Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly Sunday column, two old friends get together and grind their axes on the movie business.
FLEMING: I am looking at the mess that Quentin Tarantino got himself into, clumsily making comments that were interpreted as labeling cops as murderers during an emotional speech at a rally. This is the second time this year that a filmmaker has put his film on the line with a rash and unwise comment, after Josh Trank deep-sixed Fantastic Four with a Tweet that essentially disowned the movie.
Tarantino clearly felt the same outrage we all did when we viewed the cell phone footage of the fatal chokehold in New York, and the murderous shooting in the back of a fleeing suspect in South Carolina, among several incidents of police brutality. While he’s one of Hollywood’s most graceful wordsmiths on the page, Tarantino’s spontaneous comments were especially polarizing, coming days after the gunshot murder of an NYPD officer by a fleeing suspect. Deadline had its Contenders Event yesterday, where artists and studios discuss their films for an audience of awards voters. You feel the passion and sense of ownership these artists still have, and you realize just how fragile these movies are as numerous promising efforts underperformed or just plain vanished. The Weinstein Company has everything riding on The Hateful Eight. Now, that movie will debut with police unions around the country in boycott mode. It just feels so unnecessary to me. Don’t these guys realize they have a fiduciary responsibility to their movies, an obligation to all those people who spent the last year or two working so hard to help the filmmaker realize his vision? It’s a shame to see it all risked by statements that can only give potential moviegoers another reason to stay home.
BART: I disagree with you, Mike, about our ham-handed friend Tarantino. I think it all boils down to this basic question: Is fame liberating or imprisoning? Too many stars hide behind their celebrity and fear taking any public positions. To them, stardom is a business. I prefer those celebrities who stick their necks out. Some hold forth on social issues, like Tarantino, or blab about gender equality like Jennifer Lawrence. Or some seek out roles in arcane films that they know (or should know) won’t make any money – Sandra Bullock in Our Brand Is Crisis, Bradley Cooper in Burnt or Kate Blanchett in Truth. I admire Brad Pitt for putting his heft behind off-beat film projects. His public persona is more interesting than that of Daniel Craig, who whines about playing Bond too often (and gets richer from his watch commercials).
FLEMING: You are right, but we are in a PC time where you say the wrong thing and people just don’t want to disagree with you. Torches are lit, petitions signed, and suddenly a throng wants you to no longer be able to make a living. Look what happened when Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodovar signed a petition that clumsily decried “genocide in the Gaza,” or when Gary Oldman was condemned by the ADL for his off-handed comment that Mel Gibson was banished for “biting the hand that feeds him,” an allusion to the notion that Jews run Hollywood. You leave yourself susceptible to the agendas of others who rear up, seize a soundbite and make themselves more important. Ryan Kavanaugh was the most public in rebuking Bardem, Cruz and Almodovar, saying they should hang their heads in shame. Whose indiscretions are worse, talent that rashly signed a dumb statement after seeing news footage that upset them, or an executive who plunged his company into Chapter 11 after spending lavishly and leaving twice as much debt as assets, blaming everyone but himself?
BART: One reason it’s hard to argue with you, Mike, is that you have so many ideas bumping into each other. Who else could include Mel Gibson and Ryan Kavanaugh in the same paragraph? Look, both men are pursuing a long Hollywood tradition. Actors have been putting their foot in their mouth for generations. As evidence, take a look at Trumbo: John Wayne delivers a stirring defense of the blacklist, thereby putting away several of his close friends (he gave his regrets years later). As for Kavanaugh, his esoteric bookkeeping is consistent with a long Hollywood tradition. He’s Giancarlo Parretti without the maitre d’ charm.
FLEMING: I agree that Tarantino deserves his opinion, and it does take courage to lend support to a disenfranchised group whose mistreatment by police is more important than Jennifer Lawrence complaining about being shorted on the paycheck of American Hustle; I know she too is making a higher point, but fact is, she was a last minute addition and everybody else on that film took pay cuts and gave points to make it worth her while. It’s harmless, ultimately, and shines a light in the right place. The trouble with Quentin’s stance is, it doesn’t factor in that police officers have an incredibly dangerous job. The ones I know aren’t looking to be tough guys, and they aren’t racists. They want only to do their jobs, and make it home to their families at night. Tarantino knows this, I think. This issue Quentin got himself into is so complex that you cannot win by jumping in with emotional soundbites that can be interpreted all kinds of ways, none of which helps the movie you’re about to put into the marketplace.
Bottom line: police brutality has zero to do with The Hateful Eight, which takes place right after the Civil War. The controversy has become an unnecessary narrative for a movie that has so much else going for it. The New York Post has had a field day attacking Tarantino in daily editorials and cover stories. The paper even ingloriously trotted out his “father,” to slam the filmmaker. Not part of that article is something that is common knowledge for anybody who knows anything about Quentin. He grew up without a father, and doesn’t acknowledge this opportunist who surfaces occasionally—NYP actually wrote a follow-up story that this man is trying to put together his own movie projects—but the tabloid never mentioned he was AWOL during that period when a relationship between a father and son is forged. The paper will move on to other things and this guy will crawl back under his rock soon enough. I mention him only to illustrate how these stories build and distract.
Tarantino’s movie is very interesting on its own with all its twists and turns, including him initially shelving the picture, and drawing an honorable line in the sand on intellectual property theft by suing after his first script draft was brazenly published online. Nobody is talking about that right now, or how TWC’s distribution ace Erik Lomas spent a year scouring the country to find 70mm projectors and parts so Tarantino’s movie can be viewed in glorious, throwback cinematic lavishness that could pave the way for other event movies to be viewed. Those narratives pale in comparison to the current controversy, apparently.
