On a Bender
Lawrence Bender may be 40, but as producer of Quentin Tarantino's films, plus Fresh, Good Will Hunting, and the upcoming Renee Zellwegger starrer A Price Above Rubies, he's been at the center of what's galvanized and distinguished young Hollywood in the '90s.
Lawrence Bender cracks opens his fortune cookie, unfurls the crinkled paper strip, and grins slowly as he reads: "Nothing succeeds without hope." No wonder--he's the embodiment of that modest wisdom. A phenomenal late bloomer, Bender spent his youth trying and failing at civil engineering, acting and dancing, among other endeavors, before achieving groundbreaking success as the producer of such long shot, off-the-beaten-track movies as Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown--as well as the cult favorite From Dusk Till Dawn, directed by Robert Rodriguez, the unjustly overlooked super-indie Fresh, directed by Boaz Yakin, Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, and Yakin's film A Price Above Rubies. Not everything Bender's done has been stellar--Four Rooms and Killing Zoe fall on the more irritating side of aggressively independent filmmaking. But he has scored so consistently with his projects, he finally swallowed the particular pride he'd taken in living small to swap his 10-year-old Toyota for a new Mercedes and his sparsely furnished bachelor apartment for a pricey Bel Air spread.
As Bender and I chow down in a defiantly downscale Thai food dive on the dodgier end of Sunset, I ask the soft-spoken, friendly, diffident producer to share his perspective on the Young Hollywood he runs with despite being, strictly speaking, too old for the part.
STEPHEN REBELLO: You're by far the oldest person being featured in this Young Hollywood issue. Does being an Elder Statesman of Hip mean you're cool for life or just terminally immature?
LAWRENCE BENDER: [Laughing] Whoops. I'm not that young anymore, am I? I guess I am part of the new breed, though I'm certainly no youngster anymore. It's kind of a cliche, but youth is a state of mind. I'm 40, and I grew up in an era where you didn't trust anyone over 30. But now I look at people 15, 20 years younger than me and I feel I've got things to offer them.
Q: I'd love to hear your "State of the Union" speech on Young Hollywood.
A: Good God. I don't know. I'm not sure where the cutoff line is. I mean, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, Cameron Crowe--I don't even know how old they are. Twenties? Thirties? I just feel that I'm lucky to be working during this decade. The '90s are a great period for film in America. Think of Ang Lee, Quentin, Boaz Yakin, Richard Linklater, Alex Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez--there are so many unique minds who don't give a shit, whose films aren't necessarily about caring what the audience thinks. They're about caring what they think and trusting that that's going to translate. When I was an acting student, Lee Strasberg used to say, "If you play a part specifically to your personality, to the very core of who you are, the character you're playing will become universal. If you play a character generally, no one will get it." I think that's true for any art form. The young filmmakers of today, Young Hollywood if you want, are like: "This is my vision and you can't change that vision. I don't care what you think. I don't care what the studio thinks." Then, later, of course, you learn a little about how to compromise--in a good way Film is a very collaborative medium. If you're smart enough, you learn how to maintain your vision while drawing resourcefully from all the people around you. So, like I said, I'm lucky because if I'd gotten into the film business in the '80s, when it was about second-guessing and making movies everyone liked, I would have had a different career.
Q: Everyone talks about how the success of movies like Pulp Fiction, Secrets & Lies and The Full Monty is blurring the line between "independent" and "studio" movie. True?
A: Completely. There are definitely strictly independent movies. Gummo is one. Another is one I made, Fresh, a $3 million movie which Boaz Yakin directed. It had an all-black cast, it wasn't a "hood" movie, it didn't have a rap score, and it didn't even have domestic distribution until Miramax picked it up. And yet it's no surprise to me that the best Hollywood movie of its year was a big-budget studio movie with a big star--Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire. [That too] was a movie with a unique point of view.
Q: That reminds me, you have Jerry Maguire star Renee Zellweger in the new A Price Above Rubies, which, strangely enough, used to be called A Price Below Rubies. Why did "below" become "above"?
A: We originally called the movie A Price Below Rubies. The title is a variation on a Biblical quote in which the actual phrase is "a price far above rubies." Because there's a book with the title A Price Below Rubies, we changed our title so people wouldn't be confused, though legally we didn't necessarily have to. Either way, the title works. Boaz Yakin has made a beautiful movie. It's like a gem. Renee is wonderful in it and so is Chris Eccleston, the great actor who was in Jude. It's going to premiere at Sundance and will come out after that. We're not exactly sure when.
Q: You're fairly sanguine about movies in the '90s, aren't you?
A: Yes, in fact I think the '90s are sort of embodied in the story of Good Will Hunting. Here you have a '90s Rocky situation, where two guys, Matt [Damon] and Ben [Affleck], were offered all this money for their script. They believed in themselves, which can be a very difficult thing to do. To me, that's the thing of the '90s, in terms of directors, actors, creators of film: people who believe in their own vision. Matt and Ben had a vision, believed in it, stuck with it and had to suffer for a few years, but it's paid off big.
