In 1987 “Platoon” walked off with four Oscars and proved to be a windfall for the little-known producer Arnold Kopelson.
An emigre from the world of law and finance, he had finally, it seemed, arrived. The impact, however, was fleeting. Though Kopelson had entree, getting projects off the ground was still a struggle.
“The only ones who cared about the award were the maitre d’s,” Kopelson says with a smile. “I get great tables. But the studios only want to know what’s next.”
What’s next is “The Fugitive,” a remake of the legendary ‘60s TV series scheduled for release by Warner Bros. on Aug. 6--less than a week before Kopelson’s last movie, the controversial “Falling Down,” comes out on video. Sitting in the screening room of his sprawling Mediterranean-style Beverly Hills home, the 58-year-old producer rolls footage of one of the more colossal train wrecks in recent memory. It is the 12th time that he has watched the scene, but his pleasure is manifest, nevertheless.
He’s not alone. Audiences watching previews of “The Fugitive"--starring Harrison Ford as a surgeon accused of murdering his wife, and Tommy Lee Jones as his dogged pursuer--ranked it higher than any movie in Warner history. Ninety-seven percent rated it “excellent” or “very good,” which, in this numbers-obsessed town, means the project is “hot.”
Bruce Berman, president of worldwide production for Warners, is only faintly surprised. “The movie is based on a classic TV show which was based on the classic ‘Les Miserables,’ ” he points out. “Even if you’ve never seen the program or heard of (its star) David Janssen, the theme of an innocent man wrongly convicted is one to which everyone can relate.”
Kopelson was an ardent fan of the series, which ran from 1963-1967. But not until six years ago, when producer Keith Barish took the project with him upon his departure from Taft Communications, did the two team up and take it to Warners. Barish--an executive producer of the film--worked on the project for the first six months. Kopelson stayed with it for the next five years, relieved that Berman never pulled the plug.
Lining up Ford was a crucial piece of the puzzle. So was snagging action-director Andrew Davis, whom Kopelson approached last October after the premiere of his hit “Under Siege.” Davis says: “Arnold reminds me of my Russian relatives. . . . He’s very haimish (“Yiddish for loving, warm--until pushed,” explains Kopelson). Though he’s a wheeler-dealer with a good grasp of the business, unlike many in Hollywood, he prefers that his pictures have class and some soul.”
“The Fugitive,” a $40-million-plus venture, was a long time in the making--less in the production process than in the development stage. At one time, director Walter Hill was attached and Alec Baldwin a prime contender for the lead. The problem was getting a good screenplay. Seven writers tried their hand at a script that was rewritten 14 times. The dialogue was often improvised and many scenes were finalized as the cameras rolled. Kopelson admits to being “terrified.”
“I went into (the 1989 concentration camp drama) ‘Triumph of the Spirit’ without a completed screenplay,” he recalls. “I vowed never to do it again.”
The challenge for the filmmakers was threefold: Condensing four years of episodic TV (and the audience’s frame of reference) into a two-hour feature. Making the lead, Dr. Richard Kimble, less of an existential character on the run than a pro-active, justice-seeking hero. And converting his antagonist, federal agent Gerard, from a dour automaton into a nemesis with dimension.
“It had to be more than a chase film, the story of a bungled burglary,” says the 46-year-old Davis, who during the ‘60s, he admits, was too caught up in Dylan, the Beatles and the anti-war movement to watch “The Fugitive.” “And since neither Harrison nor Tommy Lee nor I were familiar with the show, it made it easier to look at it with a fresh eye.”
The 73-day shoot in Davis’ hometown of Chicago was a handful. Actor Richard Jordan became ill and had to be replaced. Ford, in a gruelingly physical role, injured his knee during one of the falls. And the schedule was horrendous since Warners slated it as a summer film. After shooting wrapped in mid-May, seven editors and 21 assistants have been working around-the-clock to meet the deadline.
“The Fugitive” is the latest in Kopelson’s post-"Platoon” slate, which reflects a mix of social statement and entertainment. Oliver Stone’s Vietnam saga, the producer says, was a “watershed” experience. “Financial reward is no longer enough. I caught Oliver’s passion and want, at least, some of my films to say something.”
