Bruce Willis, as one of the most popular and highly paid stars in Hollywood, is familiar to most moviegoers. Joel Silver's name isn't a household word. But, as one of Hollywood's biggest producers, the controversial and press-shy Silver has brought to the screen such box-office hits as "Lethal Weapon," "Lethal Weapon 2," "Predator" and "Commando."
Together, the names Willis and Silver are fast becoming synonymous with the kind of big-budget action pictures that continue to be a staple of Hollywood. Their partnership started with "Die Hard" in 1988 and was followed by last summer's sequel, "Die Hard 2: Die Harder." This summer it's "Hudson Hawk"--an offbeat action-comedy that pairs Willis with Danny Aiello and Andie MacDowell.
Outside an East L.A. sound stage, the pair took a break from production on their fourth movie together, "The Last Boy Scout," to talk about "Hudson Hawk," their views of the movie business, fame and their nagging nemesis--the media.
Question: Some people look at you two and wonder how two such strong personalities can work together through three, and now four, films. What are the dynamics of your relationship and how has it changed over the years?
Silver: You know, Bruce and I have had very good luck. We met doing "Die Hard" and it was an unconventional film, an action film that was fresh, had a new approach and it really took the notion of an action lead and made him very vulnerable--
Willis: More of a human being than a super-human being.
Silver: --and very accessible, which to a large part was Bruce. There was a scripted movie there, but Bruce really brought an enormous amount of himself and what he is to that role of John McClane. During the course of that film, Bruce and I became very close friends and we began to appreciate each other and how well we do what I think we do. When Bruce came to me with this prize project of his own, "Hudson Hawk," something that he had personally labored over for many years . . . he said, "I'd like you to work with me on this project." During the course of that we went on and made "Die Hard 2," which was even more successful than "Die Hard." We ended up with our own internal rhythm of working together and "Hudson Hawk" was just the extension of that.
Q: Describe that internal rhythm.
Silver: Well, Bruce is a very good actor and he really likes to make these roles as much him as he can make them. I think Hudson Hawk is the character that's the most like Bruce Willis: He has a great sense of humor and he approaches life with great wit. He's very cynical, but he's very warm, and he's very real. And (we put) together these two other elements with Bruce--Dan Waters, who is a wonderful writer and Michael Lehmann, who is a very talented director, a very skillful kid and who really understood the kind of off-center, irreverent, off-base sense of humor that Bruce saw in this movie.
Q: Bruce, could you describe the birth of the idea for the film?
Willis: My friend Robert Kraft and I used to run around together in New York City. At the time he was a nightclub singer. . . . He wrote a song, and I wrote the lyrics, that was about 12 years ago. . . . It's called "The Hudson Hawk," and it's about this character, Little Eddie Hawkins, a guy getting out of jail and what happens to him. . . . We always said, someday we should make this into a film. When I got into a position where I was able to get scripts made, this was one of the ideas that I put into development.
Q: It's a difficult film to categorize. How would you, for example, describe it to the various writers you worked with along the way?
Willis: This film didn't really take on what eventually became the final attitude we shot with until Dan Waters got involved. . . . You can't describe this film and everything that it is in one quick sentence--it doesn't really fit into one hole. It is comprised of a lot of elements: It has very intellectual hip humor in it; it has very sophomoric broad slapstick comedy; it has elements of a road picture; it has more romance than any film that I have ever done; it has action; it has big stunts; it has a very dark sensibility. . . . It's a film that needs to be experienced more than explained. . . .
Q: A lot of the humor in the film is very irreverent and some of it--like the scenes where you break into song or fall off balconies and land in chairs in restaurants--could either leave audiences roaring with laughter or deathly silent. Did you guys make a conscious decision to take these kinds of creative risks?
Willis: Yeah, we knew that they were risks.
Silver: The first day on the movie when Bruce walked out of the prison in that hat--
Willis: And the black coat--
Silver: We said, are you sure we're doing this?
Willis: But we committed to it. We knew that some of things that we were going to try would be risky and we wouldn't know whether we were successful until we showed it to an audience. We all thought it was very funny, but it was very inside and very different than anything we've done before. If I could describe the tone of this film, I'd probably say that it's closer to "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" than anything else that I can think of.
Q: From what I've read, there seemed to be three directors on the set, Michael Lehmann and then you guys--
Willis: Completely false, completely inaccurate.
Silver: Michael Lehmann is the director of the movie.
Willis: Always was.
Silver: He was the captain of the ship.
Willis: And if you're interested in this, this is a great opportunity to set that rumor straight, because that's all it ever was. It's all just slander and innuendo and gossip and it's unfair to Michael and it's unfair to Joel and it's unfair to me.
Q: But Lehmann has suggested in printed interviews that there was some second-guessing going on.
