It doesn’t seem that long ago that Michael De Luca was the Brooklyn kid who rose from an entry level New Line job to become one of Hollywood’s youngest ever production presidents at 27. He set the tone for the rock and roll days of Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne’s indie, a then ballsy company that took bold creative gambles that culminated in saying yes to Peter Jackson’s turnaround trilogy The Lord of the Rings when nobody else would. Rarely was a twenty-something given the latitude De Luca got to gamble on unproven filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights and Magnolia), David Fincher (Seven) and Jay Roach (Austin Powers). In success, De Luca infused the place with swagger and cut his own bad boy swath with several well-publicized misdeeds. He also steered slates of films that reflected his fan boy pop culture sensibility, including American History X, Blade, The Wedding Singer, Pleasantville, Menace 2 Society, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber. When the hits stopped coming, he was sacked by Shaye, brashly turned down a rich pre-negotiated producing deal and left the nest.
It took awhile, but De Luca is on a roll, again. He’s in the middle of this year’s Oscar conversation and this year has 6 films that either wrapped or are in production. With Scott Rudin and Dana Brunetti, De Luca produced Fincher’s The Social Network, (Seven’s serial killer Kevin Spacey is exec producer); the Jonah Hill comedy The Sitter just got underway in New York and Ghost Rider 2 with Nicolas Cage is starting in Romania; and the Brad Pitt-starrer Moneyball, Fright Night, Drive Angry and Butter are completed.
Who better than De Luca to contrast today’s conservative studio filmmaking from the rock and roll days of New Line, a company gambled and won big, and occasionally lost just as large when: Adam Sandler insisted on contorting his face and torso to play Satan’s spawn Little Nicky; Geena Davis and Renny Harlin pushed back the start of Long Kiss Goodnight (after New Line paid Shane Black a spec record $4 million) just long enough to squeeze in the momentum-killing Carolco pirate flop Cutthroat Island, which doomed New Line’s followup; or when the Warren Beatty-starrer Town and Country kept shooting and shooting, until there were enough overruns and mediocrity to give it historic flop stature; enduring the eccentricities of late life Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Deadline New York: Everybody uses Facebook. Just because you eat sausage doesn’t mean you want to see it made. How did you and your cohorts know anybody would care about The Social Network?
De Luca: The film traffics in a human condition that could apply to any young person being told, ‘Stay in this box, do it our way.’ There’s an inclination to rebel and say, ‘Not only am I going to do it my way, I’m going to burn your house down while I’m doing it, just because you tried to hold me back.’ There are other underlying things powering the story, like the basic human need to belong, how painful it is to feel alienated, and the jealousy that erupts among close friends when it looks like one is pulling away.
De Luca: I’ve never thought intelligence was age-related. I saw all those great ‘70s films when I was 9 and no one in my Brooklyn neighborhood cared if a kid watched an R movie. I saw The Godfather, Death Wish, The Exorcist and A Man Called Horse and understood them, even if the claws in Richard Harris’ nipples scene and The Exorcist scarred me for life. Here, the issues of alienation and jealousy speak to a generation of Facebooking kids. There is cyber-bullying, having your life play out online and seeing instantly what people say and think of you, which is why I’m not on Facebook. Social Network is a good story with human experience connective tissue that makes it ageless.
DNY: That brash ‘burn your house down’ attitude is all over Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook film, and it was New Line culture when you were Bob Shaye’s picture picker. As you went through The Social Network, did you identify as New Line’s Zuckerberg?
De Luca: No. I was never in that class. I felt more of a kinship with Billy Beane from Moneyball, and what he accomplished with the Oakland A’s. He was preaching what I tried at New Line, doing more with less, and realizing that the value of everything wasn’t based solely on price. There’s value in Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, Mike Myers in Austin Powers, that studios overlooked. There’s value in David Fincher, or Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro in the David Mamet script Wag the Dog. It was all about finding hidden value. In Billy’s case, it was finding what the Yankees missed or didn’t need to go looking for. In ours, it was finding value that Warner Bros, Fox and Universal weren’t looking for at the time. I took pride in that, definitely felt a kinship to the Moneyball doctrine, which was why I was so psyched we got that movie going again this year.
DNY: You were a weekend away from starting production the first time before Amy Pascal pulls the plug because Steven Soderbergh’s rewrite of Steve Zaillian left her feeling she was making a different movie than she signed on for. What was that like?
