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Robert Weide’s “Lenny Bruce”: 12 Years in-the-Negotiations

Robert Weide's "Lenny Bruce": 12 Years in-the-Negotiations

Robert Weide's "Lenny Bruce": 12 Years in-the-Negotiations

by Anthony Kaufman

Comedian Mort Sahl told documentarian Robert Weide to label the video
box of his new documentary “Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth,”
reading: “12 years in-the-negotiations.” Although the film had been
mostly completed and mostly shot throughout the early 80’s, Weide still
needed to negotiate the extra finishing funds to bring his film to the
screen. Now, 12 years, several documentaries, and one feature film
later, “Lenny Bruce” finally returns to New York with a two-week run at
the Film Forum.

After making a living on documentary profiles about famous comedians
like “The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell” (1982), “The Great Standups:
Sixty Years of Laughter
” (1984), and “W.C. Fields Straight Up” (1986),
Weide hoped to explore that “pivotal period where we went from
mother-in-law jokes, and your wife’s cooking to more socially and
politically-conscious material” with a 3-part documentary series for PBS
on Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Dick Gregory. With seed money from PBS
and the “American Masters” series, Weide was able to finish the first in
the series, “Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition” (1989), but, he says,
“Lenny and Dick Gregory had been sitting on the shelf all that time.”

After putting much of his own money into the project, he put together a
cut in 1995, for the Toyota Comedy Festival. With a fine cut in hand,
Weide approached HBO and the rest is explained below. Weide, just back
from lunch with author Kurt Vonnegut (who he’s been making a documentary
about for 10 years), speaks about his happiness with HBO, getting Robert
De Niro to do the voice over, and his experiences with Fine Line over
his writing and producing debut, “Mother Night.”

indieWIRE: Why didn’t you approach HBO in the 80’s, after you had done
that “The Great StandUps” film for them?

Weide: I thought HBO would never do this, because, if you think about
it, they don’t really do documentary profiles of this sort. Although I
guess they’re starting to do some. They just did “Babe Ruth,” although
I don’t even know if that was their documentary department; it may have
been their sports department. They tend to do titillating subjects. . .
. But, yeah I had done some other things for them as well. But the fact
that the seed money was PBS’s, I just felt that I’m going to have to
make this for PBS. Eventually, once HBO got interested, I worked out a
deal with PBS, whereby for the money that they had already invested,
they’ll still get a broadcast window subsequent to the HBO broadcast.

iW: How did that work?

Weide: It was that or wait another 12 years to get the money. PBS was
happy about it, because I was able to finish my show with someone else’s
money and they would still get to air it. So, they weren’t that hung up
on getting the first window, necessarily, as long as they could get it
eventually. The understanding between PBS and myself was that I would
look for money, they would look for money. And they never came up with
anything, and I was having all kinds of trouble, so they were happy
still to get the show after all these years.

So I just thought it was unprecedented for HBO, but to her credit, [HBO
Executive Producer] Sheila Nevins, she saw it and she loved it and
called me up right away without any reservation and said, “We have to
finish the show, what’s it going to take, what do you need, what do you
have left to do?” We basically worked it all out. We came up with a
budget figure that would allow me to finish what I needed to finish,
plus pay off all the clips. Part of the problem with a show that
utilizes so many clips is if you’re licensing that material — this
applies to everything, music, still photographs, but primarily film and
TV clips — if you’re licensing just for PBS, you might get charged X
number of dollars per minute, but if you come to them for cable, it’s
going to be X times 4 per minute, because cable is viewed as a
commercial enterprise and PBS is not. So, I knew it was going to raise
all the licensing fees. So, we worked it out with HBO so that we’d have
the money we needed to license all the material and finish the show.

I’m not one to blow smoke up anyone’s ass — I say this for no other
reason than it’s true — but this has really been the best relationship
I’ve had with the money people on any project. It just makes all the
difference when they’re really behind it, when they have something to
gain from it. Sheila Nevins loved the project, she became extremely
passionate about it. . . . They see this as their big documentary for
‘99. They paid to have a film print struck off of the edited video
master, so that we could run it at the Film Forum and qualify for the
Academy [Awards]. Usually, it’s like pulling teeth to get anyone to
promote anything or to get behind it, but HBO has just been great.

iW: Did HBO bring De Niro aboard to do the voice over? [Comedian David
Steinberg narrated an earlier cut.]

Weide: HBO understandably wanted a bigger name. So, then the whole
question came up, who do we go to? HBO was really pushing for George
Carlin. And I just felt that was too on the nose, too close. I thought
that’s going to come off as, here’s the guy who carried the torch from
Lenny and I didn’t want to invite those comparisons. So, I was really
fighting for an unexpected choice, someone who might bare some spiritual
connection to Lenny, but wouldn’t be a comedian cut from such similar
cloth. I was suggesting weird names like Paul Simon, who’s paid tribute
to Lenny in a few of his songs and I thought if we did go with a
comedian, someone very unlike Lenny like Steve Martin. . . . And then
what happened was, we were watching the film and one of the HBO
executives saw a picture of Lenny that looked like De Niro. . . and
[Supervising Producer] Anthony Radziwill said, “What about De Niro as
narrator?” And my jaw just dropped and I said, “Perfect idea.” There’s
something about that that’s so right and I don’t know why, but it really