Silver: Making a big movie is always very collaborative, the studio being the first member of the collaboration and moving from there to the various creative elements. With a big-budget movie, there is always a lot of studio opinion about how the movie should proceed, and there was constant concern over budget, which is valid concern.
Willis: I don't know what you think or what anybody else thinks about how films get done, but I have never worked on anything in front of a camera that was not a collaborative process. That's the way films get made. . . . There wasn't any second guessing: There were ideas, there were suggestions about, "Well, what if we did this, doesn't this make it funnier?" . . .
Q: There were a lot of problems on this production--a general strike in Hungary, Willis' injury when he ran into a camera, the loss of your leading lady. (Andie MacDowell became a last-minute replacement for Maruschka Detmers, who became ill on the set.) What was the biggest obstacle during all of this?
Willis: Probably just shooting it. This film was set up according to a standard Hollywood 13-hour shooting day, (during which) normally you have the actors in front of the camera 9, 10, 11 hours a day. In Italy, that just didn't happen, things moved so much slower because of the language problem, the communication problems.
Silver: Bruce and I had a very romantic notion about shooting the picture in Europe, which is sometimes simpler in theory than in practice. It cost more to shoot there than it would have to shoot here.
Q: On the budget, we've been told that the film is coming in at $50-$55 million and that one reason behind the overages was the constant rewriting of the script and your insistence on shooting several options for one scene.
Willis: It's not true. The only thing that makes a film go over budget is adding days to the schedule. We lost time because we shot in Italy, not because we were arguing about how the film should be shot. That had all been worked out a long time ago.
Silver: The picture was budgeted around $40 million and we came in a little over that but not substantially over.
Q: Let me move on to a more general topic. There seem to be two factors at work in Hollywood today: A weak economy, coupled with what seems to be a backlash against big-budget action pictures. Joel, what's the future for these kind of action extravaganzas that have become your hallmark?
Silver: I think we have to try to figure out ways to reduce the cost of these pictures, but that's not a new notion.
Willis: There seems to be a line of thinking that came about because of (Disney chief) Jeff Katzenberg's memo. What he said was we should make very good films for as little money as possible. They've been making movies like that in Hollywood since Hollywood existed; it's an old idea. There are always going to be big blockbusters. That's part of Hollywood.
Silver: We have to try to figure out ways to bring costs down, that is, in the writing area, because when you know have one-eighth of a (script) page where you say the Indians take the fort, that one-eighth of a page, even though it--
Willis: It could be one Indian riding up with a shot gun, or it could be 10,000 Indians--
Silver: It depends on how it's interpreted and how it's written. . . . It depends on the material, if you're going to blow up a set, then there's a way to do that. If you're going to have a scooter go down the street, that's another aesthetic.
Q: But the audience for Joel Silver-type movies remains as large as it was? Silver: Well, I don't know what a Joel Silver-type picture is--
Willis: Why would anyone think not?
Q: Because of a lot of the box-office results from last summer.
Willis: I don't think that the prevailing temperament in Hollywood among the studio heads has any effect on the audience, or whether someone's going to go to a movie or not.
Q: But studio heads decide which movies to make, and there seems to be a prevailing sentiment that they want to make more comedies, romantic comedies and smaller family-oriented films.
Silver: Until they don't work. Last year there were three very successful films that were all very good films--"Pretty Woman," "Ghost" and "Home Alone." The feeling may be now, "Let's make more 'Ghosts,' more 'Home Alones' and more 'Pretty Womans.' Let's make what worked last year." But I promise you, "Terminator 2" will be a gigantic movie this summer, it will be a huge success. It will make Arnold (Schwarzenegger) even bigger than he was. . . . Q: And "Hudson Hawk?"
Silver: "Hudson Hawk" is a very fun, exciting movie. If the audience responds the way we have, it will be very successful.
Willis: And the way other audiences have. One of the things that bothered me about your other article (disclosing market test results on "Hudson Hawk") was that you quote some close industry source saying we had a bad screening. Well, that was not a screening at all, it was a test audience for us. Out of 100 jokes, we knew only 60 of them were going to work, but we didn't know which . . . so we showed it to an audience to help us with that. But that was not an industry screening and it was unfair to write that it was and that it didn't do well.
Q: We said it was a research test screening, not an industry screening.
Willis: But you know what that is, and I know what it is, but I don't think anybody else out there knows what a research test screening is. Everything is so fascinating about Hollywood; (people) want to know the secrets even before the films even come out. And it bothers me because it takes away the magic. It's an illusion what we do. It's just little points of light up on a dark screen. But people are throwing rocks at films even before they come out. What is the ultimate point of that? Who does it serve by saying even before a film comes out that this film is in trouble, or this film went over-budget, or these two actors are fighting, or this director walked off the set? That's the information that seems to comprise the majority of what gets written about a film before it comes out.
