When I learned that Robert Shaye (Bob), founder of New Line Cinema and Unique Features, had directed his third feature, "Ambition," I knew that I had to interview him myself. He produced some of the biggest horror and fantasy films at a time when independent filmmakers and studios were not thought of as mainstream. Among his producing credits are "A Nightmare on Elm Street," both screen versions of "Hairspray" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. After New Line Cinema was merged with Warner Bros. Pictures in 2008, Bob and his partner Michael Lynne left and started Unique Features. Roger had great affection for many of Bob's films, and over the years, they became friends. My husband often advocated for Bob's suggestion that the MPAA implement an “A-rating” for films considered more adult than R and less explicit than X.
Bob's new thriller, "Ambition," is about a young musician, Jude (Katherine Hughes), who's preparing for a competition when mysterious and malevolent forces cause her sense of reality to fracture. The film opens in select theaters, On Demand and on digital platforms this Friday, September 20th. In the following conversation, we discuss everything from his initial impressions of "Pink Flamingos" to his thoughts regarding the need for inclusivity in the film industry.—Chaz Ebert
I wanted to do this interview myself because Roger had so much respect for what you did in the film industry.
I’m really glad to talk to you for many reasons. It takes me back to that conversation Roger and I had in front of a bunch of people at Telluride about 10 or 15 years ago, and how much fun it was. I think it's so wonderful that you're carrying on the tradition. Today is actually Werner Herzog’s birthday. We are both old goats, and after a period of time, you start getting a little philosophical.
I was going back and reading some of the stuff that Roger had written, and he mentioned in his book Awake in the Dark that he had met Herzog at a party that was held at your house.
Yeah, it was at my place on Second Avenue and 14th Street, which is where New Line got started. Roger brought a bottle of bourbon, and the three of us sat in my little living room.
When you founded New Line in 1967, had you already gone to Columbia Law School?
Yes. I went to law school from 1961 to 64. I was fortunate—as opposed to clever—enough that right after I had been drafted to go to Vietnam, my Fulbright acceptance letter arrived. I sent it to my draft board and said, “I’m sorry, the government is calling me for a higher duty.” [laughs] Instead of going to Vietnam, I went to Stockholm. That was really a higher duty. I spent a few years there, and when I got back, I went to work for the Museum of Modern Art.
So you had an interest in art and culture back then, even though you went to law school?
I would say art and culture is a bit of a stretch. It turned out that I was always very interested in great movies. It was more about visuality and ultimately, at the end of the day, entertainment, whether it's just for a pure giggle or whether it's intellectual. I really get a kick out of entertaining people. I even like to cook for them often because it gives me pleasure. I’m a bit like a Jewish mother in that regard. [laughs]
One of the things that Roger and I used to discuss is the fact that you actually are the one who helped catapult independent films into the mainstream. I'm sure that wasn't your ultimate goal in 1967, but why did you think that you could even start an independent film company back then, being from Detroit?
I had made a short film that won a bunch of prizes, and I tried to get it distributed. Janus Films had a program of short films that they were sending around to college campuses, and they rejected my film. The only distributor I could find was the Filmmakers’ Cooperative in New York, Jonas Mekas’ place, which I think is still in existence. I wasn't getting the kind of response that I thought I was entitled to, so out of either ignorance or arrogance, one or the other, I just said, “What the hell, I'll put together my own film program by distributing it myself, and I'm going to include the films I directed without any stinky distributors saying yes or no.” I am not a film snob in that way. One of our early films, as you know, was “Pink Flamingos,” which is hardly anything that Film Comment would want to write about, at least at that time.
And now it’s a cult classic!
I like to turn people on. That’s not a pitch, it’s actually an honest statement. Anything I can do to entertain and to thrill and to provoke interests me.
How were you able to find John Waters at that time?
We didn't have any money. Our office was above Smith’s Bar and Grill on 13th Street. It was at the corner of 13th Street and University Place, and for a company that was distributing movies to colleges, I thought University Place was the perfect address. Instead, it turned out to be a crummy little loft space above the bar with a steam table in it, so we were just scratching around and trying to find stuff. I just had lunch yesterday with Bob Blechman, one of the filmmakers who was in one of the first packages we had. I met a guy who represented the Czech film industry in the United States named Jerry Rappaport.
