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Interview: Producer Michael Gruskoff on the Foreign Language Academy Award and International Hollywood

Interview: Producer Michael Gruskoff on the Foreign Language Academy Award and International Hollywood

Listening to Hollywood producer

Michael Gruskoff

talk about his experiences with some of the most legendary directors
is an awe-inspiring learning experience. In a business so reluctant to
taking chances
that might represent financial loss, Gruskoff has placed it all on
the line in order to support original voices and talent outside the
norm. Although he
admits that some of his projects were more successful than others,
he remains certain that he always went with his gut in pursuit of
talent. In that
regard, he has undoubtedly overachieved.

The list of people he has worked with includes acclaimed German filmmaker

Werner Herzog


Jean-Jacques Annaud


Mel Brooks

, and Stanley Donen.
Gruskoff has always
had an international taste and is unafraid of searching for stories
abroad. Not surprisingly, he is a member of the Academy’s Foreign
Language Film branch,
to which he returned, invited by Mark Johnson,
the head
of the Foreign Language Committee, after serving there in the past.
Once again he brings his expertise and eclectic global influences to
support the
Academy in its efforts to highlight World Cinema as a crucial
element of the film industry.

Winner of a Cesar Award for the film

Quest for Fire

, and an outspoken defendant of the filmmaking craft over the cult
of celebrity, Mr. Gruskoff is a humble creative person. Still fully in
love with cinema
despite the ups and downs the industry throws at anyone who attempts
to make a living out of its unstable magic, it is incredible to see
that passion for a
great story is still Michael Gruskoff’s prime motivation. This
writer had the privilege to talk to Mr. Gruskoff a couple weeks ago in
Beverly Hills. Here
is what he shared with us.

Carlos Aguilar: Could you tell us how you got started in the film industry?


Gruskoff: I started in the N.Y. mailroom of the William
Morris Agency and ended my agency career at Creative Management
Associates. While at CMA I was representing Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda during Easy Rider, as well as Robert Redford, Natalie Wood ,Faye Dunaway, James Coburn and Steve McQueen, Peter Sellers amongst others. I started getting the producing “bug” while representing Al Ruddy and Irwin Winkler, having been instrumental in the packaging of some of their films. It was an exciting time in the industry, with the success of Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, the studios were open to taking chances with new talent and ideas. Ned Tanen at
Universal set up an independent division and asked me to run it but I
opted to make an overall three picture production deal. I went into
business with

Douglas Trumbull
, Michael Cimino, Sam Shepard and Steven Bochco and independently developed low budget scripts off the studio lot. It kicked off with Dennie Hopper’s The Last Movie and Silent Running,
a science fiction film Douglas Trumbull directed starring Bruce Dern
dealing with environmental issues. I also developed a script called Conquering Horse with Cimino, which we were going to do in the Sioux language, a predecessor to Dances With Wolves,
but it was tabled because of budget issues. Blood was shed on that one
as it was a great script and we were very close to getting it made.

How did your interest in foreign cinema developed?

Gruskoff: Seeing

Luis Buñuel


Ingmar Bergman

, Vittorio De Sica, and Akira Kurosawa‘s films got me interested in foreign cinema. Another filmmaker that impressed me was

Gillo Pontecorvo

the director of

The Battle of Algiers
, which is one of the
great anti-war movies. I was an agent at the time, and asked him if I
could represent him. He said “Michael, I don’t make that many
movies, and you are not going to make any money with me because I’m
not interested in working in the Hollywood system” I said, “It’s OK, you
can come to me
if you’re having trouble raising money for a project” He said “That
could work, but please do not send me any scripts.” I was also Anouk Aimée‘s agent when she did

A Man and a Woman

with Claude Lelouch. She was responsible for my meeting
many people in French and Italian cinema like Vadim and Polanski. She’s a great lady.

Aguilar : What were your thoughts on the batch of films submitted this past year for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film? Were there any
you consider highlights?

