Fight Club

When it comes to producing movies, it's a fine art (or Art Linson)

Linson's no skinflint when it comes to peddling the mess and the myth. He's written two books on the subject of movie producing: A Pound of Flesh: Perilous Tales of How to Produce Movies in Hollywood(published in 1993) and the just-released What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line. The first tome was a wry, handy book o' tips: where to eat in Hollywood (because all business is done over food), who to know, who to blow. The second book is a far more stylistic piece: Linson narrates his tales of woe to a fictionalized ex-producer named (what else?) Jerry, who goes ga-ga listening to Linson excoriate the higher-ups at 20th Century Fox, where Linson had a production deal in the 1990s and made such films as Great Expectations(Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow dicking Dickens), The Edge(starring Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and a bear) and Pushing Tin(John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton as air-traffic controllers; it crashed).

What Just Happened?is a giddy ride and a great read--like getting high and then getting tossed down a staircase. It's riddled with tattle-telling anecdotes about friends (Fincher, Robert De Niro, David Mamet) and foes (everyone else, more or less) alike. Like the time Dustin Hoffman became obsessed with dwindling ankle hair during a reading for The Edge. Or the time Tom Rothman, Fox chairman, wanted to pass on Paltrow because "she has no chin." Or the time Baldwin flew into a hissy fit when Linson asked him to shave his beard before filming commenced on The Edge. Or the time(s) De Niro would commit to a picture, then back out, then commit, then back out.

"I just wanted to show the essence of everybody's behavior," Linson says, "and when you see Tom Rothman's despicable, ponderous, pontificating, pedantic manners without any work to back it up, you just look at him and have nothing left to say but, 'Dig a hole, I'm gonna put it out there.' Now, I don't wanna comment on what a creep I think he was or how misbehaved he was. I wanna say this is howhe behaved, and everybody evaluates it for themselves. Now, people can say, 'Geez, I guess this guy doesn't care if he ever works at Fox again.' The answer to that is, 'That's true.' But you know what? I may be wrong about this, but if you have something that's really special that everybody wants, it's amazing how you can recover friendships."

The sad fact is, most movies are never as entertaining or as memorable as the stories behind them. Ask yourself which you'd rather see: the train wreck or the lifeless aftermath? That's what makes books like Linson's as engrossing as they are maddening. It's astonishing anything gets made, much less anything of any value--especially among the major studios, which are run by bloodless goons who've never so much as shot a home movie, much less written, directed or acted in a major motion picture. In fact, Linson suggests that before someone is allowed to produce a movie, he or she must first film a kid's birthday party and show it to a thousand peers in the Directors Guild of America's L.A. screening room. It would humble the hell out of them real quick.

Linson has written and directed movies--one awful (The Wild Life, which he insists was not a Fast Timessequel, whatever), another one misguided but fascinating (Where the Buffalo Roams, in which Bill Murray channeled Hunter S. Thompson). Warner Bros. just bought a screenplay he co-wrote with former actress Fiona Lewis, which he hopes to make next year. So, maybe, that's why he gives Hollywood a little extra hell: He figures he's earned the right. After all, he wasn't a hairdresser (like Jon Peters) or a journalist (like Peter Bart, who has his own book out, Shoot Out: Surviving Fame and Misfortune in Hollywood, which he wrote with Jon Peters' old partner, Peter Guber).

He was a music-bizzer who got into the movies and stayed there because he liked telling stories, liked hanging out with writers, liked finding new directors and liked the company of the creative. That's why you can look at the movies he's had a hand in--from Fast Timesto Casualties of War, from Melvin & Howardto This Boy's Life, from Car Washto Heist--without scoffing or snickering. They're good movies, simple as that. Not all made money, not all were liked, but all add up to something respectable--which, in Hollywood, isn't a word even whispered very often.

Just do not mention that to Art Linson. Do not utter words like "well-intentioned." Do not say things like "legacy." He's still a producer--meaning, deep down and on the surface, he's content to play hustler and whore just to get his picture made.

"It's a bitch. This job is a bitch. It's horrible," he says, his gruff voice tinged with a small chuckle. "But one of the things you do is you try to explain why it can work anyway. Like Alec Baldwin and Tony Hopkins equal Brad Pitt. In other words, you find arguments that say, 'But it's really kinda like this.' Or, 'I'll do it for less money.' Or, 'Blah blah blah.' You find ways to explain that something is probably a good risk, and it isn't easy. Fincher and I are thinking about doing this movie next year that he's gonna direct, and it's gonna be with a major movie star, and they're gonna say yes. It's not gonna be a hard one to explain. But the hard ones, the ones I'm often involved in? They're hard, and if you like them, you have to fight the fight. And if you don't, then what the hell?"

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