger Durling has made a gracious habit of inviting me to sit down and schmooze with the talent after these discussions in years past, but a certain SBFF publicist was strongly opposed to this and said, “You’ll have to leave.” It was no biggie so I did, but sheesh.
We live in a damaged and dysfunctional world, and every now and then you’re going to meet someone who’s had it a bit tougher than others, and you’re going to find yourself staring into a look of unfettered rage.


Admittedly crappy photo of Phillip Seymour Hoffman at the podium after receiving the Riviera Award from the Santa Barbara Film Festival at the Marjorie Luke theatre — Saturday, 2.11.06, 9:55 pm.

Los Angeles nightscape view from elegant home of cool-cat Lionsgate vice-chairman Michael Burns — 2.11.06, 10:25 pm.

Crash and Ali costar Nona Gaye at Friday night’s Crash party at Burns’ party — 2.11.06, 10:25 pm.

Cuba Gooding and costars after Santa Barbara Film festival screening of Lee Daniels’ Shadowboxer — 2.9.06, 9:15 pm.

Cute little Santa Barbara restaurant, sitting on a quiet street away from the action.

Manhattan’s east 6th Street, sometime earlier today (2.12). [Due apologies, but this shot was borrowed — okay, stolen — from the N.Y. Times website.]

Gong Show

If you go to a movie this weekend chances are you’ll run into the poster for Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (Paramount, due in late summer or early fall) hanging in the lobby.
And if you’re at all like me, you may experience a slight involuntary twitching when you stand there and take it in. Not out of disdain for the visual concept (which is okay), but that godforsaken title. The wretched sound of it, I mean.

World Trade Center just keeps needling me. I’ve tried to get used to it, but that generically odious Jack-and-Jill quality (every time I hear it a J. Arthur Rank gong goes off in my head) makes it one of the worst big-studio movie titles of all time.
It seems to me that a movie set in lower Manhattan on 9.11.01 would have to be direct, honest and dignified…and yet try for a touch of the poetic. If you believe that titles should somehow correspond to content, the name of Stone’s movie should be about an echo of some kind…not about a redundant fact, but soul particles lingering in the air.
The title World Trade Center is about duhh-level marketing…about snagging the lowest common denominator, and the hell with poetic import.
You can hear somebody on Gerry Rich’s advertising team saying to a colleague, “Nobody will look at this one-sheet and not know right away what it’s more or less about…nobody. And no one will be able to point their finger at any of us after the opening weekend and say we made it seem too oblique.”
Try offensive. World Trade Center isn’t “overkill” as much as idiotkill. All good titles work on at least two levels, and World Trade Center doesn’t even work in terms of pure one-note simplicity. It sounds like a compromise produced by a committee of scared people.

A portion of Paramount World Trade Center one-sheet, as it appears in USA Today story out today (Friday, 2.10)

The image of two guys standing side by side between the Twin Towers is a little dumb-assed (the 9.11 disaster wasn’t a personal/intimate experience for anyone, including the two Port Authority guys who were covered and trapped in rubble), but it’s tolerable.
USA Today‘s Anthony Breznican has written that Paramount “hopes the image reflects that filmmakers are trying to approach America’s greatest modern tragedy with respect.”
Breznican says the studio “decided to emphasize mood, while the stars’ and director’s names are downplayed. There’s an abstract reminder of the twin towers instead of an actual photograph of the buildings intact, or in ruins. The red, white and blue colors imply it’s an American story — not a tale of terrorists or politics.”
The true story of Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (i.e., the guys who were bured and eventually rescued), World Trade Center costars Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena along with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Frank Whalley, Nicholas Turturro and Thomas Mapother.

Gooney Bird

Several weeks ago I wrote a little thing about how Mel Gibson looked like a totally wacked John Brown with that flannel shirt and wild-ass beard in that flash-and-he’s- gone appearance in his Apocalypto trailer.
And now following the posting this morning of Gabriel Neeb‘s letter that called Bravheart‘s Best Picture Oscar win an embarassment(i.e., “a post-Passion of the Christ reassessment”), some guy has written in to set me straight:

Mel Gibson

“Did you know you’re being laughed and mocked in movie websites all over the internet because you didn’t realize that it was a joke when Mel Gibson appeared in his trailer? Of course it was a joke, you silly hypocritical prick! Anyone who knows anything about show business, knows that Mel Gibson is the biggest prankster in the business.
“And you should have also known that his beard was being grown in for a part in Under and Alone, but you just wanted to make judgments because you don’t like his politics and because you don’t understand his religion. And now you want to take away the honor of his Oscar win for Braveheart, because you don’t care for The Passion. Again, you’re a stinking PRICK!!” — Jeremy Cohen .

