The Backlot Podcast: Sherry Lansing
- Sherry Lansing
- Encounter with Michael Douglas
- Always Call People Back
- Collaboration in Film
- Behind Box Office Successes
- Overcoming Insecurity
- Conclusion & Goodbye
Eric: Hi I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the Oscar-nominated producer, Sherry Lansing. Her work as a producer alone would more than warrant this episode with a partner Stanley Jaffe. She ushered in separate projects that were more than just films they were events. Movies of their moment Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal and The Accused had people talking long after they left the theater
— My name’s Forrest. Forrest Gump.
Napoleon Dynamite; Barton Fink; Zoolander; Tommy Boy; My Cousin Vinny; Titanic; Tomb Raider; How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days; The Truman Show; Home Alone; Saving Private Ryan; The Fly; The Italian Job; Vanilla Sky; Mission Impossible 2; School of Rock. —
Eric: On top of her career as a producer, Miss Lansing was also one of the first women to run a movie studio twice: first at 20th Century Fox and then Paramount. An impressive track record for anyone, though to hear Miss Lansing describe it her work ethic and intelligence was only part of what got her there.
Sherry Lansing: It was not brain, and it’s certainly not beauty. It was hard work and that’s it. And then if you really work hard you need one other thing and that is luck. And anyone who says you don’t need luck, or – we always called it the movie God – is not telling the truth.
You know I worked just as hard on the films that failed as I did on the ones that succeeded. There was nothing I did different and I believed in most of them exactly the same. So I didn’t do anything different on Fatal Attraction than I did on whatever that didn’t work you know. So sometimes you’re in the Zeitgeist and sometimes it’s because the movie’s really good and some of the movies that aren’t really good are also in the zeitgeist and they do really well. Do you know? So I think you need to really work hard. There’s no shortcut and you need to be prepared to work you know seven days a week you need to be prepared to work 24 hours a day. And if you don’t want to that is okay but then you have to decide what you’re going to be happy with for your career and it doesn’t have to be to be the head of the studio or you know to be a director or whatever it is you can make choices which are very valid choices but if you do that you need luck too.
Eric: Her view on Luck was echoed by an encounter she had with Oscar-winning actor and producer Michael Douglas.
Encounter with Michael Douglas
Sherry Lansing: I still remember when Michael Douglas won the Academy Award and it always stuck in my mind. I thought it was just one of the most honest acceptance speeches I ever heard. And we had done Fatal Attraction with him that you know he’d also done Wall Street but you forget that for years he was Kurt Douglas’s son and he could not get a job and he was considered not a good actor.
I was there once when someone you know stopped him literally on the street and said, “I like your father much better,” and I thought what is wrong with this person. And I turned to him and I said, “well I don’t.” So but it was like I just thought oh my god that burden that he had. I remember he used to say no one takes me seriously whatever and then he won the Academy Award and when he stood up there he said, “I got the part.” There are many talented people out there and they didn’t get the part. So what he was really saying is the movie God shined at me. I’m not the only I’m not the only person that could have run the studio. Believe you me there were a lot of talented people. I’m not the only person that could have had the luck that I had. But I had the luck in addition to really working hard.
Eric: Part of Miss Lansing’s success was doing something simple everyone can and should do. When someone calls you, you call them back.
Always Call People Back
Sherry Lansing: I like people that – it’s just something that comes easy to me. I genuinely like people. There’s almost no one I don’t like it would have to be somebody who was dishonest or deceitful. And second of all returning every call is just good business because you don’t know where that good idea is going to come from. You really don’t. And you don’t return the call. I think that’s about the rudest thing that you could possibly do. You know it’s just so rude and cruel to not treat someone with respect.
And so if you just don’t return their call I think that is so terrible and really it isn’t about the executive. The executive’s job is to find the talent. I mean I never felt any real power because every day you’re trying to get the best script you’re trying to get the best writer you’re trying to get the best actor you’re trying to get the best producer. It is about the person on the other end of the phone. It isn’t about you.
Eric: A big part of being a successful writer or executive is learning how to collaborate. You should view the financiers or the studio as an ally who also wants to make the best story possible.
You know some of the greatest scripts were passed on you know 100 times literally. I mean you know Fatal Attraction was passed on by every studio twice. I mean we could go on Forrest Gump was around for 10 years before anybody made it, whatever. So you should write from your heart and then it’s the push-pull between the studio and the creative force. You must as the creative force try and get the most money that you possibly can for your vision and the studio has to try and get the least amount and the most efficient without hurting the movie. So the studio will come to you and say this section is going to cost 50 million dollars and we don’t want it to and we suggest you take out this or. Tell us what – what your ideas are.