: You always look for a diamond that might be there. You have to see
films from some 70 countries and many do not work, but being part of
the industry I
feel it’s my way of supporting the Academy. You have to see four
films a week, and with the addition of seeing new films. the internet,
plus cable, and family etc. It’s
an overload of information. I did see a jewel of a film from Iceland
called Of Horses and Men directed by Benedikt Erlingsson.
We have been in touch and
are in the process of discussing a project he is writing. He’s a
bold new voice. Several years ago I optioned, along with Beacon
Pictures, a wonderful Italian film called Fuori Dal Mondo, now entitled Not Of This World that Colin Farrell is attached to do.

Aguilar: How do you think this category benefits the industry and foreign filmmakers?

Gruskoff: Foreign filmmakers want us to see their
films. They have stories they want to tell and we have the ability to
make their dreams come through. It benefits us to see what’s being made
around the world because we are all part of the film community.

It’s interesting talking to

Bernardo Bertolucci

about Italian realism and how those great Italian films and directors came together in the late 40s, 50s and 60s with




, Visconti, etc. After Mussolini and the end of WW 2 there was such
exuberance that filmmakers picked up cameras and ran into streets to start making movies.
It was a
great period in Italian Cinema.

Aguilar: Do you believe this nostalgia for those filmmakers influenced voters to choose

The Great Beauty

as the winner?



is s very talented director and he carries the torch of Fellini. I liked The Great Beauty and I also loved his

Il Divo

Aguilar: When watching these or any other film, as a producer do you look for something different in them from what a director or an actor might?

I’m just hoping that when the lights go down I’ll see a good film. I want to be entertained and have it not be a waste my time. When I saw

12 Years a Slave

it blew me away.

Steve McQueen

is a great filmmaker because he puts all his passion on the screen and he doesn’t cop out. It was real. I like movies that don’t pander to the audience.

Aguilar: Would you say all of the 76 films submitted were on a level playing field, despite some of them being obscure titles and not having a festival

: I saw a real voice in

Benedikt Erlingsson

Sebastian Lelio




The Hunt




The Past


The Missing Picture

, or

The Broken Circle Breakdown
.The directors have something to say and they know how to say it. An interesting thing is when you are seeing that many movies in an environment where
the people like films, you really start getting into it. Like being at a Festival.

Aguilar: Now that you mention the Academy wants to promote foreign films, how do you perceive the role of world cinema in Hollywood today? Is it more

Definitely. 2/3 of the box-office comes from foreign markets. More films will be made with Asian and European talent to bolster their international
box-office. Moviegoers in those countries like to see a character they can relate to as long as it’s realistically part of the story.

Aguilar: On that note, can you talk about the international filmmakers you’ve work with throughout your career?

I met

Paul Verhoeven

after seeing Soldier Of Orange, one of his earlier films. We developed a screenplay based on a novel I optioned called Harry’s Tale about the slave trade. Unfortunately, it was ahead of its time and the
budget was too high.

After seeing

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser


Werner Herzog

, I called him. He mentioned

Nosferatu the Vampyre

, and said he wanted to remake it and it would be a film that “the
likes of which the world has never seen before”, and I told him “Please
be my guest” [Laughs]. I got
the financing from Fox and we made it for $900,000 starring

Isabelle Adjani


Klaus Kinski


Bruno Ganz.

. Werner is a tremendously innovative film director.

I also produced a film titled  Until September for MGM in 1983 by Welsh director Richard Marquand. It starred Karen Allen
and French actor
Thierry Lhermitte. We shot it in Paris.

I briefly worked with Russian director,

Andrey Konchalovskiy

, we developed a story that never got to be a screenplay.
Following that,

Jean-Jacques Annaud

gave me the English translation of a book called “La guerre de feu”, which is

Quest for Fire

. The film became an international hit and it earned us 5 Cesar Awards including Best Picture. It was a great moment when

Orson Welles

handed me the award.

Aguilar: One of the great American directors you worked with was Mel Brooks, how did that relationship begin?