Or as he used to call himself, Jerry Rappa-Pappa-Pappa-Port. [laughs]
He was a real character. There was a program of films at the Museum of Modern Art when I was working there, and he agreed to let me distribute two films for nothing. We're offering nothing except our hard work, and I said, “I'll split everything 50/50, and you can take it away if you don't have a certain amount of money after nine months. Just give me a chance.” It was the stuff that nobody else wanted, and they felt flattered that I wanted to distribute it. I didn’t know who John Waters was from Adam when his 16 millimeter film case arrived in my loft from the trusty mailman. It was a film called “Multiple Maniacs,” and I looked at it and said, “Woah, I have no clue what's going on here.”
I always tried to reject stuff without insulting the filmmaker, because I had been insulted so many times, and I knew how badly it felt. So I sent John a decent letter that said, “I don't know who you are, but your stuff is interesting. It doesn't quite make it for me, but if you get something else that has a little bit more excitement and production value, we’d be glad to look at your next work.” About three months later, “Pink Flamingos” showed up. I went into our screening room, which was a room with a sheet tacked on the wall and a 16 millimeter projector on a table, and looked at this movie. I couldn't believe my eyes.
There was one scene that was so unbelievable that I actually turned off the projector, ran it backwards and looked at it again because I had never seen anything like it. It was a scene where David Lochary is driving an old Cadillac convertible with Mink Stole down a country road, and there’s a really cute hitchhiker sitting on a farm fence, who turned out to be a transsexual. After I saw the film, and realized that it contained real people doing real things on camera, I called him up and said, “This is incredible, John.”
Back then, no one was showing things like that on camera.
That film started our relationship. The guy from the Elgin Cinema, Ben Barenholtz, was just showing “El Topo,” and it had this huge midnight crowd. I showed him “Pink Flamingos,” and he reluctantly decided to take it on and show it at midnight as well. That's how the whole thing got started.
I'm glad you mentioned midnight movies because your choice to market the 1936 anti-drug film “Reefer Madness” as a comedy in the early 70s was so ahead of its time. It seemed like it really kind of gave birth to the modern midnight movie.
That’s an interesting story too. The Olympia Theatre up near Columbia was going to be part of my exhibition, production and directing empire, and the guy who was managing the theater, Russell Schwartz, was helping NORML, the marijuana organization, market the film on college campuses, which is our primary market. We figured out a legal way to get a copy of the film, and we started to distribute it ourselves. It was one of the things that helped save our company. Russell went on to become the head of marketing at New Line for a while.
I remember so many of the films you distributed—especially, of course, “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
As Wes used to say, “Nightmare on Elm Street” was the film that built his house, and I guess—in many ways—it was the film that built ours. It was the first legitimate theatrical film that we had, even though we had done some other films before it. But that was the one that really clicked.
One of the things that Roger used to say, both about Wes Craven and about you, is that a film like “Nightmare” worked because the men behind it were smart, curious and knew that they had to hit people on multiple levels, not just in a simplistic way.
I agree with that. One of the only other times that happened was with “Lord of the Rings.” Nightmares are in everybody’s consciousness. Everybody knows what nightmares are like, and they know that sense of relief when they wake up, and it was just a dream. The idea Wes presented was that of a dream you don't wake up from, and if the monster really killed you in the dream, it would kill you for real. I figured it was going to be a fantastic marketing ploy, because you didn't have to convince people about what it was like. With “Ambition,” the tagline we're using right now is, “How would you like to kill your roommate?” For the millennial women who are our target audience, it struck me as being a suggestion that could resonate, because every kid who’s had a crummy roommate in their life might occasionally want to stick a knife in them. [laughs] And in this film, they actually do.
You made one of the most classic gambles in the movie industry with your three-picture “Lord of the Rings” saga. When I go back and read about that deal, I wonder how in the world did you have the foresight and the vision to take a gamble like that, and did you think it was going to pay off?