De Luca: Devastating to everyone involved, down to the crew that thought they were going to work that following week. It was devastating to Amy, who’s so talent-friendly that the last thing she wants to do is pull the plug on a movie. It was devastating to me and to Soderbergh, especially happening the Thursday before the Monday it was supposed to start.
DNY: How different is Bennett Miller’s version that just wrapped?
De Luca: It’s in the same ballpark as Steve Zaillian’s original draft, with a major contribution from Aaron Sorkin. Soderbergh kept deconstructing Zaillian’s script, finally down to a dramatic recreation of real events. It became a documentary that happened to star Brad Pitt and too much of the movie we all loved, that Amy loved, was missing. Scott Rudin and Sorkin got involved to return it to its original intent.
DNY: That’s two projects in a row for you with Rudin and Sorkin.
De Luca: It started with The Social Network. Dana Brunetti had a relationship with author Ben Mezrich and brought me in on 21, which was based on Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House. Dana got the proposal for The Accidental Billionaires, and it suggested a great story of how Facebook came together and changed the lives of these guys. Dana brought me in, we brought it to Sony and they went for it. At the same time, Scott was tracking it and had Aaron Sorkin and Amy suggested we all team up. After the Soderbergh version of Moneyball went away, Social Network had worked out so well as a script that Amy leapt at the chance to bring Aaron and Scott in and keep Brad Pitt interested.
DNY: When there are suddenly that many producers, who takes the lead?
De Luca: After Scott and Aaron came on, Scott hot-housed the development of the Moneyball script because of his relationship with Aaron. Scott is just amazing in breaking down a story. He and Aaron hit Dana, me and the studio with the first draft after they’d done their internal development process.
DNY: What was toughest part of transitioning to producer for you?
De Luca: When you’re writing checks, the search for material is easier than when you’re out there using your wits and your relationships with writers, agents and managers to ferret out material and convince people you can set things up, develop and package. You’re competing against a lot of producers trying to do the exact same thing.
DNY: Firings at the production president level or higher added at least five to that producer pool in the last year. How long is the learning curve?
De Luca: I felt had the hang of it early because we didn’t work with a lot of big producers at New Line, so we acted as producers. What takes 2 or 3 years is finding and developing material. Sony was gracious in putting on a couple movies. Moneyball was set up by Rachael Horovitz. They put me on Jon Favreau’s Zathura, Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider and 21 with Dana Brunetti and Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street. That led to The Social Network. It is a big foot forward when you aren’t sitting on your butt developing and waiting years for the first movie.
DNY: The Social Network’s David Fincher is a top of the food chain director, but when you were putting together Seven, he was coming off a disastrous debut on Alien 3. From the grisly murders to Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in the box, how hard was Seven to get made?
De Luca: New Line was all about certain financial limitations that forced us to find material that worked without the top 5 movie stars and directors. That mission statement became hardwired into our DNA and was hard to change even after the company got more capitalization. Bob Shaye was great if you met certain benchmarks. This was made at a price, and Brad Pitt was locked in. Seven made him a global star, but he was already an important element. We tried to find new filmmakers who would help distinguish the material in the marketplace, and not go for journeymen. Seven was a script that directors, actors and agents all respected, and then we got an incoming call from Richard Lovett about David Fincher. I’d loved his videos. I knew what a nightmare Alien 3 had been, in terms of script and moviemaking by committee. But I kind of loved it, there were some amazing things in it. He won the job in the room, pitching a vision for Seven that was so detailed and articulate, you just knew what the movie was going to be. He was a harder sell with Arnold Kopelson, who wasn’t up late at night watching MTV the way the rest of us were, the way I was.
DNY: How much discussion was there on ending?
DNY: How much tougher would a young Paul Thomas Anderson have getting Boogie Nights made now? He’s struggling with his new film, The Master, about the formation of a religion in the 1950s.
De Luca: Anything that worked at New Line would be ten times harder to get made at a major studio. I’m not sure the Summits or the Lionsgates would go for Boogie Nights or Wag the Dog, or even the first Austin Powers. There’s such a bias against what they call tweeners, the movies that aren’t so cheap that you can’t get hurt, but aren’t big enough to have special effects and big movie stars and directors that make executives feel their bet is somewhat insured. New Line lived in that tweener space. To a certain degree, Social Network is that. It’s not so low budget that you’re protected, but it’s no giant tent pole, either.
