Q&A: Harvey Weinstein On His Contenders

Mike Fleming Jr. is Deadline’s film editor. This article appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of AwardsLine.

When Harvey Weinstein sat down at Sundance for what has become an annual interview with Deadline, he looked as tired as I felt. He, David Glasser, and the rest of the team stayed awake all night to make a splashy deal for Fruitvale, one of the best-liked titles at Sundance. A fixture at this festival since he helped turn it into a lucrative market back in 1989 when he bought and found crossover success with Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies & videotape, Weinstein is several years removed from reports of money problems and a studio that had to refocus because he was preoccupied with other businesses. The reigning two-time best picture Oscar champ has two films in this year’s wide-open race; and he’s making a fortune on a film he’s not releasing, The Hobbit, because of gross points he took to allow Peter Jackson shop The Lord of the Rings. He discusses politics, Sundance, and of course the Oscars, though remains circumspect on the latter, fully aware that the voting period is in full swing.

AWARDSLINE: And here I’d read in The Hollywood Reporter that you’d be at Barack Obama’s inauguration today. On behalf of Deadline, thanks for cancelling. He’s the leader of the free world, so this can’t be about me. Is Nikki Finke that powerful?

HARVEY WEINSTEIN: (Long pause). I’ll say yes. (Laughs.) The thing I love about Nikki Finke is, I’ve got Silver Linings Playbook in its 12th week, grossing $13+ million. Unheard of for a movie to complete the platform it had and go wide like this, and it kills it, the No. 3 movie in the country, beating all the new releases. Does she write, “Outstanding!” “Boy they were smart!” “God, they’re going to do $100 million,” or “Shit, I was wrong”? Nothing. The movie’s at $58 million now, and we’re six weeks until the Oscars. Silver Linings is going to gross $100 million. And when it does, I suppose she’ll just say, “Silver Linings grossed $100 million.”

AWARDSLINE: You’ve had the best picture winner two years running. This year, two of the nine nominated pictures are yours. Make a case why Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained would each make a worthy winner. 

WEINSTEIN: I don’t want to do that. Anyone who talks about this Oscar race has to deal with the fact that this was such a good year for movies that, who knows? Life of Pi, brilliant—Ang Lee at his absolute best. Lincoln’s a masterpiece. Ben Affleck hit it out of the ballpark with Argo. Zero Dark Thirty. Amour, amazing, and those guys did such a good job getting that film noticed and nominated. Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables. Stupendous year.

AWARDSLINE: Let’s attack it another way. You worked on Silver Linings Playbook for years, and it started as a Sydney Pollack project. He couldn’t crack the idea of a comedy with a bipolar protagonist. He brought in David O. Russell, who made it work. What was the creative breakthrough?

WEINSTEIN: Here was the eureka moment: People who are bipolar or depressed or are borderline don’t usually say, “Hey, that’s me.” The same way stutterers felt before The King’s Speech. They hid it in shame. The movie destigmatized that, same as The King’s Speech did. David O. Russell’s son, as he’s admitted, is borderline. And he one day said to him—and this was the key that unlocked the movie—“I don’t want to live in this world.” To hear that as a father, you can just imagine how he felt. And he wrote this to give hope to people who have this problem. Everyone in this movie has something. Bradley Cooper’s character is bipolar, Jennifer Lawrence’s character has problems, and Bob De Niro’s character is obsessive compulsive. It is no day in the park, but David used humor beautifully to deal with an important subject, in a way that gives people hope. Sydney going to David was serendipitous for all of us. This is the last project for Sydney and Anthony Minghella, the final project for two exceptional men who influenced our industry in an incredible way. This was Sydney’s more than Anthony’s; it’s really Sydney’s last hurrah and that means a lot to us. And of course, Django means a lot to us because it’s Quentin.

AWARDSLINE: People seem to tiptoe around controversy during Oscar voting. Anybody who read Quentin’s Django Unchained when it circulated two years ago could see what was coming, from the violence to the degradation of slaves, to the used of the N-word, to the spaghetti-western style and humor. When media reports count the number of times the “N” word was used and play that as big news, how much harder does that make it for you during this voting period?

WEINSTEIN: The movie has had champions from Jesse Jackson to Al Sharpton to BET to the NAACP; it got five Oscar nominations including best picture. The people who are for it are much more influential than the people who are against it, and they’ve put out a lot of those early fires started in some cases by people who hadn’t even seen the film, which is irresponsible. The “N” word was in Lincoln, too, because that’s what they were called. It was in Roots. They weren’t called African-Americans then; the reference was way more derogatory.

AWARDSLINE: Was Quentin robbed of a nomination for director?

