Posted on Friday, July 1st, 2016 by Blake Harris
In the 1970’s, Mark Tarlov worked as a speechwriter for the Supreme Court and then as an attorney for the Justice Department. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Tarlov produced over a dozen films and, just before the millennium, directed his first (Simply Irresistible). Nowadays, as the co-founder of Maison L’Envoyé, he is best known as a wine-maker.
To the untrained eye, Mark Tarlov’s career might seem like a strange sequence of unconnected dots. But that’s not how he sees it. Not at all. Because there’s a thread that binds all of those seemingly disparate professions together: storytelling. And, above all else, Tarlov is a storyteller at heart. Which was both evident and enjoyable as we spent just over an hour chatting about all sorts of topics. From rescuing Willy Wonka and playing pick-up basketball with Peter Falk to the beauty and difficulty of telling personal stories in Hollywood.
How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Simply Irresistible edition of the HDTGM podcast here.
Synopsis: After her mother’s death, New York City chef Amanda Shelton (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has trouble attracting customers to her family’s restaurant. Until one day she is given a magical crab by a mysterious gentleman and her culinary skills become extraordinary. So extraordinary that they soon catch the attention of Tom Bartlett (Sean Patrick Flanery), a handsome businessman who is opening an ambitious new restaurant.
Tagline: Magic opened up their hearts… Love did the rest.
Part 1: Hotbeds of History and Creativity
Blake J. Harris: Before we talk about your film career (and also your wine career), I’d love to start off by talking about the time you spent as a speechwriter for the Supreme Court. How did that happen?
Mark Tarlov: Well, it was a long time ago. It was 1973 and I was 20 years old. But, while I was in college, I had worked for a guy named Stewart McKinney, who was a congressman from Connecticut and developed a taste for things like that. And we heard that the Supreme Court was starting an intern/fellowship program that was basically the analogue to the White House Fellows. Although not nearly as organized…
Blake J. Harris: Ha!
Mark Tarlov: There were two of us. We worked for a guy named Mark Cannon, who was Warren Burger’s Chief of Staff. Burger was one of the first Chief Justices to acknowledge that he should be out there talking about federal courts in addition to his job on the bench itself. So I was there for two years. And we basically did a lot of press and media—nothing to do with the decisions, specifically—but as decisions became more controversial, the requests started coming in to the staff’s office to get him to come out and talk. That was the age of Watergate, Pentagon Papers, Roe v. Wade; it was kind of a crazy time in the history of the court. So it became a very, very dynamic and interesting place to work.
Blake J. Harris: What was your favorite part of the job?
Mark Tarlov: Well, you’re a 20-year-old kid and you’re in the seat of power, you know? So that’s pretty cool. There were the smartest people in the country—at least in the legal world, at that point—in this courthouse. You had a real sense that you were at the intersection of several historical imperatives. Why would you not like that? And think about who was on the court at that time. The newest member at that time was [William] Rehnquist. And then the longest-serving member was William Douglas. So you had someone who had been on the court since the New Deal—appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt—and a couple of people from the Warren Court were still there and Thurgood Marshall was still there. It’s pretty stunning.
Blake J. Harris: Tell me about the next few years after that. I saw that you went to law school at Columbia?
Mark Tarlov: I was interested in becoming a journalist. Columbia had a joint law and journalism program, which was pretty interesting. And after I graduated I went to work at the Justice Department, because I thought it would be a very good way to get a glimpse into various aspects of the practice. But while I was there, I decided I didn’t actually want to be a lawyer. Which is how I wound up going to Warner Bros. So I went from Supreme Court to law/journalism school to a job in the Antitrust Division at the Justice Department, and then after that, I realized this is not what I like.
Blake J. Harris: So what did you like?
Mark Tarlov: I liked telling stories. That’s what I loved to do. I thought that meant I wanted to be a litigator—which is basically a storytelling job, much like being a speechwriter or being a filmmaker or making and selling wine. These are all basically just variations on the same theme, which is telling stories and trying to convince people that your version of reality is the correct one. So while I was at the Justice Department, I decided that I wanted to go into the entertainment industry. That, really, was the purest form of telling tales. And I applied for a lot of jobs. All cold letters, to everyone from the Shubert Organization to every movie studio I could find. And I ended up getting a few offers and then decided to work at Warner Bros. That was 1979.
Blake J. Harris: What did you start off doing at Warner Bros.?
Mark Tarlov: I started in Business Affairs, working for a fairly legendary guy named Sid Kiwitt… in the ‘80s, there was a lot of this: off-balance sheet financing, a lot of tax shelters, a lot of kind of weird stuff. Warner Bros had just financed Orion for the ex-United Artists guys. And David Geffen’s company there. So Warner Bros at that time was sort of a hot bed of creativity. Both on the business end and the creative. So it was a great place to learn. Both how to finance and how to talk with people who were on the film side. So it was interesting.
Blake J. Harris: And what were your first impressions of the entertainment industry?
Mark Tarlov: My boss was very freewheeling. I remember walking in one day and saying: There’s this movie called Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, which was made by Quaker Oats and had been released and failed miserably the first time around. It was produced by David Wolper, who had a deal at Warner TV. I said, “Let’s find out if we can buy it from Quaker Oats and give it a proper release.” So that was the first deal that I did. And my boss was just…you know, “Go do it!”
