Howard Rosenman is a Hollywood veteran, with forty years experience as a producer, and a mightily impressive filmography. He's experienced highs and lows, the changing face of the industry, various kinds of production roles, and success and failure, and he's a man who is not only responsible for smash hit entertainments, but also intimate dramas and a series of documentaries dedicated to improving tolerance and understanding of issues relating to gay life and HIV sufferers and AIDS victims. In the first part of a two-part interview, I spoke to Howard about how he got started in the movie business, befriending Joel Schumacher and working with him on SPARKLE (1976), how the 2012 remake came about, what lessons he has learned as a producer, which of his personal qualities enabled him to become a good producer, how he chooses his projects and how he feels about the common misconceptions of what a producer does.
How did you get started in the movie business?
It's a long story! In 1967, I was in medical school. My parents are Israeli, and I volunteered for the Six Day War as an extern, which is an intern without a medical degree. Over there, thirty days after the War, I met Leonard Bernstein whom I had known previously in New York. He recognized me and invited me to a concert he was doing with Isaac Stern - Mahler's 'Resurrection Symphony.' At the after-party, he asked me if I would be interested in being a gofer on a documentary that was being made about him conducting the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra in Judea and Samaria for the Israeli Defense Forces. I said yes, and we got to know each other a little better. He saw that I was a storyteller and convinced me to eventually abandon my medical studies.
Five years later, my girlfriend Kitty Hawks (the daughter of Howard Hawks), was working for Ron Bernstein at ABC (he's now a very important literary agent at ICM). She showed me a manuscript called 'Great White,' which was about a killer shark off the coast of Long Island. I liked it and thought it would make a great movie. I decided it would be the only favor I was going to ask of Barry Diller. He loved the idea of the story and brought me out to California. Unfortunately, we couldn't get the rights because the writer's agents wanted much more money than we were willing to offer. ABC was now making a hundred of these films a year. Both Spielberg and Michael Crichton got their starts making films for this unit.
Barry then introduced me to Richard Bassman, the Head of ABC Circle Entertainment, who was making 2-hour, not 90-minute, 'Movies of the Week'. The head of the division looked at the 'Great White' manuscript and said "We only make films that people would go out of their house on a Saturday night to see, and this isn't one of them." A week later 'Great White' was sold for the then unheard of $450,000 to Richard Zanuck and David Brown. Spielberg directed the film version for them. It was called JAWS (1975). Barry Diller called me and told me "You obviously know what you're doing with material. Go find a piece of material, bring it to me and I will make it."
Ron Bernstein was working with Daniel Melnick and David Susskind at the time, and he found a piece of material called ISN'T IT SHOCKING? (1973). It was about a guy who goes around killing people with a electro- cardiograph machine. Deanne Barkley, the head of the division that made the 90-minute 'Movies of the Week', liked it and it was one of John Badham's first movies. He later directed SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) and WARGAMES (1983). We had a great cast (Alan Alda, Ruth Gordon, Will Geer, Edmund O’Brien, Lloyd Nolan, Dorothy Tristan and Louise Lasser) and it did very well in the ratings. It was a really witty movie. Ron Bernstein and I became partners and made a lot of TV films. We started a company for Robert Stigwood called RSO Films. Stigwood was an Australian entrepreneur who managed the careers of Andrew Lloyd Weber & Tim Rice, The Bee-Gees and Eric Clapton. We made films like KILLER BEES (1974) with Gloria Swanson, Kate Jackson and Eddie Albert (Curtis Harrington directing) and ALL TOGETHER NOW(1975), which was Randal Kleiser's first film. He later did GREASE (1978). I then introduced Stigwood to Barry Diller who by now was the Head of Paramount Pictures. Out of that relationship came SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE - humongous hits for Diller and Paramount.
He was a window dresser at the time I met him in New York in 1969. We became friends. He is, and remains, a great raconteur and anecdotalist. I remember being on Long Island together on a really hot day listening to The Supremes on a loop. We both loved R&B. His displays on Mondays in the windows of Bendel's on 57th Street and 5th Avenue became like fashion underground events. All the fashion types would come and watch Joel create his displays. Joel stripped the mannequins, dumped them in vats that had various shades of coffee and twisted them into various shapes. This was before Benetton created their multi-culti look. One night he put three mannequins in red dresses in the window and one of them had paillettes all over them. One of the sparkling pailletes fell on the floor and as I passed it to Joel, it glinted in the light. I said to Joel "We've got to make a movie about these three girls in the red dresses and call it 'Sparkle'.'' We both really wanted to go to Hollywood and make movies.
