Posted on Monday, August 29th, 2011 by Russ Fischer
The last big news late last week was that The Departed team of screenwriter William Monahan and director Martin Scorsese would remake the 1974 film The Gambler. James Caan starred in the original as a New York English professor who has a serious gambling addition. Thing is, the film wasn’t just any old movie, at least for the screenwriter, James Toback. The script was a particularly autobiographical one, with Caan’s character being a thinly veiled version of Toback himself.
So when Toback learned of the remake the same way most people did — by reading about it on the internet — he was none too happy. (Especially as he is friends with multiple remake participants, including possible star Leonardo DiCaprio.) In his frustration, the writer/director penned a heartfelt letter that gives a rare insight into how the original creator of a film might feel about the remake process.
Deadline ran Toback’s letter, which among other things offers a great personal history of the making of the film. (For instance, Toback really wanted Robert De Niro to play the lead. Director Karel Reisz was dead set against that choice, saying that he’d discuss any other possible option for the film, but would walk if Toback kept pushing De Niro.)
The whole letter is excellent reading, but the author’s frustration with being left out of the remake conversation is summed up here:
So learning of the plan to “remake” my movie at the same time and in the same fashion as any other devoted reader of this esteemed column, I suppose I should feel… what? That a tribute is being paid to a creation I left behind? I suppose. But one doesn’t always feel what one is supposed to feel.
As the late, great Jackie Wilson sang: ‘Just a kiss/Just a smile/Call my name/Just once in a while/And I’ll be satisfied.
Rudeness, on the other hand, and disrespect yield their own unanticipated consequences.
This isn’t the only one of Toback’s films to be remade. Jacques Audiard remade Fingers (which Toback wrote and directed in ’78 with Harvey Keitel starring) as the very good The Beat that My Heart Skipped. But when Audiard did so, he had extensive conversations with Toback, who recounts that process: “apparently not sharing the current group’s quaint — if indeed entirely legal –notion that as long as they “own” something — even a movie — they are fully entitled to do whatever they wish to it without even bothering to consult its creator.”
Toback readily acknowledges that there is no real legal ground by which he should be consulted about the remake. It is a question of politeness, as illustrated by his account of dealing with Audiard. And when the film in question is his own personal story, who can blame him?
But politeness isn’t the baseline behavior in Hollywood or business. Toback recalls one banker/investor who owned a part of his film Harvard Man. The banker said, “To you this is a movie. To me this is a pair of shoes. My pair of shoes. And I will do whatever I like with it.” Which is just… sad, mostly because treating a film like a pair of shoes — even a really goddamn nice pair of shoes — helps insure that the film will never be anything more than a small piece of product.
Toback uses his letter to make a small plea for Paramount to finally make the original film generally available once more:
A footnote: Now that such an esteemed bunch of luminaries seems so inspired by The Gambler that they are contemplating the devotion of masses amounts of time, money and energy to redoing it, perhaps the home video crew at Paramount will consider making The Gambler available on DVD and Blu-Ray which it presently isn’t. And perhaps by On-Demand as well — if it isn’t there already. They can look it up and find out if they have the time.