The BOP Interview
Writer Paul Bernbaum Discusses Hollywoodland
By Calvin Trager
July 19, 2006
As a writer, show runner, and producer, Paul Bernbaum has been creating entertainment for the small screen and the big screen for more than 20 years. Hollywoodland, Bernbaum's biggest project to date, opens in the U.S. on September 8, 2006. The movie - which revolves around the death of 1950s TV icon George Reeves - features a choice cast, and could very well be the year's first serious Oscar contender. Reeves is most remembered for playing the title character in The Adventures of Superman, which ran for 104 episodes between 1952 and 1958. Reeves' death - was it murder or suicide? - is one of Hollywood's most captivating mysteries.
Bernbaum recently agreed to answer a few questions from BOP about Hollywoodland.
BOP: I think a lot of our readers are interested as much in the process behind the cameras as what's going on in front of them. Describe a bit how that development process worked for Hollywoodland as it related to you. Did you write the screenplay first and then everything else sprung from that or did the project come together a different way?
Paul Bernbaum: Development of this movie is an interview itself. I wrote the script, originally titled Truth, Justice & The American Way, on spec in 2001. My agent at the time, David Greenblatt, and I really weren't sure what we had, in terms of a possible sale, because it was period, it could be interpreted as a bio-pic, and it seemed to have little appeal to the foreign market. But the response was fast and overwhelmingly positive. The strategy then switched from "can we sell this?" to "how do we get this movie made, and how do I keep as much control over the project as possible?" David set up a meeting with Michael & Mark Polish (Twin Falls Idaho), who wanted to make it for their next film. We had a great meeting, were on the same page, and I agreed to let them produce/direct. We then went out as a package, and ultimately I sold the script to USA Films (now Focus) based on their determination to make the movie quickly. I was also given a "No Rewrite Clause," which was extremely important to me.
To make a long story short: USA wanted to fire the Polish Brothers; Miramax bought the project and was given a finite amount of time to start shooting; the Polish Brothers refused to make the movie with anyone but Kyle MacLachlan; Miramax refused to make the movie with Kyle MacLachlan, and the project returned to USA (now Focus). It took awhile to settle on a director, Allen Coulter, and then agree on a cast. Adrien [Brody] was cast first, and then we finally got the green light when Ben [Affleck] & Diane [Lane] came aboard.
BOP: Let me follow up on creative control that you touched on, because I'm left with this impression in my mind of two movies - a Polish/MacLachlan version, and a Coulter/Affleck version - that would have the potential to differ substantially in creative areas like tone, characterization, and some undefinable notion of 'quality'. And I don't want to give the impression that I'm just going for the easy Affleck slam there; I just mean any two actors would naturally play a character differently, and any two directors would have a different vision for a film. Do you think that in the end, the version that got made is the one you had in mind when you were writing?
PB: Certainly there would have been differences. The Polish Brothers had a great idea, I thought, of shooting this in Technicolor. The theory being, let's not shoot a movie that took place in 1959, let's shoot a movie that looks like it was filmed in 1959. They also were eager to film my script exactly as written, as was Miramax. MacLachlan, though, had two strikes against him - one financial and one creative. Financially, he meant little as far as opening the movie. But more importantly, he did a screen test that soured everyone but the Polish Brothers, which is ultimately why the movie reverted back to Focus.
BOP: And a somewhat related question - apparently there's this incorrect rumor or something about rewrites to your script - we even had it on our site until you asked us to correct it. Since you mentioned the "No Rewrite Clause", would you like to comment further?
PB: Here's what happened. When Miramax stepped up, Focus basically gave them a laundry list of demands before they would agree to let the project go. Among them: Lots of cash, Miramax had to be in production within six months, and The Polish Brothers had to direct. If these and other conditions were not met, the project went back to Focus. I also had to agree that, if the project reverted back, I would give up my No Rewrite. I agreed for one reason - I was absolutely positive Miramax would make the picture. They were incredibly enthusiastic. We all were. The only reason it fell apart was because the Polish Brothers refused to cast anybody but Kyle. So basically, I got fucked, though in hindsight I sort of admire the balls they had.
Focus courted a couple of stars and a couple directors before they were lucky enough to get Allen Coulter. They also began pressing for me to shift the story more toward Adrien's character and away from Reeves, which I strongly disagreed with. I did a number of drafts with Allen, who is a terrific filmmaker, and a great guy. But apparently, Focus wanted more of Adrien's character than I was willing to give them, at which point they hired another writer. Needless to say, this was heartbreaking for me, as this movie was a deeply personal one.
