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Q&A: JOHN CALLEY

Highlights from Issue 22: The Downfall of American Publishing

Illustration by KEVIN CHRISTY

EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

Monday, September 05, 2005

By James Hughes

For over 40 years, John Calley has bridged the gap between Hollywood and the publishing industry. Born in Jersey City in 1930, Calley climbed up from the NBC mailroom to become a film producer in the Sixties. As a producer, he acquired the rights to several successful books, culminating with the adaptation of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 in 1970, directed by his friend and long-time collaborator, Mike Nichols. Following Catch-22, Calley was appointed head of production at Warner Bros. as part of a three-man junta (along with talent agent Ted Ashley and future president of Walt Disney, Frank G. Wells) that many consider one of the greatest teams ever assembled in the business. While at Warner Bros., Calley ushered in such blockbusters as A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Exorcist (1973) and All the President's Men (1976), all derived from controversial page-turners.

In 1981, Calley retired from the business for over a decade. Other than producing two films — Postcards from the Edge (1990) and The Remains of the Day (1993) — Calley spent his days reading voraciously at his home on Fishers Island in Long Island Sound, and docking his boat on the Mediterranean. In 1993, he was lured back to the business to head United Artists, a division of MGM Studios. After re-energizing the ailing UA, Calley became chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment in 1998. On Calley's watch, Sony experienced the most profitable year in its history in 2002, fueled largely by ticket sales from Spiderman, another faithful adaptation.

Recently, Calley co-produced Mike Nichols' Closer (2004) and made headlines with the acquisition of the film rights to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies, both of which are currently in production. To focus exclusively on producing, Calley stepped down as chairman of Sony last year, though remains affiliated with the studio. He maintains an office in Culver City, California, which is where he spoke about his experiences with the printed word this past February.

Stop Smiling: In an age of media consolidation, the movie business seems to be run by committee. Is it more difficult now to ensure that an author and director can have a free flow of ideas without interference from the parent company?

John Calley: I don't feel that there's a conspiracy of media barons to keep the separation between literature and film. I think, as always, it's individual. Occasionally there's the literary person who wants nothing to do with it. When I bought The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh and I made the deal directly. He didn't want to hear about it, see the picture, do anything. I mean, there's that sociological wisecrack: “The many answers are all answers.” There are so many different ways to do it, and I don't think it's changed, in my experience.

SS: Is it a particular quality you have — to provide open communication?

JC: No, I don't think so. I think it's the way of the world. I think creative people tend to get together.

SS: With your two closest collaborators — Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols — a number of their films were based on novels. What happens when two giants take on the work of a best-selling writer? Nichols tackled Joseph Heller with Catch-22, and there's Stephen King's infamous disapproval of The Shining.

JC: Well, before The Shining there was A Clockwork Orange. I got the rights to Clockwork for Stanley, rather covertly, because the rights weren't with the author. I had considered it with Terry Southern, actually, before that, with Mick Jagger playing the role of Alex. It never worked. I didn't have the rights. But I was running Warner at the time and got the rights from these people. But I believe Stanley rarely talked to Anthony Burgess. And Burgess wasn't very interested, either. With The Shining, I had bought the Stephen King novel and, with some concern, sent it to Stanley, because I thought it might be something he'd be interested in, and he was. We hired novelist Diane Johnson to write the screenplay. Diane did a terrific job, and then Stanley re-wrote it. But it wasn't a Stephen King movie.

SS: What about Catch-22?

JC: Joseph Heller wasn't involved at all. And, by the way, I didn't buy it from Joe, I bought if from Columbia, who owned it, but didn't want to use it. We were going to do it with Jack Lemon, but it never happened. Mike Nichols and I talked about it with Buck Henry. Then I acquired the rights.

SS: Are there any films that never got past the planning stages that you regret?

JC: I was doing a picture with Fellini, Bergman and Kubrick — a three-parter that was supposed to be explicitly sexual. The idea was that we were going to try to break the boundaries.

SS: When was this?

JC: Around 1980 or 1981. It fell apart because Stanley loved his family, they were very close to him, and they were included in everything he did. Running dailies with his kids in the room would've been a problem. Bergman was going to do an explicit Scandinavian fairy tale. Fellini had no problems with any of it, but was undecided about what his portion of the film would be about. And Stanley was going to do Blue Movie.

SS: Each director would write his own material?

JC: They would each do their own. I mean, who writes a Fellini film but Fellini?

SS: Is there a parallel between the Nixon era, when you recognized that All the President's Men needed to make it to theaters, and your current efforts to get Richard Clarke's book on the screen?

JC: I had the same feeling with the Clarke book that I did about All the President's Men. What happened was that Bob Woodward came to see that Robert Redford had gotten a copy of the book before it was released. And, of course, Nixon was the sitting president. I read it and was knocked out by it. Redford wanted to play it, obviously. I saw the book at 11 in the morning — by three in the afternoon, I wanted to buy it. I thought it was important to do it, because it was anti-governmental control and censorship. So we did it. Never heard a word from anybody in Washington, no calls from the White House, no calls from lobbyists.

SS: Do you think you'll have the same luxury now with the Clarke book?

JC: I don't know. I don't care. But I think it's an important document for a number of reasons. There's so much cynicism about government. It's a powerful reminder to see the quality of a brilliant guy like Clarke who decide that, as a patriot, he should serve his country. And the shit he took after he wrote the book startles me. But I think it's important that we don't get so cynical that we forget that there are guys like that who are ready to bet it all. I mean, the denial of his involvement in all of the predictions he made to Condoleeza Rice is astonishing. It's as though her boss didn't tell her to act, when she was the boss. She read the memos and didn't respond to them. That's her responsibility, not his.

SS: Is Clarke involved in the script?

JC: The screenwriter is spending time with him constantly, and going to the CIA as guided by Clarke and other sympathetic figures in Washington. It's very open, and we're proud that Clarke continues to be involved.

SS: Switching gears back to print, do you pay any mind to the new school of Hollywood beat reporters, like James B. Stewart or Peter Biskind?

JC: No. It's a different career. I think they are what they are — they're literature and they're fun to read, particularly in a company town where everybody likes to see everybody else get murdered. I don't think it's anything we live by. It pisses you off sometimes, when journalists have an agenda and no factual basis for their attacks.

SS: European publishers — Faber and Faber, Taschen, BFI — have the edge on releasing the finest film appreciation books. It seems like we're not covering our own in the US.

JC: It's true of jazz, too. I used to be a bass player. American music was embraced by the French, lauded overseas. I think we tend to trivialize our own capacities. I love the international rights for our films because we do much more business than domestically. My sense is that some day there will be people who are obsessed to the extent where they will own every movie ever made. I know I'd like to.

 

 


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