10.08.10

Why We Heart John Lennon

Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and British producer/humorist Martin Lewis have been "odd couple" pals for decades, bonded by their love of Lennon. In this "duologue," they celebrate the Beatle in honor of his 70th birthday.

American movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and British producer/humorist Martin Lewis have been “odd couple” pals for nearly 30 years—bonded by their shared love of movies, music, and especially John Lennon. In this alternating “duologue,” they compare notes on their friendship and their passion for the Beatle whose 70th anniversary is being celebrated this month.

In the red corner: Harvey Weinstein, originally from Flushing, New York. Movie mogul with 63 Oscar wins and 274 nominations under his belt.

In the blue corner: Martin Lewis, originally from London, and now splashing in the Shallow End, aka Hollywood. Producer/humorist with no wins or nominations and barely wearing a cardboard belt.

HW: I’ve known Martin for three decades—it only feels like four decades. I think we met at the Cannes Film Festival in 1981, which I used to visit each year after my brother Bob and I launched Miramax Films. I remember him telling me that he had a background in the music business, but I didn’t immediately know that he was a fellow Lennon fan.

ML: I first encountered—I think that’s the word—Harvey in 1981. He was visiting London, following a grab ‘n’ run trip to the Cannes Film Festival looking for acquisitions. He always thinks we met at Cannes. But I was too poor and/or too cheap to go there. I’d just finished producing a film of a benefit show for Amnesty International called The Secret Policeman’s Ball, which featured the Monty Python troupe—and I was looking for a U.S. distributor. I’d met with several executives from big studios. Hated them all. They all looked smooth in Armani suits. Like they’d been dipped in Mazola. But none of them had any passion. I asked one guy “do you actually like Monty Python?” and he replied “I love him—he’s so funny.” Then I met Harvey. Harvey wasn’t wearing Armani. But he was wearing passion on his sleeve. He wanted to pick up the film. Once I discovered that he had a music background, I knew he was the right guy for the film.

HW: My brother Bob and I had started a concert promotion business when we were at university in Buffalo. We promoted every major rock act of the era. Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Yes, Led Zeppelin—and of course we’d presented Paul McCartney. Arising out of putting Paul McCartney on in concert, Bob and I acquired rights to distribute the Paul McCartney film Rockshow, which was the film of that great 1976 “Wings Over America” tour. It was one of the first releases by Miramax.

ML: Finding out that Harvey had released that film was the other thing that convinced me that Miramax should release the Secret Policeman’s Ball films. Unlike the big studio guys, he understood the zeitgeist and the audience.

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HW: I had to educate Martin a little about the American film market. By the time we did the deal and acquired distribution rights—Martin and Amnesty had made a second concert film, The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. This one had more Monty Python skits, but also great rock performances by Sting, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and others. Martin’s idea was to put these two films out as a double bill. I had to explain to him why that wouldn’t work.

ML: He’s right about that. I did want to put it out that way. He had to explain to me why four hours was too long in a movie theater. Harvey suggested boiling them down into one great film for the American market. He and Bob worked on it with me for a few weeks. Worked out great. Their instincts on what to cut and what to keep made the film. And that made Amnesty a huge amount of money. And even more importantly, it put Amnesty on the map in the U.S. with young people. When do we get to talk about our mutual love of John Lennon?

“You and I know how important John Lennon was. Not just to us, but also to the world. What John, Paul, George, and Ringo did—it’s astonishing.”

HW: It’s a bond we had without even knowing it at first. My first work experience happened when my mom came home one day and said she’d heard about an internship at some fruit company. Needless to say, I wasn’t especially interested until I found out that the company she’d heard about was actually the Beatles’ company Apple Records! I jumped at the chance, and before I knew it, I was interning at Apple. I had the best time. Once I had to go to JFK and pick up John and Paul, who had flown to New York for some meetings. Can you imagine driving those guys?!

ML: I am deeply envious of that! What do you remember most about the drive?

HW: Well, they were smoking some kind of “herbal cigarettes,” I think! I’m not sure if it was the cloud in the car or just the high of meeting them, but I didn’t come down for a week!

ML: How cool to have met John. I never had that honor. Shortly after you had that experience, I went to work for the late Derek Taylor, who’d been the Beatles’ press agent for much of the 1960s. This was at the London offices of Warner Bros. Records. He was an incredible mentor. I was supposed to be writing press releases and artist bios, but I spent most of my time at his feet, listening to old Beatles stories.

HW: I was in the Apple office as much I could get away with. Just being sent out to buy John Lennon a tuna fish sandwich was a buzz!

ML: I felt that way working for Derek. Wonderful man. Taught me all about publicity and marketing.

HW: That came in handy when I met you. I remember you being snippy about the campaign we were putting together for the Secret Policeman’s Ball movie and saying that you could do better.

ML: That was partly my British arrogance! You know we guys are still smarting about the Boston Tea Party! But I had had some great training from Derek, and I wanted to see if my ideas might work in the U.S.

HW: Well, they did. Monty Python had recently had some trouble in the U.S. with their film Life of Brian being banned in many markets. And your idea was to spoof that by doing a trailer and TV spots that mocked the Moral Majority, which was behind the banning of the Python film.

ML: Yeah, that’s right. I got Graham Chapman (bless him) dressed up as a fundamentalist minister representing the ORAL Majority. And saying that the film was the most lewd, disgusting movie since The Sound of Music, and that it had to be banned before it turned America into a nation of perverts!

HW: Graham was absolutely brilliant on that. And then he stands up to reveal that, behind his desk, he’s wearing black fishnet stockings and a pink tutu. It was killer. Then you did something that initially freaked me out. You planted a photo of Graham dressed like that in the Marilyn Beck column in the NY Daily News. Three TV stations in New York City, where we were planning to run the TV spot, decided they wouldn’t air the ad—saying it was insulting to the Moral Majority. Of course, Derek had trained you well. You knew what would happen. We got enormous amounts of free editorial publicity about the film. Which helped turn it into a hit. Bob and I took careful note of what you did!