Q: I loved Jerry Maguire and I liked Good Will Hunting, but it seems to me that much of the "vision" of young moviemakers is a bunch of half-remembered, half-stolen imagery, ideas, dialogue from other movies.
A: Hmm. Ouch. Could be.
Q: Even though they're independent-minded, do you think Fresh and White Man's Burden were the movies you hoped they would be?
A: Fresh is. It's one of my very favorite movies I've ever made. White Man's Burden I'm proud of. The performances were great. Our hearts were in the right place. We made a mistake in getting so tied up with the social conscience of the movie that the story itself got sacrificed. We needed a more complex story. It was a spark in my life to have been at the march on the U.N. building, and a march in Washington with my parents, who were civil rights activists and therapists. Things seemed simple to me as a young kid. War is bad, peace is good, big industry and pollution are bad. White Man's Burden suffered from some of that.
Q: Do you and Quentin Tarantino ever check out some of the lousy, derivative movies Tarantino's work has inspired, and feel in any way responsible? If I have to watch one more movie with sexy lowlifes arguing pop culture references--
A: [Laughs] I'm never going to go on record about which of those movies I think are bad. I don't want to diss any other filmmakers, because just getting a movie made is amazing in itself. But, I will say, Yeah, it's a false perception that you can "do" a Quentin movie. It's one thing to be inspired by him. I imagine, but I don't know, Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights, was inspired by Quentin. He made what is, to me, a very original, amazing movie. I'd never call it a Quentin rip-off because it's his own thing and he has an original voice. But it's in the same universe as Quentin's movies or Scorsese's, in the same way that Manet, Picasso, Miro are all impressionistic painters.
Q: Boogie Nights is an example of a movie that some people in the business get all hot and bothered by, but real world audiences don't care as much about.
A: Lots of times, a movie is seen 20 years later and then people realize it's one of the best movies of its time.
Q: And lots of times, highly praised movies are seen 20 years later and then people go, What were we thinking?
A: If I see a movie and like it, and the audience doesn't like it, I'm like, Well, that's what makes horse races. There are people who draw from a similar well and it's fine because they're all creative. And then there are those who are copycats. There's nothing you can do about it.
Q: No, but there's plenty you can think about it.
A: Well, what I would say to filmmakers, if I may be so bold or so arrogant, is to draw inspiration from other filmmakers, but go to the place in your own gut where everything is nothing. That's a very Zen thing to say, but that place of nothing is where real creativity comes out of. It's also the scariest place to be. It's OK to be scared. Being scared is really a good thing. It's being scared of being scared that's bad. Being scared of walking through your fear, going to a place of true creativity--that's what an artist is, that's what he does. If you do that, then being inspired by your contemporaries or people from the past is really great.
Q: Tarantino's movies, his world, seems very much not a thing to imitate, because you really can't
A: We get scripts [submitted to us] all the time where I go, Why would I want to make a movie like that when I can make a real Quentin movie with Quentin? The thing that happens with everyone--with actors, with directors--also happens, I now realize, with producers. Agents and other people who send material to you go, Oh, Lawrence Bender--we have this really edgy movie about a serial killer that everyone passed on, let's send it to him. They don't understand. I have a whole world of things I want to do. An agent probably wouldn't have sent me Good Will Hunting.
Q: What happens when Quentin hits you with an idea and you go, "What is he thinking?"
A: [Laughs] Well, it hasn't happened yet. He's so talented, I think it'll be a cold day in hell when he comes to me with a project he wants to write and direct and I say, "You know, Quentin, I don't think so." Ill tell you something that's so wonderful about our relationship. When we were shooting Pulp Fiction, we had a big argument where Quentin was saying, "Forget the shot! We don't have the time or the money!" and I said, "We've got the time! I don't give a shit about the money! It's a good shot for the movie!" Our director of photography came up to us and was like, "What's wrong with you guys? Who's the director and who's the producer here?" Quentin and I work out of both sides of our brain.
Q: What else can you say about the dynamic between you two?
A: It's like being married. We're extremely close. We don't always share every detail of our intimate life with each other, but we know each other very well. There's just a bottom-line trust factor. A lot of times in partnerships, people try to hold onto as much as they can of their own power. We learned early on that by pushing the other person's power, it comes back even bigger to you. It's a bond. No one can get between us. Shit can happen, we can do stuff that can hurt each other, we can get into a fight, but we always know that, at the end of the day, it wasn't meant that way. We've been through so much together, he knows I will always tell him what I think. I'm not a "yes" man.