Sometimes I don’t pay enough attention. It’s like that poem goes, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” I’ve rushed into a few fools at times in my life where they turned out to be not as foolish as they sounded. There were a number of lateral issues about what our product flow was at that time, and the relationship I had with Mike De Luca was kind of deteriorating. Our need was for something that had a character similar to “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which occupied so many people's minds. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, so many people have read these books and are such fervent and avid fans of them. Harry Potter is a little bit like the junior version of them. When the project became available for one week, I checked with our head of international and with our head of domestic, along with my own sensibilities, as well as those of Mike Lynne, and we decided that this could be another “Nightmare.”
Besides the excitement I felt about this being an incredibly interesting project, I wasn't really aware of how complicated it was going to be. On top of that, Peter Jackson had given us an estimate of what it was going to cost to make the film, which was going to be $80 million. When I met Peter, he was trying to sell it as two films, but since there were three books, I wanted three films. I couldn't think of any better way to do it. I wished they had even more books to adapt, as with Harry Potter. In terms of how we were going to finance it, I talked to our head of international, who was really key in our situation. Our whole business plan was to create films that had international sales value, resell them and then reuse the contracts to finance the films and keep the domestic for our own distribution. Our head of international checked with all of our buyers, and they were the best independent companies in the world. They all said, “Yeah, we'd love to do it,” and he made really tough terms, requiring them to finance all three films through their respective territories. He gave them the numbers we wanted, and it was huge.
Along with the pre-sale assurances that I had, plus a couple of cash deals which were very prevalent, we had financed about 80% of the film just out of conjecture, so I figured for the 20% risk that we could do it. It had such strong commercial potential in the United States that it was not a big risk. The only risk, which was still a substantial one, was whether Peter Jackson, who had directed movies like “Meet the Feebles” and “Dead Alive,” would be able to take three movies costing $80 million dollars, and make them into something that was worth the time and effort and money. What I didn't know when we sent our production team to New Zealand, was that Peter’s suggested price tag was a pipe dream. He had no clue what it was going to cost. We found out that the first film was going to cost $125 million. He couldn't wait for 18 months to see how it was going to do at the box office because all three films had to be made together. The actors would noticeably age and all the locations wouldn’t be available if we had waited.
Wow! What a narrative! And it all turned out so well. I am going to skip forward to Unique Features. You and Michael Lynne worked hand-in-hand as partners for many years at both New Line Cinema and Unique Features.
Michael and I left New Line together. He started off at the very beginning as our outside lawyer. Then he joined the Board of Directors and eventually agreed to discontinue his law practice, joining with me as president of the company. He was such a pivotal part of what was going on. I made him co-chairman, and he and I worked very closely together. He was mainly in New York, while I was primarily in Los Angeles. When we left, I wanted to continue in the business and we had a housekeeping deal if we wanted it at Warner Bros., which we accepted. We came up with the name of a new company, and we still were operating a lot on the same basis. Though we made several films, it was a minor effort, since we were recovering from a very successful but also very strenuous tenure at New Line and Time Warner.
The whole thing was kind of ironic with Toby Emmerich taking over my job. I’ll admit there were moments during this period that weren’t bitter so much as sad. I was responsible for the New Line logo and its accompanying music as well as designed all the T-shirts, etc. It took a little time to recover from it, so we started Unique. Michael dying a few months ago was a bit of a wake-up call for me to start taking a more active, serious and delighted role in the films we are making, and I think we've got some great stuff coming up. I'm excited about “Ambition,” of course, because it's my third child. It happened almost accidentally, which sometimes happens to families. [laughs]
What were the first two?
The first one was called “Book of Love,” adapted from a book called Jack in the Box, written by Bill Kotzwinkle. I had been looking for something to do after spending twenty years distributing movies, which was not really what the whole objective was in starting a company. I realized that I had a tiger by the tail, so to speak, and I might as well try to tame it as well as I could. Sara Risher had found the book for me, and it’s about growing up in the 50s, which Bill and I had done. I grew up in Detroit and Bill grew up in Scranton, which is pretty close to the same thing. I had a lot of fun making a movie with all these kids, and I’m very proud of it. It did modest business, but as you are with all of your children, you typically try to have some pride in them even though the rest of the world might not recognize them as worthy of it.
