His films have won 75 Oscars, he’s friends with Obama and if he says jump, you get out the trampoline. Legendary film mogul Harvey Weinstein talks to Andrew Lowry
Let’s do a quick experiment. Who are Kevin Tsujihara, Jim Gianopulos and Jonathan Glickman? No? They respectively run Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox and MGM. Now, who’s Harvey Weinstein? Exactly.
Few film executives have embraced the public eye quite like Weinstein, and he’s parlayed this to a position of influence, both in film and beyond. His various pictures, including The English Patient, The Artist and Gangs Of New York, have won a whopping 75 Oscars from 303 nominations, Time magazine had him on its 2012 list of the world’s most influential people, and his ability to raise election cash made him a serious political player in the US Democrat party. So when he rescheduled our interview multiple times, we weren’t too angry.
Especially given Weinstein’s reputation as half mogul, half mob boss. The 61-year-old claims to have mellowed recently, but tales of his antics in the Nineties abound, from getting journalists in headlocks to threats of violence to those who displeased him.
What’s more, rookie filmmakers were dismayed to have their final cuts brutally altered by Weinstein. Not for nothing did he gain the nickname ‘Harvey Scissorhands’, going as far as shaving an hour off Martin Scorsese’s cut of Gangs Of New York. He once received a katana sword in the post as a gentle suggestion not to cut anything from a Japanese film.
It will come as no surprise to also learn that Peter Capaldi claims to have based his interpretation of Malcolm Tucker on Weinstein.
Print the legend
That said, during our chat, the legendary Weinstein schmooze is in full effect. ”This image of me as a cigar-chomping mogul is bullsh*t,” he says. “I can go frame by frame with any director on any movie. I know the history of movies backwards.” Still, he’s enough of a media pro to know a ‘don’t mess’ reputation can be useful.
“I’m happy to propagate the legend. You ever seen [John Ford’s 1962 western] The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? You remember the line ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’? That’s the trick.”
The feeling is more of a man who’s intolerant of bullsh*t in an industry with its foundations based on the stuff. He’s fresh from the premiere of August: Osage County, where he and pal Julia Roberts encountered a well-known band. “Kings Of Leon were there. We both love them, but they walked in with supermodel girlfriends. Julia and I were going, ‘Wait a second, they sing about the loneliness of the bus? The greasy café and the tough life in the steel town?’ Jesus Christ, they looked like the Victoria’s Secret show. We were just like, ‘Hey dudes, how do you do this?’”
Still, with all this public profile (and new award-chasing films including Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Philomena and The Butler), is he not wary of being front-and-centre for the box office flops, as well as the triumphs? Weinstein co-chairs The Weinstein Company with his brother Bob, and between them they have done everything from making Quentin Tarantino a generation’s icon to engendering a dust-up with (their then-parent company) Disney over the distribution of Fahrenheit 9/11 – when they stormily left their own studio.
Since 2005, TWC has worked as an award-magnet, indie-minded studio. It recently signed a deal with its old company Miramax, opening up the possibility for sequels and TV spin-offs for hits such as Swingers and Shakespeare In Love.
“For whatever reason, somehow, we’ve done some controversial movies and you end up being the face of your company,” he says. “We desperately tried to get Keira Knightley to be the face of our company, but so did Chanel, and they paid better. Michelle Williams got two Oscar nominations in the last two movies I did with her, and she chose Louis Vuitton. We couldn’t find anybody else, so me and my brother do it. We work for cheaper. Not for free, for cheaper.”
School of rock
The Weinstein brothers got their start in the Seventies as concert promoters, but the film world had always been calling. Talking to Harvey, you don’t get a sense of nostalgia about music.
“I studied film and went to film school,” he says. “I got a job in the music business to support my family; they needed me to work. I still see a lot of rock musicians now, and I kid them and tell them they were the reason I left the music industry. Believe me, I was going to leave anyway, but when you have to give somebody 37 red M&Ms in a bowl, and then they sing about saving Africa? Come on! Some of these metal bands, with their wigs and make-up, oh my God. I just wanted out. It was such a blatant act, and I couldn’t get over it.”
After the music industry, adding quality to a moribund US film scene was the priority. By the late Eighties, the Weinsteins flourished, hitting on the business model of buying artistically solid films from abroad, then heavily marketing them as a new hybrid of art film and event movie.
The gambit paid off; in 1989 Cinema Paradiso won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and, in the same year, Sex, Lies And Videotape won the Palme D’Or. In this pre box-set era, awards kudos brought grown-ups to the cinema, and a mini golden age began where unconventional films such as (another Palme D’Or winner) Pulp Fiction could make $200m.
But how do you bring in these all-important awards? “There’s only one thing to do in my experience; get as many people as possible to see a movie,” says Weinstein. “My best friends are in politics, and I learned a long time ago that if you don’t get people to vote, you can’t win. And if they don’t see your movie, they won’t vote. You can have all the lavish advertising in the world, you can have Judi Dench as your weekend date, but that won’t sway Oscar voters. They really have to see Philomena. It’s not just based on taking ads out in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. You try to get attention. It’s not voodoo.”
Getting coverage is one thing, but does it get boring after nearly three decades of free champagne, red carpets and press campaigns?
“I don’t get bored because, you know, Judi Dench has been nominated seven times, and keeping her from the champagne and walking straight is a full-time job. She wants to cut loose with Rihanna, and I have to keep them separate. They call each other Ri-Ri and Ju-Ju.”
Did we mention schmoozing?
August: Osage County is at cinemas from 24 January
(Image: Rex Features)