And at some point if you want to get this movie made you may have to make certain compromises in your vision and that’s very painful but you have to come to a point where you say I will compromise this because I don’t think it’s really hurting the movie but I won’t go to that and people do walk away. And they sometimes never get their movie made and other times they walk away and someone else does it. That’s what happened for example with Braveheart. I mean you know someone doesn’t want to make it and someone else will make it. I mean that happens all the time.
Collaboration in Film
Eric: Contrary to popular belief executives are artists too yet they have the difficult task of keeping their eye on the bottom line.
Sherry Lansing: I would urge you to be co-operative as screenwriters. The studio’s not your enemy. They’re really people for the most part who do really love film and really want the same thing that you want. I can’t say everybody, but most of the executives that I know really are doing this because they love movies especially at the level that you’ll be dealing with them. The writers will be dealing with them and sometimes they have great ideas. I mean we had a lot of budget problems on School Ties and I remember Karen Rosenthal just showed me how to take out eight pages. I was shocked. I mean it was her idea she was the executive. And it didn’t we didn’t miss anything. You know so write from your heart write your vision and if you’re lucky it will stay intact. Mostly it won’t. And no it doesn’t mostly it won’t. And that’s just reality. And it may not even be budget. They may say well we can’t go this far with that character that far with this character or whatever but be open. Don’t think of the studio as your enemy. And then everyone has a line they can’t cross.
I mean This is the reality that you’re facing if you sell it to the studio at some point they own it. And so you have to realize that if you’re just saying no all the time they will and I can’t blame them. They bought it, do you know? They gave you the money. They will do it anyways. Do you know? So at some no but they will because they bought it you didn’t have to sell it to them no one held a gun to your head. If you didn’t sell it that’s OK. I mean if you go into a meeting and they say we want to option this but we want you you know to do this and this and you go but that’s not the movie I want to do that’s OK then there’s no hard feelings. But when you come you at least have to say to them can I try it this way. I try and be part of the team. I mean that’s the best advice I can give. And then at some point you have a right to say you know, “I can’t really do this. I don’t understand how to do this. Maybe you should bring someone else in.” And then you have it’s like letting go of your child that’s going to college and you have to say OK it’s all right. So I guess what we’re trying to tell you is you know to be part of the team for as long as you can.
Eric: Part of collaborating well is admitting that you may not be right all the time.
Sherry Lansing: You are wrong as much as you’re right. And anybody who says differently. They’re just not telling the truth because you know when I would pass on something meaning that you know I would say you know it doesn’t work for me and that’s really what I would say. “It doesn’t work for me.” And I used to often say, “I may be wrong. So you’ll be able to tell the story when you win the Academy Award. About what an idiot I was.” Because that’s true. And there are films that I didn’t get. You know that that did well you know so. So I think it’s important to know that it isn’t about you know, and a movie executive is lucky enough to have the resources to help other people and collaborate with them and make a difference in the process to achieve their dream of a certain film. And if you’re lucky and you picked the right ones you will continue to do that for a long time.
Eric: Executives even as high ranking as a studio head often lead their careers in somewhat quiet anonymity. That is unless their movie doesn’t do well.
Sherry Lansing: First of all I think making any movie decision is difficult because you’re greenlighting a movie and quite honestly, if it fails, in my opinion, the only person that’s responsible is the person who greenlit it. So it’s my failure and not my success and that’s what I think the interesting thing about being a studio executive is and John Dongshan felt the same way. We are anonymous in the background. And when it fails – trust me – you know you’ve got to explain it to every board member that there is.
Eric: Before its 12-year reign as the highest grossing film ever. Titanic was a movie that many predicted to fail even with a proven master like James Cameron at the helm. The budget ballooned and the film was delayed by half a year. But Sherry Lansing wasn’t afraid of the risk.
Sherry Lansing: There’s many movies. I mean Titanic which was which was a complicated movie. I heard about it from the president of the studio at the time a man named John Goldwin. He knew that 20th Century Fox wanted a partner. I read the script. And for me, every decision is about the script. That to me is the most important thing. If it’s not a good script you shouldn’t make it and I don’t care who’s attached to it. You have to believe in the script and I think good scripts all have two things: characters that you care about and that description evokes an emotional response. It’s not a passive thing. It should make you laugh it should make you cry and you should be involved. So I read the script and I loved the script. I didn’t love the script for the reasons that everybody thinks. I loved the script because I love the love story and I loved Rose. I thought she was an empowered figure and I just thought, “oh my god this is really a woman’s lib movie in a funny way, with a great love story at the core.”
