Harvey Weinstein Discusses His Career Highs and Lows with Tina Brown at TIFF

Legendary movie mogul Harvey Weinstein sat down for a career-spanning discussion with Tina Brown at TIFF.

Eric Forsyth

A modish mélange of A-list stars, film executives, and journalists gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto on Tuesday night to honor the man, the myth, the legend: Harvey Weinstein. Nicknamed “The Punisher” by none other than Meryl Streep, the bullish movie mogul’s name has become synonymous with Oscar—he has racked up 321 nominations and 78 wins, including two out of the last three Academy Award winners for Best Picture.

“He’s well on his way to becoming the Harvey Weinstein of his generation,” said Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast, which hosted the event along with Credit Suisse.

The evening drew the likes of actors Adrien Brody, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Brühl as well as industry professionals such as IMDB founder Col Needham. After an ornate arrangement of salmon tartare perched atop a bed of spicy guacamole came the main event.

Weinstein, former head of Miramax and now The Weinstein Co., carried a whopping seven films into this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, including Stephen Frears’s Philomena, the Nelson Mandela biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the ensemble dramedy August: Osage County, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, and more. And Weinstein is no stranger to TIFF, having used it as an awards launching pad for several of his Oscar-winning hits, including The King’s Speech.

Below are some of the most memorable bits from the spirited discussion.

On TIFF as an Oscar launching pad:

We don’t have to worry about the process because there are so many people who are writing on websites, and in the trades. There are thousands of journalists covering the festival, and they anoint movies, they don’t anoint movies, and they create the race. And the movies speak for themselves.

On making August: Osage County:

The process of August: Osage County is an interesting one. About five or six years ago, a young guy who works for me named Ben Famiglietti walked into my office and said, “I just read an amazing play.” I said, “Let me read it.” And he dropped off a 190-page script, and I said, “This is crazy.” And then I started reading it and it was the most incredible dialogue I’d read in a long time, up there with Tennessee Williams. These people were desperate for money, and I think it was $500,000 or something… I wrote the check [for the rights]. The play went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and was a financial success at the box office, and they kept their word and Jean [Doumanian] sold us the rights to make it a movie. George Clooney was our biggest competitor, so I thought it was only fair that George produce the movie with Jean.

On working with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts on August: Osage County:

Off-set, the cast loved each other. Meryl’s process is one of the most interesting ones. In order to do this role correctly, she was at Costco at two o’clock in the morning shopping like a homeless person. She becomes the role. She lives it. She is it. This is my sixth movie with her, and we’re about to do a seventh, and an eighth. And [Julia Roberts] loved it. It’s her favorite role, and she’s spectacularly good in the film. I’ve known her 20 years, and she was actually giddy last night. She and Taylor Swift went into the SoHo House and they went to the photo booth and they were just hugging all night with each other, with their tongues sticking out. Taylor Swift, I think, was shocked that Julia Roberts knew who she was, and Julia Roberts had the same reaction.

On which movies he’d take with him to a desert island:

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I would take John Ford’s Fort Apache, or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, or The Searchers. I would take any John Ford movie over any of my own.

On the title controversy over Lee Daniels’ The Butler:

Sometimes I like to think that the Motion Picture Association of America, whenever they rate my movies, is a financial partner in the company because they provide so much advertising. Now, Lee Daniels’ The Butler—what a name for a movie, eh? I registered The Butler with Warner Bros., and there’s a 1916 movie called The Butler, and they said they wouldn’t give me the title. They wanted to protect an 11-minute short! I asked the head of Warner Bros., “Have you ever seen this?” He said, “No.” The fact that I’m a percentage-holder in The Hobbit, which is one of their biggest hits, they wanted to reduce my percentage. I love that about studios—the movie grossed a billion dollars, and they want to reduce us. So, they made us go through this incredible fight and I think they thought we would back down, but we almost had the NAACP close Warner Bros. And when we asked people opening weekend what made them see the movie, 40 percent of the audience said the controversy.

On battling with Lionsgate at TIFF '13 for Can a Song Save Your Life?

I don’t know if anybody saw Once, but the writer and director of Once, John Carney, made this beautiful movie with Keira Knightley, who sings beautifully. It’s a lovely story of a girl who’s attached to Adam Levine, and he dumps her and becomes a blow-dry rock star, and he comes in with James Corden and tries to record a record. It’s such a beautiful, romantic movie, so afterwards, going in to battle for the movie, we went off the pot. This guy said he loved Joe Mankiewicz, so I said, “I can name five movies he’s directed. Can the other guy name five movies? I bet he couldn’t do two.” That actually worked.

On why Cameron Diaz was essential on the set of Gangs of New York:

One of the better examples of that is I have a long and close relationship with Marty Scorsese. In 1999, Marty couldn’t get Gangs of New York financed. So I said, “Fine, I’ll go into this arena myself as a producer.” It’s an epic battle making this movie. We kept Cameron Diaz for four months—she had, like, two weeks worth of work—only because it balanced the gigantic egos of Daniel Day-Lewis, myself, Leo DiCaprio, and Marty. You had to have some respite from these type-A males. Especially when Daniel Day-Lewis would go, “Oh, I don’t need a stuntman. Leo, do you want a stuntman?” I’m sure Leo probably wanted a stuntman, because when you have to fight Daniel Day-Lewis, Jesus Christ, you probably need two stuntmen. But Daniel says, “We don’t need them, do we, lad?” And he says, “No, of course we don’t.” There was chaos every day.

On Gangs of New York, and how to deal with a director that has final cut:

We said we needed an elephant on Tuesday at four o’clock in the afternoon. They assured us it would be there, but we’re there, we’ve blown up the streets of New York City, and the elephant’s not there. They literally brought a tiger in a cage. We said an elephant! The end of that story is I said, “Marty, just keep shooting.” I called George Lucas and said, “We’re effed. We don’t have a goddamn elephant. Tell us how to shoot it!” So it’s the only CGI shot in the movie. Marty presented the final cut of the movie and it’s three hours and 36 minutes. If you thought there was action in Gangs of New York the movie, you should have seen that editing room! But we got the movie down to two hours and 36. The end of the story is that the movie was a big success, 10 Academy Award nominations and grossed $200 million dollars, it revived his career after a couple of mishaps, and he says, “Harvey would always say to me, ‘I want the director’s cut put out.’” So he says in the DVD commentary, “You think I’m that fucking stupid that I’m gonna put out the director’s cut at three hours and 36 minutes? That would prove Harvey’s a genius!” So, that’s how final cut works.

On Miramax’s rough marriage with Disney:

I loved a book when I was a kid called The Lord of the Rings. I put $10 million towards it, created a studio in New Zealand called Weta, I commissioned Peter Jackson to write the three scripts, and I walk in to Disney because we had a cap of $40 million—we couldn’t make a movie over forty—and I said, “These are three fantastic scripts. This is Lord of the Rings.” We showed [Michael Eisner] a 45-minute clip which showed how the 10,000 people would work, and one of the things Peter innovated was where you’d have battle scenes where the characters would go through a program of fighting, and these battle scenes use epic technology. Eisner says, “Nobody’s going to see Lord of the Rings. Forget it.” That broke my heart because it was my personal project, and I said, “Michael, do you mind if I keep my producing fees on the project since nobody’s going to see it,” and he said, “Fine, you can have ‘em.” Let me tell you, I don’t need to put my kids through college—I’m shopping for which one to buy. That, and then I did a movie called Fahrenheit 9/11 and Disney just went nuts on me… I realized dictatorship is better. Democracy works for government, not movies.