DNY: What was hardest about Boogie Nights?
De Luca: That gave Bob the most aggravation, the length issue, the ‘who’s going to see this?’ Until the first reviews, he was really fighting it and unsure. The test screenings were not promising. That process is good for down the middle mainstream movies. Trailers and TV spots prepare you for a movie, and if you saw one for Boogie Nights, you can decide, that’s not for me. You don’t get that from the paragraph they use to recruit an audience. They’re told, comedy with Mark Wahlberg. And when it’s a disturbing film like a Scorsese, a Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood, pissed off people write disturbed things on their cards precisely because the film did its job. I didn’t think Boogie Nights was appropriate for testing, but we did a lot of them and the numbers were always poor. In Bob’s eyes, the movie wasn’t a winner and a piece of art until the reviews started coming in.
DNY: How much did it lose in length?
De Luca: Paul pruned about 20 minutes, through his own process. At one point, Bob asked Paul, let me do a cut, let me show you what I think you should love. Paul wisely said okay, knowing it wouldn’t go further than Bob getting it out of his system. It was not anything we’d release or Paul would sanction. Bob went through the movie and did a cut, showing Paul, here’s what I would take out. Paul sat there and probably wanted to kill himself, but he was really patient, watched it and went back to his own editorial process.
DNY: What does it say when Anderson’s The Master is having such a hard time getting off the ground?
De Luca: I think he has the financing. He’s just going through his own creative process, asking himself, ‘Is this what I want to make,’ and is it ready to be made? That’s just what he does.
DNY: What flop haunts you most? Little Nicky was funny, but how could you not see that Adam Sandler’s insistence on contorting his face would hurt?
De Luca: I drank the Kool Aid, I also thought it was funny. On Waterboy, Adam’s funny act was no problem; on Little Nicky it was fatal. Who knows why? Comedy is so impossible to predict. By the time you test, it’s way too late, especially when an audience rejects the character’s premise. You can’t fix it by taking out a scene here or making it move faster. Adam is beloved and the character was too much of a loser for people to want to see him in that part. They want to see him win and stick it to the establishment.
DNY: So which flop haunts you most?
De Luca: Town and Country, because brilliant people like Buck Henry and Warren Beatty were involved and because I hated that I put something on mine and Bob Shaye’s resumes that was such a public failure it affected the company. I take some comfort in this: there are certain failures remembered in a largesse context like Ishtar and Waterworld. Having one of those makes me feel like, at least I didn’t fuck around. I hit the high highs, and the low lows. When they write the book on the 90s, I’ll be mentioned and not have been some nameless development executive. I’m trying to look on the bright side here, because that one still haunts me.
DNY: What should you have done differently?
De Luca: We should have realized after the first screening that it was a turkey, and pulled the plug, ended it with the footage we had available and just let go. It would have saved a lot of resources, in money and time. We chased fixing it. That was a giant mistake. The original mistake was in not understanding that only the French find infidelity funny, a lesson I learned the hard way.
DNY: It did well in France?
De Luca: No…but I think other movies about infidelity have.
DNY: Even though you got fired, how do you look back on those days?
De Luca: Great time. The 90s for me was a dream come true. I got into the movies as a fan, and so presiding over a slate with bosses willing to roll the dice and take risks was just great. Nothing is more exciting than being around new talent when it emerges. Break a new filmmaker, have everyone say you’re crazy, and then have it work out. When you see them go on to these amazing careers, you feel you’ve contributed something beyond a bottom line.
De Luca: Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Hughes Brothers. Jay Roach’s directing sample for Austin Powers did not suggest this was the guy who’d do three of them and Meet the Parents. Even Brett Ratner, who gets flack for being a celebrity director, was clearly a mogul in training even then. I’m proud we gave Ice Cube a platform. Gary Ross on Pleasantville. Wag the Dog, which probably no other studio would have made. Steven Norrington proved himself a real artist in Blade, and I was proud we succeeded with mainstream movies with African American leads. In Rush Hour, it was African American and Asian co-leads and the film succeeded on a global scale. Bob was always up for things other studios wouldn’t do.
DNY: You lived something of a rock star life in those rock and roll days. As a married father with a young daughter, how do you look back on what you experienced?