ML: Well, you guys really ran with that on a much bigger scale and turned it into an art form. I’m happy to have provided a little spark in the early days.

HW: The time when we really discovered our shared love of John Lennon was when we were working together on the reissue of A Hard Day’s Night in 2000. I didn’t know what a Beatle freak you were until you came on board to help with the release of that and to produce the DVD edition.

ML: What made me understand how much you loved John Lennon was how much you backed that project. You didn’t care what it cost to make that DVD good. All you cared about was that it be the best DVD ever for Beatles fans. You insisted that we make something spectacular. I don’t think anyone else would have given me that support. Now here we are in 2010—the 70th anniversary of John Lennon’s birth—and you’re releasing this movie about John’s teenage years, Nowhere Boy. I remember you called me up one day a few months ago and asked me to view it. Give you my opinion. I approached viewing it with some trepidation. What if I didn’t like it? I’ve seen several well-intended TV movies about the Beatles that didn’t cut it. This was a full theatrical feature film. Given your perfectionism, I should have known better than to worry! I was totally floored by it. Blown away.

HW: Sam Taylor-Wood did an amazing job on it, didn’t she? What impacted you the most?

ML: That it’s so true to the actual story and poignant, but without false sentimentality. I didn’t tell you this before, but I wept like a baby throughout, the first time I saw the film. Tears of pain for what John went through. Tears of joy that someone got his story so right. I kept thinking how much pain John went through. Remember in his song “My Mummy’s Dead” on the Plastic Ono Band album when he sings, “so much pain—I could never show it....” It just wasn’t “done” for a lad to show his feelings in those days. Boy, what he went through...

HW: I am so passionate about this film. You and I know how important John Lennon was. Not just to us, but also to the world. He influenced so many millions of people. Not just to our generation. But to all the younger generations that have followed. What John, Paul, George, and Ringo did—it’s astonishing.

ML: I think it was really savvy to have had the film made by a female director. Sam understood the triangle between his mother and his aunt. How both of these women loved John—each in their own way—and how he loved them so deeply. I think a male director would have missed that important aspect. I spent a little time chatting with Yoko after her concert in L.A. last Friday. As always, she’s helping Amnesty International. Her support for Amnesty is so phenomenal. Anyway, I was invited in to have a little chat, and as usual, she was just so incredible. A lady of 77 who had just done a three-hour rock concert! She was telling me how much she loves Sam and the film. Said that John would have loved the film. I told her that the film reminded me of that line in the last love song that John wrote to her: “Woman.” There’s a line that goes, “I know you understand, the little child inside the man…” That’s this film for me. It helps all of us understand that “little child” inside John. She very much liked that thought. I’m so glad I got to tell her.

HW: Both Yoko and Paul have been stellar about this film. Sam needed their blessing to include songs. Yoko had to approve the film in order to let Sam use “Mother,” and Paul had to give his blessing for the inclusion of one of his first songs, “In Spite of All the Danger.” I called Paul and set it up for him to see the film. He was just a total mensch about it. He understood that it’s a dramatic feature film, not a documentary. When you condense five years into a 100-minute film, there’s inevitably a little dramatic license. He got that. And he understood that the film captures the absolute essence of John. I got to tell you, Martin—the biggest thing that unites Yoko and Paul is how much they both love John, and how much John loved them.

ML: That is without any doubt. I was invited to see Paul when he performed at a very intimate gig at Amoeba Records in L.A. a few years ago. He sang that tribute song he wrote about John back in 1982. “Here Today.” Ringo was there, and Olivia. It was like a show just for family and friends. In all the years I’ve seen Paul perform, I’ve never once seen him lose his composure. But when he was singing that song he just choked up in the middle of it. Lost it. He recovered a couple of lines later. But there wasn’t a dry eye to be found. The love is just so deep. I like how that is shown in Nowhere Boy. Those two guys were blood brothers, united by their love of American rock ‘n’ roll. And emotionally bonded by both having lost their mothers at that tender age. Their gift to us is that they channeled their pain and sorrow into making great music.

HW: I’m glad you reached out to the Quarrymen and asked their opinions about the film. Some of those guys knew John from the age of 5. They were his closest buddies. And the fact that they all endorsed the film and its authenticity means a lot to me and to Sam Taylor-Wood.

Well, I think it’s time to close this conversation out and raise a glass to the birthday of someone we’ve both admired all our lives. Here’s to John Lennon.

ML: Yup. Here’s to John. We all shine on. I have no doubt that our shared love of John is one of the things that makes us lifelong blood brothers...the two of us. Imagine.

Martin Lewis is a British-born, U.S.-based, humorist and producer. Among his many film, TV and DVD productions—he produced the legendary Secret Policeman's Ball series of benefit shows/movies/albums for Amnesty International starring Monty Python, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Rowan Atkinson & Billy Connolly et al; and the DVD editions of The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and the Who's The Kids Are Alright . He recruited Sting, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Bob Geldof, Phil Collins et al to join Amnesty International's ranks and produced their landmark solo performances for the organization.

Harvey Weinstein is the co-chairman of The Weinstein Company, which includes Dimension Films, the genre label that began Miramax. Since launching in 2005, The Weinstein Company has released numerous films, including the Oscar-nominated Inglourious Basterds and The Reader . Weinstein founded Miramax Films in 1979 with his brother Bob and the two helped the company release some of its most critically acclaimed and commercially successful films. Under the Weinsteins’ tenure, Miramax received more than 60 Academy Awards.