WEINSTEIN: I don’t want to use the word “robbed,” but Quentin Tarantino not in the running for best director? He is one of the greatest directors of our time. Here’s what I think happened on Django. We finished the movie Dec. 1. We didn’t show it until a few days later. The race was early this year: The voting cutoff was Jan. 3. We tried to show it to people in theaters, not on DVD. It’s an epic movie and that man put his whole life and heart into this. It’s his most important movie, his most important subject matter, and the idea of DVDs stopped me cold.

AWARDSLINE: What do you mean? Even I have an Oscar DVD.

WEINSTEIN: I delayed them. I wanted people to see it on the big screen. I told Quentin we’d probably pay the price at the Oscars, but it was the right way to see an epic period movie about a man who does not give up. Eventually, we gave out the DVDs, but we paid the price for being late. We paid no price as far as the gigantic business the movie’s doing. It’s the biggest of Quentin’s career. After we put our heart and soul into the movie, the Oscar campaign was secondary. But make no mistake about it—we got five nominations including best picture, and we only had one week. We sent the DVDs out on Dec. 17.

AWARDSLINE: The first script had an even harsher depiction of how slave women and Broomhilda in particular were used for sex by their masters, and how male slaves were used in gruesome fights to the death to entertain those masters. Did you ever say, “Quentin, I don’t know”? After all, you have been in business with him his whole career, and you’re the one who markets these movies.

WEINSTEIN: Quentin is so educated on the subject that the original idea for this wasn’t even a movie. Ten years ago, he spoke to me about how Birth of a Nation had been lauded and yet there was this strand of racism in it that had been ignored by major critics who’d put it at or near the top of their all-time best lists. I watched Birth of a Nation and suggested that he do a piece for The New Yorker, a 30- or 40-page treatise. You know Quentin, he can write like any film professor. He writes brilliant scripts, and trust me, I read pages of the treatise. It was astounding. And the amount of research he put into the slave era is astonishing. If anything, I’m the one who said to him, “If you really want to show slavery, show it.” It was worse than what we put on that screen. Way, way worse. All I said was, “We’ve got to find a way to get an audience inspired by this, to do their own research, but not turn them off at the same time.” I knew Quentin knows this subject better than anybody, and when you’ve got someone like that who wants to bring that incredible knowledge to the screen, you just let them be.

AWARDSLINE: What about Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master? Why didn’t it click with a wider audience?

WEINSTEIN: I probably could have marketed it better. I probably should have prepared the audience. We opened up to the highest arts per screen ever, and I just think the audience had trouble with the movie. They needed to be guided. I was so enamored with the film that I didn’t think the audience would have that trouble. Other people around me did say the audience was going to have that trouble but I personally loved the movie and Paul. Maybe I would have done him more of a favor being a better devil’s advocate, instead of a cheerleader. That is what I always think a distributor should be, a cheerleader and not a devil’s advocate. I seem to do better when I’m devil’s advocate. I do think the film will live stand up and have a long life down the line.

AWARDSLINE: Everybody says you do this Oscar campaigning the best.

WEINSTEIN: It’s always about the movies. I don’t know what people think we’re campaigning. Where? Have you seen me campaigning?

AWARDSLINE: No. Well, for Obama.

WEINSTEIN: That’s about the only campaigning I’ve done this year and last.

AWARDSLINE: What prompted this political activism?

WEINSTEIN: I was cursed with it when I went to college. I had two Irish roommates, Dennis Ward and Eugene Fahey. Eugene is now a New York State Supreme Court Judge, one of the highest in the state; Dennis is a constitutional lawyer. Instead of going out and having a good time like I should have in those college years, I went with these guys as they ran the campaign for the mayor or the councilman and I’d be out there hanging posters and handing out stickers. Politics has been part of me since I was 17, when I met those guys. They still call me every five minutes. There’s always another issue, another problem. We should have been in more bars having fun, and instead we were in town hall meetings.

AWARDSLINE: How has your flair for marketing and organization helped in being an ally for the president or other politicians? What has been most gratifying?

WEINSTEIN: The concert for Hurricane Sandy was more gratifying than anything I’ve done in movies. We raised over $60 million in one night. Jim Dolan, John Sykes and I produced that show. This started the same way as the 9/11 concert. I was in Los Angeles, watching Hurricane Sandy on television. My grandma used to have a little cottage in Rockaway. We didn’t go to the French countryside back then, you know? The Weinstein family was packed into this Rockaway bungalow. I’m watching the TV and there is no Rockaway. The boardwalk was floating in the water. I called Jim Dolan and said, “We gotta go do something.” So where was I campaigning for movies? I was producing that concert around the clock, 24/7, right after the election.

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