David Permut: By Permut Only
For a guy who once tried to arrange a closed-circuit TV fight between a man and a great white shark, making two films with Kim Basinger isn't that big a deal. Meet producer and non-stop schmooze-meister David Permut, a man who thrives on buzz, rejection and the insanity of doing several movies at one time.
A few years ago, producer David Permut circulated a now-famous videotape to every studio head in town. On it, the producer, best known for Blind Date, Dragnet and 29th Street, appears looking very producer-like, in a blue blazer and Ray Ban's. Beside him sits a screenwriter. On a table before them sit The Hollywood Reporter, Daily Variety and Hollywood's three politically correct varieties of bottled water. For 10 minutes or so, the pair pitch a synopsis for a comedy project called The Favor. Permut concludes the tape by slowly removing his sunglasses, flashing his big blues for the camera, and confiding, "Of course, we're bringing this project to you first because of our very special relationship." Over this, an "800" number flashes on the screen, suggesting that operators are standing by to clinch the deal with whoever calls first. The whole show is goofy, cynical and wise to itself. And it worked. Paramount bought the pitch, even it the movie's never been made.
Front-page stories about David Permut appear with improbable regularity in Hollywood's trade papers. "Permut Prepping Ambitious Slate," shouts a Variety head line, with an accompanying article that goes on to tout 30-odd Permut projects-to-be, decorated with such names as Michelle Pfeiffer, Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn and John Candy. In another piece--one appearing days after the fateful opening of his $26-million train wreck, The Marrying Man--Permut is celebrated for his new three-year, nonexclusive production agreement with New Line. Still another item marks the dubious achievement of his having signed hate-and-gross-out-monger Howard Stern to star in movies. Still another speaks about his two-hour CBS incest-and-murder movie, Breaking the Silence, that premiered last January, with perhaps others to follow. There is just tons of news about Permut. He boasts development deals at studios all over town. His recent fall releases were the nautical family-romp Captain Ron, with Martin Short and Kurt Russell, and the thriller Consenting Adults, starring Kevin Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Next up for him will be The Temp, another thriller, with Timothy Hutton, Faye Dunaway and Lara Flynn Boyle, plus Three of Hearts, in which Billy Baldwin, Kelly Lynch and Sherilyn Fenn are the three players in a bisexual romantic tangle.
Nothing against the guy, you understand, but why so much hubbub and so many deals for a moviemaker who has yet to hit a high hard one out of the park? Hoping to find out, I rendezvous with Permut early one morning at L.A.'s poshest health club. You know the scene: valet parking, Evian-fueled sweat, three-picture deals cut in the steam room. Permut's publicists have asked me to page him on my arrival--fans and detractors alike find amusement in the producer's enchantment with the exercise of celebrity. After enough minutes have passed to allow the paging its full effect, a compact, tanned, buzzed. David-Letter-man-meets-Tony-Curtis type in a designer denim shirt, khakis and white Reeboks cuts toward me across the lobby, schmoozing all the way. He pauses to press flesh with actor James Farentino, and then to crack up one of Hollywood's more powerful agents. Jeez, I think, this guy's a politician on a one-man stump; if there were a mother on hand to offer up her baby, he'd probably swallow the poor kid whole.
Now Permut spots me, grins and half-shrugs in a way that seems to say, Hey-I'm-only-working-my-relationships. He introduces himself warmly while the maitre d' ushers us in the direction of the best table in one of the club's three restaurants. But before we get to our table, Permut stops to greet a pack of studio executives who, though they start in trying to sell him on what great things they're doing, are soon listening to his monologue about how he's just landed his Richard Nixon bio-flick at Disney, may be to star Tom Hanks. Then he starts pitching them a Janis Joplin biography that's one of his oldest, favorite unmade movie projects. "Hey, I sell the sizzle, not the steak," he jokes, when one of them cracks wise about his deal with Howard Stern. I recall something one of Permut's past collaborators told me: "David's like a relative you sort of can't help but like but who you know you shouldn't do business with." And something else, from a studio boss: "Beware. There's no there there."
As we sit, Permut orders grapefruit juice and tells me he's been at the club since 5:30 a.m. "They say that I live the business and it's true that I don't sleep much. Every morning, I'm here exercising on the stair machine for literally two hours, reading all the newspapers, the trade papers, a script if I get ambitious--" Breaking off, he holds up a screenplay for Yo, Alice!, a modern urban musical based on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that he hopes soon to film. "I just got this first draft and I think we're in very good shape," he confides.
Permutspeak blends movie-executive schmooze with carny-barker hucksterism, borscht-belt comic rat-a-tat-tat, Hollywood name-dropping and Beverly Hills agent ooze--skills the late-thirtyish producer honed during stints on the way to where he is now. (More on this later.) "You probably heard me talking just now," says Permut, "about the Howard Stern project--but don't print me calling it The Adventures of Fartman, that's just a little joke-- and also about the Joplin project, which I've been getting rejections on for years. I call that project my Gandhi." He goes on, strictly on output just now, teeming with product to push and a personal myth to shape.
"I didn't plan on making four movies at once in Portland, Oregon, New York, Los Angeles and Puerto Rico, but when people start pushing green buttons, I'm not one to hold up my hand to stop them," he says, draining his juice glass and ordering another.
"Luckily, I've got terrific partners on these projects, wonderful line producers who oversee the films on a day-to-day basis."
