Part 3: Producers and Prize-Fighters

Trying to “save money” is by no means unusual during post-production. Though it’s a bit odd to try and find those savings in the editing department. That, however, makes more sense when factoring in the challenges facing John Daly, Derek Gibson and their Hemdale Corporation at this time. But before that, let’s go back to 1984—to right after George Braunstein had produced his first three films: Train Ride to Hollywood, Fade to Black and Surf II

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: I’d made three movies and…none of them were big hits. Train Ride got locked up with Billy Jack. Fade to Black, American Cinema bought it and then went out of business. And then Surf II, nobody went to see it. So I thought: I’m never gonna work again. I’m not gonna be able to support my family. So I started to go to law school at night. 

BJH: Ah, okay. So that’s how you ended up becoming a lawyer. 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: Yeah. So during the day, I’d [continue producing] with my 100% rejection rate. I had a 50-cents-per-square-foot office in a warehouse in Santa Monica. And then at night, I went to law school.  So needless to say, I’m not sleeping at night, and the weekends are gone; but I produced three movies while I was in law school. 

BJH: Wow! 

The first of the three films that Braunstein produced while in law school was And God Created Woman (1988), directed by Roger Vadim. 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: And by this time I have people who know people who were giving me projects. And I had gotten a script called Hamburgers. It was about a butcher who has a relationship with his partner’s wife and they…it was a comedy murder mystery. And I give it to this English director Malcolm Mowbray and he says, “Oh, I love it.” 

BJH: What made you think of Malcolm for that movie? 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: I had seen this film I just loved called A Private Function that Malcolm had directed. 

Braunstein—with Malcolm Mowbray attached to direct—then took the “comedy murder mystery” script to John Daly and Derek Gibson at the Hemdale Corporation. 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: They were big fans of Malcolm. 

BJH: What were they big fans of Malcolm from? From the same film you had seen? 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: Yeah, A Private Function. John Daly was English and he was a great…I’ll tell you: I did two movies with John Daly. And any day of the week, I would rather do a movie with John Daly and Derek Gibson than do a movie with a studio. Because with all of my studio experiences: I never knew who I was talking to. But when I showed up with John Daly, he wrote the checks. He was in charge. If you could deliver the groceries mono-a-mono with John Daly, you got your way. If you couldn’t support what you wanted; if you couldn’t support your position, or you lied to him, you were out. But at a studio: everybody’s lying!

BJH: Ha!

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: So [the script] Hamburgers was turned into…fuck, what’s the name of that movie?

BJH: Out Cold

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: Out Cold. Thank you. Jesus Christ, Man. I gotta get to the “Memory Center” right away. 

BJH: [laughs]

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: John wouldn’t do the movie until I got some cast. He said, “Look, I like you George. I like the script. I love Malcolm.” But he had a deal with Tri-Star and Tri-Star had certain minimum requirements. And so I said: how about John Lithgow? 

Lithgow, at the time, had just been nominated for his second Tony Award for his performance as “Rene Gallimard” in M. Butterfly

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: CAA represented me, but they wouldn’t give the script to John Lithgow. So I get the fucking script to John Lithgow. And I sent him a copy of A Private Function. And he calls the agent up and says, “Why are you keeping the good material from me? I love this!” Then I go to John [Daly], who writes [John Lithgow] a million-dollar check, pay-or-play. So John [Daly] gives me the money for Out Cold. We set up a production office in San Pedro. We do it on location in a butcher shop there. We had John Lithgow; we had Terry Garr; we had Malcolm; we had so much fun doing Out Cold. But then John [Daly] got into a fight with Tri-Star and the picture never got distribution. Unfortunately. It was never released…

BJH: Damn…

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: I mean, when the movies get out there and you get in front of a bunch of eyes, you create, kind of, a critical mass that helps you in your career. If you make a movie and nobody sees it, then you’re just another dope, you know? Anyway [after Out Cold] Malcolm and I read a book called The Boyfriend School. Written by Sarah Bird. It was a romantic novel and we thought it would be fun so we took it to John [Daly]. John agreed to do it. Again, I had to get cast. He wanted Jami Gertz. And I’d always been a huge fan of Steve Guttenberg. So Guttenberg said yes. Jami said yes. John said yes. And then we went to South Carolina and did the movie. 