I had briefly met

Mel Brooks

when I was working in the mail room at William Morris Agency in New
York. At the time I was 22 and he was 32, and he had already achieved
success in

Mike Medavoy

worked as an agent at CMA during the early 70s and wanted me to come
back and work with him. I wanted to continue producing, and he gave me
the treatment
for a movie called

Young Frankenstein
.written by Gene Wilder. I said I wanted to produce it , but


said that it was up to Mel Brooks to decide. Having met Mel Brooks earlier and since he actually remembered and liked me, he said “Let’s do
it …get the deal.” At that point in Mel’s career he made two terrific films, The Twelve Chairs and The Producers, both films did not make money and he
was just starting to reignite his career with pre-production on Blazing Saddles.

I set Young Frankensteinn up at Columbia but they passed because the
budget was too high and Mel, rightfully so, wanted to make it in Black
& White.
They were insisting that it should be in color. I gave it to my

Alan Ladd Jr.

at FOX and he said yes, it should be made in black and white with an
even bigger budget than we had. Seven years later Mel and I did My Favorite Year based on an idea I
had. The original script was written by

Norman Steinberg

and Mel helped develop and executive produce it. I saw a half-hour comedy pilot by director Richard Benjamin. I showed it to Mel and we hired him to direct the film.
Peter O’Toole

was a dream to work with and I learned a lot about filmmaking working with him.

Aguilar: Going back to the Foreign Language Academy Award, back when the shortlist and eventually the nominees were announced, there was much talk
about several films being snubbed, including Gloria and The Past. Why do you think these weren’t included?

Gloria probably
didn’t get nominated because it wasn’t as serious as some of the
other films. We will be hearing a lot from its director Sebastian Lelio.
I liked it enough to option the rights and currently have a
writer/director working on a screenplay that will star Jane Fonda which
we’ll both produce. On the other
hand, it’s about preferential viewing,


makes very specific movies. He is a serious filmmaker, and he is a
very good storyteller. He is another director that tells it how it is.
His films are
like reading a book with great characters, It was one of my favorite
films but it was a tough movie for some people. He is what he is, take
it or leave it. He just does his thing.

Aguilar: Are there any filmmakers you would like to work with in the future? Anyone who has caught your eye?

Gruskoff: Sure,

David O. Russell

would be great. [Laughs]. Other great directors whom I would love to work with are Steve McQueen, Martin Scorsese,

Christopher Nolan

, David Fincher, or

Kathryn Bigelow

….who wouldn’t.

Aguilar: Where do you think the industry is going, with all the awards campaigns and the more glamorous, less artistic, side of the business becoming so

Gruskoff:The industry has become more about celebrity. After seeing 12 Years a Slave
at the Pacific Designer Center early on, I knew McQueen’s work
was just beginning. He was going to have to live between L.A. and
N.Y.C. to attend press events and Q&As for the next six
months….longer than it took
to shoot the film. Fashion has also joined the fray to cross-promote
films as well as the important festivals around the planet, particularly if it’s internationally driven.

Just a few years ago when

Sydney Pollack

made a movie and the distribution people received the print, and the
filmmakers promotion schedule was not as arduous. Going to 2 or 3 major
cities with the
actors before the film opened. Now it has become so celebrity-driven
with all the different outlets fighting for space, it has gotten out of
hand. If you
have Brad Pitt producing or Ben Affleck
starring, you have an opportunity to promote your film on every talk
show. It cuts your marketing costs, which are very expensive and
getting even more
expensive, even with the help of the internet.

Aguilar: What are your future plans? Looking back at your career are there any regrets?

Plenty… just kidding. As a producer you are always looking for a good story. I did Quest for Fire
and my friends said “Don’t you have something better to do
with your time? You will never get it made.” Miraculously it did get
made, with luck. My best friend, Sandy Lieberson, happened to become the
interim President at 20th and he gave me the green lighjt.. I’d like to
do dark comedies in the vein of American Beauty or Fargo. It’s about what turns you on,
what gives you a rush, because it is such a difficult journey. You never know what’s around the corner.

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