Q: So, when producer Jane Hamsher wrote in her book Killer Instinct that her partner, producer Don Murphy, said you've only got a career as long as you've got your teeth in Tarantino's butt, that was unfair?
A: [Laughs] That's right.
Q: How does it feel having people call you a 'jackal" and "a fucking former ballerina," as Hamsher wrote?
A: It's weird. I don't get that much press. It's not like I walk down the street and people go, "Look, there goes Lawrence Bender." I don't like when people get snotty about me in the press. I don't know what I've done to deserve it, personally. Certainly, this person who wrote that book is a person who's got an ax to grind in her own life. It's a drag to have that shit written, but I think it just makes her look stupid. I mean, she had nothing better to do than to write this stuff? I think she may have met me twice, you know what I mean? So it's, like, stupid. Look, I was down for so many years. All my 20s and all my early 30s, I was just struggling as an actor, a dancer, a filmmaker. But being down so long, my feet are planted pretty firmly on the ground. Who knows what would have happened to me if this had happened earlier in life? It's nice having success, but I take it in stride.
Q: Do some actors who come in to read for you guys pitch their performances, maybe even their dress and attitudes, to what they think Tarantino wants?
A: When any actor comes in to read, Quentin is always there. He's a real actor's director. He's an actor himself. I'm an actor. If an actor comes in like that, Quentin gives them great adjustments. It's an actor talking to another actor. In Quentin's movies, though, the acting is not over-the-top. The dialogue is heightened, but the acting is actually very real. In a reading, he's looking for very real, naturalistic performances--almost hyperreality--because the performances need to be extremely personal and real. Minnie Driver's audition for Good Will Hunting was one of the handful of really great, memorable auditions I've ever seen.
Q: What was it like?
A: Five guys in the room: me, [coproducer] Chris Moore, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Gus Van Sant. Minnie came in and started reading with Matt and he was like, "Oh, OK, I'm just going to start reading with another person." It was a really good script and it was Gus Van Sant, so lots of good people wanted to come in. Matt wasn't ready for somebody who was going to be so good. It was like you could see him going, "I'd better be good, too!" They read the scene where he tells her he doesn't love her, and when they finished the scene, there was absolute silence. It was like when you're in the movie theater and you're crying, but you don't want to look at the person next to you, so you go into your own little intimate world. All five of us had a little tear in our eye and were embarrassed to look at each other. We all knew what just happened was extraordinary and we didn't want to break the moment. We all said, "We've got our gal."
Q: Is it easier to revive the career of an established actor or to create a new star?
A: Depends. They're different tasks. One isn't easier or harder. Quentin and I talk about this all the time and it's evolved into kind of a philosophy. Maybe because he and I both come from acting, we treat actors like stars, we treat stars like actors. I mean, I can't take credit for making Matt Damon a star, but I'm very involved with Good Will Hunting and I had a lot to do with that, in terms of casting, shaping the script. Matt's going to come out of that a fucking star. What's great about him is that he is a star who can act. And he's a very grounded guy. Both he and Ben are incredibly talented and deserve the hype, unlike a lot of other people. Then, there's George Clooney in From Dusk Till Dawn, where Robert Rodriguez shot him like he was shooting a woman, made him look macho and beautiful, and though he was a star on "ER," he hadn't really crossed over yet and this made him into a superstar. What's really exciting is that Bridget Fonda, who I've always loved, is definitely going to pop because of Jackie Brown. From the beginning Quentin said, "I know how to do this with Bridget." With this movie, she just pops off the screen. There's something terribly exciting about doing that with someone who already has a body of work behind her.
Q: Who in Young Hollywood has to pop soon but hasn't already?
A: Good question. Quentin and I don't usually have conversations about actors who are just about to explode or just need a chance to be big. When we're casting a movie, it becomes more about, "Here's the character. Who would be great for it?"
Q: You've resuscitated the careers of John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Uma Thurman. Who's next on the list?
A: There are a few actresses I really want to work with, all people I took acting classes with or who taught me in the early '80s. Jessica Lange was in my acting class after she'd done King Kong and no one thought she could act. I've always wanted to make a movie with Jessica Lange. Ellen Burstyn, too. I did A Midsummer Night's Dream with her, playing Cobweb to her Queen Titania and I really want to do work with her again. And I'd love to do movies with Sandra Seacat, one of my acting teachers, and my other one, Penny Allen--who coached Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, Mark Wahlberg on Boogie Nights, and Harvey [Keitel] on several movies. So, it's basically really strong, amazingly talented women with whom I'd really love to develop something.
Q: Good Will Hunting was nearly a big studio movie, but got put into turnaround. How did it come your way?
