By Amy Nicholson
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Michael Atkinson
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Abby Garnett
By Amy Nicholson
By Alan Scherstuhl
"In subsequent years, they developed techniques to vet every choice. If you were going to hire an art director, they already had all the data on [him]: every time he had gone over budget, what he would do if there was a choice between doing what the director wanted and what the studio had dictated. There were always controls, but back then, you could still outrun or elude them or trick them somehow."
The story behind The Godfather — from the studio's reluctance to accept Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in the cast to the fear that Gordon Willis's atmospheric cinematography was too dark — has been told many times, but looking back today, Coppola singles out Evans for ultimately supporting his vision.
"It's true he didn't want Pacino, it's true he didn't want the Nino Rota score, it's true he didn't want me after a certain point," he says. "But ultimately, The Godfather was a two-and-three-quarter-hours movie, and he fought for that. We were editing in San Francisco, and he had told me, 'If the first cut you show me is longer than two hours and twenty minutes, you're going to come down and continue editing in L.A.' I looked at the movie the week before, and it was two hours and fifty minutes. I thought, 'Oh, God.' I wanted to remain in San Francisco with relative privacy, so I did this Draconian cut and got it down to two hours and twenty. When I showed it to Evans, he said the famous line, 'I left you to make a film, and you've brought me a trailer.'
"I'd cut out all that I could cut out, which was all of the ambience and inessential details. Then I put all that footage back, and he fought for it. And I take my hat off to him, because to fight for a movie that long was a pretty gutsy thing."
According to Coppola, Evans "had a point of view and a gut feeling about things, and they served him well." So, for that matter, did Charles Bluhdorn, who was deeply invested in the studio's daily operation. "Bluhdorn was one of a kind," Coppola says. "He loved movies, and he was hands-on. He was like a Harvey Weinstein in a way."
"Charlie Bluhdorn was a kind of buccaneer," seconds Peter Bogdanovich. "He had an Old Hollywood, pioneering kind of attitude." An Austrian emigre, Bluhdorn always felt a strong connection to Europe, which led him to push Paramount into the arena of international co-productions — some of which, like the Italian-Russian-British Waterloo (1970), went expensively belly-up, while others, like Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970) and the French gangster drama Borsalino (1970), were artistic and/or commercial triumphs on par with the studio's domestic fare. "Here was an era where Borsalino would be released as a major studio picture," Bart says with amazement. "Can you imagine that today?"
It was at Bluhdorn's invitation that Bogdanovich, Coppola and Exorcist director William Friedkin formed an unprecedented independent-production pact within the studio, designed to create modestly budgeted films made with total autonomy by the three principals, who would also share equally in the profits. The original studio "specialty" division, the aptly named Directors Company, would produce Paper Moon as its first release, followed by The Conversation and Bogdanovich's Daisy Miller (1974), before dissolving almost as quickly as it had formed.
"We could make any picture we wanted for $3 million or under, and we didn't even have to tell the studio what we were doing," Bogdanovich says. "We could also produce any movie for other directors for $1.5 million or under, and we didn't have to tell anyone what they were [doing], either. I was going to do a picture with Orson Welles, and we had ones with Nick Ray and King Vidor and Capra. But it all fell apart because Billy and Francis didn't want to keep going. They wanted to make more money up front — and that's what blew it."
The real writing on the New Hollywood wall, however, arrived when the blockbusters of the late 1970s — chiefly Jaws and Star Wars — upended notions of how movies could be released and marketed and how much money could be quickly made. At Paramount, the Evans/Bart era gave way (in 1976) to a new regime headed by CEO Barry Diller and his production lieutenants, including eventual Disney chiefs Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and future uber-producer Don Simpson. At MOMI, this period is represented by the musicals Grease (1978) and Saturday Night Fever (1977), plus a couple of art films — Days of Heaven (1978) and The Elephant Man (1980) — that slipped through the narrowing cracks.
"The blockbusters of the '70s were not intended to be blockbusters," Bart says. "Then Eisner and Katzenberg came in and thought: 'Why not? Why can't you figure it out?' Their thesis obviously was, 'We run the studio, and we're not going to be director-oriented.'"
When Pauline Kael returned to the New Yorker in 1980 following a year-long stint as a Paramount creative consultant, it wasn't difficult to see the TV-trained Diller and company as the unnamed executives chided in her merciless essay "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, the Numbers." But Kael reserved her greatest venom for the conglomerate heads responsible for hiring the new executives in the first place. "They don't have the background, the instincts, the information of those who have lived and sweated movies for many years. Neither do most of the current studio bosses."
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