Measure of Ledger

Heath Ledger submitted to a friendly dog-and-pony show at the Santa Barbara Film Festival last Wednesday night. He was interviewed by Pete Hammond on the stage of the Lobero theatre, watched several film clips, and accepted the festival’s Breakthrough Award…and the whole thing left me feeling a bit stumped.
It was a nice evening…pleasant, heartening…and Heath seems like a right guy, but I don’t know what to say about him that doesn’t sound cliched or repetitive or flat.

Heath Ledger, Pete Hammond on stage of Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre — Wednesday, 2.8.06, 8:25 pm.

He’ll be around for a long time, I think. That seems like a fairly safe bet. He’s 27 now — he’ll probably still be acting 40 or even 50 years from now, and in quality vehicles, given his standards and talent. I’ll be dead (probably) and he’ll still be acting. Nice thought.
I’ve never written a damn word about Ledger’s performance as “Skip” in The Lords of Dogtown because I never gave a shit about watching it (due to laziness…I had nothing against the film), but after watching him in a clip or two last night I now want to see it whole.
I think Ledger may be a bit like Laurence Olivier and Alec Guiness, which is that without a role to play (or a fake nose or an exotic accent to hide behind) he con- geals and stammers on a bit and isn’t quite up to the charm levels of Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Kimmel in front of a crowd.
Ledger is a gently spoken sort with what feels like a fairly strict sense of integrity. It’s no secret that he has one of those serious light-up-the-room smiles. Being Australian and somewhat expressive and non-taciturn, his voice isn’t the least bit Ennis del Mar-ish, but it does have a deepish timbre and a kind of rolling tonality.

Heath Ledger — Wednesday, 2.8.06, 8:32 pm.

He’s a gifted, probably genius-level actor who right now seems to be about sixteen times more into spending time with his infant daughter than making new movies and pocketing huge paychecks, and is actually planning on not working at all for roughly a year. (He said something about living in Amsterdam when we spoke at the Focus Features after-party following the Golden Globes.)
I liked it that there was a loose tab or some kind of mini-tongue sticking out of the heel of his lace-up shoes, and I was staring at this thing for a while and thinking, “Yeah, funky- ass shoes…but I guess that’s Ledger and his I’m-not-your-father’s- idea-of-an-uptown-actor attitude.
He was pretty good at fidgeting around in his seat last night as he spoke to Hammond about this and that. He sat on his hands for a bit. His legs were kind of tucked under the chair, a bit like a British school kid doing detention. He said that auditions have always been awkward because he doesn’t like the feeling of being examined and judged.

Heath Ledger’s shoe — 2.8.06, 8:40 pm. See that little doo-dad thing sticking out of the heel? That’s intentional, right?

Here’s that Manohla Dargis riff about Ledger’s Brokeback Mountain performance that I ran in WIRED last week: “I’ve almost always liked Ledger, but I didn’t think he had anything going on as an actor until Monster’s Ball. But while he was amazing for the ten seconds he was in that film, I wasn’t prepared for Brokeback, where he creates a world of pain with a tight mouth and a body so terribly self- contained it’s a wonder he can wrap his arms around another person.
“But here’s the thing,” she concluded, “and this is the part that’s hard to explain — I don’t just admire the performance on the level of craft, I am also deeply moved by it, just as I am by the film.”
SBFF director Roger Durling said the following at the end of the evening: “Movies reflect who we are, and in going to the movies we identify with the heroes and protagonists. When I saw Brokeback Mountain and Heath Ledger’s performance, I felt as if somebody had punched the wind out of me.

Wednesday, 2.8.06, 9:55 pm.

“It took me a while to understand that never before I had seen a character in a major Hollywood film that portrayed all the loneliness, self-loathing, the need to be loved and give love back that a gay man like me goes through, and I felt a personal form of catharsis watching Heath’s performance. He was kicking a door open that had been long shut, and for that I’m very grateful.”
I’m still stuck about the Best Actor contest because I feel exactly the same degree of admiraton for Philip Seymour Hofman’s performance in Capote as I do for Heath Ledger’s in Brokeback. I’ve called for this before and it makes no sense and it’s highly unlikely from a mathematical perspective, but there should be a tie and they should both win. This really, really should happen.

Wednesday, 2.8.06, 8:25 pm.