Whichever way you look at it, Harvey Weinstein is a legendary figure in the movie world. His original production and distribution company, Miramax, was instrumental in reshaping the landscape of American independent film in the late 1980s and into the ’90s, ushering in such landmark movies as Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. A passionate film lover and formidable Oscar season presence, Weinstein has been involved in all kinds of award-winning films, from Shakespeare In Love to The Lord of the Rings trilogy to last year’s Academy champ, The King’s Speech, executive produced under latest outfit, The Weinstein Company. This week, Weinstein serves as a producer and distributor on two critically-lauded films: My Week with Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams as the iconic Miss Monroe, and The Artist, Jean Dujardin’s silent movie smash that’s now wooing American audiences. The super-producer called in this week for an entertaining chat about his involvement in the projects, what drives him to make films, and how he sees this year’s Oscar derby.
Read on for the full interview, but first — we asked him to pick his five favorite films. “As long as they’re not any movie that I made,” Weinstein says. “I wanna stipulate that I will not talk about the movies that I’ve made, but I will do a top five of other movies. Otherwise,” he laughs, “they’ll be listing all of my movies and that’ll be the end of the list. We’d just list movies from Reservoir Dogs on and we’d be done. I’ll do the five favorite films, but tomorrow if somebody asks me I’ll probably change it. I change my list daily. It’s like a diner — these are the five specials today; tomorrow it’ll be something else.”
They Were Expendable (John Ford, 1945; 88% Tomatometer)
I’m in a total John Ford mood. I saw The Searchers again on Turner Classic Movies the other night and I just said, “Oh, I gotta go and see John Ford’s movies, like all over again.” The Searchers is such an obvious choice because everyone knows that one. I’m gonna put down They Were Expendable, which was a John Ford Movie…
Then I have to say — for the pure comedy — His Girl Friday. I love Cary Grant and the relationship he has with Rosalind Russell. The amount of conniving, you know… [laughs] It’s a complete and utter racket. It’s romance without a conscience, their relationship — or at least he doesn’t have a conscience. It just shows you that pure charm can win in the end.
And it’s one of the most rapid-fire films I’ve ever seen, in terms of dialog.
Peter Bogdanovich always said about Ten Little Indians — it’s been running in London for 50 years, and it’s three hours when you watch it on stage — he said that if Howard Hawks directed it, it’d be 26 minutes [Laughs] So I love that.
Two for the Road (Stanley Donen, 1967; 83% Tomatometer)
Toute Une Vie (And Now My Love) (Claude Lelouch, 1974; 60% Tomatometer)
I love all of Stanley Donen’s movies and I wanna put one of them in there. I’ll put Two for the Road, which I love. Audrey Hepburn, Stanley Donen’s movie. Those would be my five. Today. [Laughs] Tomorrow I’m gonna pick Claude Lelouch — And Now My Love. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that. It is amazing. It’s with an actress named Marthe Keller who made Bobby Deerfield with Al Pacino. And Now My Love is the story of two people who never meet until the end of the movie, and the protagonist is a kid who is a thief and gets sent to jail and learns how to use the camera in jail — and goes from making porno movies to making, you know, great movies, like Truffaut and Godard and Lelouch and the French new Wave. It’s really the best love story, and he’s an unsung hero of cinema, Claude Lelouch. Actually, that would be tied for Two for the Road — that way I get a sixth choice, and I’m greedy. [Laughs] Tie it. That’s a tie.
Next, we chat with Weinstein about his passion for My Week with Marilyn, what drives him to produce films, and how he sees this year’s Oscar season shaping up.
Hello Harvey, how’re you doing?
Harvey Weinstein: I’m good. Do I get a 10 per cent kicker on my movies across the board if I do this interview?
The scores are actually going up as we speak. For every minute you talk to us, your movies go up one per cent.
[Laughs] Good! I’ll talk to you all night.
That’s how we work around here — but don’t tell anyone that.
I like that. [Laughs]
So, I just saw My Week with Marilyn and I have to say, although a lot of people are rightly talking about Michelle’s performance, the film as a whole is quite enjoyable.
You know, Mick LaSalle just printed a five-star review; Roger Ebert gave us three-and-a-half stars. We’ve been getting a lot of good reviews. Michelle is out of this world; she has to dominate the movie, it’s the role of a lifetime. But on top of that the movie’s really funny; we made a fairytale, an enchantment and an entertaining movie. This is not an “Oh my god”-tragedy story; this is laughs, this is musical, this is fun; it’s satire, you know, with Ken Branagh’s Laurence Olivier. You go and you get entertained watching this movie. And I’ve made many, many serious movies but this is a pure fairytale: a feel-good, great, fun movie. Even when Michelle talks about it. We took it to Detroit, where she’s shooting Oz, and she came to the theater to see the movie for the first time and they were roaring — I mean, laughing seriously. It’s just a charming piece and I’m really proud of it.