A: January, 1996, we were all snowed in at the Four Seasons bar during a blizzard, after the New York Film Critics' Awards. Kevin Spacey was there doing William Hurt imitations, Mike Figgis was there, just a really fun, great group. Harvey [Weinstein] leaned over to me, very excited, drinking champagne, and said, "Lawrence, I've got my next great script, it's my favorite movie at Miramax, and you're the first person I'm asking to come onto it." I read the script and it moved me so much, I cried. It wasn't even one of those polished, professional scripts that "looks" right. This one was fresh, new. It reminded me a little of reading Reservoir Dogs. It wasn't even always typed correctly, but it had an innocence, a rawness that made it all the more endearing. It's not about the package, it's about the content. Earlier, there was this whole government conspiracy plot that got changed before I got the script. When I got it, I worked with Matt and Ben on strengthening the characters and working on the arc. I learned a lot. Sometimes I was wrong, sometimes right. Out of this collaboration was a really beautiful movie. Every person on it had these amazing talents that were able to come out. It was a small crew, we shot in two cities, nobody had any entourages, nobody had ego. For me, all the stars lined up.
Q: What about other new writers and directors who you think really have the stuff?
A: I just saw some stuff from this French director Jan Kounen, who did the movie Doberman, and it's so visual. I can't wait to see the next movie from Geoffrey Wright, who did Romper Stomper--an awesome small movie. This guy Trey Parker, who is one of the creators of "South Park" and who did Orgazmo, is going to be huge. Again: original minds, original visions.
Q: That's why it depresses me when I hear that Tarantino is going to spend his time doing something like a movie version of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." or a remake of Modesty Blaise. Enough already with the bad TV and comic books. What's original and visionary about that?
A: I know what you mean, but let me put it this way. I think Modesty Blaise can be really, really cool. I don't think Quentin's going to direct it, but he might. There are all kinds of reasons to make different movies at different times. There are cinematic reasons. There's the need to tell a certain kind of story. Quentin likes to just be able to tell a good, entertaining yarn. There's nothing wrong with that. Jackie Brown, for instance, is sort of in the same universe as Dogs and Pulp Fiction, only not as much a "showcase" movie. There's a wonderful kind of soul romance to it and it's got some great characters and great dialogue, but there's more of a linear arc. It's a more mature movie, in a sense, but still has that kind of Tarantino fun. It's the movie Quentin wanted to make and, at the end of the day, that's what he does.
Q: Do you have heroes among producers of the past or the present?
A: It's not like I have a strong sense of who I want to be and attach that to Irving Thalberg. I don't even know how long I'll produce movies. The problem for me is that I'm just finding my way. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I was in college studying to be a civil engineer, I almost quit and went to chefs school. I graduated college and struggled for the next 13 years of my life, borrowing money, living hand to mouth. I learned pottery and almost opened my own place. It was tough not making any money, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I became a producer by default. I didn't make it as an actor or a dancer, though my heart was in it and, talentwise, I was good enough to work. Part of it is a roll of the dice, part of it is the way you look, the way you act in that moment. I actually produced my first movie because I wanted to act in it. Anyway, it's such a cliche, but now, I want to at least try to direct movies. But I won't do that until it's about an issue within my own life. Otherwise, I'll produce.
Q: So, then, departing from the great tradition, you didn't begin producing movies to have access to beautiful women?
A: [Laughs] Women? I can't even speak to that, it's so not, like, in my universe. I just can't imagine being in the position of being a producer to meet women. It's such a cliche and it was never my motivation. I'm involved with someone and have been for awhile, but when I wasn't, if I was working on a movie and was interested in someone, I'd wait until the movie was way done before I would hit on them. [Laughs] And then! See, when I was a dancer in my early 20s, I was one of the few straight guys in my class. I got hit on all the time by guys. At a certain point, I got so tired of it I was, like, "Stop hitting on me, man. Leave me the fuck alone!" But it made me think, "If this is what girls feel like when I hit on them, man, I don't want to make people feel that way."
Q: But don't tell me, Mr. Producer, that people don't try to get close to you for suspect reasons.
A: It becomes pretty apparent early on what the score is.
Q: So, what happens next?
A: At this point in my life, I'm really looking for things I can attach my heart to. I'm working on this amazing piece called Black and Blue, set back when Mayor Lindsey was running for re-election in New York City and to get more of the black, Democratic, civil rights votes, he decided he needed more blacks on the police force. He sent trucks to Harlem, promising, basically, immediate jobs and signed up a couple of hundred kids--street kids, drug pushers, tough kids--put them through a super-rushed training program, which had the same white, neo-Nazi, racist pigs who were hassling them in the streets training these guys. The kids were [mostly] set up, killed, went back to a life of crime, but a few made it. At Fox, I'm developing the non-musical Anna and the King of Siam, which was the inspiration for The King and I, which is a great romance. Chow Yun-Fat is going to play the king.
Q: Are you having any fun?
A: A blast. I am really, really lucky.
Stephen Rebello interviewed Gillian Anderson for the Dec./Jan. issue of Movieline.