Iconic producer Robert Evans’ death at 89 this week was met with a wave of appreciations for the driving force behind “Chinatown” and “The Godfather,” but if it wasn’t for a documentary released 18 years ago, that legacy might have remained in the shadows. Co-directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein’s “The Kid Stays in the Picture” recounts Evans’ pivotal role in many of the iconoclastic Hollywood achievements that defined the 1970s, as well as the fatal missteps — from a cocaine bust to a scandalous murder trial — that threw him off track.
“I think the movie gave people a better understanding of him,” Burstein said in a phone interview this week. “People thought he was very Nora Desmond-like.” The stylish documentary, which adapted Evans’ 1994 memoir into a subjective retelling of his highs and lows using his voiceover as a guide, became a breakout hit at Sundance and brought Evans back into public view. USA Films released the movie, which grossed over $1.5 million worldwide on its initial release. “There was a real celebration of him that lasted until now,” Burstein said.
The filmmaking duo spent hours at Evans’ house while working on the project. “Brett and I had no reason to go over there,” Burstein said. “It wasn’t like a verite documentary. But we wanted to understand him and get to know him. We’d have to scan some photos or whatever for an hour. Twelve hours would go by because we’d end up talking to him, at his bedside or in his screening room.”
Morgen grew especially attached to the loquacious and charming figure, eventually moving into his house while completing the project. The documentarian was entranced by the circle of talent that flocked to Evans’ side. “When I started hanging out with Bob in the late ’90s, the scene at his house was David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, people like that,” Morgen said. “The spirit that Evans and [fellow Paramount executive] Peter Bart fostered in the ’70s is being carried over by some of our greatest filmmakers.”
Evans was reticent to discuss the more sordid details of his history with the filmmakers, including the notorious 1983 “Cotton Club” murder, when theater producer Roy Radin was killed under mysterious circumstances during production on Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club” and Evans became a material witness. (No charges were ever brought against him.) The filmmakers had final cut, but because the movie was contingent on his voiceover, Evans knew he could manipulate the outcome.
“He understood that if he didn’t say something, it wouldn’t go in the film,” Morgen said. “He made it clear he wouldn’t discuss the murders or his cocaine use. We’d argue about it every day. Bob said he didn’t mention it in the book on tape and that’s the reason we’re making the film. I told him that was a bogus argument. I said that his transgressions were a feather in his cap.” Eventually, Morgen attempted a workaround. “I had learned how to do a pretty wicked Bob Evans impersonation,” he said. Up until one week before the Sundance premiere in January 2002, the third act of the movie dealing with Evans’ scandals had Morgen’s voiceover. The directors were at a sound studio in Burbank when Evans showed up, “and he very reluctantly agreed to record those passages,” Morgen said.
Three months later, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter hosted a screening of the movie at Evans’ house. The producer didn’t sit through the movie, but called the projection booth midway through. “He asked if we were on reel six, and when we were, he went to watch the movie,” Morgen said. “He said, ‘That’s my favorite part.’ He’d embraced reel six and seven,” which address the drug bust and murder trial, “because he knew it made for a better movie.”
The filmmaker beamed with reverence for Evans’ role in guiding “Chinatown” and “The Godfather” to fruition, and bemoaned the setbacks that prevented him from maintaining his Hollywood pedigree. “Only Bob Evans would have hired Polanski after ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers,’ and told Coppola that his film needed to be longer,” Evans said. “Bob was a gambler. Unfortunately, I feel like Hollywood — and to a certain extent Hollywood historians — have dismissed his contributions.”
As “The Kid Stays in the Picture” points out, Evans benefited from a moment in Paramount’s history where parent company Gulf & Western wasn’t paying too close attention to its Hollywood product, which accounted for some 20 percent of its profits. “They weren’t that worried about it, so they let people like Bob Evans take the reins and do all they wanted,” Burstein said. “He was incredibly pivotal in film history at that moment. He was one of the mad scientists behind it.”
That extended beyond his best-known achievements. He also was responsible for outside-the-box ideas like Haskell Wexler’s docudrama “Medium Cool” (which was shot on location at the 1968 Democratic National Convention), Bernardo Bertolucci’s audacious epic “1900,” Saul Bass’ oddball “Phase IV,” and Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude.”
“They may not be the top of his resume, but he greenlit films that never should’ve been greenlit,” Morgen said. “These were bold, audacious choices. As a cinephile sitting with this guy I’d be like, dude, you put out fucking ‘Novocento’! That’s one of my favorite movies of all my time!”
Morgen maintained a close friendship with Evans, at one point developing “The Kid Stays in the Picture” as a miniseries. “Bob never left my life,” Morgen said. “One of the things about him that those who didn’t know him didn’t understand was that, when you were sitting with Bob, it was all about you. He was the most empathetic friend I think I’ve ever had.” At the same time, the raconteur embraced every opportunity to muse on his accomplishments, often to his detriment.
Morgen recalled one key scene that was cut from the documentary: 16mm footage from Paramount’s 50th anniversary in 1988, shot outside Evans’ office. Coppola, Ryan O’Neal, and others from the producers’ past showed up to pay tribute. “It was this beautifully realized sequence where Bob describes sitting in his office and watching all of the stars line up to take a photograph,” Morgen said. “We set the sequence to ‘Thanks for the Memories.’”
Morgen juggled a number of media requests in the day following Evans’ passing, and bristled at questions from a Los Angeles Times reporter who wanted to know if Evans’ womanizing history would have hurt his career in the MeToo era. (Evans was never publicly accused of sexual misconduct.) “I was like, ‘Can we let him have today?’” Morgen said.
Burstein was similarly defensive of the subject. “I was a woman making this film,” she said. “He was always incredibly respectful to me in every way possible, more so than a lot of people in Hollywood.” As for the drug bust: “Look, it was the ’70s,” Burstein said. “People partied. Part of getting movies done was that aspect of the culture. He was a part of that. I think there was an ultimate goal. It wasn’t just a party to party; it was about developing relationships.”
Perhaps the greatest irony of Evans’ life was that he died on the same night as the Governors Awards, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has handed out its Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to creative producers for 82 years. Evans nearly became the youngest recipient of the award in 1980, but the cocaine bust threw up a red flag. “It was not something he didn’t notice,” said Morgen.
According to Morgen, Evans’ name was discussed once more as a Thalberg recipient four years ago, but he came up one vote shy of landing it. “He was so self-aggrandizing that people dismissed his actual achievements as a filmmaker,” Morgen said. “Something has happened that has escaped me for 20 years, which is that I’m really starting to recognize Bob as an artist — someone willing to put themselves out there, who takes chances, takes risks and is not afraid.”
Even if Evans never quite bounced back — his last producing credit was 2003’s “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” — he never stopped developing new ideas. “Up until the very end, Bob was an active producer,” Morgen said. “He never saw himself as a relic.”