Producing Partners Step Aside for Spielberg With ‘Saving’ Grace

If you’re an independent producer and Steven Spielberg says he wants to direct the script you’ve nurtured, there’s only one thing to do: Stand back and let it happen.

That’s exactly what producing partners Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn did when the Oscar-winning filmmaker and Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks signed on to a project the partners had been developing at their production outfit, Mutual Film Co., for about a year and a half.

“Saving Private Ryan,” which would evolve into one of the summer’s most highly anticipated movies, debuts today in about 2,400 theaters.

The graphic World War II drama, also starring Ed Burns, Tom Sizemore and Matt Damon, is about an eight-man squad commissioned to save a soldier whose three brothers were killed in action within days of one another.

Typically, when Gordon and Levinsohn find and develop source material for a movie, they also oversee the production--as they have on such outings as “Speed,” “Paulie,” “Broken Arrow” and “Hard Rain.” Not so when Hollywood’s most successful producer and director enters the picture.


“You just know going in what the score is,” said Levinsohn, in his South African accent. “I guess it’s unspoken that when you hire Steven Spielberg you’re not going to be on the set making decisions.”

Levinsohn and Gordon--who are credited producers on “Ryan,” despite their lack of involvement in the production, have plenty to do. Their 2 1/2-year-old film company was, as Levinsohn says, “hugely busy” raising foreign financing and handling international distribution for a studio-sized slate that included such films as “Primary Colors,” “The Jackal” and the upcoming sci-fi thriller “Virus,” with Jamie Lee Curtis.

(Mutual is a partnership with Britain’s BBC, France’s UGC, Japan’s Toho Towa and Germany’s TeleMunchen.)

In an interview at their production offices at Raleigh Studios--across the street from Paramount, where Mutual has a first-look deal--Gordon, 41, and Levinsohn, 38, said they do not at all resent Spielberg or his DreamWorks SKG, which co-financed “Ryan” with Paramount.

They say they’re grateful just to be associated with a film that has such cachet.

“The movie is one of the most impressive pieces of work I’ve ever seen,” Gordon said. “Steven was inclusive and gracious and enormously solicitous in terms of the development of the screenplay.” And, he added: “If we hadn’t been there with the script, the movie wouldn’t have existed. So, we feel very proud of that.”

If someone else had directed the movie, assured the producer, “then we would have been on that set all day long.” Such was the case when cinematographer Jan DeBont was making his directorial debut on “Speed.” Gordon said, “I never left the director’s side.”

In contrast, Gordon and Levinsohn between them visited the “Ryan” set in England just a couple of times and only recently saw the completed version.

DreamWorks, responsible for the production and the release of the film in the U.S., hired its own line producer, Ian Bryce, who coincidentally had most recently teamed with Gordon and Levinsohn on “Hard Rain.”

Gordon was first pitched the idea for “Ryan” about three years ago, before his association with Levinsohn.

Gordon liked the work of screenwriter Robert Rodat, co-writer of the features “Fly Away Home” and “Tall Tale,” and the two had several meetings in the spring of 1995. “I did something I had never done before,” Rodat recalled. “I read him my complete list of film ideas. And he did the same with me.”

After a few weeks, the writer said the idea for “Ryan” came to him. His wife had given him the bestseller “D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II,” by historian Stephen Ambrose (historical consultant on “Ryan”).

On an early morning walk in a small New Hampshire village, Rodat was struck by a monument dedicated to those who had died in various wars, particularly because of the repeated last names of brothers who were killed in action.

“One family lost five in the Civil War, and the same family lost three in the Revolutionary War,” Rodat said.

Although the “Ryan” family is fictitious, Rodat said he was inspired by an actual family in Ambrose’s book named Niland, which had lost two sons in the war and was thought to have lost a third who was “snatched” out of Normandy by the War Department.

Gordon responded instantly to Rodat’s pitch.

Executives at Paramount also liked it, and they commissioned Rodat to write the script. Over the next year, he developed the project with Gordon and Levinsohn, who by then had teamed up and formed Mutual.

Just when he started “getting serious about the writing,” recalled Rodat, Paramount acquired two other World War II scripts. One, “Combat,” was intended for Bruce Willis to star. The other, “With Wings as Eagles,” for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I began panicking,” the screenwriter said.

But a junior agent named Carin Sage at Creative Artists Agency read Rodat’s script and made Spielberg and Hanks, two of the agency’s clients, aware of it.

Gordon said he put a personal call in to Hanks. The next thing Gordon and Levinsohn knew, they were having lunch with the Oscar-winning star of “Forrest Gump” and “Philadelphia.”

Gordon recounted, “Tom was enormously excited about it and said, ‘Steven and I have always wanted to work together.’

“So, we had the good fortune of being able to call Paramount and say, ‘OK, you have Arnold on one project and Bruce Willis on the other. How about Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg? Ha, ha, ha!’ ” recalled Gordon.

DreamWorks and Paramount agreed to co-finance the $65-million movie and a coin toss decided DreamWorks would handle the U.S. release and Paramount the foreign. The revenue from all sources would be pooled and split 50-50. The studios reversed their roles on their co-production of “Deep Impact,” with Paramount handling the domestic and DreamWorks the international.

Sources said both Spielberg and Hanks, two of Hollywood’s highest-paid stars, worked for scale on “Ryan,” each with a back-end guarantee of 17.5% of the studios’ gross profit from first dollar.

There’s some question about the film’s commercial potential given its length (2 hours and 40 minutes) and graphic depictions of war. Then again, the same was said of Spielberg’s holocaust movie “Schindler’s List,” which was a commercial and critical hit.

Mutual wasn’t involved in the financing of “Ryan,” therefore holds no equity position or distribution rights to the property, as it does with its many other projects.

Gordon and Levinsohn received a flat fee and the opportunity to ride the wave of any glory the film may enjoy from now until Oscar time and beyond. And, as the producers would be the first to admit, how shabby is that?