Q: What should the role of the press in Hollywood be?
Willis: The role of the press--what a question.
Q: To just give free publicity to films?
Willis: Absolutely not. What a loaded question. The question of the role of the press comes down to, you have integrity or you do not have integrity. To report on a film, to tell people it exists, just like you tell them about other news. . . . (It's fine) to say, there's a film coming out that is about this, we've reviewed it, we didn't like it, we loved it, we feel this about it, we feel that about it. But that search to write about films and about the problems and the gossip and the juice is just offensive to me.
Q: So the press shouldn't, for example, write about the cost of films?
Willis: I am not here to say what they should and shouldn't do, because I don't really know . . .
Q: You're criticizing that aspect of press coverage. Joel, you can jump in too: Do you think that there's any legitimate role for the press in covering movie-making as a business?
Silver: The press seems to base news on fiction and innuendo. Rephrase that. The press seems to absorb fiction and innuendo and then accept it as fact.
Willis: It used to be that most legitimate newspapers would not print rumors. But then they started to get away with it by reporting that someone else said this rumor. So in fact you are now reporting the same rumors, you're just getting off the hook by saying, 'Well, somebody else said it, the National Enquirer said it.' . . . But aren't you just as bad as the National Enquirer by writing the same rumor under the guise that somebody else said it? Q: Joel, you've taken the position of not talking to the press at all. For example, there have been published reports that raise serious questions about your spending habits on films. There were indications that Fox executives were not happy about the costs of "Die Hard 2," which included things like a $100,000 tab for the day's use of a 747. I'd like to get you to respond to that, but also to explain why don't you respond to those charges in the press.
Silver: I felt that my work could speak for itself. I never felt comfortable about talking to the press, because I felt that my work was my response. I was proud of the films that I've done, I think they've shown a lot of hard work and an attempt at very special entertainment.
Willis: The other side of that is, how do you answer a question that is couched in that way? "Hey, still beating your wife?" It's a lose-lose situation. You would always be in a position of having to defend and say, "No, I didn't do this, no I didn't do that, no this didn't happen, no, that's not true." Correct me if I'm wrong, but what is there to gain from that kind of justifying what you do?
Silver: I mean, we worked very hard at "Die Hard."
Willis: I'll give you an example, what you now kind of quote as fact, that the studio was upset about a $100,000 expense for a plane that Joel himself encouraged is only half the story. Why it cost so much money for that plane was because we went to the location where the jet was, and there was no snow. (The jet which appeared in the film remained on lease while they scouted for locations with snow.) It's a huge logistical shooting problem. No one ever talked about the actual logistical problem. It's much more interesting to say that they were upset because Joel spent a $100,000 a day on a plane.
Q: However, there's no doubt that Fox executives weren't happy about some of the spending on the film. It's also true that there are studios in town that won't make pictures with Joel Silver because of his reputation for extravagant spending.
Silver: It's unfortunate that my life has to be lived in the media but I have had very successful films and most of the companies who've worked with me would work with me again.
Q: Has any of this changed your attitude towards dealing with the press?
Silver: I feel that the notion of not responding is as effective as responding. But, I really believe in "Hudson Hawk," and I was reading so much about it that was untrue that I felt that it was perfectly proper to respond.
Q: You guys originally asked us to do this interview, but after reading something in our paper on "Hudson Hawk" you didn't like, you canceled it. Then you changed your mind again and wanted the interview. Why?
Silver: Because we thought about it and we're very proud of the movie. We don't want there to be negative press about the movie because it just doesn't deserve it. There's a lot of attention in Hollywood on high-profile movies, not just mine. And high-profile filmmaking is difficult, because we're living our lives in the media. But I like to think that movies speak for themselves. When you saw "Hudson Hawk," did you see a big adventure on the screen, did you feel all of the size and scale of the movie?
Q: It felt like a big movie.
Silver: I mean it's all there (on the screen). . . .
Q: Bruce, star salaries are at the top of the list when studio executives talk about the rising costs of movies. You're one of the highest paid stars in the business, reportedly making $14 million on your current film, "The Last Boy Scout." Aside from the question of cost, do star salaries pose a difficult public relations question? Do you worry about a backlash from the audience?
Willis: I don't discuss how much I make. I have said numerous times in the press that I was raised to believe that you don't ask someone what they make. What do you make a year?
Q: It doesn't matter.
Willis: I know you won't tell me; it's none of my damn business. It just so happens that I live my life out in the press and you can ask me anything you want, and anything can be written about me and anything can be said about me. I have no choice. I don't discuss my salary. Magazines, writers, reporters discuss my salary, studios don't. I mean the information gets out in some other way.
Silver: It's hard for an actor in a movie that makes $35 million the opening weekend not to seek some renumeration from the studio.
