The industry has changed so much. Now it’s dominated by headlines about the Harvey Weinstein scandal and rampant sexual assault in the film industry. What are your thoughts on all that?
I think it’s very sad for everyone involved. I never knew about Harvey or about what the moguls did. I have seen certain stories printed some of which are really shocking — Shirley Temple’s story about Arthur Freed, who was one of my idols. The MGM musicals are to me as a body the best American films. So Arthur Freed is a guy I admire tremendously, like Vincent Minelli. I knew nothing about their private lives. The movies I watch over and over again are “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Gigi,” “An American Paris” and — more than any of the rest — “The Band Wagon.” That was also an Arthur Freed production. So what do you do? Not watch it?
What do you make of conversations surrounding diversity in Hollywood today?
I tried to hire more women on “To Live and Die in L.A.” in key positions because I did not want another pure macho film like “The French Connection.” So my production designer, art director, costume designer, editors, and others were women that I consciously sought out so I didn’t fall into that trip. There is a kind of asexuality to the picture that I consciously wanted in there. For the casting, I was mostly attracted to making pictures with men, aside from the lead character in “The Exorcist.” I can’t deny the validity of stories from people who claim they were discriminated against.
Certainly, when I was working, there were very few African Americans in any meaningful positions. There were only a few women. I happen to believe that Kathryn Bigelow is one of the two or three best American directors, male or female. She struggled for a very long time, but she did get films made before there was any talk of diversity. I don’t know why there aren’t more women in positions of authority, or directors, or cinematographers. I did a video a number of years ago for the French singer Johnny Hallyday, and I worked with a great woman cinematographer in New York. She was fantastic. It was not a matter of her being a woman; she was just good.
There have been women greenlighting film and TV for quite a while — Donna Langley, Dana Walden, Amy Pascal, Stacey Snider, and others who are in positions of power and authority. Of course, my wife Sherry Lansing was the head of Fox for a number of years and then Paramount. She did a lot of women’s films, but she also did “Chariots of Fire” for Fox, which is particularly not a film about women.
Moving beyond all that, how do you feel about the impact of political correctness in our current climate? Many of your movies have pushed buttons.
Political correctness is like being within the grip of a vice. Or it’s like being in prison. If you must tell a story that’s politically correct, then we wouldn’t have “Lolita,” and I can’t accept the argument that we shouldn’t have “Lolita,” or “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” or many other works.
I never intended “Cruising” to be any kind of statement about gay life. To me, it was an exotic background for a murder mystery that had never been seen in a mainstream film.
Did you ever see “Interior. Leather Bar,” the James Franco movie in which they recreated the missing scenes from your film?
Let me tell you about that. I have a young Filipino woman who has worked with us. She brought her nephew in to work with us and he goes to a film school in LA. He told me one day that James Franco and another guy were around the film school and others looking for people to be in a movie that was about the missing 40 minutes of “Cruising.” I thought that was interesting. I had never talked to James Franco. Then, from this young man, I heard that a lot of the students in the film school went off to be in it! It was in production. I think it was a month or maybe two months into when I heard it was in production. I got a call from James Franco. How he got my number I have no idea.
He introduced himself on the phone. He said, “Hey, you know, I’m doing a film about the missing 40 minutes of ‘Cruising.'” Then he laughed and said, “What were the missing 40 minutes of ‘Cruising’?” I said, “It was nothing but male pornography that I shot because I could.” I had access to this particular S&M club, which I think was a one-of-a-kind private club, Mind Club. He said, “Oh,” and then the conversation drifted off. I’ve never seen the film. I don’t know what they’ve done with it. I was never invited to a screening. I probably would’ve gone, but I no longer search out films.
You started your filmmaking career with the activist documentary “The People vs. Paul Crump,” which helped exonerate a man on death row. Do you see documentaries having that kind of effectiveness now?
“Making a Murderer” did enter the cultural discussion about the criminal justice system. It was never, ever possible to do it in a theater, to make something enter the mainstream like that. That didn’t exist when I made my documentary.
You co-sponsored a Hillary Clinton fundraiser last year. Why have you never made a political film?
I wouldn’t know what to do about it. “The Candidate” was the best political film I’ve seen — the last line, when he’s got elected, he’s sitting with his advisers and says, “What do we do now?” I thought that was spot-on. That says it all.