What's Real And What's Made Up On Amazon's 'The Last Tycoon' [Interview]

Amazon's new series The Last Tycoon might be Mad Men for the film industry. Based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Last Tycoon is set at the fictional Brady-American Studios in the 1930s. Matt Bomer plays studio executive Monroe Stahr and Kelsey Grammer is the studio namesake Pat Brady.

Brady and Stahr navigate the politics of pre-WWII international relations and personality clashes with movie stars. Some major players of Hollywood's Golden Age share scenes with the fictional Stahr and Brady, and The Wizard of Oz script is floating around while Brady-American makes their fictional silent films and musicals.

The Last Tycoon series comes from Billy Ray and Christopher Keyser. As a screenwriter and director, Ray has tackled true stories like Captain Phillips, Breach and Shattered Glass, along with science-fiction like The Hunger Games and Volcano. Keyser has produced television as diverse as Tyrant and Party of Five. Ray and Keyser spoke with /Film by phone out of New York about their new series.

How much did you enjoy researching old Hollywood?

Ray: It was such a pleasure and there's such a wealth of incredible material out there. We had Scott Berg working with us on scripts, who's a prized National Book Award winning biographer, wrote the biographies of Goldwyn and Lindbergh and Wilson. He was with us all the time. Sometimes at the end of our story meetings he would just tell us another story. He would go on about the Hollywood stuff and a lot of what you'll see eventually in the series is based on great stories he told us even though they're translated in certain ways.

Did either of you work in any of your own anecdotes from working in the modern studio system into The Last Tycoon stories?

Ray: Absolutely. So much of what Chris and I have experienced over the course of our careers is why we wanted to do the show in the first place because we had something to say about how similar the Hollywood of today is to the Hollywood that Fitzgerald was writing about. That's part of the appeal.

Keyser: Billy, for example, tells a story often when people ask about whether there's any parallel to the Nazi story that we have, which is a true story about the Nazis dictating what American studios were allowed to do in the 1930s, about how he might go into a studio today and they'd say, "You can't make the antagonist Chinese because the Chinese are just too large a part of the world market." It's not quite the same thing but very similar.

Did you get to write original silent movies and a musical?

Ray: Well, here's the thing. If you're going to tell the story of Stahr's fascination with Minna Davis and how Minna Davis became a legend, you have to show it. You can't just tell it and so the question became what's the best way to express that idea? The best way to express that idea was put her in silent movies.

Keyser: By the way, the musical numbers, one of the great things was we wrote the lyrics and we had a great composer, David Carbonara, who wrote the music for it but we essentially just put them in the script that way. Everyone else who was part of the process, from Janie Bryant who did our costumes to Patrizia von Brandenstein who did our sets to the directors who were working, our producing director and our line producer, all of them got involved. Those things grew and grew and grew because it was everyone's favorite project. There are three musical numbers in the show over the course of the series.

Did you have to avoid intersecting with actual movies, since this is a fictional studio?

Keyser: No. By the final episode, there will be mention of lots of things. It was our intention, you probably noticed although most of the characters are fictional characters, there are some real people from Hollywood. Fritz Lang and Louis B. Mayer and Marlene Deitrich. We wanted the world of Brady-American to exist in the real Hollywood. So Hollywood is making the movies that are famous in the 1930s in and around the show and we intend to continue if we get the chance, to set this story in the context of other stories that are being told.

Were the real studio figures like Louis B. Mayer in the Fitzgerald book?

Ray: No, they were not. You want, if you can, to create a shorthand with the audience. It's so much better to give them a name that everybody recognizes like Louis B. Mayer, than it is to create a fake studio head and then have to establish why they're a big deal. Everybody seems to know that MGM was the big kid on the block in the 1930s. Everybody knows that Louis B. Mayer was the kingpin there. Louis Mayer had the highest salary of any executive in America in 1936. By the way, just parenthetically, in 1936, 19 of the highest 25 executives in all America were movie executives. We felt to infuse real names into the story, like Marlene Dietrich, like Fritz Lang, like George Jessel just creates a feeling of reality and it makes your characters bumping up against those characters seem more real as well.

So it was true that Nazis were able to pressure Hollywood not to badmouth them. Were there also true cases where stars with secret African-American lineage covered it up?

Ray: Absolutely true. That story was Merle Oberon, a famous actress of the time. She's not the only one. Yes, it is true that the Nazis had that level of influence. There's an incredible book called The Collaboration by Ben Urwand. It was extremely helpful to us.

Would women also write scripts under their husband's names?