BART: Political advocacy can be dangerous to the business of stardom. Ronald Reagan found this out in his early 30s when, as a dedicated liberal, he was chastised by studio bosses for backing left wing candidates and speaking at anti-nuke rallies (he soon switched sides). In a sense, Donald Trump has also switched sides. He was a liberal-leaning reality star; SNL seems to have booked him in that capacity, forgetting that he’d become politically toxic. Anyway, both Trump and Tarantino are free spirits. And they’re still rich.
FLEMING: I have benefited by having my byline on stories fueled by fiery quotes, and this is an odd stance for me to take. But I must say I have told some young actors who asked me, that they don’t have to take the bait and say regrettable things because they want to please journalists like me. I’ve urged them to field a baited question by asking themselves, what would Derek Jeter do? Maybe that guy erred on the side of being boring, but he played shortstop for the New York Yankees almost two decades without ever saying anything dumb or polarizing.
BART: If you go here, Mike, you have to point out the theatrical contrast between Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Carson has tried to be Jeter; now that the press is challenging him, he’s becoming as hot-headed as Tarantino. Meanwhile Trump will say just about anything to get attention, though he seemed self-edited on SNL last night. Will he become more Jeter-like as election day draws closer? People who know him point up the contrasts between his behavior when you are with him face-to-face and when the cameras start rolling. Even Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann over the weekend observed, on camera, that Trump, in person, is thoughtful and good natured. I have had a similar experience. Turn on the camera and the other Trump appears. In 3D!
FLEMING: The press is doing its job by helping Carson, and Trump, reveal who they truly are. Filmmakers aren’t running for elected office, they make movies and try to get people to come see them. When I watched Selma, I admired Ava DuVernay’s accomplishment in finally making a good movie about Martin Luther King at a budget so modest it couldn’t help but be a winning proposition. Then the LBJ controversy reared up and she said that she didn’t want to make another movie where the black man was delivered by the white man. And then she and her cast did a photo op wearing those “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts. I think it hurt the movie by polarizing and politicizing a document of history that should have been inclusive. The Selma March, and the bravery of all those who engineered it and took part in it, belongs to any American with an ounce of tolerance in their body.
I got a smile when I heard that at the premiere of his film Trumbo that opened this weekend, director Jay Roach made a speech. He’s a classy and smart guy as you know, Peter. He counts Sam Mendes among his heroes; and even though it’s a direct competitor to his film, he absolutely loves Spotlight. Roach told the audience: if you go see one movie this weekend, make it Spotlight. If you see two, see Spectre. If you’ve got room for a third, please go see Trumbo. It makes me want to see Trumbo.
BART: By all means, see Trumbo, Mike. The critics were unkind to it. I think they had too many movies to see this month. Look how dismissive they were to Burnt. All Bradley Cooper was trying to do was cook and the critics roasted him. Next topic: The impending premiere of the Star Wars colossus raises the following question, Mike: Isn’t it time for the Disney company to stop embarrassing its rivals? Look at what’s happened these past few days: Share prices have tanked across the media world – at one point in the week media stocks had lost $6.5 billion in value. Time Warner and 21st Century Fox missed their projected numbers and every analyst likes to find new problems at Viacom. Meanwhile Disney smirks that its operating income improved 27% in the quarter. Improved! So in fairness, Mike, I think we should summon up every rumor and negative conjecture we can find about Disney in an effort to level the playing field. Let’s poke holes — even if we have to move some facts around: If the company is doing so well, why did ESPN fire 300 people instead of finding them jobs at theme parks? Why are Disneyland admission prices soaring when profits are increasing anyway? Why is the company lavishing record fees on sports rights (even the US Open tennis) when viewers are cutting cords (especially tennis fans). Will Disney’s $5.5 billion investment in Shanghai Disney result in another boring replica of Disneyland Paris (and why does its opening keep getting pushed back?) Why does Bob Iger use such mysterious language in introducing his heralded DisneyLife overseas – he says it’s “not only interactive but intuitive” (sounds murky to me). And here’s the ultimate question: What if Star Wars sequels tank? Ok, that’s pushing it too far. As I said, I just want to level the playing field a little.
FLEMING: You’ve just said a lot, Peter. I watched Lionsgate plant a New York Times story on Hunger Games theme parks and all anyone is talking about is how this serves the rumor that John Malone’s Liberty will buy them and turn them into another multi-faceted colossus that will be a slave to quarterly earnings. All this has so changed a movie business where art and commerce collided in equal measure. I’m in LA and heard over and over in meetings that commerce has become all that matters. By the way, I asked all week why Bullock’s Crisis and Cooper’s Burnt failed and smart people helped me formulate this theory: maybe moviegoers are tired of the cynicism so rampant in recent movies. Maybe we want something to root for.
Spotlight has that as does the terrific David vs Goliath NFL football drama Concussion that premieres this week at AFI. And it’s certainly the theme in the Rocky Balboa saga Creed, which smartly plugs into those great early Rocky films–and not the later ones where Rocky did everything but brawl with aliens on Mars. This movie dropped me right back into how I felt watching those first few films, and I bet Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler emerge from this as big stars. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sly Stallone’s subtle performance gets him nominated. This might rebirth a franchise, but let’s see if people go see this and other uplifting movies, after rejecting the recent cynical batch. As for Disney, when he sees Creed, Iger will be bummed it isn’t a Disney film; he is the one, after all, who recognized the value of revisiting Marvel and Star Wars properties. And given the unprecedented wannasee of Star Wars and the outsized performance of Universal’s Jurassic World, how smart does another Indiana Jones movie sound now, especially if Harrison Ford shares the stage with Chris Pratt?