Blake J. Harris: Wow.
Mark Tarlov: So I thought: this was pretty cool. Not just that my boss was open to it, but he never even asked me how I knew about a Roald Dahl book or movie, or why we should buy it. And we wound up buying the rights back from Quaker Oats, who really only wanted the rights to sell Wonka Bars. Wasn’t really interested in the film at all. And it was a great success for us. And I guess for them again when it was remade with Johnny Depp, but this was the Gene Wilder original version.
Blake J. Harris: Yeah.
Mark Tarlov: So that was three years of basically finding creative ways to finance movies. Steve Ross, who ran Warner Communications, was a very big believer in giving people room to operate. Warner, which also at that time owned Atari, was sort of the go-go place. Very, very creative. Give people a lot of room to operate. It was kind of an amazing place.
Part 2: Let Everything You Know Inform Everything You Do
Blake J. Harris: After three years at Warner Bros, you left to go produce movies on your own. How did that play out?
Mark Tarlov: One of my colleagues there, Richard Kobritz, had produced Salem’s Lot for Warner TV and knew Stephen King. And Stephen King had written this book called Christine and he said, “You should go buy this book.” So after three years, that’s what happened.
Blake J. Harris: And what was your producing experience like?
Mark Tarlov: It was great. We bought the book and did a negative pickup with Columbia at a fixed price. They had never experienced a deal like that, which was the kind of the stuff that I learned from Sidney. I said, you know, we’re going to make it for $10 million, we’ve got John Carpenter to do it. You pay us when we deliver and you don’t have to worry about cost overruns and all the rest of that. And they were very happy and we were very happy and John—who had started by making those very low-budget horror films—was very skilled in getting the most bang for the buck. And, you know, this was before the time when they made you put all sorts of movie stars in the movies.
Blake J. Harris: Right.
Mark Tarlov: So it was Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul: not exactly household names then. And we made the movie and delivered it to Columbia and they loved it and that was it. And it sort of became a legendary idea around town that we could produce these movies for a price and deliver more from outside [of the studio system], but still consistent with the way that studios liked their movies to look and feel. So that really started my career going. Not necessarily as the greatest creative producer on the planet, but as someone who could deliver a movie at a price point with production values that couldn’t be done inside the studio. Really I think my reputation started pretty much on the business side of things. I was someone who could make the studio happy with this sort of hybrid studio/independent film.
Blake J. Harris: Gotcha.
Mark Tarlov: Really a direct lineage from learning how to make deals at Warner Bros and learning how to pitch from my experience at the court. Having to basically pitch a jury on my version of reality. You know, people often say: “Speechwriter to filmmaker to winemaker? That doesn’t make any sense.” It makes perfect sense to me. Everything has been cumulative. And as someone once said to me, “Let everything you know inform everything you do.” And I think that’s what’s happened. This snowball of experiences all in pursuit of telling interesting stories that are both surprising, but inevitable.
Blake J. Harris: Well, that snowball of experiences seemed to work very well for you, as you went on to produce 15 films during the ‘80s and ‘90s. That’s a lot! What were some of the highlights from those years? Either favorite movies or lessons learned.
Mark Tarlov: Well, my second movie was called Power. It was about a campaign manager, which was a very new topic in those days. This was like 1985/86. I helped develop a script and then we gave that to Sidney Lumet. He read it, liked it and gave it to Paul Newman. Who, as it turned out, wanted to do it. I thought: Well, this is fantastic! But Paul wanted to race cars for the summer and not shoot until the fall. And Sidney wanted to film it in the spring and edit it over the summer. I remember saying to him, “Well, surely we’re not going to say no to Paul Newman (who the script was sort of written for) simply because we have to wait three months.” And Sidney said, “Oh yes, we are going to say no to Paul.”
Blake J. Harris: [laughter]
Mark Tarlov: So that was an interesting experience. Power had an amazing cast ultimately, but didn’t have the lead that it should have. I’ll relate this to Simply Irresistible when we get to it, but it was written with Paul Newman in mind, a guy at that age. A guy who really needed to make a success, sort of where I am now in life [around 65 years old]. It went through a whole lot of casting changes. It was supposed to be Burt Reynolds and wound up being Richard Gere, who did a great job, but who had a very different point of view than Paul Newman. And what we ended up with was a movie that never worked theatrically for a host of reasons. But, as I mentioned earlier, we had an amazing cast. It was Julie Christie and Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington (who was the only guy I was allowed to cast). Sidney cast everybody else. I was watching “St. Elsewhere” [a TV show on which Washington was a regular] at the time and I said, “We should get this guy.”
Blake J. Harris: Nice call.
Mark Tarlov: So it was a weird thing because Sidney was an icon. But it never became a cohesive movie. Because once rehearsals are finished, Sidney doesn’t spend a lot of time looking at dailies and saying it’s working or it’s not working. A lot of first takes got printed with Sidney. And I think for an approach like that to work—which obviously it had many times for Sidney before that—you need a very instinctual actor. Like, say, Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. In a case like that, where Al Pacino was in that headspace—where Al was one with the character—I think you can go with first takes.