I kept in touch with Allen throughout, and he kept me abreast of the changes. In the end, nothing much changed. The story is the same, the characters are the same. Some dialogue has been altered, but dialogue always changes, especially on set. An arbitration panel (which is automatic) read my draft and the shooting draft and awarded me sole credit. It's also interesting that the trailer focuses entirely on Adrien's investigation of Reeves' death, with none of the added Adrien storyline that Focus pushed for.
As far as quality goes, I think the Polish Brothers would have delivered a stunning visual piece of work. But I think Allen has delivered the same thing. He has also gotten great performances out of his actors - which I'm not sure is the Polish Brothers' strong point.
Obviously, I would rather my script have been shot word-for-word, with my imprint on every frame. I would like to have sewn the "S" on Superman's costume. I would like to have cast every one of the 500 extras. I would like to have picked out the phone that sits on top of Perry White's desk. The bottom line is, it's almost a miracle when any movie gets made and I'm thankful that this one did. It took awhile, but Focus did what they promised and they did an excellent job.
BOP: Quick tangent: Contrast your rewrite experience with Hollywoodland with that of Next, where the roles were reversed - you have a writing credit on Gary Goldman's screenplay. Is it equally hard to revise someone else's work as it is to have your own tweaked? Or is it different when its an adaptation?
PB: The final shooting script changed pretty dramatically from Gary's original, but I am not asking for credit. I came on just a couple weeks before production started, and there were directors notes and Nic [Cage]'s notes to do, and a good deal of the time those notes were at cross-purposes. At one point the script was all about Nic's future child, and the next thing I know the kid's out and Nic's a magician! Point being, I was a hired gun on that one, if they wanted me to make it a submarine movie, I would have. But Gary's original is what sold the project and brought in Nic and my feeling is he deserves the screenplay credit.
BOP: Back to Hollywoodland - How did you decide, back in 2001, this was a story you wanted to write?
PB: Listen, I was always a Superman nut. I never missed the show in reruns as a kid, I wore a bathrobe as a cape under my clothes to school, and I wound up buying one of the original suits at auction. When I was at Viacom, I pitched a version of the idea to Showtime, but was shot down. So it certainly didn't come out of nowhere. It was more a matter of how do I tell this story? I knew a straight biopic wasn't the way to go, and I knew I wanted to dramatize the huge impact that Reeves had on kids at the time, before his death and after. So I decided to tell that part of the story through the private eye character, Lamar Moglio at the time, which was a play on the actual private eye, Milo Speriglio. By the way - Steve Buscemi was the Moglio in my head.
BOP: Talk a little about the challenge of researching a story where some of the facts are in question, and what kinds of decisions that forced you to make as a writer, like taking a specific position versus presenting things in a more ambiguous way.
PB: I got hold of everything I could, including the newspapers of the day, police records and personal interviews. And, for the most part, I tried to have at least two or three confirming sources on a particular fact. But there were certain liberties taken. I had no desire, though, to come out with my own definitive answer as to what happened the night of June 16th. I wanted to present the three prevailing theories, make a case for all of them, and let the audience come to their own conclusions.
BOP: Hollywoodland is the 'second' Superman movie to come out this year, although obviously the similarities extend not much further than coincidence. Do you think the 'other' Superman will help your film's prospects, hurt it, or have no bearing on it at all?
PB: Superman Returns can't hurt, but I don't see it having much of an effect.
BOP: As you might know, BOP is obsessed with numbers. How well does Hollywoodland have to do at the box office for you to consider it a success? Can you tell us what the budget was?
PB: The budget was around $20 million. Brokeback Mountain did $83 million, Lost in Translation did $44 million. Those are the top two grossing Focus films. I'd be thrilled to wind up anywhere between them. But this movie wasn't made to do huge box office - it was made to win awards, like all Focus movies. Hopefully, it has a chance to score on both fronts.
BOP: Well, the trailer looks great, communicates a nice noir vibe, and doesn't really give any details away. My immediate connection was to L.A. Confidential, not bad company to keep. Did we all witness a paradigm shift last year with regard to positioning award-hopeful films? Crash came out in May and was released on DVD in September. A lot of folks think that helped it upset the December-released Brokeback Mountain. How much did Crash influence the decision to open Hollywoodland in September, with presumably a December/January DVD release to follow closer to award season?