BJH: Was it hard to get Steve? He was so popular at that point in time…

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: Well, you know, it’s all the material. He and his manager loved the material. They loved the director. And I think he wanted to get out of…he had done multiple versions of Police Academy and then the three-bachelor dad movie [Three Men and a Baby].

BJH: Right. 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: In other words: they kept him working—getting the paycheck—but not doing anything artistic. And so I came to him with Malcolm and with [a project] that wasn’t a “remake” of Police Academy

BJH: [laughs]

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: So I brought him something different and he was a dream to work with. Shelly Long was a dream to work with as well. And she and Steve got along—so we all got along. I remember on the set one day…now, mind you, I’m telling you this from a place of love for John Daly and Derek Gibson. A lot of people have horror stories, but I loved them. Because John Daly was a true grit. He was a hero. So was Derek Gibson. They were great guys. But you had to be. You had to match ‘em mano-a-mano. You had to show up and be prepared to take the consequences. 

BJH: Gotcha…

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: So we’re on the set. So now John assigns a studio executive to the set. We’re in Charleston, we’re on location, we’re about a week away from shooting. Great city. I mean, I could talk for hours about Charleston, but I’m just gonna give you the highlights here. And then we’re getting ready to shoot the movie—we’re a week away—and this guy shows up; he was an accounting major, or some relative of a friend of John’s. He says, “Hi, I’m the executive that’s assigned. I’m going to be the liaison between you and John. He’s doing four other movies, so I’m gonna be here. And report to John.” And I sat him down in my office in Charleston. I can remember it as if it was yesterday (though I don’t remember his name, of course). And I said, “Listen, pal, I’m going to give you access to everything. You can come to the dallies. You can be on set. You can come to the production meetings. You can be a fly on a wall to everything going on. I want John to know everything that’s going on in this movie. There won’t be one thing I keep from you. But by god if you turn out to be a rat and you start sending information that is not truthful, or you try to curry favor with John Daly by doing something that will hurt this production, it’s over for you. It’s your choice. 

BJH: Okay… 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: I didn’t really trust the guy. You know, I made the speech. But you know how you get a feeling sometimes where a guy’s just a snake? Like he wouldn’t make eye-contact with me. Anyway, so we gave him an office and we gave him a fax machine…and unbeknownst to him I had our tech guys wire the fax machine so that when he sent a fax—no matter where it went to—I got to read it first. And, you know, after the first day of dallies he [faxes John] that “the production’s in chaos” “people are running here and there.” Because he didn’t know! He’d never been on a set before in his whole fucking life. And I see this fucking fax that never got to John Daly and I called him in and said, “Pal, you make the actors nervous.” And I’d told everybody; I’d told everybody the story I just told you. And then I said, “You make the actors nervous. You’re banned from the set. You can’t eat with the cast and crew. You’re banned from dailies. Just stay in your fucking hotel room and if something comes up, I’ll let John know and then maybe he’ll let you know.” He says, “You can’t do that! I’m the studio executive on this film.” I said, “Watch me!” 

BJH: Ha!

