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Father-Son Bonding on the Set

A producer in relentlessly competitive Hollywood for 30 years, David Foster immediately wondered, when he got an early submission of a novel called “Hart’s War,” who else had a copy. As it turned out, one of the rival bidders for the John Katzenbach book was someone he knew all too well: producer Gary Foster, his eldest son.

Gary eventually decided to back off, partly “out of respect for the old man,” as he puts it. But today, even though David gives his son a big kiss when he arrives at lunch, the father’s and son’s competitive juices still simmer.

Recalling their mutual pursuit of the book, the elder Foster boasts that he had the inside track on the project “since I’m probably friendlier with Katzenbach,” having made a movie out one of the author’s earlier books. Bristling a bit, Gary Foster retorts: “You know, Dad, I produced a movie from one of Katzenbach’s books too.”

Second-generation Hollywood producers are taught survival skills at an early age. When producer Richard Zanuck was a boy, his father, 20th Century Fox czar Darryl Zanuck, delighted in trouncing him in checkers. So it’s no surprise that one of Gary Foster’s enduring memories is being on the golf course with his father after Gary had hit a long drive down the fairway. David teed up his ball, waggled his driver and then stopped cold, as if he’d picked the wrong club. “Finally my father says, ‘All I can think of is I’ve got to hit it farther than he did!’ ”

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With Father’s Day coming this Sunday, it seems like a perfect opportunity to hear war stories from men of two Hollywood generations as they discuss their craft, their career ups and downs and the fine art of forging relationships with tempestuous actors and directors.

Blustery and emotional, his speech peppered with expletives, the elder Foster, 72, is a classic old-school producer; he’s still mad at MGM for botching the marketing campaign on “Hart’s War” earlier this year. After starting in Hollywood as a publicist, he turned to producing in the early 1970s, making such films along the way as “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Getaway,” “Short Circuit,” “The Mask of Zorro,” “Collateral Damage” and “The Core,” which is due this fall from Paramount.

His son Gary, 41, is new-school: calm, thoughtful, consensus-oriented. His producer credits include “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Tin Cup” and “The Score.” His latest film, “Daredevil,” which stars Ben Affleck as a Marvel comic action hero, is due out next year. “They are really what producers should be: creative, fiscally responsible and steeped in a real knowledge of film,” says Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing, who has worked with both men. “When we had the premiere for Gary’s movie, ‘The Score,’ I remember seeing David and saying, ‘How nice of you to show up.’ And he thought I was nuts. I had no idea they were related, which is probably the biggest compliment you could give. They completely have their own identities.”

In Hollywood, it helps to grow up on the inside, where you can see up-close how the game is played. David Foster says his three sons are all “movie brats.” Greg is president of Imax Films Entertainment, and Tim runs a company that operates a TV and film production facility in Zagreb, Croatia.

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“If I’m out of town,” dad says, “they all try to call me and tell me the weekend grosses before I find out.”

Hollywood has always been a family business. In the 1920s, MGM titan Louis B. Mayer hired David Selznick, then married to Mayer’s daughter, as his head of production. Selznick’s ascension was described by wags of the time as “the son-in-law also rises.”

When Harry Cohn ran Columbia Pictures, his key lieutenant, Sam Briskin, hired his brother-in-law, Abe Schneider, later the studio’s president, who in turn hired his brother-in-law, Leo Jaffe, who became a top executive as well.

Schneider’s son, Burt, went on to produce “Easy Rider,” while Jaffe’s son, Stanley, eventually ran a studio and produced hit movies. Zanuck not only hired his son as studio president, he fired him too. The younger Zanuck became a prolific producer, working in recent years with his wife, Lili Fini Zanuck, and now his son, Dean, who shares a producer’s credit with dad on “The Road to Perdition,” a Tom Hanks film due in July.

There have been innumerable father-and-son actors, most famously Kirk and Michael Douglas. There are also father-and-son producers (Alan Ladd Jr. and David Ladd) and father, son and daughter directors (Francis, Roman and Sofia Coppola).

When David Foster’s sons were growing up, it was not unusual for them to find actors like Steve McQueen or Richard Pryor at their house, having dinner with David and his wife, Jackie, or watching a boxing match on TV. Gary went to USC film school, but much of his education came from visiting his father’s sets, where he worked as a gofer and production assistant before graduating to producing.

As a teenager, he’d read the scripts his father brought home, amazed to see scrawled notes on nearly every sentence of each page. “The whole script was covered in ink,” Gary recalls. “Seeing how he valued the printed word really made a big impression on me.”

Producers are master problem solvers, so I asked the two how they would handle a hypothetical crisis: Your $5-million director is stressed out, he doesn’t have a strong point of view, and he’s bickering with his star. The crew is ready to mutiny. What do you do?

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“I’ve had that experience,” David says. “The key is to keep it in the family and solve the problems among yourselves. When I go into the director’s trailer, I say right away, ‘I’m not going to tell the studio about this, unless it keeps up, because if they find out, they’ll can you and you’ll be dead in this town.’ And then I get the director of photography and the assistant director in there and basically say, ‘Let’s do this together. What do we need to do to get through tomorrow?’ ”

Gary goes another route; he tries to get at the source of the problem. “The director is going to be defensive, so you have to try to figure out--is it an emotional issue? A personal issue? Then you make your case. You essentially say, ‘I wouldn’t be a good producer if I didn’t tell you that you’re not delivering what we talked about when we started the movie.’ It’s important to bolster the crew’s enthusiasm too, so maybe I’d get the director to cut together some footage to show the crew to remind them why they’re there and get them pumped up again.”

Both men pride themselves on their good relations with talent. The elder Foster always takes his movie’s star out to dinner before filming begins to find some connection to build a relationship on. If he has to say no, he does it in a nonconfrontational way.

When Steve McQueen was making “The Getaway,” the star ignored the studio’s edict against racing his motorcycle on off-days. David says he told him, ‘Steve, it’s not about you. It’s about the hundreds of people who’d be out of work if you crashed.’ And he stopped.”

When Gary was shooting “The Score” in Montreal, he had to ride herd on the inimitable Marlon Brando. “Marlon’s a tester. He wants to know his limits,” Gary says. “On our first day of filming, he wanted to change the schedule from a jazz club scene to an outdoor action scene. I told him we couldn’t get the permits on such short notice. And Marlon said, ‘I bet you $1,000 you can.’ I told him it couldn’t be done. If I’d said OK, whatever you want, it would’ve caused chaos. So I let him express anything to me he wanted, but I also established early on that if he asked for something unreasonable, I’d say no.”

Father and son agree that the movie business is more unforgiving than ever about failure. “On Monday morning, either you get congratulatory calls or the phone doesn’t ring at all,” Gary says. “It definitely helped me seeing Dad go through it. He’s a very emotional guy, and I remember getting calls from people who’d just been on the phone with him, who’d say, ‘He’s going crazy.’ And I’d think, is that the way I want to handle it? I’m probably a lot more stoic about the ups and downs.”

Even after all his years in the business, David admits he’s still devastated by a flop, though his sons, being in the business themselves, often help ease the pain.

“You spend years working on a picture, and it can be over in a weekend,” he says. “I could never handle it without my wife and sons. They all call and tell me the critics are full of [it]. It makes me feel better, even if I know that sometimes they’re lying.”

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The Big Picture runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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