To live and die in LA
Bernard Rose went from music videos to directing a big-budget fantasy movie. But when he savaged Hollywood agents on screen, the British filmmaker paid a high price – and not just in money
by Jay Rayner / The Observer
It could have been a scene out of the very film they had come to view. It was April 2000 and there were scores of Hollywood’s A-list deal-makers, studio men and directors crowded into the beige marble screening room of Creative Artists’ Agency, the most powerful firm of movie talent agents in the most powerful movie town in the world. Melanie Griffiths was there and so was Anjelica Huston. CAA had even laid on $5,000 worth of catering for this showing of ivans xtc., a new picture from its British client Bernard Rose. The film had been made for less than $150,000 – small change in Hollywood – using high-definition digital technology. ‘Everyone was excited,’ Rose said, when we met during a recent trip to London. ‘It was a new way of doing business. The client just goes out and makes the movie.’ No development hell. No big budget studio deals. Just charge it to the credit card.
Today Rose says that his fall from Hollywood grace began that evening on Wilshire Boulevard, although it’s debatable whether he was pushed or jumped. He had chosen to make a film about the very industry in which he was becoming a major player and, in a town as sensitive as it is affluent, that was always going to be a risky venture. Notionally, ivans xtc. is a retelling of Tolstoy’s story ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, in which a self-satisfied, social-climbing bureaucrat find himself unequal to the task of dying early. Rose chose to set his tightly constructed, cinéma-vérité version in the world of Hollywood talent agents; his Ivan is a coke-snorting master of the schmooze who only realises that his life is an emotional desert when he’s diagnosed with a terminal cancer. When he eventually confesses that he’s dying, he has to do it to a couple of free-loading hookers because he has no one else to turn to.
Hugh Hudson, the director of the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, was at the screening that evening and sat next to one of CAA’s top agents. ‘Hugh told me afterwards that [the agent] bit his fingernails until they bled,’ Rose says. Perhaps the agent didn’t like the scene where news of Ivan Beckman’s death arrives and the other agents merely laugh about their dead colleague’s appetite for coke, before running to the phones for purposes of damage limitation. Or the scene where a fight breaks out at the funeral. Or the buttock-clenchingly self-congratulatory scene in which, towards the end of his life, Ivan is cheered to the echo by his colleagues because he had signed a new film-star client.
Or maybe it was just the very portrayal of Ivan, which, for any CAA agent, would have been painful. Just six months earlier in November 1999, Jay Moloney, a former super-agent with the firm, had hanged himself, apparently unequal to the battle with cocaine addiction that he’d been fighting since the mid-Nineties. Moloney’s story has come to be seen as a parable of modern Hollywood: the enthusiastic kid who sprinted up the career ladder to become agent to the likes of Spielberg and Scorsese, David Letterman and Bill Murray before he was even 30. The boy who was tipped to take over from CAA head Mike Ovitz, who made $2 million a year and spent it on Picassos and cars and cocaine. And who, when he fell on bad times, was cut loose by the very Hollywood establishment that had once so admired him.
Rose, who was one of Moloney’s clients, openly says that ivans xtc. is drawn from his former agent’s story. Moloney was sacked from CAA in 1996 due to his addiction. In 1998, when Rose tried to find out what had happened to Moloney, he discovered that nobody knew. ‘This strikes me as extremely powerful and chilling stuff,’ Rose wrote in a production diary of ivans xtc., ‘the speed with which he fell from grace.’
But, the director insists, he had not intended to make a controversial film. After all, his career was finally on the up. Why would he want to rock the boat? In the early Eighties, Rose made his name straight out of film school directing music videos for the likes of UB40 and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. His first film, Paperhouse, in 1988, was a critical success that led to work in America including the horror flick Candyman and the less successful Immortal Beloved, a biography of Beethoven starring Gary Oldman. In 1996 he did his first piece of Tolstoy – a new version of Anna Karenina, the first major western movie to be shot entirely in Russia – although it was not a happy experience. The studio (which complained in development notes that the character of Anna was ‘so unsympathetic’) took it away from him and cut it from three hours to a largely unintelligible hour and forty-five.
Still, by 1998 he was back on top and slated to direct a $9m fantasy film called The Thief of Always. He even had his own office on the Universal Studios lot, a mark of having arrived. With the picture in development hell, and studio executives demanding rewrite after rewrite, Rose ‘decided to do ivans xtc. as a bit of amusement while we waited’. He pitched the idea to his new agent at CAA, Adam Krentzman, who was enthusiastic. Krentzman let Rose sit in his office and watch him at work. He helped him scout locations, and eventually took a part in the film, playing an agent. What seemed to intrigue Krentzman was the possibilities offered by the new technology.
Rose had convinced his friend Danny Huston, son of the director John Huston and a director in his own right, to play the part of Ivan. The agent needed to be big, rugged and charismatic, and Huston, who appears to have borrowed Jack Nicholson’s eyebrows for the part, has all that in spades. They tried for months to raise enough cash to buy 35mm film stock and the equipment to go with it. Rose’s girlfriend Lisa Enos, a documentary-maker who would eventually produce and appear in the film, told him to look at the possibilities offered by high-definition digital video, which she used for her own work. The quality is as good as 35mm celluloid and, in its flexibility, sometimes better.
