Among the directors who have returned to make movies with Arnon Milchan are such “names” of the craft as Sidney Lumet, Oliver Stone, Joel Schumacher, Jon Amiel and Ron Shelton.
In a business in which the term “producer” has acquired the connotation among some writers and directors of vaguely meddlesome avarice, Milchan has retained a strong coterie of loyal collaborators among the creative ranks.
“He puts more importance in what’s on the screen than in how much it costs,” says David Matalon, president and CEO of Milchan’s New Regency. He has known Milchan for 30 years. “They come back to make films with him because they feel the love and respect he gives the creative filmmaker. They know he feels passion for the written material and will support the filmmaker. He completely respects creativity.”
Robert Daly, chairman and co-CEO of Warner Bros. with Terry Semel, says that Milchan is “unique in his ability to forge partnerships, and in his ability to raise money.” New Regency works with outside investors to produce movies itself and is not reliant on the studio for production funding. Only New Regency and Morgan Creek have that arrangement with the studio.
“I think he’s very special,” Daly says. “He knows what he wants to do, he sets out to accomplish it, and he gets it done. He cares a great deal about the material and about creative individuals. He’s a very, very good producer and a good executive within his company. He tries to work with all kinds of projects.”
Amiel, who directed “Sommersby” with Jodie Foster and “Copycat” with Holly Hunter for Milchan, is completing his third film for the producer, “Watch That Man,” a comedy shot in London starring Bill Murray and Joanne Whalley. It will be released through Warner Bros. via New Regency’s exclusive deal with the studio.
“Making pictures with Arnon is the easiest experience possible within the system,” Amiel says. “You have the creative freedom of an independent atmosphere with the strength of the studio system. It’s the best of both worlds.
“On a personal level, working with Arnon is having the No. 1 advantage of the practical application of the old saying that goes that the best producer is the absent producer,” Amiel continues. “Arnon is almost never there. But he is there when you need him. I think of him being in many ways like Aladdin’s genie: He materializes and dematerializes, he can get things fixed, he talks in a funny accent, and he’s immensely charismatic.
“He is also unlike the business-side producers who don’t deal with the filmmakers. He cut his teeth with Sergio Leone and Martin Scorsese, and he has respect for filmmakers, which most studio executives sorely lack.”
Arne Glimcher, who produced and directed “The Mambo Kings,” was adamant about the casting of a Spanish actor named Antonio Banderas as the younger Cuban brother. He hadn’t yet been in an American film, and Warner Bros. balked.
“I thought he was perfect for the part,” Glimcher says. “I wouldn’t have made the movie without him. Arnon was the executive producer. He was with me 100% on the casting, and he stood up for me with Warner Bros. Now look at (Banderas).
“Arnon Milchan fell in love with ‘Mambo Kings,’ and the project would never have happened without him. He in effect allowed me to make what was essentially an independent production, while he took responsibility for it, too. He really made it happen.”
Joel Schumacher, who has made three pictures with Milchan — “Falling Down,” “The Client” and “A Time to Kill” — talked about casting unknowns with the producer’s support.
“I put a 10-year-old, Brad Renfro, in ‘The Client’ with Arnon’s support,” he said. “On ‘A Time to Kill,’ I thought Matthew McConaughey would be the perfect actor for the part, but no one had heard of him then. A lot of stars wanted that part, but I wanted Matthew, and Arnon was on my side.”
Dan Kolsrud, the line producer on three Milchan productions — “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” with Chevy Chase, “Falling Down” with Michael Douglas, and the forthcoming “L.A. Confidential,” an adaptation of the James Ellroy novel starring Kim Basinger and Kevin Spacey — feels that Milchan does a remarkable job of fence-sitting as a money man and a creative force.
“Arnon’s skill is in finding great material and then combining the best talent behind and in front of the camera,” Kolsrud says. “He’s particularly smart about orchestrating the talent and putting the best actors with the best directors.”
Among the more interesting casting coups in Milchan’s filmography are the matchings of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s “Heat,” Sigourney Weaver and Hunter in Amiel’s “Copycat,” and Dustin Hoffman and Sean Connery in Lumet’s “Family Business.”
“Everybody realizes that talent wants to work with him,” Glimcher says. “That’s a very big plus. There are a lot of producers who the best talent doesn’t want to work with. Look at the people he gets for his movies: the best.”
When Matalon says that Milchan “puts his money where his mouth is,” Amiel has a for-instance that was unprecedented in his career. Milchan approached him with the “Copycat” script, about a tough San Francisco police inspector tracking a serial killer. Hunter eventually played the cop.
“I came up with the alternative to make the cop a woman,” Amiel said. “Arnon was so elated about it that he made a generous pay-or-play offer, irrespective of casting, irrespective of budget. He never wavered from that offer whatsoever. He combines moments of wonderful impetuosity with extreme level-headedness. He’s generous and remarkably trustworthy.”
Several collaborators feel that he is one of the more astute chance-takers in Hollywood, “a hi-i-i-gh roller,” as Schumacher says. In the case of “Heat,” Semel asked Milchan to defray some of the studio’s risk in the project and share production burden with producers Art Linson and Michael Mann. Milchan also produced the “Free Willy” movies.
“His company put up the other half of the money to get us going,” says Jennie Lew Tugend, producer of all three “Willy” pictures (the third one is slated for a late summer release). “He took the risk. I have the utmost respect for a man who follows his intuition. It was his vision of what ‘Free Willy’ could be, after he saw our early wildlife footage, that got everything rolling.
“A man of his vision and risk, when he sees something that he believes in, puts his money where his heart is. You have to admire people who go for it,” Tugend adds. “He stepped up to make the deal. It takes guts.”
Schumacher summed up the producer’s duality as a financier and a creative partner.
“He’s such a mover of money and a financial wizard,” Schumacher says. “But I don’t see his decisions as cold, financial ones. A lot of times, he has no doubt lost money on movies. And he takes chances on directors who are either new or off the sports list. He’s very daring and has put money behind ‘Brazil,’ ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ and other risky projects.
“Most people don’t understand that, given his credits and lifestyle and power, he’s infinitely human. He gets upset. His feelings get hurt. He’s devoted to his children. He lives on a farm outside of Paris. He laughs for all the right reasons, and he cries for all the right reasons, and he’s generous, and he loves bringing people together. That’s a producer.”