It is, and everyone’s quite good in it, really.
It is. And that’s what I would tell some of these reviewers. Without being long-winded, I think we’re like 85 per cent positive on your site, but the other 15, maybe they didn’t read the press notes that the movie was intended to be a “moment in time” fairy tale. Some of these reviewers are so, you know… the ones who quite didn’t get it didn’t understand that we weren’t making Joyce Carrol Oates’ Blonde, we were making this “enchanting moment” film. [Laughs] Anyhow, once you understand that I think you go in and relax and just really enjoy the movie; you’re not worried about it being a biopic because it’s not a biopic.
It’s a snapshot of Marilyn at a specific point.
Yeah, that’s it. You got it.
When did Colin Clark’s book [on which the movie is based] first come to your attention?
The first one, The Prince, the Showgirl and Me, I read when it came out, and then I read My Week With Marilyn. I had no intention whatsoever of making a movie, until [director] Simon Curtis approached me with a script that Adrian Hodges had written. Somehow they just got it, and when they told me they were talking to Michelle Williams it made it an instantaneous “yes,” as she was just finishing Blue Valentine.
They already had Michelle in mind? Because there were stories floating around that Scarlett Johannson was doing it, that Amy Adams might be involved—
No, Scarlett Johannson and Amy Adams were all for the other version, which was Andrew Dominik’s version. Now that I’ve got the chance to do this, I’ll clear that up. Andrew Dominik, who did Jesse James and who’s done Coogan’s Trade for us with Brad Pitt, was gonna do Blonde, which is really a roman a clef about Marilyn Monroe — I mean, it may as well be The Marilyn Monroe Story; it’s very serious, and very dark. I think Naomi Watts ended up attaching herself, but, you know, it was Naomi, it was Scarlett, it was Amy; it was every actress. But I did not want to make that movie, because I think, at least in my mind, that’s a tough one to pull off. I wanted to do the snapshot; I wanted to do the moment in time, wanted to do something charming in her life that people didn’t know. And in a way by doing that I think you get an insight into who Marilyn really was. So I wanted to come at it completely different. But this whole Blonde thing, people get it so wrong, you know, on the making of the movie. But now we’ve cleared it up. It was always Michelle.
What was Michelle’s reaction to being asked to play Marilyn?
I think Simon came and saw her, and I think they spent time together in a house in upstate New York. They spent some time there, and they talked. She’s always had a fascination with Marilyn; when she was a kid she had a picture of Marilyn Monroe by her bedside, so, you know. She doesn’t normally take these kinds of roles; she plays much more internal parts and this one was all out. I think she was so fascinated with Marilyn. And she fascinates me, Michelle: she sings, she dances; there isn’t anything she won’t do. The amount of research she does — she is the consummate performer, giving her all to this project.
It’s got to be one of the hardest jobs, to inhabit a movie icon. Were you there on set?
Well I was the man who came to dinner, so to speak. I came to the studio just to say “hi” and Donna Gigliotti, the head of production, asked me “Do you mind staying a few days?” and by the time I knew it I ended up being so fascinated with what was going on that I ended up producing it. I ended up staying in London for a long time until the movie was done, and then I went back and forth. So I spent a lot of time on that set and a lot of time with this movie. It was a joy to make and it’s something I’m really, really proud of.
Having worked with Michelle before, what was the most surprising thing about this performance?
She just has the ability to physically transform herself into a character. I mean, you see her — she looks like Jean Seberg without that hair; she’s gamine and beautiful, and elegant in that Jean Seberg, Audrey Hepburn kind of way, almost. And then, three hours later she’s Marilyn Monroe, and your eyeballs roll down the studio. [Laughs] The way she practiced the wriggle and the walk, and the voice, you know, she just had everything down perfect. She just became Marilyn. She became so immersed in the character. There’s a thing on The New York Times and it’s her, in make-up, in character, being interviewed as Marilyn Monroe. Get rid of this interview and put that on here. [Laughs] It’s much more attractive, I promise you.
What’s your fondest memory of a Marilyn Monroe film?
I’d have to say the indelible movie Some Like It Hot. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard, or watched a movie more times than that. It just absolutely knocked me out. My second Marilyn is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Just look at those directors, by the way — Billy Wilder, on my favorite, and Howard Hawks, on my second Monroe favorite. And I liked River of No Return, which is Preminger’s movie; so it’s interesting. When she worked with great directors, she did her best work.