The second film that I made came from a short story. I was a big science-fiction fan as a kid, and there was a very famous science-fiction story called Mimsy Were the Borogoves. We bought the story and tried for ten years to develop it. We went through a lot of drafts with a lot of different writers, and nothing really clicked. Eventually, we had quite a bit of money invested in the development, and at some point, I felt kind of guilty that I wanted to direct it, because I didn't feel strongly about it. I decided to dig in and find a writer that was enthusiastic, and really pay the price for a good script. So we chose Bruce Joel Rubin, who won an Academy Award for “Ghost.” He’s also an old friend of mine from Detroit as well as a huge science fiction fan. He loved the story too, so we put together a script that I quite liked and decided to make it as a substantial motion picture.
Again, I was quite proud of it. I think it has its problems—as some director once said, “You don’t finish a film, you abandon it,” which is true. It also did modest business, but both films paid for their expenses, if not for all of their creative labor. “Ambition” just came up out of the blue. It had a theme that really interested me about questioning the reality of things, and movies offer a quintessential example of that. When you see lions and tigers talking like people while resembling real animals, you realize that there's something goofy going on. “Ambition” is meant to be more of a seductive tale with a bit of foolery, as it were..
What made you decide that you wanted to go back to directing a film at this point in your career?
Well, it wasn't like I had left. I walked away from the table, but I hadn't left the casino, so to speak. There were many good reasons why I parted ways with New Line, but it was also really like having a child grow up. I never lost the ambition to continue my directing career. That was what I wanted to do when I first got into the business. I’ll never forget the T-shirt Wes Craven wore when I first met him that read, “What I really want to do is direct.” Most people in the movie business, except for the crazy agents and dyed-in-the-wool sales people, really have a hankering to direct. They think that's where moviemaking really happens, which is true in a sense, but it's an incredibly complicated process, unless you subscribe to the Auteur Theory, which I never did. As a director, you have to be captain of the ship, but you also have to rely on the guy who's doing the steering and the people who are running the engine and all the other stuff.
I wanted to make “Ambition” for many reasons, one being that the premise was unique. We had some success with a few films that we made, but I was getting a little itchy to get back into the creative part of things. Being a producer is fun. I have pretty strong feelings about the respect that a producer has to have for the authority of a director. As a producer, I would never walk up to actors when a film is being made and tell them what to do. You job is to remain behind-the-scenes, since you're the catalyst for putting this thing together. Some of the greatest highs I've ever experienced are from being in a process that's creative. It’s that feeling you may get as a writer when you turn a phrase the right way, and it's incredibly satisfying. It sort of scratches an itch that you’ve had, and I always had that itch.
Buried within the script of “Ambition” is an idea that served as the basis of my first short film and is very current right now. How do you know that what you’re seeing, at any given moment, is real? Trump calls it fake news. I once gave a speech in Davos about this very subject fifteen years ago, and I made a comment at the end about a commercial aired in the early days of digital manipulation, where you see Fred Astaire dancing with a Dyson vacuum cleaner. If you can make that look real, how can we know what’s false? That became the real foundation of “Ambition,” which makes use of the unreliable narrator. I hope it will grab the attention of audiences, particularly millennial females, by having them question what they’re seeing. I took a formal approach similar to Douglas Sirk, so it takes a while to figure out the truth of what's happening, and I hope viewers will find it compelling and fun to see the story through to its conclusion.
Well, this goes back to a much older, comedic point made by Richard Pryor when he asked, “Who are you going to believe—me or your lying eyes?”
[laughs] Exactly right. Some people in the movie business know a lot about persuading with their lying eyes, no question about it. That's how the rest of us get sucked in.
Who would you single out as your influences for “Ambition”? Would you say Wes Craven?