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: Then John called me up and says, “George, you’re disrespecting me. This is my eyes and ears on the show. You can’t do this to him.” I said…[this guy] shows up and Steve [Guttenberg] gets nervous. He can’t deliver his lines. Shelly Long…she gets a case of the vapors, she can’t do anything. I said, “I can slow the production down, but then we’re gonna go over budget. If that’s what you want, I’ll have him sit right there.” He says, “Oh, forget it. Forget it.” [laughs] 

BJH: [laughing]

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: But then we made the movie and it just…you know, John was struggling to [keep the company afloat]. He was totally financed by Crédit Lyonnais. And when the banks get ahold of your company…he had this incredible [film] library. He had Platoon, Hoosiers, The Last Emperor. I mean, John was a genius. He’d made all these great movies. He signed them all over—lock, stock and barrel—for loans in the future. And then they called in the loans. And then he didn’t have the distribution necessary…and when you can’t pay the bank, the bank comes and takes your marbles away. 

BJH: Given the distribution difficulties facing Hemdale at the time, what was that like for you—as a producer? 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: At one point, John [Daly] called me and says, “George, there’s no belly laughs in this movie! We need someone to go out and, like, set a paper bag on fire that’s got some dog shit in it. Or something.” 

BJH: [laughs] 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: “We gotta get some American humor going. And if you don’t put some belly laughs in there—we’re trying to make a comedy for an American audience; not a refined English audience—you’re fucking fired, pal! I need someone in there to give me a comedy with belly laughs so that the distributors, or exhibitors, are laughing their head off.” I said, “Well, John…what’s funny for one person isn’t funny for another. And we have a script. We have a book. We have a script based on a book and it’s not, you know, pie-in-the-face-type stuff.” [But] you know, I had a duty to talk [to the cast and director].

BJH: Of course. 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: So I get Guttenberg and I get Shelly and Malcolm and I say: look, I don’t know how to do something like that. I mean, you have a script; you have sets; you have a budget, you have a schedule; what are you gonna do? Bring a comedy writer in from TV and start writing blackouts or something? It wasn’t possible to do. And John and Derek were frustrated because they didn’t have distribution. So without distribution—without platforming a picture they were fucked, you know? And they thought, well, maybe if George can deliver some belly laughs, maybe he can save the company. 

BJH: Right. 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: So we all agreed that it was an impossible thing that John asked me to do. I went back and I said, “John, I talked to everybody, and I talked to the writer too, and there’s just nothing we can do.” He says, “Okay. Pack your fucking bags, asshole. You’re fired. I’ll be out there on Monday and I’ll do it. I don’t need you to do it. It’s my money, it’s my company, I’ll do it. I’ll tell ‘em what to do.” 

BJH: Gotcha. 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: [laughing] So I went back and told everybody what John had told me. Shelly was the first person—she said, “George, I’m you’re going, I’m going.” Steve said, “I’m going.” Malcolm said, “I’m going.” The cinematographer said, “I’m going.” And the sound man said, “I’m going.” So I called John back and said, “John, it’s all here waiting for you when you come out on Monday…but unfortunately, when I’m gone, everyone’s going with me!” And there was silence on the other end. And then John said, “Just finish the fucking movie!” And hung up on me. [laughs]

BJH: Wow. That’s a great story. 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: That was kind of the way it was. Then we finished the film. John didn’t have distribution and the lack of distribution was probably the death knell to one of the most successful production companies of all time. I mean…John Daly, Derek Gibson and Hemdale will go down in my mind will go down in history. Because they were mavericks and they just…and I think because they were Mavericks, people were jealous of them. Studios would spend more money than God and not get an Academy Award. And John would do things cleverly and won Academy Award after another. He was really a genius. And a great guy. 

John Daly passed away in 2008. He was 71 years old. 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: I think part of the reason John Daly was such a genius (and I credit Derek Gibson with a lot of this too) is because he was a fight promoter, man. 

BJH: I didn’t know that. 

GEORGE BRAUNSTEIN: Yeah. And the movie business is not “oh, let’s have tea and crumpets.” The movie business is getting down into a mud pit and battling for exhibitor dollars—it’s battling for dollars out of people’s pockets; it’s battling for eyes on a TV screen. It is warfare…and John knew that world. He came from the prize-fighting world and he understood where it was at. 

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