De Niro and I both have the same agency, CAA. So I called up and said,
“Who do I get this to?” And they gave me a name for someone at his
office in Tribeca. But the problem was De Niro was in Miami, on
location. . . . What happened was there was a lot of confusion. They
confirmed the tape was sent to him, nobody knew if he had seen it, then
after they wrapped location, he went on vacation somewhere. Then his
assistant called me back, and said we’ve just heard from him and he
watched the tape on the boat or something, but he wants to do it. So
that’s how we got De Niro. And I asked De Niro how much he knew about
Lenny, or if he was a big fan, and he said, “No, not really.” He just
responded to the material, he liked the film, and he agreed to do it,
and he did it for very little money.

iW: What do you think of the market for docs right now?

Weide: These ancillary markets specifically cable, Bravo does some
wonderful stuff, IFC is starting to do some original things. Again,
Sheila Nevins has kind of become the patron saint of these things. There
may be some people out there who want to do real, wild, radical,
socially-hard-hitting documentaries who think that HBO is just another
big, commercial network. But the kinds of stuff that I do, luckily, are
suited to HBO and I hope to more things with them. But the fact is, my
story, as far as documentaries that have needed help, HBO has come to
the rescue and I think that’s a common story now. PBS, there’s still
wonderful things on PBS, but if you’ve ever tried to get PBS money, it’s
just such a bureaucratic, time-consuming situation and their
applications, and guidelines and cycles and what you need to submit, I
just don’t have the patience for that anymore and I’m not really staffed
to be on top of the funding cycles and all that.

iW: With the release of “Mother Night,” your first narrative feature,
did it make things easier on your career? [Weide wrote and produced the
movie from the Kurt Vonnegut novel. Keith Gordon directed.]

Weide: Whenever you do a film like this, very well-meaning friends
always tell you, “You’ll be able to write your own ticket after this.
Once this film gets out there, and you make millions, and it wins all
these Academy Awards.” Keith used to laugh at that, because if we were
out to win Oscars and be wealthy, we’d be doing different kinds of
films. We knew that “Mother Night” was never going to be a hugely
commercial film. I think we both have some complaints about how the
film was handled, and marketed and all that, but even if Fine Line had
done everything right, I don’t know that the film would’ve made that
more much money than it did.

Ruth Vitale was very much behind our film, and very passionate about
it. She greenlit it. But the problem is the people who greenlight the
films up-front, are not the same people a year and a half later who have
to sell them. So, you might have a Ruth Vitale at Fine Line who’s very
enthused about the film, and she was, and you make the film. And then
you hand it in a year and a half later to these marketing people who
look at it and go, “We didn’t greenlight this. We don’t know how to sell
this.” That’s part of the problem.

iW: Did it do well overseas?

Weide: No. They really dropped the ball overseas. . . . Both the German
distributors and the Israeli distributors decided not to release the
film. . . I was joking, “Talk about a new world order, we’d created
something that’s reunited a reunified Germany and Israel.” They barely
opened it in London. . . . I was getting e-mail from British Vonnegut
fans, saying, “When is the film coming to London?” And I’d say, “It’s
there now! Don’t look for ads, because there aren’t any.” They really
didn’t publicize. They were going to fly me and Keith out, and then
just Keith out for publicity, and then they failed even to fly Keith
out. No ads, no posters, no nothing.

iW: You have a new Kurt Vonnegut novel you’re adapting, “The Sirens of

Weide: I’m just going to write it on spec. . . . There was actually a
piece in Variety some time ago, about the fact that I had the rights to
this. Calls started coming in from the smaller, independent studios,
saying, we’d like, maybe, to do some business. Maybe, we can buy the
book for you, and I was like, “No, I’m getting it free, so no one needs
to buy it for me.” I don’t want a studio looking over my shoulder,
telling me what to do, or saying your option expires, so I said, No, I’m
going to do what I did with “Mother Night.” I’m going to write this on
spec and when I’m finished, I’ll take it around and whoever wants to
make it and whoever understands it, gets it — whoever doesn’t want to
change it, or put it into development Hell, or cast Pauley Shore as the
lead, will have a crack at it.

[With “Mother Night”], Fine Line did not own the script, rights did not
pass into their hands until Nick Nolte, Keith [Gordon] and I were all
pay or play, and it wasn’t until the first day of principle
photography. Because the idea was not to sell the script to somebody
who would then sit on it forever, or put another writer on it, or start
to develop it or change it or not make it or whatever. So, the contract
actually said that the script was pre-approved. We actually had a
clause in the contract saying that the ending would not be changed,
meaning that our hero dies at the end. So, number one, the script was
pre-approved and number two, they didn’t own it until they were too far
into it to turn back. It’s funny, because it seemed like such a natural
way to go for us, and yet people that I mention that to, say, “Wow,
that’s interesting. That’s really clever.” I’m surprised more people
don’t do that. Some writers will go out on a limb, will write something
on spec, and then sell it to the highest bigger, without any thought
about who’s actually going to make it or who’s going to make it right.

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