De Luca: I read somewhere that I was the youngest production president, at 27, along with Rudin, Irving Thalberg and Don Simpson. I feel lucky I survived it all. Back when I was single in my 20s and 30s, to have that affection and love for what you do, throw in a little success, and the cliché of the nerd back in Brooklyn blossoms into blooming butterfly in Hollywood, and that is a toxic combination. Why wouldn’t I have a good time? If you can live long enough to retain the wisdom, then all you can do is look back, laugh and go, there were hairy moments, but it was a great time. I got really lucky to be put in charge of something that worked out so well, at such a young age. You never knew what was going to happen, week to week.
De Luca: The whole town was so angry at me for giving $7 million for Jim Carrey to star in Dumb and Dumber. The part of the story that didn’t get reported was, Ace Ventura had come out, we had The Mask in the can and he was getting offers between $3 million and $5 million. We definitely paid a premium, but it wasn’t a ridiculous premium and Dumb and Dumber made a fortune. And then Mark Canton took me off the hook paying Jim $20 million for Cable Guy. Even when we set the spec record record paying $4 million to Shane Black for Long Kiss Goodnight, Columbia bid $3.25 million and we understood we had to pay a premium because we were proving ourselves. His agent, David Greenblatt, wrote a number down. It was right after Turner bought us and we had money. It was one of the best specs I’d ever reads, but later, in the wake of Cutthroat Island, the audience appetite for the teaming of Geena and Renny had been squandered.
DNY: To all those studio presidents who just became producers and worry about being on the other side of the table after saying no for so long, what advice would you give them?
De Luca: That they’ll be fine if people can trust them to give straight answers, to do what they say, to be good advocates for material. Most of the time, studios are going to say no and I said no a lot. Everybody hears no except maybe Rupert Murdoch. But if talent and their reps feel you’re a stand up guy and a champion for their material who’ll go to the mat, that’s the trust that really matters. Ex-studio execs have an advantage in knowing the P&L process, and that people’s jobs are on the line. It’s also important to be able to develop a story and package material in a way people trust the quality. That’s something I’ve learned from Scott. I haven’t had a mentor figure since my early days with Bob Shaye and though I feel like an old man, I’ve been producing 7 years and it was so valuable to see Scott in action, watching the quality control that man exerts and the amount of work he puts in so he can stand behind those screenplays.
DNY: Most humbling thing about taking the bullet?
De Luca: Which bullet?
De Luca: Getting dumped before you could break up with someone is annoying. I was going to leave at the end of my contract that year, but I wanted to be there for the release of Lord of the Rings. That felt bad, but not as bad as all the flops I had on my rap sheet the year and a half before I left. Failure is so humbling. You have to keep reminding yourself how cyclical this business is, the same as I believe once a movie star, always a movie star, and that you are always a hit away from redemption. My friend Gary Ross tried to console me in one particular moment of depression by saying, ‘Everyone in town has flops, but how many have hits?’ It did me a lot of good, getting fired and being humbled the way I was. You get back to basics, keep your side of the street clean, and you don’t count on succeeding all the time because it’s an impossible bar to set for yourself.
DNY: How did that father-son relationship with Bob Shaye sour when the hits stopped?
De Luca: When you’re handing the man flop after flop, it can’t help but strain a relationship on a personal level. There can’t be much affection as when it was all hits, when now he’s pissed we just had another horrible weekend. At that point in my life, I was punky enough to have the attitude, ‘I helped build this company.’ He had the attitude, ‘We made you and you don’t show enough respect.’ Now we are able to socialize as friends and there’s no complication in showing affection to each other. It helped when I grew to understand there would be no me without that first break I got from Bob.
DNY: Would you like to run a studio again?
De Luca: I always liked how John Calley came back to run UA and then Columbia. I wonder what it would be like to have a place to collect the filmmakers and talent that know me, that I respect, and give them a headache-free home, while managing the financial responsibilities for whoever my boss would be. Taking another run at it as the person I am now would be cool, except I don’t think I’m on the list for any of those jobs. I didn’t exactly leave people with an impression of me as a corporate type. And producing for me is a dream job. I feel fulfilled, like it’s what I was meant to do. It would be hard to give up. You are charged with the creative management of a film, from development to release. Studio execs are a step removed from that. If you really love the art form, being right there with the director and the writer is the high.