By Indiewire | Indiewire October 30, 1998 at 2:00AM
"Living Out Loud" Producers Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher
by Ray Pride
Since its inception with Danny DeVito's 1994 "Hoffa," Jersey Films has
been known for its support of smart filmmakers and stylish films. A
partnership between DeVito, Stacy Sher and Michael Shamberg, Jersey has
made such movies as "Reality Bites," "Pulp Fiction," and "Get Shorty."
In the past year, they've released "Gattaca," "Out of Sight," and
Richard LaGravenese's small-scale, character-oriented debut as a
director, "Living Out Loud," with Milos Forman's Andy Kaufman biopic,
"Man on the Moon" due next year.
LaGravenese's movie career began with his original screenplay, "The
Fisher King," where he met Sher, who worked for that film's producers,
Lynda Obst and Debra Hill. but lately, he's been known as the writer who
can carve an honorable drama out of confused or dense books, like
"Bridges of Madison County," "The Horse Whisperer," and "Beloved."
Returning to writing his own material for his directorial debut,
LaGravenese's made an appealing story about loneliness in the big city
and the tentative gestures his characters make toward some kind of
rewarding contact. (He drew inspiration from two stories by Chekhov and
cites Renoir as an important influence to his observant directorial
style.) Holly Hunter is marvelous in the central role, giving a tactile,
forceful performance as Judith, the divorced wife of a wealthy doctor
who must now scrape by, despite her Fifth Avenue address. Danny DeVito
is fine as the building's elevator man, who becomes close to her, as is
Queen Latifah, regal as a singer at a jazz club who helps Judith
rediscover the potential for passion.
"Living Out Loud" opens after making the festival rounds, including
Toronto, Chicago and the Hamptons. Listening to the intent, diminutive
Sher and the taller, more laconic Shamberg, you get an amusing glimpse
of the back-and-forth that comprises their working collaboration.
indieWIRE: You've made a lot of movies with first-time directors. What's the
Jersey Film philosophy about first-timers? What kind of savvy or zeal
are you looking for?
Michael Shamberg: When we started the company, part of the idea was one movie
each year would be by a new director, because it's fun; of the good,
established directors, they don't have a lot of slots; there's a lot of
talent to choose from; and they're cheaper! It's the way we all grew up
on these exciting films with fresh ideas. It became a tradition of the
company to mount these directorial debuts. One thing we ask implicitly
is, do you want to be a Hollywood director with a fresh point of view as
opposed to just [making] small independent films?
iW: What's different about your new wing, Jersey Shore, then?
Shamberg: They're meant to smaller scale films, where the budget is
smaller, so the audience that comes to see it can be smaller.
Stacy Sher: But it's not like we're going to be making a movie about someone
who's going to kick a can across America.
iW: It does seem like there would be an appreciative audience for
something like "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" [the off-Broadway rock
musical they intend to produce].
Sher: To us, yeah. Everything we make, we think is commercial, because
we want to see it! But what magic happens that makes "Pulp Fiction," an
$8 million film, into a phenomenon, an excellent film and timing and the
public's fascination colliding with the filmmaker's fascination? A
different set of circumstances or timing, "Out of Sight" could have
connected by now.
iW: So why Richard?
Sher: Richard and I have known each other for ten years. We met when I
first read the script for the Fisher King." We became very close friends
through that development process of making that film. He started as an
actor.. In fact, last night I was at a party where someone said that the
first writing he ever did became part of "A... My Name of Alice" and
apparently it's very famous, and actors use it as a monologue for
auditions. This girl came up to Richard's wife and I and said, "I
auditioned last week to 'A... My Name Is Alice' last week! When he was
working with Terry Gilliam, he would come in when Terry had problems
with certain scenes that weren't quite working. Terry's so incredibly
secure and generous and Richard would sometimes re-block the scenes if
they weren't working. He was very much a part of it, and you saw right
at that time... and he has a unique sensibility, which you see in his
writing. I always dreamed of producing his first film, and serving his
iW: How did that film become "Living Out Loud"?
Sher: He had not written an original screenplay since "The Fisher
King."" While some of them become originals going through the process
with them, because he's such a personal writer and filmmaker, he was
inspired by these two Chekhov short stories and they just started
percolating. He knew he wanted to do something for Danny. He wanted
everybody to get to see al the facets of Danny that we get to see, or
even that journalists get to see on every [film he publicizes]. Knowing
him and who he is as a human being and a part that got to show all those
facets of him. It was a model writing process for him, because writing
an original is unlike writing an adaptation. Its structure and form take
longer to shape.
iW: You seem blessed with good scripts. How do you get them?
Sher: We work with very talented people.