Eric: Miss Lansing believed that the project would be a massive hit and she also believed that Fox’s budget was way too low. In both cases, she could not have been any more right.
Sherry Lansing: I’m not going to remember this exact number was like 12 million dollars for special effects and I went, “Wow that’s not enough.” I mean this is on water. Waterworld had already happened. This doesn’t make sense and 20th Century Fox executives stood by that number. And then we had this famous conversation where I said well I just don’t believe this number you have to add more and you told us it was only 110 and this isn’t what it’s going to be. And they said well what is the worst you think it can go to. And we said, “I believe 130.” And they said, “Great! it will never go to that will cap you meaning you’ll never have to go above half of that investment which was 65 million dollars.” And we said, yes. So in reality, as the picture kept going up and up and up. I hate to say this because I feel a little guilty. I slept so well at night. I can’t tell you but I felt guilty because I would call Bill Mechanic who’s an extraordinary executive and I would say I’m really so sorry. Is there anything we can do to help. He said well you could give us more money. I said well that we can’t do to help. And it went to I think over 200 million dollars. And today you’re going “eh” but then everyone predicted that it was going to be the biggest disaster in the history of film. And instead, it was the most successful film ever released. Until he did Avatar after that and he beat his own numbers.
Behind Box Office Successes
Eric: Of all of Mr. Lansing’s critical and box office successes perhaps none of them came any easier than the Oscar-winning war drama Saving Private Ryan.
Sherry Lansing: One day I was driving home at around 7:15 at night and I got a call from Richard Lovett who was the head of CAA and he said, “So Sherry you know you have this script Saving Private Ryan.” I said, “yes.” He said, “So how would you feel you know if Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks wanted to do it would you do it?” I said, “Well yeah, of course I’d do it.” So he said, “Okay good because they do.” I said, “Oh really.” He said, “really!” And I hung up the phone and I thought, “What is he smoking? I mean what is going on?” I said, “You never get a picture like that!” That requires years of begging years of trying to convince, nine hundred drafts of the script, and I got home and the phone was ringing and it was John Dulgian, my partner and he said, “You have a call from Richard Lovett.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “is he nuts?” He said, “it’s that the two of them. Did you meet them?” I said, “No, I’ve never met with either of them.” And then a few minutes later he calls me he goes, “it’s real.” I said, “how do you know?” He said, “David Geffen said it’s true.” He said, “Steven wants to do it” and I said, “I can’t believe this!” I mean that came together so easily. I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing I never met with them beforehand. I just said, thanks.
Eric: The journey of Tomb Raider was a much more difficult one. Miss Lansing described how it signified a transition in Hollywood. Where quality of product might be giving way to quality of marketing.
Sherry Lansing: What I remember about the movie which is how the movie business has changed, I was watching the dailies. They looked all right and then we saw the first cut of the film. By then there were all sorts of fights between the producer and the director and all sorts of things had happened during the movie that made everybody not like each other. But when I saw the movie I was shocked because the movie made no sense. It was just honestly, a mess and nobody disagreed with that. Nobody. You know the director said, it doesn’t work. The producers said, it doesn’t work and we all went into intensive meetings about how to fix it. What I remember is when we’re walking back from that meeting a man named Rob Friedman who was the head of marketing was the only one that didn’t look like he was going to have a heart attack. I mean, I actually – I was white and I and it was our big tentpole you know that was our big I think July 4th or summer tentpole and he was the only one who was completely calm and I said, “Robby this picture makes no sense. Why are you so calm? Don’t you care?” And he said, “Sherry, we’re going to be fine.” And I said, What do you mean we’re going to be fine? Did you understand it?” He said, “no, but we’re going to be fine.” He said, “I have spots that test through the roof we’re going to open.” What was the number. Twenty? Twenty-eight point six? Whatever the number he said which was huge at that time. And we’re going to do 130 million dollars or whatever the number was. Meaning that if you could market it really does it make any difference if the movie was good or not. And he said to me, “you can spend that three million dollars to fix the movie. It won’t make any difference. We’ll be fine.” And that was the beginning of my wanting to leave the movie business to be honest with you. And I looked at him and I said- I – but I love Robby. He’s still one of my best friends. I said, “I can’t think like that.” Then what’s my job? I think marketing is truly a gift. And I respect people. I got in the business to make movies that had word of mouth that people talk to other people you know and told people to see it. And he was right. We fixed it made sense. Terrific movie for what it is open to exactly the number he said. And it did exactly that number at the end. And that’s how it’s changed and I think it’s changed in the sense that it’s harder and harder to make movies if you can’t market them and get those spots there that you know. And also so much of the drama of dramatic movies have been taken over by the extraordinary things that are on television today that are just amazing.
