Gavin POLONE'S Monday morning staff meeting is only five minutes old and so far he's described the stars of "Friends" as "the six morons America loves," dismissed one of his production executives as a "dogmatic liberal" and, having just read the most recent issue of Vanity Fair (before the recent spate of stories about Graydon Carter's cozy Hollywood connections), described the glossy monthly as "basically what Kitty Kelley would do if she had a magazine." Being in a room with Polone, one of Hollywood's smartest and most prickly producers, is clearly not for the faint of heart.
One minute the staff is discussing a "Celebrity Blackjack" series for the Game Show Network, the next they're listening to Polone's idea for a legal TV series (His pitch: "I want to do 'From Earth to the Moon' about the Supreme Court."), which leads to a lively debate over Antonin Scalia, abortion clinics and civil disobedience. On the other hand, a new horror movie script has just come in. "Is it scary?" Polone asks, taking a sip from his bottle of Smart Water. "It's very, very scary," says one of the half dozen execs at the table, all young, smart and fast on their feet. "Then I ought to read it," says Polone. One of his executives mentions that Lindsay Lohan, star of the film "Mean Girls," would be right for a movie project they're developing. Polone grimaces, as if he's taken a bite of a sour lemon. OK, they scratch her from the list.
What Polone really wants to discuss is "The Jesus Factor," the recent "Frontline" documentary about President Bush and his embrace of evangelical Christianity. Polone has been thinking about religion a lot lately, having just completed a pilot for the TV drama "Revelations" ("it's an 'X-Files'-type show that takes place before the Rapture," he explains) that NBC will launch in November. Polone thinks a story based on "The Jesus Factor" could make a great TV movie. "It's about a guy, the black sheep of his family, who's drinking like crazy and is failing in business when he finds Jesus, and that turns his life around and puts him on the path to being the most powerful man in the world," Polone explains. "I would never vote for him, but there's something fascinating about Bush and how he used religion to change his life." In most Hollywood meetings, this would inspire a burst of derisive hoots, but not when it comes from Polone, something of a black sheep in left-of-center Hollywood.
"What I like about Bush is that he's not a hypocrite like [Sen. John] Kerry," adds the 40-year-old producer about the Democratic presidential candidate. "It's so phony for Kerry to say he's getting a hybrid now, when his family has eight cars, including a Chevy Suburban. At least Bush has a consistent point of view. He's not searching for an answer that will get him votes." A staffer reminds Polone, who drives an electric car, that Bush's environmental track record is pretty abysmal. Polone's response pretty much explains why he has managed at one time or another to drive everyone, friend or foe, around the bend. "If you believe Christ is coming and we'll all live in the Kingdom of God, then why care if you destroy the environment along the way?"
Hollywood is an incredibly insular world where conventional wisdom rules; nearly everyone goes to the same restaurants, has the same politics and drives the same cars. By those standards, Polone is an iconoclast, even something of a heretic. In a town of limousine liberals, he's an ardent Republican. In an industry that preaches family values, he is outspokenly adverse to marriage and children. Asked why he calls his company Pariah Productions, he answers: "Because I feel like one." With his five-day stubble, trim physique and slightly forbidding air, he looks more like a martial-arts instructor than a producer.
At 22, he was already so bored with being an assistant at ICM that he applied to join the CIA. The agency turned him down, which, to one who has seen Polone on the phone, gathering intelligence, appears to be yet another agency blunder. Reading Variety online one afternoon, he sees that a story about the potential network pickups for the fall TV season fails to mention his NBC pilot, "D.O.T.S." In an instant, Polone has the Variety reporter on the phone: "I hear 'The Office' is dead," he says, "but you mention it and not my show?" In Variety the next day, Polone's show is in the story. (The reporter's initial assessment was right; NBC picked up "The Office" but not Polone's show.)
Though he was a star agent while still in his 20s, Polone's stints at ICM and UTA ended in bitter recriminations and lawsuits. When he sees William Morris chief Jim Wiatt, his former ICM boss, at lunch one day, Wiatt jokingly tries to persuade Polone to rejoin the agency business. "That's easy for you to say," Polone retorts. "You were the one who fired me." He turned into a manager-producer but shelved the management business, saying, with characteristic candor, "because you can't be taken seriously as a producer if you're a manager; it's a total conflict." (His sole remaining client is Conan O'Brien). He has flourished as a TV producer; his current shows include two critics' favorites, Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and the WB's "Gilmore Girls." He's also produced a number of films, including hits like "The Panic Room" and misses like the recent Johnny Depp film, "Secret Window," directed by David Koepp, who, like Larry David, is a former client.
Besides "Revelations," Polone has a reality show made in conjunction with Sports Illustrated that's in development at NBC, where the producer has a rich development deal. He also is shooting a pilot for a new Andre Braugher show, "Thief," for the FX network. The producer has a new romantic comedy, "Seeing Other People," which opened in theaters earlier this month in four cities, including Los Angeles. The film received mixed reviews, but Polone has pride of ownership, having financed it himself. In Hollywood, no one spends his own money to make a movie. But for Polone, nothing could be more satisfying than to succeed with a project everyone else thought would fail. Even though the film has barely made a dent at the box office, Polone has made enough money from foreign sales and video rights to pretty much break even. To keep costs down, Polone used his staff as extras and shot some of the film at his house.
One of the characters in the film, a misanthropic agent played by Josh Charles, is clearly based on Polone, though he insists it reflects "someone I used to be," perhaps the 1980s-era Polone, who signed clients by promising "to slaughter anyone in their path." Like the agent in the film, Polone is fanatically loyal and self-disciplined. He orders the same lunch every day: an egg-white omelet with a veggie salad. Friends say that before he had a live-in girlfriend, he had a similar regime for dates. "He'd say, 'I'm dating twice this week, I'll be having two drinks during the date'; everything was very ordered," says "Seeing Other People" director and co-writer Wally Wolodarsky, another ex-client. "Self-discipline has been a successful way for him to negotiate his way through the world."
Not that Polone has always successfully negotiated his relationships. He fought continually with David Fincher on "The Panic Room" and quit "Gilmore Girls" after a series of differences with show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. He sees walking away as a sign of maturity. "The good poker players toss in the bad hand earlier," he says, padding around his office in his socks. "I should've left UTA earlier; I should've left certain girlfriends earlier. I don't get along with people I can't be honest with."
Perhaps that's what is so really iconoclastic about Polone. He doesn't do the fake, air-kissing "I loved your last movie" act that lubricates most Hollywood relationships. "People here are insecure," he says, "and the most obvious representation of insecurity is not saying what you really think." Polone dislikes Hollywood liberals not because they're liberal but because, in his mind, they're hypocrites. He was at a dinner party recently when a liberal friend said America shouldn't be in Iraq, just as it shouldn't have dropped an atom bomb on Japan. "Of course, this guy was also very pro-Israel, so I said, 'What do you think about the Palestinians?' And he said, 'Oh, we should kill them all.' In Hollywood, everyone's morality is very situational."
In the sunny land of air kissers, Polone is a dark storm cloud, a compulsive truth teller. In the elevator one day, leaving his office, he touts his Sports Illustrated reality show where women go to model camp, with the winner getting to participate in the magazine's swimsuit issue. Overhearing part of our conversation, a guy in the elevator says, "Is this another reality show?" Polone nods curtly, then says, "That's another reason I'm going to move out of this building. It's not just people listening to my conversation, but me having to listen to them."