I wrote a treatment, based on the relationships Berry Gordy had with Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. We sold it to Robert Stigwood, for $5, 000. We then hired a writer called Lonne Elder III, who had written SOUNDER (1972) and been nominated for an Oscar. By this time I had also started a company with Stigwood called RSO Films, and made quite a few TV films with Ron Bernstein, including KILLER BEES. While we were making that film in the Napa Valley (we used the house that Francis Ford Coppola now lives in), Lonne Elder's script came in and I read it. It wasn't any good. Joel was doing the production design on KILLER BEES for me after doing the costumes for ISN'T IT SHOCKING, and he elevated those movies with his work. I remember us driving in the Napa Valley together and me telling him "Our movie will never happen unless you write it." He wrote a new script on spec and we sold it to John Calley at Warners.
Calley called Joel and I into his office after he had read the 400-page script. He told us "I'm going to make this movie under the following four conditions: 1. We're going to cut the movie down to 110 pages. 2. Curtis Mayfield is going to do the music. 3. Sam O'Steen is going to direct it. 4. The budget is going to be $1.6 million. Boys, take a walk around the block, think about it and come back and give me your answer. "
Joel said he was willing to step aside as director. He had wanted to do it. Sam O'Steen was one of the greatest editors in the world. He had edited COOL HAND LUKE (1967), THE GRADUATE (1967), ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971), CATCH-22 (1970) and CHINATOWN (1974). He was both John Calley and Mike Nichols' favorite editor. Sam had just directed a four-hour musical for CBS TV called QUEEN OF THE STARDUST BALLROOM (1975) with Maureen Stapleton. Marilyn and Alan Bergman (Barbra Streisand's writers) had done the music and Calley wanted them for SPARKLE. Curtis Mayfield ended up doing the music because he had just done a deal with Warners. I had wanted Ashford and Simpson. We decided the film could be done on that budget. We saw Curtis Mayfield as our Barbra Streisand. We told him we accepted his conditions, and within three weeks we were on the lot making the movie. Irene Cara (FAME, 1980), Lonette McKee (THE COTTON CLUB, 1984) and Philip Michael Thomas (TV's 'Miami Vice') had all never made a movie before.
Can you talk about the 2012 remake?
We shot the film in October and November 2011 in Detroit. The original film was about three black girls in Harlem in 1956 who become a girl group. The new movie is about three black girls in Detroit in 1968. Salim Akil, who directed JUMPING THE BROOM (201) and created 'The Game' for TV, directed the film. His wife Mara Brook Akil wrote the screenplay. She wrote the TV series 'Girlfriends'. It's a fabulous movie and is better than the original. It's a very different film and it stars the late Whitney Houston as the mother of the three girls. Jordin Sparks plays Sparkle, Carmen Ejogo plays Sister and Tika Sumpter plays Delores. Those roles were played by Irene Cara, Lonette McKee and Dwan Smith in the original. Derek Luke (ANTWONE FISHER, 2002) is also in the cast of the new film. We used five Curtis Mayfield songs and R.Kelly wrote three new songs for us.
What were some of the first lessons you learned as a producer?
This business is about 99.9% rejection. I teach a class on how to pitch movies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and what I tell my students is "Because so many people will reject everything that you do, it means that there is always one schmuck somewhere who will buy it!" It's all about tenacity. Networking is also key as well.
What personal qualities do you feel you have that have enabled you to be a good producer?
I'm tenacious. I never take no for an answer. Every project that I have worked on has been rejected a thousand times, and I've made thirty movies! I'm hopefully beginning to understand story after forty years in the business. The three act structure and storytelling are the most important things to understand as a producer. I am able to recognize talent in writers, directors and actors. I'm able to network, and to charm and schmooze people. You're part pimp as producer, setting up people with other people on projects! And I'm stubborn, relentless, and most importantly, I'm passionate about what I'm doing.
How do you choose your projects?
Ideas are submitted to me, or I come up with the idea myself. FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1991) was a remake of an old Spencer Tracy movie that I liked. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1992) was a script by Joss Whedon that was submitted to me. THE MAIN EVENT (1979) was the idea of my partner Renee Missel. RESURRECTION (1980) was an idea of mine. GROSS ANATOMY (1989) was based on my years in medical school. SPARKLE was of course an idea of Joel's and mine.
Do you get frustrated by the image of producers as people who sometimes meddle and prevent directors or writers from achieving their visions?
If the movie's a hit, the director gets the credit. If the movie's a flop, it's the producer's fault!
Do you feel that the role of a producer is misunderstood?
You can't make a film without a producer. He's the first one in and the last one out. He's the one who has to carry it all, put all the elements together and has to keep it going. Most movies take an average seven years to develop. Some of them can take twenty. Some take one year to develop. Unless you have the tenacity, the passion and the willpower to make the film, it won't happen.
How important is a good working relationship with the director on a movie?
Once the director gets on the set, he has all the power. According to the DGA union and Director's Guild rules, he can throw the producer off the set if he likes. A good relationship with the director is very important. It doesn't often happen that an unhappy relationship results in a good movie.
Part two of the interview.
Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2012. All rights reserved.
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