NEW YORK — A high-spirited Harvey Weinstein readily put down some of his early producing efforts and even donated remake rights to one early film he produced and directed, but vowed to direct again — provided Martin Scorsese would stand by his side as an adviser. All this took place during a relaxed question-and-answer session Wednesday at the Learning Annex.
Janet Maslin, former New York Times film reviewer, fielded a mix of prepared and impromptu questions from the audience of 500 at the New York Sheraton’s Imperial Ballroom, one of the highest turnouts for a Learning Annex session.
Questions ranged from, “Why do people think you are the devil?,” which Weinstein laughed off as bad press; to, “Why is there so little ethnic diversity in Miramax’s American films?,” which he addressed by pointing to the company’s Brazilian feature “City of God,” a Portuguese-language drama fueled by race issues, as well as to his personal push to cast Queen Latifah in “Chicago” and the company’s upcoming release of Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things,” a drama about the London immigrant subculture.
But mostly, the evening was a lovefest. The crowd was split between avid consumers of Miramax-brand movies, spontaneously yelling, “You make great pictures!,” to hungry wannabe filmmakers, thrusting scripts in the air and begging the big guy to take a look at their projects.
Catching him off guard and in a magnanimous mood, one aspiring filmmaker approached Weinstein about remake rights to his 1986 teen pic “Playing for Keeps,” written, produced and directed by Harvey and his brother Bob Weinstein, sheepishly admitting he was unable to pay for them.
“I’d be doing you a favor not to give them to you,” Weinstein replied. “Shit, I don’t know, I’m flattered, but I think the script sucked, and I know because Bob and I wrote it. Have you seen the movie? But you can have it because the rights are worth nothing. I’ll give it to you. Just do it better than I did.”
Asked to name the worst film he ever made, Weinstein skirted around mentions of Roberto Benigni’s “Pinocchio” before settling on “The Burning,” a low-budget 1981 horror movie the brothers wrote and produced.
Notwithstanding his acknowledgement of poor results behind the camera in past efforts, Weinstein was enthusiastic about his planned return to directing with an adaptation of Leon Uris’ Holocaust tome “Mila 18,” which he hopes to start shooting next summer.
“Hossein Amini just finished the script,” Weinstein said.
“We’ve gone through two revisions of the screenplay, we’ll go through one more. I’m going to have Marty next to me and Dante Ferretti to do the production design. I’m not taking any chances.
“It’s about Jewish devils,” Weinstein continued, “the guys who didn’t march into the concentration camps willingly. It’s about a 43-day siege in the Warsaw Ghetto. My movie’s not about Jews taking shit, it’s about Jews giving shit.”
On the subject of giving shit, Weinstein was asked who screams loudest at his staff, him or Scott Rudin.
“Scott Rudin, hands down,” he shot back. “I take people who are refugees from Rudin’s office. We take the bandages off; they’re like boat people.”
Weinstein paused to show trailers for “City of God” and Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming “Kill Bill,” indicating the former as an example of the kind of movie he wants to champion and bring further into the mainstream, and the latter as a bravura filmmaker fostered from his early days by Miramax.
“My ‘cinema paradiso’ is the idea that movies like ‘City of God’ are the ones we all reach for and we all want to run out and see,” Weinstein said.
“I think Quentin built the house. Quentin and ‘Pulp Fiction’ changed our company.”
Weinstein saved his heavy criticism for the media, targeting the practice of speculating on a film’s artistic success before the finished product has been seen.
As for critics, Weinstein said the only time he ever took a reviewer to task was with Maslin, for her glowing review of “Titanic,” a film he felt was wildly overpraised.
On Miramax’s future 10 years from now, Weinstein joked, “The company will probably be in Boise, Idaho, a remnant of its former self, and Bob and I will be alcoholics.”
But for most of the evening, Weinstein basked in the glow of an admiring audience and repeatedly thumbed his nose at the detractors who said Miramax was on a downspiral last year, pointing to the banner box office results and Oscar triumphs of “Chicago.”
Ticket sales for the evening generated more than $12,000 to be donated to the Gotham-based Robin Hood charity, which fights poverty in urban areas. Weinstein is a member of the org’s board of directors.
Learning Annex matched that figure with $12,000 to Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang, for kids with cancer.