By no means is Linson the most powerful player in Hollywood; he'll be the first to tell you that, over and over. Every few minutes, he'll complain that he's not, oh, Jerry Bruckheimer, the greedy schlock-peddler whose movies (among them Con Air, Gone in 60 Seconds and Armageddon) make money hand over fist--or, really, hand over eyes, since you can't watch them without turning into a pillar of salt.
"God knows, let me tell you, Bruckheimer gets his calls returned a lot faster than I do," Linson says from his home in Los Angeles. "His housekeeper gets his calls returned faster than mine, and that's the damn truth. If you're going to aspire to be either Art Linson or Jerry Bruckheimer, I pick Jerry Bruckheimer."
Not that Linson's ashamed of the movies he's made or envious of Bruckheimer's filmography. It's just that in Hollywood you're always jealous of the other guy, always peeking over your shoulder to make sure no one's pursuing the same hot property, always feeling the hot gasp of failure (your own, someone else's--it's all the same) breathing down your neck. "You're always chasing heat," Linson likes to say. Yeah, except when you're running from the flaming wreckage.
Producing movies ranks high among the world's most masochistic gigs; it breeds panic and paranoia, fear and self-loathing, jealousy and spite. The job of the producer is, on paper, a simple one: You find a good idea (say, a newspaper clipping or a book or something altogether original--ha!--floating in the ether), get a screenwriter to put it on paper, find a studio or other moneymen to finance the endeavor, then get a director to put it on screen.
At least, that's how the process is supposed to work. It never does. It usually isn't done in that order, or with any order. It's a gangbang of egos and will and vanity and greed--what happens when a producer begs the incompetent for money so he or she can work with the arrogant on a movie that the studio will then insist it can't sell for whatever cockamamie reason. Art is the accident that happens after the forces of commerce conspire to tank it.
Just look at Fight Club. 20th Century Fox greenlit the movie because it meant the reteaming of Brad Pitt and David Fincher, whose previous picture together, Se7en, grossed some $400 mil worldwide. It didn't take a genius to OK Fight Club, but when Fincher and Linson turned in the film, Fox execs so detested the brutal, scabrous movie they exited the screening room a corpsely shade of white. To this day, Linson blames its poor box-office take on the "ill-conceived, one-dimensional" ad campaign concocted by Bob Harper, Fox's head of marketing. Only after it reached DVD did Fight Club do any real business; in fact, the movie Fox's higher-ups hated actually made the studio some cash. Today, Linson likes to call Fox "an incompetent brothel."
Then again, as he points out, it's the producer's job to blame everybody else for a movie's failure.
Linson likes talking about the movie business; most producers do. See, that's really the only time they get noticed--outside, that is, of Entertainment Weekly or Variety, which seem to think it takes a genius to OK a Spider-Man. "After all, it's Sam Raimi that directed Spider-Man, not Laura Ziskin," says Linson, referring to that movie's producer and an old nemesis of his back at Fox. "There's a confusion in the way the press handles these things and the way they build up executives. They give them way too much credit and way too much blame."
That's why producers, among them Lynda Obst and Julia Phillips and Peter Guber, write books about producing movies: to make themselves as large as the screens upon which their movies play. In some cases, they even make movies about themselves: Robert Evans, former head of Paramount, will soon be seen and heard in The Kid Stays in the Picture, a feature-length version of his autobiography that plays like the world's most glamorous infomercial...or eulogy.
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 how he 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 Times sequel, 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 Times to Casualties of War, from Melvin & Howard to This Boy's Life, from Car Wash to 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?"