Keyser: Oh yeah, there were stories about that as well. By the way, women were well known script writers. It was a period in which there were a number of very famous female script writers but there are also stories of women who were essentially ghost writing for other people. It prefigures the blacklist a little bit, doesn't it?

Was it true they would give child actors benzedrine?

Ray: Yes. Take a look at the history of Judy Garland. I think probably if people knew what was going on in Hollywood, they would say we have been relatively tame so far. The truth of the terrible stuff that went on, we really haven't even gotten into all that fixer stuff yet really, what Hollywood put up with, what kind of behavior.

Was the story of the actress who demands her directors expose themselves based on an actual movie star?

Ray: No, that was not. That was us.

And it wasn't Fitzgerald either?

Ray: No. [Laughs] More like Hemingway.

Was it true that people would type gibberish to appear that they're working?

Ray: Yes, that is absolutely true and there's a famous story about Harry Cohn walking past the writers building and he heard all the keys clacking. He knew that they were typing gibberish because no one could really type that fast, and he screamed up to the balcony, "Liars!"

The Last Tycoon - Pilot Unit

The Last Tycoon – Pilot Unit

Since The Last Tycoon is on Amazon, should we binge?

Ray: Well, I would never presume to tell you how to enjoy this particular series. It was certainly produced in such a way that it would be bingeable and hopefully binge-worthy. I myself have never watched nine episodes of anything consecutively. My biggest binges have been four or five episodes at a time, but you never know. There may be people out there who want to watch one hour a week just so they can make it last over the course of nine weeks. That's fine too.

Keyser: And the episodes are written so that when you get to the end of them, you don't feel as if you're just a word away from the next one. So you can play it that way but they are entities in and of themselves.

Ray: The reason that I think people will consume it quickly is that my very brief experience on Twitter has shown me that there is a community out there that talks to each other, a fan community that talks to each other. I don't think any of them are going to want to be the last one in their particular bunch to have seen something.

Do you think there would be as much drama in the modern Hollywood making comic book movies and big franchises?

Ray: The drama has absolutely never slackened in any way. The dynamics of Hollywood haven't changed at all. Yes, there is just as much drama. The only difference being the world of today in feature, the battle between art vs. commerce has been so totally dominated by the commerce side that I think there are probably many more broken hearts today among screenwriters, which is why so many of them, including me and Chris, have marched off to television, where the battle to do great drama seems to be so much easier to win.

There's a big debate going on about whether streaming will completely overtake theatrical. As the producers of a streaming show, do you see it as a true alternative to the theatrical experience?

Keyser: I think there's no question that television in this new iteration, higher production values, has taken over the role of telling character based stories and usurped a lot of the territory that features used to occupy. So people for good reason don't need features in quite the same way. Having said that, I don't think that they're going to go away. There are things still that big budget features do particularly well and there are movies that I think people want to watch with 1,000 other people in the theater, but I don't think it's exactly the same as it used to be and by the way, I don't know that it has to be. The world changes. The Greeks would not have known that live theater was not the only way to tell a story. Things change over time.

Billy, one of your first screenwriting jobs was Volcano, which I really enjoyed. I sort of lament that that kind of high concept movie doesn't exist anymore. Did you notice a time when a high concept was no longer enough to impress the studios?

Ray: There are many things that I lament about show business. That there are too few volcano movies is not one of them. It was one of those I'm glad I got it over with early in my career kind of movies. Movies will always, always want to have an idea that gets people into the theater. So I don't think that the notion of the high concept movie is dead at all.

Perhaps it just means that the high concept has to exist in a comic book or novel franchise first for the studios to pay attention.

Ray: That is true. Well, if you're spending hundreds of millions of dollars you want a lot of proof that you're likely not to fail.

As the writer/director of Shattered Glsas, did it disturb you to see fake news get so blatant in the last year?

Ray: Depends on your definition of fake news. If your definition of fake use is the same as the president's, then I don't think it's fake news at all.

No, I don't mean him calling CNN fake news. I mean the possibly Russian sites blatantly trying to influence the public with fake stories that don't get fact checked.

Ray: Yeah, that's upsetting and that's one of the unhappy side effects of the internet, but I will also say that what has been totally thrilling for me over the course of the last seven months is that the print media, which seemed so totally irrelevant during the election because they were all reporting about Trump and no one cared, all of a sudden has become the last thing standing between us and totalitarianism. Look at the newspaper wars between the Post and the New York Times. What they are doing in terms of their reporting is so spectacular, and it is literally in defense of democracy. We're watching it happen through the media and that part has been heroic I think.

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The Last Tycoon premieres Friday, July 28 on Amazon.