PB: I really can't speak for the Focus marketing department. This was always intended as a Fall film, September through December. Who knows why people voted for Crash over Brokeback Mountain? If it was a really close vote, maybe the DVD release did matter, but I don't think that was a consideration with our release date. And I could be completely wrong.
BOP: You mentioned earlier when you were first selling the project that you were concerned about its 'appeal to the foreign market'. It's easy for even us fringe industry types to see how many of the decisions about bigger, blockbuster type movies are being made with an eye toward overseas markets. Do you think that mentality affects how all movies get made these days?
PB: I definitely think it's easier to get a tentpole movie made, with a global star, than a terrific, but small story, with "just" really good actors. The foreign market has become too big, and the possible payoff too great. Believe me, nobody was gonna sink $250 million into Hollywoodland. Of course, we didn't need that much, but another $10 million would've been nice.
BOP: You got your start, and wrote for television for a long time. What are some of your favorite current shows?
PB: Entourage. Sopranos. Curb Your Enthusiasm. Scrubs. Except for sports, that's all I watch. But I'll never miss those four. Great writing, great casts, great production.
BOP: Would you write for television again or are you strictly pursuing films?
PB: I'd be open to writing a pilot, if I found or came up with something I was in love with, but my showrunning days are over. I never had the attention span for a 22-episode order. I love writing movies. I love the form, I love the lifestyle.
BOP: Much is being made of Hollywoodland being 'Ben Affleck's big comeback vehicle'. Do you think that's fair? Is this more Ben's film or Adrien's film? Can you assess, in general, how did the cast do with the task of bringing your material to life?
PB: Regarding this being Ben's comeback film, I actually do think it's fair and I think it will be. This guy has taken his knocks, deserved and undeserved. I think he went after this film because he knew it was a quality role and he could deliver the goods. He won over Coulter in their meeting, and I believe he will win over audiences. He's excellent. As far as screen time goes, it is more Adrien's film. But the Reeves role is the heart of the movie. I think the cast did an amazing job in bringing these people to life. If I thought differently, I'd tell you.
BOP: Your most recent project (per IMDb) is Vanishing Point, which I believe is a remake of the 1971 film of the same name involving a bet to drive a Dodge Charger from Colorado to San Francisco in less than 15 hours. This was also remade for television in 1997. What, to you, is so compelling about this story that it demanded an update?
PB: Vanishing Point is dead, as far as my participation. I don't know if it's still on the radar at Fox. I actually passed on this the first time it was offered. My agency asked me to at least get on the phone with the producers and director, let me hear their pitch. The director, Sam Bayer, totally won me over with his passion and enthusiasm, so I jumped in. In the end, the script was too "independent feeling" for Fox. After we asked what we could do to fix it, someone actually told my agency - "Strap a nuclear bomb to the hood of the car."
BOP: You've been a working writer in Hollywood for over 20 years, probably closer to 25 - not an easy feat. How have you been able to accomplish that?
PB: I've been real lucky as far as my career goes, especially since I've been living in Arizona the last 12 years and base most of my decisions on not being in L.A. But one thing I've always done is kept writing. When I was working on a show, running a show, whatever, I was always thinking about or writing my next pilot or spec script. Good things always came from that.
BOP: Can you still remember the feeling of getting your first big break?
PB: I totally remember the feeling of my first break. I was working as an office manager in some law firm in Santa Monica - I had temp jobs for five years before I made a steady living. I had an agent, a brand new guy that I got through a friend, who managed to get a spec script read at Stephen Cannell Productions. At the time, Cannell was the hottest TV production house in the business. They had a new show, Riptide, that became a surprise hit and basically had no writing staff. I came in to pitch, like ten ideas. They liked one and bought it. I was freaking ecstatic. Then I wrote the script and sent it in, praying that maybe I'd get to do another one. Monday morning, the show's EP called me to tell me how much they liked the script, and then wondered if I'd like to come on staff. I still get chills thinking about it. That was my break, and I'm still grateful for it every day.
BOP: Now that you've made, it seems, your dream project come to life with Hollywoodland, what's your dream project now, and how would you cast it?
PB: My dream project at the moment is a script called "Tele-Vision," about the birth of television and, specifically, Philo Farnsworth who invented TV when he was 14. Lots of obstacles on this one, I don't even own my script anymore, but I refuse to let it die. Johnny Depp would be great as Philo, and I'm pretty sure he could get the movie made.
BOP: Thanks again, Paul, and best of luck with Hollywoodland.