By FRANK SWERTLOW
Producer-director Irwin Winkler celebrates his 30th anniversary as a movie maker this year with his latest film, MGM's "At First Sight."
He has come a long way from the mailroom at the William Morris Agency, where he began his career.
Winkler, 64, is the only producer to have three of his features listed on the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 films of all time. Winkler's films have received 12 Academy Awards and 45 nominations, and five of them "Rocky," "Raging Bull," "The Right Stuff," "Goodfellas" and "They Don't Shoot Horses, Don't They?" were nominated for best picture. "Rocky" won the Oscar in 1976.
The first film Winkler produced was "Double Trouble," a 1967 release starring Elvis Presley. To make "Rocky," Winkler and his partner at the time, Robert Chartoff, mortgaged their homes when no studio would back the film. Winkler's biggest collaborator has been director Martin Scorsese. Together, they have made five films, including "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas."
In 1990, Winkler moved behind the cameras, making his directorial debut with "Guilty By Suspicion," a drama starring Robert DeNiro. "At First Sight" is the fourth film Winkler has directed.
Question: Like many successful people in Hollywood, you started your show business career in the William Morris Agency mailroom. What did you learn there?
Answer: Nothing. All I learned was how to open envelopes for $40 a week. It was a starting point.
Q: You have been an extremely successful producer. Why did you add directing to your resume?
A: When I did "Guilty By Suspicion," I felt personally committed to the character and I didn't want to turn it over to someone else. Bob DeNiro (the star) was very supportive and urged me to direct it. Also, it was a time in my life where I wanted to change things.
Q: What is the biggest difference between producing and directing?
A: As a producer you can be very involved in a story before you make a picture. At that point, the producer holds the gun at the director, but once you start filming, the director turns the gun on the producer and cocks it.
Q: So you are a control freak?
A: Yes. I want to do it this way. Being the producer and the director gives me a lot of control.
Q: What does Irwin Winkler the producer say to Irwin Winkler the director when he wants to go over budget?
A: Irwin Winkler the director hasn't gone over budget, yet. I am aware of the financial commitments.
Q: What's the hardest part of being a director?
A: Basically, it is to keep your point of view, what you believe in for the film. You are bombarded by so many opinions opinions of the actors, which have to be considered, opinions of the screenwriter, and your own feelings for the film. I always have felt that making a film, more than anything else, is a collaborative effort. You have to make sure your vision is coordinated with everybody else's.
Q: What's the hardest part of being a producer?
A: Protecting the director's vision.
Q: But what about the problems of raising money as a producer?
A: I never had any. I always used the studio and that was for all of my 40 films. I preferred to work on the script and not have to go out and start selling off the (distribution) rights. If you are dealing with someone in Bangkok, his wife will read the script and say, "Madonna should be in the movie." I let the studio do all the financing.
Q: Hollywood doesn't seem to be interested in mature directors. The studios are always looking for the young, hip director who appeals to the youth culture. How does this affect you?
A: I develop my own material, and I am no competition for a lot of the young directors who come from school or music videos. They do the movies they want to make. A movie like "Armageddon" is great to watch, but I don't know how to make that stuff. I do know how to make movies like "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas" and "Guilty By Suspicion." I am more literary in my tastes. I don't compete with that (younger) group.
Q: Do you think Hollywood will ever reduce its emphasis on films aimed at teen-age males?
A: I am afraid it will continue. Advertisers in television feel they must capture youth, and if they do, they will have them for a long time. The record business has been controlled by young people. And if you want a hit movie, you have to have repeat business. And young people are essentially the only ones who see movies more than once. "Titanic" was a good movie, but it would not have had nearly the success it had without Leonardo DiCaprio. But not every movie costs $200 million to make, and it doesn't have to appeal to a young audience. Look at "Full Monty." Years ago, it was "Rocky."
Q: You studied American literature at New York University. How has that affected your movies?
A: I studied contemporary American fiction, which at the time was Faulkner, Dos Passos, Hemingway and Dreiser. I got a sensibility about telling stories in a very realistic way. It became my training and background. To me, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" was set in a realistic period, the '30s, raw reality.
Q: Were you surprised by the success of "Rocky"?
A: We kept it in a certain budget range and we liked (Sylvester) Stallone and worked on the script with him. We thought it would be a nice little film that we could make cheap enough, about $1 million, but I never thought it would take off and win an Oscar.
Q: Today, a film like "Rocky" would cost at least $100 million. Are you shocked at the cost of making movies today?
A: It's madness. "At First Sight" cost $38 million and was shot in New York. It's probably the lowest-cost film shot in New York of that scale, but with major stars and a cast and crew. "Meet Joe Black" cost $90 million and there is nothing more in production values. This (inflated production cost) wouldn't happen if a studio were more cautious.
Q: Disney's new animated film, "Dinosaurs," reportedly has already cost $200 million and it's not completed. Will we see a $1 billion budget some day?
A: I never thought it would reach $100 million. Then it became $200 million. In the past, when somebody got up to $200 million, it was never intended to happen. There were always some unprecedented elements. "Waterworld" was shot on water, which is uncontrollable. "Titanic" used special effects that never had been done before. It's kind of scary to think somebody wants to make a movie that starts at $200 million.
Q: So why did you decide to do a small movie like "At First Sight" when so much of Hollywood is geared to big-budget movies?
A: "Rocky" was a tiny movie that became big. I felt in this film it would be interesting to see what goes on in a man's mind who couldn't see, but suddenly was bestowed with sight. How would he respond to a world he had never seen before? You would think someone who was blind would want to see all these beautiful things. But in 200 years, there are only 20 cases of people who are suddenly sighted and all had very tragic consequences. There were two or three cases in the United States and we couldn't get anyone to talk to us.
Q: What's the origin of "At First Sight"?
A: We took Dr. Oliver Sacks' story ("To See and Not to See") and saw a glimmer of a love story. The idea was to surround a medical journey with more of a love story. "Rocky" was a love story. He won the girl.
Q: Making films is a hard, exhausting business. Why after 30 years do you keep doing it?
A: I love making movies and it pays me, too.
Q: If a film student came to you, what single piece of wisdom would pass on?
A: Learn to read, study American literature. Going to film school isn't a particularly great learning process. It's not something I ever thought about to become a producer or a director. You have to know how to tell a story and have a sense of drama. You get that from reading.
Title: Chief Executive, Winkler Films
Born: Brooklyn, N.Y., 1935
Education: Bachelor's degree, New York University
Most Admired Person: Winston Churchill
Turning Point in Career: Producing his first film, the Elvis Presley feature "Double Trouble" in 1967. Also, directing his first film, "Guilty By Suspicion," in 1991.
Hobbies: Skiing, tennis and golf
Personal: Married, three sons
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