Kopelson’s “Triumph of the Spirit"--the picture closest to his heart--was well-intended but bombed at the box office. The producer’s 1990 action-adventure “Firebirds” also failed to ignite with American moviegoers as did “Warlock,” a 1991 low-budget supernatural thriller, which, nevertheless, has prompted a sequel that Kopelson elected not to produce.
The Steven Seagal drama “Out for Justice” turned a handsome profit as Kopelson’s first movie for Warners. But this year’s “Falling Down,” the story of a beleaguered defense industry worker (license plate: D-FENS) pushed too far, had even greater impact. The $30-million picture, starring Michael Douglas, not only earned nearly $100 million worldwide, but provided the inspiration for a “White Male Paranoia” Newsweek cover in March.
Though Kopelson is living the good life, that wasn’t always the case. Raised by poor, if culturally oriented, parents in wartime Brooklyn, he waited on tables to put himself through college and law school. Brief aspirations of being a concert pianist were put aside. In many ways, he says, he still identifies with the dwindling, and increasingly anxious, middle class.
“I’ve been there,” says Kopelson, a red-headed bear of a man, attempting--via thrice-weekly workouts--to become less so. “When my first wife was dying of cancer, I had a house in (the New York suburb) Westchester, three children, two dogs . . . and $80 in the bank. A process server came to my door in connection with a past deal I’d made. If he entered my home, I said, I’d kill him . . . and I meant it. I was D-FENS that day.”
A year after his wife’s death in 1975, Kopelson married Anne Feinberg, his former legal secretary and longtime business partner in a foreign-distribution company called Inter-Ocean Film Sales. He consults her on all major decisions, he says. She says the stresses of a mom-and-pop shop are diminished by establishing separate domains.
“I never look at a script until the start of the shoot,” says Anne Kopelson, the company’s chief operating officer to her husband’s chief executive officer. “He knows nothing about the running of the office and, for the past 26 years, has barely signed a check. If we argue, I usually defer. Arnold’s right more often than he’s wrong.”
Kopelson was right in betting on “Porky’s"--a raunchy 1982 coming-of-age film in which his $20,000-investment returned a whopping $2 million. And wrong in buying two abandoned mines in Northern California during the early 1980s--a proposition that left him $2 million in the hole.
Still, Kopelson insists, he’s not a gambler. As an independent producer, he covered the cost of producing a film by pre-selling the foreign rights and he still breaks into a sweat when dropping $20 at the blackjack table. When the marketplace became riskier, he sought out the security of a studio. Though his 1992 non-exclusive “first-look” deal with Warners is going well, he says, in the end, it’s a trade-off: conferring on decisions he used to make alone and settling for a smaller percent of the profits in return for peace of mind.
Kopelson describes himself as a creative, hands-on producer rather than as a “packaging agent” putting together deals. “If a director won’t let me in, there’s no way he or she will be in,” he says. “I’m not about to give birth to a project and hand it over to someone who won’t listen to me. I’ve been on the set of just about every film I’ve produced since ‘Platoon.’ You can’t make movies from far away.”
Andrew Davis recalls it differently. While Kopelson put “The Fugitive” together and ironed out wrinkles, he says, the producer was far removed from the day-to-day nuts and bolts of filmmaking.
“Arnold got the fact that I didn’t want to be questioned . . . and backed off,” says the director. “I like the man, but we didn’t speak other than ‘hello’ and ‘goodby.’ While he held the studio’s hand and helped out a bit with the script, we made the movie. He’s been fortunate--and smart enough--to work with some very good directors.”
Kopelson and his team expect to develop 20 screenplays this year and hope to produce four movies over the next 18 months. Those on the horizon: A New York thriller called “Don’t Say a Word”; “The Forever King,” in which a 12-year-old finds the holy grail; “Dead Reckoning,” a suspense film starring Seagal to be shot in Washington, D.C., in January; and a movie about an out-of-control virus--very different, he says, from the one being developed by producer Lynda Obst.
The producer watches 10 films over a weekend to get a handle on directors and talent. Most mornings, he’s up by 5 a.m. looking at some of the 50 to 100 “mostly unreadable” manuscripts submitted each week. After all, he’s found out, you can’t rest on your laurels.
“People say I’m lucky,” Kopelson says. “And, in many ways, I am. But, to quote that old Jewish expression: ‘The harder I work, the luckier I am.’ ”