It was actually more influenced by “Black Swan,” which is a film that impressed me quite a bit. Marty Scorsese, who actually shared my first short film prize with me, made “Shudder Island,” a movie that also influenced “Ambition.” As I was brought up in the age of 12-inch, black and white television, and radio before that, I was always taken with characters who had vivid imaginations. The original “Of Mice and Men” moved me deeply, as did all of Fellini’s films. Those films only had a very indirect influence on “Ambition,” which is more about having fun and solving a puzzle. It doesn’t have to be seen on a big screen. Watching it is like working on your Suduko in the morning, and if you haven't figured it out, you get the answer at the end. The story is mostly centered around women in their early 20s and men are more of collateral characters, and in some cases, may be villains. I hope it will attract young women. It’s a thriller that’s not overly bloody and is fun to talk about. It will be worth people’s 85 minutes to sit down and watch it, whether it’s on Netflix or wherever they can find it. It'll be on a lot of media platforms once it opens on September 20th.
From 1967 to now, things have changed so much in the movie industry. Do you find that things are better now that more women are getting involved both in front of and behind the camera in executive roles, in cinematography and in green-lighting movies?
I happen to be in the minority. I think that women are fantastic. I have no male prejudices about them in any way, shape, or form, particularly professionally in the movie business. There are certainly great actresses as well as there are great actors. I think one of the reasons that there are more men as directors than women is not because there was a prejudice—I didn't have a prejudice, let me put it that way. I can’t speak for the rest of the industry. I just think that there weren't that many women that wanted to get into the movie business. It seemed to me that there were more actresses than anything else. But Rachel Talalay became a director after producing “Book of Love” for me, and director Catherine Hardwicke produced her first film for us. It was always a question of trying to choose the right person who had a bit of a resume, or some reasons to be attached as a director to fit the bill, In my case, I’m certain that it didn't have anything to do with, “Oh, she's a woman…”
Maybe not in your case, but you’ve got to admit that there were a lot of opportunities for men, especially white men, that were not there for women or people of color.
Honestly, I’m a white man, so I can’t really say that I ever felt any prejudice. The only prejudice I ever felt against me was that since I was a jerk from Detroit, what am I doing trying to make movies in the first place? That was the prejudice that I had to fight against the whole time. So I guess everybody has their own baggage that they carry around. I don't know how heavy that is for people of color or for females, but in my case, I've never had anybody say to me, “Oh, she's a chick. She couldn't do that,” or, “He's a black guy, he can’t do that.” At New Line, we found the Hughes Brothers as well as Reginald Hudlin, who did “House Party.” Anybody who had a story that connected with people was of interest to us.
I agree that it’s great in how there are even more opportunities right now, and people are doing a kind of affirmative action approach to moviemaking. But it's such an expensive and difficult proposition that I'm sure they're also choosing the cream of that crop. There’s a lot of people who want to make movies, period, and not everybody gets to do it. It's not like they didn't get to make a movie because they come from Detroit. They didn't get to do it because nobody ever heard of them, and they didn't have any show reel. I never ask, “Is this person a woman or from South America?” When we gave Guillermo del Toro “Blade 2,” which did really well for him, I didn’t look down on him because he spoke Spanish. I think it’s more about the disappointment people feel when unable to find work. In the movie business, you have to be good-looking, clever, witty and know how to insinuate yourself into the process. On the other hand, I'm totally for being more inclusive. The only thing I care about is, “Can you tell a good story? Are you responsible? Do you know how you're going to sell it?”
Well, I wish you much success with “Ambition,” and I'm really happy to see that you still have a passion for movies.
I really am, too, ma’am. I’m looking forward to the next time we get to have two shots of bourbon together.
I actually gave it up many years ago, but I'll have some fizzy water. [laughs] I also have one personal thing that I’d like to say to you. When Roger was sick, you and your company would call and send letters asking how he was doing, and you really showed that you cared.
Gene Siskel once said, “They care when they're making the movie, and they want you to talk about it. But who's gonna call if you're sick?” And you did, Sherry Lansing did, lots of people did. You stayed true to the relationship that you had with Roger, and I just want to say that I really appreciated it at that time.
Thank you for the compliment, but it’s not really required. He was a friend of mine, and I really think friendship trumps almost everything.
"Ambition" opens in select cities on Friday, September 20th, and will also be available On Demand and on digital platforms. For more information, visit the film's official site.