Shamberg. We work with the best writers, we have a nose for writers.
iW: Is that the key?
Shamberg: Yeah. If you said to me, would like to have a suitcase with
$500 million to make films or ten good scripts, I'd take the scripts.
You can always get the money. The hardest thing in Hollywood is to get a
iW: What is it that makes a bad script or a bad writer, since there
seemed to be an abundance of both?
Sher: Obviously, there are things, it's like a gift from God some people
have or don't. I think that a lot of writers who have tremendous
potential make the mistake of trying to writing for what they think the
marketplace wants. So they rehash things that have worked before.
Hollywood learns the wrong lesson sometimes. You make "Pulp Fiction" and
instead of people realizing that what's special about it is Quentin's
unique voice or what's special about this film is Richard's voice.
Instead, they think let's make nine versions of that movie.
Shamberg: The common thing I see is that people write in an ironic voice
that is not necessarily real. They create real situations but everyone
sounds the same, makes these ironic wisecracks on top of the situation
because they're convinced entertainment's really all about. The really
great writing is [when] people speak out of character and aren't
necessarily intentionally funny but are still funny in the situation.
It's the reality level. Good screenplays have an enormous level to them.
Even in good farce, like "There's Something About Mary," people say that
stuff deadpan and emotionally real, and it's hilariously funny, instead
of mugging on top of the material. Poor writers don't have a very strong
sense of reality. I mean emotional reality, not acted reality. So a lot
of scripts without any sort of subtext at all. People say exactly what's
on their minds as opposed to something lurking under the surface that
makes them interesting. That's just an innate sort of esthetic we're
Sher: Also a lack of character detail. Y'know, in bad writing. The
reason the things in this movie are incredibly funny is that you don't
know when Holly's in a certain situation, because of where she's been
and where you've gone with her. That's what makes the scenes like the
fantasy in the dance number so refreshing, because you've gone on a
journey with her and had an opportunity to look into her mind.
Shamberg: I was reading this interview with Robert Towne, and he said
you've got to lay in stuff at the beginning that's just sitting there so
you can use it in the middle and the end. You'll see a lot of writers,
they'll just introduce character traits or plot elements in the middle
or the end of a script and you'll have no idea why they're there.
iW: A lot of movies lately have taken fragmentation as their form, with
overlapping characters and situations, characters popping up out of
and you only know the story is about to end because of the running time.
Sher: That's funny, a lot of people at Toronto told us this film was
"a balm for sore eyes" from dark, ugly, ironic movies. It's a tremendous
kindness of spirit--
Shamberg: --But I think you can do cameos, we did that twice
"Out of Sight," with Michael Keaton playing the same character he did in
"Jackie Brown," then again at the end with Sam [Jackson] because of the
Sher: --And it's also true to Elmore. It's warranted.
Shamberg: --So cameos are different. Screenplays are about a kind of
you lay stuff into. A screenplay lies there like a time bomb waiting to
used and to go off at the right place. For some reason, that's just
iW: Do you know that you can do this, that you can pick them, or are you
going, "Great luck!"
Shamberg: Oh, it's good taste and good luck.
Sher: And, look, they're not all going to work. Sometimes it'll be
heartbreaking, like "Out of Sight," because the timing was bad, and
it'll be because the film didn't quite work the way you'd hoped, as has
happened... [a pause] With other films in the past.
Shamberg: The worst thing you can do is aim low and miss. If you aim
miss, you still are holding that up within the community, the critical
community, the filmmaking community, and you still have a lot of pride
you've done. You go for some cheesy movie that doesn't work, you're
see that with first-time directors. If you do a first-time film,
where you get good performances, then you've launched a career. If you
first time film that's a slasher film or a car chase film and it fails,
gone. Nobody's going to come to you and say, "You had no success with a
film, we want you for this."
iW: What was wrong with the timing of "Out of Sight"?
Shamberg: It was a fall movie--
Sher: [laughs]--in the summer.
iW: So are you guys kicking yourself or someone else for that?
Shamberg: Well, both. We were educed by the studio, which didn't have a
[for summer], and that said we'll do a lot of advertising.
Sher: Steven [Soderbergh] says he was so happy, coming from independent
to actually have a release date while he was making the movie, that he
iW: Are there films you've turned down that you regret?
Shamberg: "Austin Powers" was my regret. I didn't get the script.
Sher: I really loved the script. Sometimes we have, in our internal
one of us, we're all kind of opinionated people!
Shamberg: We were offered "Austin Powers" and we didn't think we had
time to do it, which was stupid.
Sher: It was timing, it was a combination...
Shamberg. I just didn't get it, how funny it would be.