For those searching for a common thread to producer Permut's choice of material, it should be transparent that he's a populist, grab-bag-style moviemaker. Comments David Friendly, a longtime Permut colleague who runs Imagine Films Entertainment Inc., "I doubt that David would make a movie unless he could already see the poster in his head." Asserts Permut, "There are deals and there are films. I've done both and there's nothing wrong with either. When I say 'deals,' I mean deals on projects that are, say, popcorn movies. You check your brain at the box office, have a good time, escape, do your thing. Then, there are other movies that are thought-provoking. They go deeper." And those Permut productions would include what, exactly? "29th Street," he says, referring to the critically well-received, Capraesque comedy-drama starring Danny Aiello and Anthony LaPaglia. "It touches emotions, the human spirit. I sat there and got chills watching that movie."
Feeling more and more certain that Permut prefers talking to conversing, I listen as he unleashes more Permutisms. "Good material is always the bait that catches the fish, but it seems like the best projects are the ones with the most turbulent histories and that take longest to make. So, yes, at one point when these four new movies 'came together all at once,' it got a bit crazed. I'm not complaining. I look forward all my life to problems like being in New York with Three of Hearts and every night when I got back to the hotel, having to watch on cassette about two hours of the dailies of the three other movies shooting on three other locations. These movies represent years of a lot of people's lives, a lot of people looking at me disbelievingly and saying things like, 'You actually want to make a movie with a gay relationship in it?' I feel so strongly about Three of Hearts that I put up half the money to get it made. I fought to get all these pictures made."
Speaking of fights, I can't resist asking Permut about his particular tactics for dealing with other people's titanic egos. Like, for instance, actors' egos. The talent in his movies has included Richard Pryor, Danny Aiello, Bruce Willis, Faye Dunaway, Tim Hutton and Kim Basinger. The mind reels. "There are difficult personalities," he admits hesitantly, as if mapping out a strategy as he goes along. "Difficult actors, writers, producers, studios. I'm not going to volunteer who's on my short list. There's aggravation, tense moments, sure, but the bottom line is: my check. I get paid for this and, believe me, I'm paid a fair amount of money. I have a sense of humor about it.
We're not doing brain surgery here, we're not finding a cure for AIDS or for cancer. I mean, when you get down to it, just read the paper in the morning and it's obvious that we're just a pimple on the ass of the world. Fifty times a day, I tell myself I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
I wonder if he thought himself a lucky pimple during the shooting of the troubled The Marrying Man, which was rampant with skirmishes between Disney Studios, the director and the diva-like Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin. And, by the way, how does a man who boasts that one of his credos is "Burn me once, shame on you; burn me twice, shame on me," justify having done two movies with Kim Basinger?
"Let's say I have a keen sense of drama," he says, grinning. I persist. "Okay, let's take Blind Date," he says, finally, referring to the 1987 comedy that teamed Basinger with Bruce Willis. "I had read and fallen in love with a script by Dale Launer, who told me one night over dinner about his best friend who went out with a Beverly Hills hair dresser named Nina on whom the word was, 'Whatever you do, don't let her drink.' Dale's Blind Date script was born from that meeting and we had three studios vying for it. Jeff Sagansky at TriStar paid such an unprecedented price for it that the newspapers did an article about Dale's new four-story high-tech Santa Monica condo that TriStar bought."
Actually, the answer to how Permut allowed himself to tangle with Kim Basinger more than once may be that he didn't quite tangle with her the first time. Word has it that once director Blake Edwards became involved with Blind Date, he brought with him his own producer and associate producer. "I don't think David Permut showed up on the set more than once or twice," insists a source close to that production.
"Essentially, when Blake Edwards came on, David was booted off and I'd wager Permut never met Kim on that movie." Launer, who considers Permut a friend, despite what he terms their "many fallings-out," observes, "Blind Date is a terrible movie, one which I got kicked off. That not only offended me, but I also thought David should be willing to go down in flames with me. I felt unsupported."
Permut defends himself. "There might have been a time in my career where I didn't have the clout that I gained along the way. We all make sacrifices at points in our careers. Sometimes, you swallow hard, move on and hope for the best. Was the movie better than Dale's script? Was it worse? As you say, it was 'A Blake Edwards Production.' When I look back, I think, 'Maybe I should have or could have done this or that.' One never knows."
And what about The Marrying Man? Recalls a Permut associate who ran into him at a party just after the shooting stopped, "The affable side of him, the side that shrugs off any abuse, had completely disappeared. He was fuming like a bull in a red room. It was refreshing to see."
Permut clearly doesn't relish the prospect of rehashing the whole hootenanny, but comments, "I've been involved in business in certain circum stances that have been written about--problems, let's say--that have plagued a number of my pictures. One specifically. We both know which one I'm talking about. I've never talked about it. The only thing I will ever say about it which is absolutely, 100 percent the truth is that I learned more on The Marrying Man than on any other picture that I've produced. I really don't want to get into it more." Permut rattles his copy of Newsweek that sits on the seat next to him, and adds: "Look, life is tough. It's tougher for others, perhaps.
Each individual has their own thing they're dealing with. Sometimes we're all in terrible situations, whether it's in business or whatever, and I like to feel that I look at the best, most optimistic aspect of something. I mean, I get chills when I hear Louis Armstrong doing 'What a Wonderful World.' That's what it's about for me: hopes, dreams."
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