Irwin Winkler Says He’s a ‘Hands-On’ Producer
Film producer Irwin Winkler prefers being on the front line to thinking about the bottom line.
“For the good producer, raising capital is about the last thing to worry about,” he said. “If you’re good, the money comes very easily.
“Everybody sees themselves through the golden light. I see myself as somebody involved from the very conception. Every film I do, I’m involved with from the very conception of the project.”
Winkler (“Rocky,” “The Right Stuff,” “Raging Bull”) is sticking to that principle on his latest production, “Betrayed.” He developed the screenplay, helped with casting, was on the set during filming and worked on the post-production and promotion.
“Betrayed” was directed by Costa-Gavras (“Z,” “Missing”) and stars Debra Winger and Tom Berenger. Winger plays an FBI agent who must learn whether Berenger, a farmer, is involved with right-wing extremist activities.
The opening scene of “Betrayed” shows the murder of a controversial radio personality by a white extremist group, similar to the 1984 slaying of Denver talk-show host Alan Berg.
“I was interested in the subject of the murder of Berg, and then I did some research,” Winkler said. “I found this kind of widespread group of extremists. This is a group of people looking to overthrow the United States government.”
Though the producer does not call “Betrayed” a “message film,” he hopes that it will increase awareness about extremist groups.
“What we say is that you’ve got to face it,” he said. “You can’t run away. The only problem I can see for the film is not enough people want to recognize that it exists in our country.”
Winkler worked as a mail boy, a projectionist and a clapper--one who goes to live TV shows and applauds and laughs--before deciding to get into the movie business.
He began producing films in the 1960s and had his first major hit in 1969 with “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, which received nine Academy Award nominations and won the best actor prize for Gig Young. Winkler’s biggest success came with “Rocky,” which received 10 nominations in 1976 and won the Oscar for best picture.
“It was just a nice little movie, very cheap,” Winkler recalled. “I think it caught the American consciousness at the time. Maybe because we were just coming out of the (Vietnam) war and everybody wanted to believe in something, and here was a character who believed in himself.
“The whole purpose of the movie was, even if you don’t win the title, if you have self-respect, it’s more important.”
Despite his string of successes, Winkler, like most producers, is largely unknown to the general public, which tends to associate producers with the financial aspect of the film.
“Most of the producers don’t know what they do. The misconception of the producers’ function is really not a misconception. Most producers don’t do a very good job,” he said.
“That perception of the producer who is just out there packaging all of this is generally right.”
While film critics usually detect a pattern in the films of a certain director or actor, the producer’s contribution often remains unnoticed. Winkler believes a basic theme does exist, a “Winkler” trademark, so to speak, in many of his films.
“Somebody pointed it out to me that almost every film I’m involved with deals with how people react in a particular situation, usually a situation of stress,” he said.
“Whether it’s a guy like Rocky, responding with courage and daring, or Debra Winger in ‘Betrayed,’ if you go through all those films, you find that common thread.”
Winkler does not see that pattern in most of the films now being made. “I think the biggest change in the industry is that the studios have really become conglomerates, so there’s not the personal touch you used to have.”
He is also concerned about the lack of quality screenplays. “That’s what’s hurting the business the most. What we really have to do is show some respect for the writers and encourage more young people to become writers so we’ll have better stories.”
Although many of Winkler’s productions have been financially successful, he does not claim any expertise in what makes a film popular at the box office.
“You can never figure,” he said. “It’s a mysterious set of circumstances.”
As for his movies: “I’m just trying to tell a nice story. Whether you’re a writer or a producer, all you want to do is tell a good yarn.”