Q: Bruce, don't you think it's legitimate to talk about star salaries, which affect the cost of films and ultimately the profitability of public companies? Willis: It is not important, it has no bearing on the entertainment value of the film at all. It's strictly business. I truly believe that kind of news is only really interesting to a very small portion of the public, but it's a very titillating tidbit to know how much an actor makes.
Q: It's something that's interesting to Wall Street analysts when they're following the financial fortunes of studios--
Willis: And what kind of response do you think you'd get if you asked the CEO of Exxon "How much do you make?"
Q: Top executives at public companies disclose their salaries under SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) rules.
Willis: I'm not a public company. Look, no one is putting a gun to (studio executives') heads. I've never been paid a salary because I held someone up.
Silver: It's a decision that they make.
Willis: If you want to point a finger at why films cost so much, there is a much bigger target than that and no one ever talks about it: the unions. No one ever talks about how much it costs because of unions, and these guys do put a gun to your head--figuratively, not literally. Unions are the No. 1 cost in making films.
Q: You know, a lot of people reading this interview--a lot of our audience--don't care about movie costs. What they do care about is the violence in films like yours. How do you respond to those concerns?
Willis: We had a lot of those questions after "Die Hard 2" came out and I believe that, as I think Joel does, that audiences are smarter now and hipper now than they have ever been and I think they know the difference. Even little kids know the difference between the fake blood that we use in films and the blood they see on the ground by that chalk outline every night on the news.
Q: Don't you think your films inure people to violence?
Willis: No, I don't think so, I think the news inures people to violence. I'll give you an example: When that plane crash happened a couple of years ago and that plane rolled down the runway --I'm sure you saw the film and you knew that there were 150 people dying. I must have seen that same film clip 30 times. Why was that shown more than once? That scared me more than anything I have ever seen in any film. . . .
The most hideous death I've ever seen on film pales compared to the fear that I get when I see real humans laying dead on the ground every night on the news. I am sickened much more by a reporter who sticks a microphone in a mother's face seconds after she just witnessed her kid get killed. That makes me sick; it's just exploitation of human beings. And I don't think films do that. I think audiences know the difference.
Silver: Our films are fun, they're very big funny movies and they're filled with funny lines, funny beats, and the action is always cartoon action. They're not slasher films, they're not blood and guts films. We use violence as punctuation and it's never done for real. It's always done for fun. And I'm not saying that the act of commiting violence is fun, but we make entertainment about people in pretty much unreal situations, dealing with unreal villains and responding in a way that seems to make sense in a larger life.
Q: Bruce, I get the sense from talking to you today, and also from past interviews, that you have mixed feelings about the whole nature of being a celebrity. Is it worth it?
Willis: I still enjoy being an actor. There have been many, many uncomfortable things about me in print that are untrue and totally false. I realize that what is important to me about my job as an actor is entertaining my audience. There's a certain audience out there who likes what I do. I don't force them to like what I do, they just like how I act.
Q: There are ways of being an actor without being a celebrity. You could drop out and do off-Broadway productions in New York. But I sense you enjoy the fame to some extent.
Willis: No, what I enjoy is my work. I haven't dropped out and gone back to Off Broadway because I like making movies. I reach a much larger audience this way. But if there were a switch that I could pull, if there were a way that I could continue to do my work acting and be entertaining to people simply based on my work and not based on what other people write about my work, I would do it. I haven't really done any comedy in the last three years; I mean there are certainly funny lines in "Die Hard" and "Die Hard 2," but I really wanted to do a film that was just flat-out entertaining and more than any other film that I've done in the last five years, this film "Hudson Hawk" was really geared towards that.
How I appeal to (movie audiences) is what's important to me, not what people write about what I do. We could talk until next year and you'd never really know me--it would be an interpretation of what you hear me saying. A lot of reporters flavor what I say with their own agenda--they like me or don't like me--I have no control over it. . . .
Q: Joel, you were once quoted as saying, "I'm not in this business to make art, I'm in it to make money to buy art"--
Silver: That was a glib response to a reporter from an art magazine who once talked to me about my (art collections). But I always say that when you make a movie you have to really want to see it, because by the time you finish it, you see it thousand of times, and I like to make movies that I want to see again. . . .
Did you see "Spartacus"? I don't know if there was a lot written at the time about (its cost). But it's a wonderful experience and it's exciting and it's big and it's a great venture. It makes me say, "That's why I came to Hollywood." Because of films like "The Longest Day" and "The Guns of Navarone" and "Lawrence of Arabia," and the big exciting action films. They were always the most exciting films to me when I was a kid. When I came to Hollywood, my dream was to make those kind of movies. And when I came here there really weren't a lot of those movies being made. I feel fortunate and lucky that I've been able to make some of these films that have been successful and well received and I hope to continue. I do feel that these big, exciting action pictures are always going to be a mainstay.