Eric: In a very candid and honest moment. Miss Lansing described that perhaps the biggest obstacle in her career was herself.
Sherry Lansing: I think you sometimes look at a person and you say well they they didn’t have any problems and their life was all smooth. And we do that about people we don’t know. But the truth of the matter is I was an enormously insecure young girl. I had very very little self-esteem. And I think what I had was an incredible desire to be better but it didn’t happen overnight. I mean it was a long process and eventually, I realized that it was really interfering with my life. And so I went into therapy and so I would say that that was the single most important gift I ever gave to myself. And in many ways therapy if you have a good therapist and you can really be honest and unburden yourself to that person. And it’s a safe place. It’s like reparenting yourself and I’m not suggesting that everybody should do that but for me it was the best gift I ever gave to myself. And I wouldn’t be who I am today without that. This is what I really want to say. You know we’re all a work in progress and most of the time you’re OK. And then every once in a while for no reason that 12-year-old child that’s in all of us just pops up and says, “oh my god! why did I say that? Oh my god! why did I do that?” I’m wearing the wrong thing. You know? And I go back to see the doctor quite often when I feel like I can’t handle something and I don’t want to take it out on other people and I find it very helpful. So that was I think that made all the difference in the world
Eric: When things were difficult along the way. Miss Lansing found the best thing to keep her going was the work
Sherry Lansing: Whenever things would go bad I would just concentrate on the movies. I would just concentrate on the script. I would concentrate on the dailies. I would concentrate on the work. And to this day that always takes away my demons that always takes away my depression. Because everyone still gets depressed that’ll take away your anxiety is you start to do the work. Think about something other than yourself and you forget you forget that person that yelled at you you forget. You know the insult that you had and you just concentrate on the one thing that you really care about because if you’re in this business for any other reason than to make it good and by film I mean television everything. I mean the whole thing that will really hurt if you’re in for any other reason.
Eric: And now Miss Lansing has begun a different adventure by turning her attention to a nonprofit. The skills that helped her create dozens of legendary films are now being utilized to give others a chance at reinventing themselves later in life.
Rewiring Instead of Retiring
Sherry Lansing: I’m going to end with my favorite story about being in the not for profit world. So I’m 73 which I know must seem like 110 to you. And when people turn 40 in our industry they’re considered that’s it they’re done. And I think that’s so sad. I can’t tell you. So I had this idea of this program and I wanted to take people who are 55 and up and retrain them to be math and science teachers who were retiring that they should rewire not retire. This is my favorite story.
I said to a group of people the oldest person was 30 35 who had all been appointed by the governor to solve the problem of why there weren’t any more math and science teachers and how could we get people. And I said well we can get this demographic who’s 55 to rewire not retire. And they looked to me like I was insane. And they said a 60-year-old person you’re going to retrain them to be a teacher I said yes. And they said, “what are they going to do? Drool all over the floor?” And I said, “well, I’m 60.” Not a reaction not a reaction not oh my god you don’t look it. Nothing! Nothing! they had already decided I was 110 and so not a reaction at all. And I came back the next day and I said, “you know, Mick Jagger is 61 and if he can jump up and down then he could teach.” And they went, “You’re right!” And then they bought the program. I needed Mick Jagger from the entertainment industry to say the same. So you guys your life is ahead of you and so is mine and you have unlimited options and anything you dream of you can make happen. And we’re going to be going to your movies or watching your television. And I just wish you all the greatest luck in the world.
Conclusion & Goodbye
Eric: No matter the age. Belief in yourself and your work can take you to all kinds of amazing places. We want to thank Miss Lansing for speaking with our students and we want to thank all of you for listening. If you want to learn more about Sherry Lansing and really, you should, check out her biography “Lading Lady.”
This episode was written by me Eric Conner based on the Q&A moderated and produced by Tova Laiter featuring Sherry Lansing and her biographer Stephen Galloway. This episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden; produced by David Andrew Nelson, Kristian Hayden and myself; executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. If you’d like to watch the entire interview it’s on our YouTube channel. Just go to youtube.com/newyorkfilmacademy. To learn more about our programs check us out at nyfa.edu. Be sure to subscribe and Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.
Hey ma, it’s me, Eric. I’m calling you back because you called me and Sherry Lansing said always call people back. Love you.