For Scott Rudin, there will be quality

SCOTT RUDIN met one of the key role models for his life when he was a teenager. In the early 1970s, when other kids were playing guitar, shooting hoops or just seeing how long their hair could grow, the 15-year-old Rudin spent his days working for theater producer Kermit Bloomgarden, a legendary Broadway impresario who produced Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," a host of plays by Lillian Hellman and "The Music Man."

Bloomgarden often worked at home, so Rudin, as a young assistant, found himself handling a variety of chores not normally associated with developing great theatrical works, like picking tomato bugs off the plants on Bloomgarden's terrace. "I did everything," Rudin told me the other day over breakfast at the Hotel Bel-Air. "When I'd come home, my mother would ask, 'How was your day?' And I'd say, 'I made lunch for Burt Lancaster.' "

One day Bloomgarden handed his young assistant a Jules Feiffer script to read. Supremely assured of his taste in material even then, Rudin pronounced it ready for success. "I said, 'It's funny, and I think it could be very commercial.' And Kermit blasted me. He said, in no uncertain terms, 'You do the play because you believe in what it is. Anything that follows comes from what you saw in the original material.' "

Rudin's attitude hasn't changed. He makes films he believes in. Perhaps that's why "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood," the two Oscar best picture contenders with the darkest, most uncompromising vision, share a common denominator -- Rudin's role as a producer of "No Country" and executive producer of "Blood."

In an era when most Hollywood films are judged by their worth as box-office commodities, Rudin is the rare producer who buys literary works and connects them with gifted filmmakers, believing that great movies emerge from the mysterious alchemy between great artists and compelling stories.

"I look for a voice," says Rudin. "With 'No Country,' the moral underpinning of the story spoke to me in a big way, yet you could also see it as an exciting chase movie. The underpinning was always there, but I hate movies that speak about their morals. It works better when you have a piece of material where the moral questions are buried -- otherwise the film feels too medicinal."

A voracious reader who is famous for acquiring books before anyone else knows they are on the market, Rudin was the first to read Cormac McCarthy's novel. In fact, ICM's Ron Bernstein, who represented the book, hadn't even sent it out when he began getting calls from Rudin. "It was still in manuscript," Bernstein recalls. "He started badgering me over the weekend to buy it. I said, 'Wait a minute, do you mind if I finish reading it first?' But that's Scott. When he loves a piece of material, he's relentless. I couldn't beat him away."

After Rudin read "No Country," he announced that there was only one way to make the movie -- with Joel and Ethan Coen. "They have an enormous moral force in their movies, but they also have the kind of bravura razzle-dazzle that worked for this story. A lot of people see their films as naturalistic, but to me, it's high style. They're very showman-like filmmakers."

It was Rudin's idea to cast Javier Bardem as the remorseless killer whose mordant presence is felt all through the film. Having been a casting director before he turned to producing -- he cast "The Wanderers" when he was 21 -- Rudin has a shrewd sense of what subconscious heft actors can bring to a role.

"When you think about the great performances of people playing complex villains, the performances that stick in your mind are the ones where an actor makes a tremendously authoritative case for a character," Rudin explains. "There's no one more authoritative than Javier. If he ever wanted to play Stanley Kowalski, he'd stand right alongside Brando."

Like Kowalski, Rudin can bellow with the best of them. His tantrums are the stuff of legend. Battered by screaming fits, tossed objects and abrupt firings, his assistants rarely last long -- a 2005 Wall Street Journal piece estimated that Rudin went through 250 assistants in a five-year period (even Rudin admitted to 119, though his figure excluded assistants who didn't survive a two-week trial period). On the other hand, the industry is full of ex-Rudin assistants who've used the experience as a steppingstone to success.

Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal, who is releasing the Rudin-produced "The Other Boleyn Girl" this month, worked for Rudin as a young production executive. "He was tough," she recalls. "You'd give him script notes and get back his response, written with a big black pen, saying 'TERRIBLE IDEA!' But you'd always forgive him because he's so smart, cares so much and he gets movies made that no one else can."

Though they are beloved Oscar nominees today, "No Country" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" were initially considered huge commercial risks, so huge that "Blood" had already been rejected by Universal as being too costly before it came to Paramount Vantage. Vantage wanted to make "No Country" as well, but with the films' budgets totaling $65 million, it was a big bite for a relatively new company.

It was Rudin who came up with the idea of going to Disney-owned Miramax, persuading the studio to partner on both films with Vantage. Rudin put his money where his mouth was, waiving his up-front fee on "Blood" and taking a minimal fee on "No Country." He also never set foot on either set during filming, knowing he was in business with supremely confident filmmakers fiercely protective of their creative autonomy.

"What sets Scott apart is that he has amazing intuition," says Joel Coen. "He knew when to be involved and when not to be, when to step in and when to lay back. When we were filming we were left entirely to our own devices."

Rudin had his biggest impact after the films were shot, largely on the marketing campaigns. The Oscar ads for both pictures have gone to great lengths to tout the artistry of the films and the filmmakers. "The central message with 'No Country' was the marriage of Cormac and the Coens," Rudin says. "It's why I wanted to do the movie in the first place -- teaming great filmmakers with a great American writer who'd been woefully underserved in the movies."

Rudin also had a sizable role in helping position "There Will Be Blood," a film many feared was too grim and uncompromising to make a dent commercially.

Though director Paul Thomas Anderson balked at doing interviews, he agreed to do question-and-answer sessions after early screenings of the film. Vantage also did a series of midnight showings of the film on the same night in more than a dozen cities across the country.

He must be doing something right: "No Country" and "Blood," while not exactly blockbusters, are the biggest box-office hits ever for their respective directors.

"Scott brings an intellectual rigor to all things," says John Lesher, president of the Paramount Pictures Film Group. "He was always asking, 'Is that really the right marketing plan? Should we really show the film to this person or that person? Why would you have a screening on Friday when everyone's going out of town?' He challenges everyone to arrive at the best decisions."

Like theater producers of old, Rudin has a stock company of gifted collaborators, including the novelists Michael Chabon, Richard Price and McCarthy and the filmmakers Wes Anderson, Sam Mendes, Stephen Daldry, Roger Michell and the Coen brothers.

They often find themselves intertwined together, with Rudin as artistic matchmaker. Having had such success with the Coens' adaptation of McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men," Rudin has acquired Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," with the Coens attached to write and direct the film.

When Daldry found himself without a film to direct after Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" fell apart, Rudin got Daldry (who made "The Hours" with Rudin) another great book, "The Reader," to turn into a film.

Rudin knows his place is outside the big studio machinery. "If the Coens and Paul's movies had been run through the studio research process, they'd have been shredded," he says. "Their virtue is their spikiness."

That's Rudin's virtue too. His abrasiveness is balanced by an immaculate eye for good work and an innate confidence in his artistic taste. "For a lot of years, I was driven by fear and insecurity," he says matter of factly. "But now, with these films, for the first time I feel like I have the wind at my back."

The Big Picture runs every Tuesday in Calendar. E-mail questions or ideas to patrick.goldstein @latimes.com.

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