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Irwin Winkler: A Film Producer's Producer


Then again, one man's B-movie becomes another man's Oscar. Irwin Winkler mortgaged his house to be able to finish making "Rocky" with Sylvester Stallone in 1976. The movie starred someone no one had heard off, set in what's considered an unglamorous city, doing something that sounded impossible; of course, the movie grossed to almost a billion a dollars and won Mr. Winkler his first Oscar.

Irwin Winkler has gone on to produce and/or direct some of the most celebrated films in history including "The Right Stuff," "Goodfellas," "Music Box" and "Raging Bull." We've joined him in his offices in Beverly Hills to talk a bit about his past and the future of the entertainment industry. Mr. Winkler, thanks for being with us.

IRWIN WINKLER: It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: You're one of those people who actually began in the William Morris mail room?

WINKLER: Yes. I am one of the graduates of the William Morris famous, famous mail room from the '60s.

SIMON: What do people learn in the mail room that takes them up to the business.

SIMON: We learned how to live on $40 a week, we learned how to navigate the streets of New York as quickly as we can through subways because we would get cab money, and, of course, you were earning $40 a week - you would put the cab money in your pocket, but you have to get to your destination quickly...

SIMON: Yeah.

WINKLER: ...so you're learning the subway system; that's principally two things I learned at William Morris.

SIMON: And if you don't mind this story from some of your past achievements. You were making the "Raging Bull" and had to suspend shooting for three months, was it?

WINKLER: That's correct. Because - well, we stopped shooting for three month so that Bob De Niro could put on the weight that he felt he needed to play the older Jake La Motta and we had talked about putting on prosthetics that would show him as much heavier, and he would have none of it. He said, I can't walk the same way, I can't talk the same way, and I'll have to gain the weight. And I was very worried about his health, and he said, no, I'll be okay. And he walked into my office in Culver City at the time three months after I hadn't seen him, and I literally didn't recognize him. He just opened the door and I looked and - who is this guy? And it was Bob.

SIMON: It's expensive to stop production on a movie for three months, isn't it?

WINKLER: Yeah. Yeah, it is, but I think it paid off.

SIMON: We have a very bright, young man on our staff from Virginia who asked me a question I swore to interview in(ph) Irwin Winkler, the famous producer. He said what does a producer do exactly?

WINKLER: You know, a rose is a rose is a rose. There are all kinds of producers. You know, there is one producer who might be Julia Robert's nephew's hairdresser who gets a job as a producer because there's no definition of it.

But a really - a producer that really produces would come up usually with the idea for a film or buy a book or buy a script or steal a script or find a writer in the Ashcan and work with that writer to come up with a treatment or a script, then he or she would hire a director, probably, then go to convince the studio that it's something that they should finance, and then he'll go out and try to get an actor or an actress that everybody is comfortable with. Then I'll have to supervise the making of a budget and fight for the money to make the film, then he'll be on the set everyday and supervise the actual production of the film, and then he'll supervise the post-production of the film, and then he will watch the film come out, and everybody will say, what did the producer do?


SIMON: All right, you answered the question - we answered what you do, let's put it that way.


SIMON: You're always on the prowl for something new?

WINKLER: No. You know, I could wake up screaming or I could wake up and say why don't I do a film about the American Revolution? Nobody's ever done a good one, why don't I do one? And sure enough, I did one, and it wasn't any good. So...

SIMON: Which one was this?

WINKLER: The "Revolution." (Unintelligible).

SIMON: Oh, yeah. This is Al Pacino and...

WINKLER: Al Pacino.

SIMON: Yeah.

WINKLER: But in other words, working...

SIMON: It wasn't that bad.

WINKLER: It was that bad. But anyhow, is that seeking out an idea? No. I really woke up one morning and said, you know, I haven't seen a good film about the American Revolution. And all the ones I have seen haven't been successful, but I'm going to make a successful one. Well, I wasn't able to do that.

SIMON: It sounds to me like there's something really amazing at being able to wake up and say American Revolution or anything - this interest me. I want to make a film, and several millions of dollars later, you've done it; that's, like, the greatest set of model trains in the world, isn't it?

WINKLER: Yes, it is, and I'm very lucky to have them at my disposal. But the only reason I have them is because I've made a contribution to the financial success of certain companies, and they've been willing to back me.

SIMON: Well, can you just finally explain to us, how does that - I've heard it called leveraging process work. You have to make X number of films that do this to make the one you really want.

WINKLER: No, I'll tell you how it works. After we did "Rocky" and it was such a big success, we had a script called "Raging Bull."

SIMON: Yeah.

WINKLER: And United Artists, which who distributed and financed "Rocky," had absolutely no intention in the world of making "Raging Bull." But they did want to make "Rocky II," so we said to them, well, you want to make "Rocky II"? We'll make "Rocky II," but you have to make "Racing Bull." So - but the sad thing is that "Raging Bull" might never had been made and probably wouldn't have been made unless we took that position on "Rocky."

SIMON: Producer Irwin Winkler. Mr. Winkler, thanks so much for your time.

WINKLER: Well, thank you for coming. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.