Rose is convinced that his early problems stem from his enthusiasm for the new technology and its cheapness, which he claims could make the big studios redundant. ‘I gave this interview to a film website in which I said it’s byebye to the pigs with their noses in the trough.’ The next day Universal fired him from The Thief of Always.
But the real controversy began the day after that CAA screening. ‘We were hoping to get offers from people who wanted to buy the film [for distribution]. Adam Krentzman called me at 5pm and said there were things the agency wanted cut from the film and that nobody wanted to buy it.’ They particularly hated the scene in which Ivan is surrounded by his applauding colleagues – ‘Because that’s something CAA actually does,’ Enos says.
‘I just flipped,’ Rose says. ‘Because I was proud of the film and because I owned it.’ He pauses. ‘Though maybe I should have just made those cuts, because we’ve been carrying all these debts for three years.’ Despite the difference of opinion, CAA agreed to set up a screening for buyers at the Cannes film festival. It was a disaster. None of the money men came. Rose alleges that CAA sabotaged the event by failing to distribute the invitations; certainly, later that day on the steps of the renowned Hotel du Cap, he was furious enough to tell a senior CAA executive that he was firing the agency. He no longer has an agent in Los Angeles.
He now claims that, after he sacked CAA, it mounted a whispering campaign against the film, telling buyers that if they picked up ivans xtc., the agency would bar their access to more valuable product. For its part, CAA would say nothing other than that it denied the allegations. Others in Los Angeles say that Rose is simply trying to find a good story with which to sell his small picture. He had to release it himself in America on just a handful of screens where he insists it is doing well. ‘Quietly, the movie industry loves the film,’ he says. He also says that he was recently called by a CAA agent who asked him not to mention Jay Moloney when doing press for the film, which, clearly, he refuses to do. In Britain it has been picked up the independent distributor Metro Tartan.
‘I never thought this film would get a wide release,’ Rose says. ‘It’s an art movie. An exercise in neo-realism with a bit of Dogme ethic thrown in. At the price it was made it should be viable.’ And it’s the price tag that he thinks most upset the Hollywood establishment. ‘I think what they objected to was that we made it so cheaply. They had this gut worry that if we made a bunch of dough out of it, that would encourage their other clients.’
As Rose points out, some of the big beasts in movie-making are paid on a percentage of budget: the screenwriter often gets two per cent of budget, for example. The agents get 10 per cent of that. If budgets plummet to the cost of a small Winnebago it’s the middle men who will suffer.
It’s an interesting argument, and Rose can make you think he believes it. But even Rose’s London agent, Jenne Casarotto, says: ‘The big Hollywood agencies are into representing corporations. Those small cuts of budget are not what it’s about.’ And anyway a lot of players are paid on set fees.
Interviewing Rose, Enos and Huston together in the same room, what is striking is the degree to which they seem still to be working through the narrative of the ivans xtc. intrigue. They sometimes disagree with each other over the sequence of events, over who did what to whom and when. At one point Rose says, ‘Adam Krentzman is still a friend of mine’, and Enos jumps in: ‘No, he isn’t.’ Rose shrugs.
I suggest to Rose that being outraged about Hollywood treating people badly is a little like being a hooker who suddenly becomes appalled by all the sex acts she is called upon to perform. After all, the film business has been screwing writers and directors since the first cry of ‘action’ in the orange groves. ‘I would be the first to admit that there’s an element of posturing,’ he says. ‘If I’d behaved a lot better perhaps I could have made more money.’ But, Enos chips in: ‘The ride’s been too much fun.’ I wonder out loud whether the suicide of Jay Moloney might not actually have helped the film. ‘Yes, it did,’ says Danny Huston. Rose disagrees. ‘But CAA wouldn’t have cared if he hadn’t killed himself,’ Huston smiles. ‘And the film would have been less interesting.’
Is this the end of Rose’s career in the US? Probably not. Hollywood has a notoriously short memory and the cast list there is constantly changing. Late last week it emerged that one of CAA’s great rivals – either William Morris or ICM – wanted to sign Rose to its client list. After seeing ivans xtc., a senior partner at one of the firms had even announced that it ought to be ‘compulsory viewing’ for its employees. Doubtless it’s the kind of Hollywood insider gossip that the late Jay Moloney would have adored.
A Star is Born (1937) Alcoholic, waning movie star Fredric March discovers and marries wannabe Janet Gaynor, then his own life collapses.
Sunset Boulevard (1950) The ultimate film about Hollywood. Gloria Swanson is an obsessive, former star clinging to the glamour and glory of her heyday.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) Noirish tale of a Hollywood producer who reaches the top at the expense of his friends. Kirk Douglas is superb as the single-minded filmmaker.
The Player (1992) Director Robert Altman revitalised his career with this comedy about a ruthless studio executive. Smart satire that proves nice guys finish last in Tinseltown.
–ivans xtc. opens on 19 July