Discipline and simplicity. That’s the secret to successful storytelling according to legendary film producer Harvey Weinstein, who catches up with The Drum’s guest editor, Publicis Groupe chief executive Maurice Lévy, to talk about how movies can change the world.
Cannes has long been a happy hunting ground for one of Hollywood's most successful and celebrated producers, Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of The Weinstein Company. He has been associated with seven Palme d’Or winning films, including Pulp Fiction, The Piano and Sex, Lies and Videotape, at the city’s other iconic festival.
Sharing his love of European cinema with Maurice Lévy, he says that despite having his own two movies in the running, he was pleased to see Jacques Audiard take this year’s highest honour for Dheepan.
“I’ve long been a supporter of the European industry, and against some of the wishes of my friends at other studios, I’ve supported a quota system so that local movies get made,” says Weinstein. “I’m proud that France and Asia have vibrant entertainment industries. I love diversity and I will always take a controversial stance to support it. I grew up on European cinema in my film school days – it wasn’t until later that I studied the John Fords and the Howard Hawks’."
A “voracious reader” since 12 – the result of not being able to attend school after he lost an eye – he reads two books a week, along with the many scripts his job requires. Additionally, he extensively researches subjects and eras for his films, such as his reading around My Week With Marilyn, which he worked with Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams on.
“Michelle told me about a book on Arthur Miller that turned out to be 2,000 pages and I read it all – and then every other book she recommended on Marilyn Monroe. Very often, I study the history and era of my films so we can find more truth.
“When Elia Kazan wrote an essay about what a director does, he said that they have to be a jack of all trades – I think the same is true when you’re talking about a creative producer.”
Is this ability to turn his hand to anything the secret to his success? Weinstein offers a surprising response when Lévy suggests he has an Oscar factory somewhere (gongs have included the Academy Award for best picture with Shakespeare in Love). “I get far too much credit, but it’s the movies we choose to produce that bring us the awards. As anyone that makes movies knows, it is truly a group effort. It is the team that makes things good – and I’m not being modest. I loved sports when I was a kid and love teamwork, so perhaps that affinity is paying off.”
Making a successful movie, it seems, is a matter of determination to Weinstein, if his recent film Woman in Gold (pictured), starring Helen Mirren, is anything to go by. Despite his belief the film was “critic-proof”, it did not in fact go down well with the critics, yet still made money. “We tenaciously marketed this movie and now it is a hit all over the world. There have been many movies that I expected to do better as well as some that I was shocked by how well they did – but for now, the reason will have to remain a secret.”
His tenacity clearly resonates with Lévy, who cheekily asks Weinstein what he would do if he was handed the reins to a large communications business such as, say, Publicis Groupe. Ever the born leader, the New York City native quips that he would simply hire Lévy to do his job for him, while he spent more time with his family and reading travel brochures.
The world of advertising has become fascinated with the buzzword ‘storytelling’, and so Lévy asks Weinstein for his own tips for successfully telling a story – to which he stresses the importance of discipline and keeping the process simple.
My Week with Marilyn
“Telling a story is having discipline. It’s so easy to do things that are convoluted. I really believe in a beginning, middle and an end – but how you get there can be innovative. Just watch Pulp Fiction – the movie has a great happy ending yet John Travolta is dead. That’s the genius of Tarantino. Hard work and discipline is how you tell good stories.”
He also believes that storytelling can change the world. “The great thing about telling stories in cinema or television is that you get chance to move people or change people. I know with The Imitation Game, 49,000 gay men that were sentenced to crimes will be pardoned by the British government as a result of the work we did on that film. I know that because of Philomena, Ireland will give the names and records to all those mothers who lost their children. With The Thin Blue Line, we saw a man walk out of jail who was wrongly convicted.
“With Fahrenheit 9/11, we opened up the world to the idea that the invasion of Iraq was wrong. When Michael Moore gets criticised, I only think that if we had listened to the message earlier, thousands of lives would have been saved and there never would have been an Isis. It all started there. We have the power to change the world with our storytelling and can always have good triumph over evil.”
The Imitation Game
The greatest challenge for filmmakers in this online age, according to Weinstein, is the same as that faced by musicians. “Making sure those writers, directors, producers, cameramen, and everyone who works on a movie get their due in terms of royalties and not get gobbled up by big companies. That’s why Jay Z founded Tidal – so that the artists get their share. He didn’t do it for money, he did it for it being the right idea – and anybody that bets against him, will lose.”
The Weinstein Group has recently worked with Netflix on the first two seasons of Marco Polo, but how does he view the company and its influence in film and television distribution?
He is enthusiastic, describing it as “the most innovative and visionary” media company, adding that co-founders Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandon are “men of vision” who are shaking up the industry.
“They are mavericks who lack fear. They are a force for good and they love movies. When Ted isn’t running the company, he’s watching documentaries. This is a man who single-handedly has been the greatest champion of documentaries anywhere – all while he and Reed have created this unbelievable business.”
Weinstein isn’t worried that movie theatres could be replaced by digital platforms in future. “The great thing about the digital industry is that there is a way now of reaching our audience without overspending and I think this will get more and more pronounced as time goes on.
“As far as I’m concerned, movie theatres are houses of worship where we get to have a communal feeling, laugh, cry, share, and cheer with a thousand strangers who become friends during one performance.” It’s an experience most brands would kill for.