Sher: I did. I mean, I thought it was hysterical. The [two eventual
are friends of mine, and they knew the film was really funny and they
invited me to see it. I loved it so much and everyone was so surprised.
Because people kept saying it wasn't going to do well. But again, films
are fresh do not test well. When you're doing something new? There's
to compare it to.
iW: So testing can be good?
Sher: Yeah, e were just talking about that with a filmmaker yesterday.
really great, watching a film, particularly a comedy, with five hundred
people, seeing where they fidget, where they laugh, where they are
But making any decisions, other than just your gut, watching it, based
twenty people sitting in a focus group? No.
Shamberg: It also helps you clarify things. Things are confusing because
get so familiar with it, things do confuse audiences . A lot of times
in films, [titles come up like] "Two Weeks Ago," or "Miami" or whatever,
kind of thing, which I know usually comes from the fact audiences were
confused. We accept it, because we want to know where we are. There's no
reason to ever confuse the audience. The testing people will never tell
the movies that did really well that failed [at the box-office] and they
tell you the movies that test really poorly that succeed.
Sher: All of our hits tested poorly. The bond among filmmakers [comes
information like] "Did you know that 'Seven' got a 34," which is really
obviously. When we tested "Pulp Fiction," a third of the audience walked
This is after we won the Palme d'Or, by the way. A third of the audience
it, another third of the audience loved it.
Shamberg: I had a film where it got an 80, a reasonable score and then
decided to re-shoot the ending to bring the characters together at the
did it, and we still got an 80.
iW: What about "Gattaca"?
Sher: Andrew [Niccol] told me it tested exactly the same as "The Truman
"Niccol numbers," he called them. "Every movie I write will be destined
iW: I'm more interested in why it got an interesting bunch of reviews,
like "Out of Sight," didn't find a larger audience.
Sher: Here's my feeling about "Gattaca." One, I think that everybody got
primer in what Andrew's sensibility was from "Gattaca" that really
well for "The Truman Show." They also had Jim, but people understood
Andrew was up to.
Shamberg: It's a European film, in the sense it's a movie about ideas,
Americans like, of course, movies that are about characters. I think
Show" is more successful with its characters--
Sher: I don't know if I agree with that. By the way, this is exactly
like to work with us. We have the debate--
iW: Even early in the morning before coffee?
Shamberg: I don't drink coffee. I gave it up six months ago, and if you
I can lecture you on why you, too, should give up coffee.
Sher: I think part of why we were seduced in the timing of "Out of
when they told us they would spend a lot of marketing dollars and
film, which they did, despite the fact that the timing was wrong, is
did not have that support with "Gattaca." We were like, "Did you buy any
time for us," and they tell us they had bought 30 spots at three and
the morning. You become crazed.
iW: What's up with your supporting very stylized movies? "Out of Sight"
almost like a first-time filmmakers' film; it's Soderbergh's first
picture, but it's nervy, and in terms of design, charged up like a
indie film. Is an intense style a secondary thing you're interested in?
Sher: Yeah. It's when people have a point of view. Whether it's about
style or just film lit translates into what they make. I think one of
things that all the filmmakers we've worked with have in common is that
really love film and they're knowledgeable about it. That is not an
thing to get today.
[They both crack up.]
Shamberg. [laughing] I have a test.
Sher: This is off the record--we can't use it if--
Shamberg: Well, you can have the answer to one. It's a test. I had an
assistant and my assistant said, you're supposed to have a meeting with
Palooka. And I said, "Don't you know who Alan Pakula is?" Then I
there are a lot of kids coming into the film business who want to be
producers, but have no database. So I devised a test of ten directors,
from Orson Welles to Mike Nichols to David Lean--I'll have to change the
for sure now--to Tom Shadyac, whose work I like. You have to fill them
Name one film they've directed. One. Two-thirds of the people did not
Orson Welles was.
Sher: And! Many of them went to film school. They love the movie
it's like Wall Street to them.
Shamberg: We have one rule now. Which is you can't work for us if you
know who Orson Welles is. But we found a small percentage who could
the questions, including the bonus question, which I'm now going to have
change, is who, in 1939, directed both "Gone with the Wind" and "The
iW: So coffee. Why no coffee?
Shamberg: Because you wake up and you're grumpy until you have your
right? If you don't have coffee, then you wake up with a lot of energy
basically it's all addiction. The reality is then you don't have energy
without the coffee and you need coffee all the time. It took me about a
to get off it.
Sher: You also rationalize when you drink coffee, "I'm only having one."
look at it, [Michael's] like, "No, I didn't have my morning one. I'm
[Ray Pride is a contributing editor of Filmmaker. He also writes for e!
and Chicago's Newcity.]