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Q&A with Jerry Weintraub: He does it 'His Way'

Uber producer Jerry Weintraub will receive the Zurich Film Festival's Golden Eye lifetime achievement award Wednesday, which is also his 75th birthday. Known for producing memorable films -- from "Nashville" and "Diner" to the "Ocean's Eleven" and "Karate Kid" franchises -- and promoting such stars as Elvis Presley, Weintraub is the subject of the HBO documentary "His Way," which is up for an Emmy. He's now producing a Liberace biopic for HBO and a live-action Tarzan film for Warner Bros. due out next year.

So, I understand that congratulations are in order, and also happy birthday. How did that documentary come about?

I wrote a book that was a bestseller -- "When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead." It came out in 2010, and then [Vanity Fair Editor in Chief] Graydon Carter came to me with two fellows named Alan Polsky and Gabe Polsky, and they wanted to do a documentary about my life. I said, "Great, as long as I don't have to be involved in the production. I'll be happy to stay out of the way. I only have one rule: I do one take." So they came with a list of directors, and one of them was Doug McGrath. I never had a serious production discussion with him because I didn't want to get in anybody's way.

Is that how you manage when you're producing?

I'm in charge of everything when I'm producing. I work with the director, of course. I'm a hands-on producer. Both hands.

Can you connect the dots between this documentary and your upcoming TV movie, "Behind the Candelabra"? They're both HBO.

The one they made about me, after they made it, they sold it to HBO. I sold "Behind the Candelabra" to HBO before I made it. They financed it, and they were my partners in the movie. I produced it, and Steven Soderbergh directed it, and Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are in it. Richard LaGravenese wrote it.

It's about Liberace's personal life?

It's about his professional and personal life, which were one. It's a difficult story to get made, but I was intent on getting it made. I knew Liberace, and it's a great story. It's a story about a tortured man; he couldn't come out of the closet while he was alive. He died of AIDS, and on his death certificate they had heart failure. It's a hard subject matter for a film -- everybody gets frightened of those things. It will air in May. I'm doing a number of things at HBO.

You came out of nowhere to become Elvis' promoter. How did that happen?

I had a dream one night in the late '50s. I saw a billboard, and it said, "Jerry Weintraub presents Elvis at Madison Square Garden." The next morning, I called Col. Tom Parker, his manager, and I called him every day for 365 days. He said, "No," but we got very friendly on the phone. I said, "You don't understand. I'm going to be the promoter." After one year, I got a call from him. He said, "Do you still want my boy? Well, meet me in Las Vegas tomorrow with a million dollars, and we'll make a deal."

What did you think was missing from the original "Ocean's Eleven" that inspired you to do the remake?

I thought it was a great idea for a movie. I was there when they shot it, and they kind of phoned it in because they were working at night, [Frank] Sinatra, Dean [Martin], everybody. I thought I could do a better movie, and I thought if I could assemble a group of movie stars, I could do a much better movie, so I did.

How did you line up so many big stars?

It was so simple. The first ones that came aboard were Soderbergh and [George] Clooney. When you have Soderbergh, all the actors want to come because he's a great director. Clooney called Brad [Pitt], then we called Matt Damon, and we called the rest of them. We sent Julia Roberts the script with a $20 bill in it, and we said, "We heard that you get 20." She got $20 million. She said, "I'm in."

In the documentary, you say that when the Weintraub Entertainment Group failed 20 years ago, you found that failure actually wasn't an orphan, but that people reached out to help you.

All the people in this town who ran studios and networks called me and said, "You're a talented guy. You have a deal with me." The one I took up was Steve Ross, who had Warner Bros., who said, "Do me a favor. Go down to Florida, rest for three or four weeks. I'm sending over a contract to your office. When you come back from Florida, move to Warner Bros. and make movies. I'll give you anything you want, whenever you want, whatever you need. You write your own contract." And I did.

Do you think Hollywood gets a bad rap as a shark tank?

Yeah, I do. I think everybody in the world wants to be in the entertainment business. We're also very public. I'm fair game. People can say anything they want about me. We're in a different place because everybody wants to be us, but they don't know how to be us and they really don't know what us is. That's how it gets a bad rap. But I have great friends out here, many, many, many friends, who are very substantive, both in my business and outside my business. I'm known all over the world in every circle -- business circles, banking circles, political circles, philanthropic circles -- and certainly in my business. And we're in a business that's very, very difficult, because we do things that start with a blank page and we have to create what it is we're going to do.

So you and George H.W. and Barbara Bush are great friends.

Yes, I just finished throwing his 88th birthday party, and I made a movie about him [for HBO] called "41," and he loved it. And I went up to Kennebunkport [Maine] and invited a couple of hundred guests, and we had a party. He's a very close friend of mine. He's a great man. He was the most qualified man ever to enter the White House because of the jobs he had before he went into the White House. He knew the government like nobody knew the government.

Agent Bryan Lourd said in the doc that it was very unusual for a producer to have worked as long and as successfully as you have. How do you think you've managed it?

Because I have Bryan Lourd. No, he's a great friend. I'm creative enough to have great material and friendly enough with enough actors, directors and writers -- which is what this is all about -- to get things made. I have the most important phone book in the world. I can get anything done, anywhere, at any time. My first 50 emails every morning, I'm a concierge. I get people into hotels, I get them tickets for the theater, I get their kid into college, I get their grandchild into school. That's what I do.

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