Did you have any hesitation about making a movie in which Marilyn is the lead, given that she’s one of the most recognizable icons in film history?
No, because I loved the story. I love those moments in time. I’ve done movies about the creative process and this is about the making of a movie, one particular movie, which is not one of Marilyn’s great movies — even though her performance is wonderful, Laurence Olivier did not do a good job of directing the film, and you see all that in Colin’s story. Along with their romance, you see the making of this movie and everything going wrong. It’s a battle between Marilyn and the Method Acting that she did, and Laurence Olivier and the classical acting that he did, and thus there’s tons of humor as a result.
You see the production go off track. If you love movies, if you’re a behind-the-scenes person and you love the idea of making movies — besides, you know, promoting my own film [laughs] — I’m gonna tell you this is one of those essential movies. I always loved the creative process, from Shakespeare in Love to Finding Neverland to Basquiat; whether it’s serious, or it’s comedic, whether it’s the “inside look” at that, it seems to be a theme of what I do. So was I scared of it? No. I thought it was another piece in the canon of my work. Just saying, okay, let’s see how this movie was made — just like we see how Peter Pan got written, or how Romeo and Juliet got written. It’s very fanciful, but again, snapshots give us insight. It’s funny, one of the great things about this movie was the journey. I met [photographer] Bert Stern, who did Marilyn Monroe’s last sitting, and I saw his documentary — and talk about a snapshot. You watch this documentary, of taking a photograph, and it’s incredible the way photographs speak to us; yet I’ve never really understood that magic until I saw the documentary and how he worked, shooting these amazing photographs. So your word “snapshot,” because of the moment in time, it sort of circles everything. And I’ll be using it from now on, as if it was my own thought. [Laughs]
You’re welcome. This film, as you say, appeals to people who like movies about movies, but it’s also the kind of film that the Academy tends to love, too. Do you think these kinds of films have better shots around Oscar season?
I’d like to say that I was that smart in intention, and that’s why I made it, but I made it because I liked it. I always find that when I do something that I like, from my heart, then it works. When I do something with my head — some sort of thing that’s not me at all, because I’m saying to myself, “This is so wildly commercial” — that’s generally when I fail, because my heart’s not into it; and then I just get so bored of it and I don’t put any time into it. I’ll tell you what the Academy likes — it’s the biggest secret in the world, and I’m just gonna let it loose — the Academy likes great movies. [Laughs] If you can do that, you can win a lot of awards. And the great movies? They don’t care whether it’s about a serial killer, like Silence of the Lamb, or it’s about a bunch of kids dancing on New York City streets in the ’60s and gang warfare, in West Side Story, or The Hurt Locker. They couldn’t be more different.
What do you think your chances are for Oscars this year?
Well I think we’re blessed this year. We have The Artist. We have My Week with Marilyn. I think The Artist and My Week with Marilyn stand a really good chance in the comedy/musical category at the Golden Globes. I think it’s a great year for movies, and I think that they’re so different is a professional testament. I mean, Marty Scorsese’s Hugo is amazing. I’ll talk about another guy’s movie. George Clooney’s Ides of March could be the most under-appreciated movie of the year. In 20 years they’re gonna go back and say, “Oh, that was American politics in that time period.” I follow politics, I love it, and that movie is so authentic. That’s what politics is: eating crappy sandwiches in crappy hotel rooms, in crummy makeshift offices. Clooney gets it so right you have no idea. It could have been a documentary, that movie. And you know, the line about “You can do anything in American politics except f–k the intern” is perfect; it’s one of the greatest lines. So Clooney’s movie is there and I hope it gets recognition. And he knocks it out of the park, Clooney, in Descendants — that movie’s great, and he’s great in it. So I don’t know. I can’t wait. I saw Tintin in Europe — it is Indiana Jones on steroids. Unbelievable. What a fantastic movie. Steven Spielberg, you rock the house. And working with those young English guys like Edgar Wright, and also Peter Jackson; what a great combination. I mean, I’d heard of Tintin, I’d looked at it, but it’s never been my thing, but then I saw the movie, and wow.
Do you think it’ll play well in the US?
Yeah. I mean you don’t need to know anything about Tintin. It’s a Steven Spielberg movie here. Over there, it’s Tintin. Over here, it’ll be a Steven Spielberg movie. Tintin‘s like an homage to Indiana Jones. I mean, it’s as great as that first experience of watching Raiders. It’s ridiculously great.
My Week with Marilyn and The Artist open in theaters this week.