Putting faith in the word

Scribe prize org honors Callender for shepherding HBO's script-driven fare

What: Humanitas Prize
When: June 28
Where: Hilton Universal
Who: 33 finalists in eight categories; $145,000 prize money

When HBO Films head Colin Callender takes the dais today to accept the Kieser Award from the Humanitas Prize organization, he’ll become the first executive to be so honored. That’s partly because the Humanitas Prize traditionally honors writers “whose work honestly explores the complexities of the human experience,” according to the org.

But Callender has also distinguished himself in what continues to emerge as a writer’s medium: Over the past 10 years, HBO has won nine awards in what the exec calls “the single drama” — 90-minute films made for television.  

Named for Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser, the Paulist priest and producer (“Romero,” “Entertaining Angels”) who founded the Humanitas Prize in 1974, the Kieser Award was established after his death in 2000 and has been presented to Bill Moyers, screenwriter and TV movie pioneer Fay Kanin and screenwriter/former Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences prexy Frank Pierson, who has found a second career as a director under the sheltering aegis of HBO.

Callender, an erudite Brit who appears to recoil from high praise, resembles Hugh Grant at his most stammering as he seeks to deflect the spotlight from himself.

“We are very lucky,” he says evenly. “I don’t underestimate the challenges faced by executives on the one hand and by writers, directors and producers on the other who have to deal with the tyranny of opening weekend grosses or ratings, and how that impacts the choices they make.

“Since we are freed up from that, we have a very privileged corner from which to operate, so we have built risk-taking into our DNA.

“We’re aware of our position, and we take the responsibilities that go along with it quite seriously. But it would be a mistake to suggest that we are the only ones doing this. It’s simply not the case.”

Callender joined the network in 1987 as head of HBO Showcase, later HBO NYC, the indie arm of HBO’s bifurcated moviemaking apparatus, and its “Off Broadway to the Broadway of the West Coast (status),” he says.

The exec relocated to Los Angeles in 1999 to head the consolidated HBO Films, which has specialized in historical drama (Churchill in “The Gathering Storm,” LBJ in “Path to War,” the Final Solution in Pierson’s “Conspiracy”), tony drama (the much-heralded “Angels in America,” “Wit”) and social issues (“The Laramie Project,” about gay-bashing, and “Yesterday,” about AIDS in Africa).

But it was his early years in British theater as a stage manager at the Royal Court Theater and later British television (“Nicholas Nickleby,” the nine-hour Dickens novel-turned-West End success-turned-Channel 4 miniseries) that would seem the crucible in which HBO Films’ eclectic artistic mix was forged — a theory that he willfully resists.

“As an Englishman, but having lived here so long now, I bring both an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective at the same time,” Callender says. “What is true in the English experience is that theater, film and television are all ostensibly based in London, and they are three communities that feed each other — directors, writers and actors move between those mediums much more freely than they do here.”

He cites the work of Broadway directors Mike Nichols and George Wolfe, film figures Pierson and Gus Van Sant and TV director and eminence grise Joseph Sargent as examples of the cross-pollination that has flourished on his watch.

(It was Callender who steered Van Sant to Alan Clarke’s 1989 short “Elephant,” a harrowing real-time account of IRA bombers, from which Van Sant borrowed both style and title for his 2003 drama.)

But Callender is not as comfortable following in the tradition of the Englishman abroad who seeks to reinvent America for the benefit of Americans (the name David Puttnam goes unspoken).

“Let’s just put this British business in perspective,” Callender says. “The worst of British stuff is worse than anything you’ve ever invented here. Wait till you watch darts on British television. Or naked darts on British television. So don’t have any misconceptions about how crass or inane or vulgar the Brits can be. You’ve only just seen the best of what we’ve churned out.”

Yet for all the freedom of its vaunted business model, HBO Films rarely tackles the broad horizon of sex or violence that its higher-profile sister division seems to wear on its sleeve, preferring instead a quiet reliance.

“Well, if you saw Raoul Peck’s film ‘Sometime in April’ last year about the Rwandan genocide,” says Callender, “there were images in that that could haunt you forever. But in terms of the editorial choices we’ve made, it hasn’t been about pushing those envelopes.

“We are constantly asking writers to embrace the complexities and the paradoxes of their stories. ‘Lackawanna Blues’ is a film that anyone could have made, in terms of content; what made it special was George Wolfe’s ideas about African-American community, and the loss that resulted from integration. That was a provocative idea.

“We are filling a void, and we want the sense that we’re doing something others wouldn’t be willing to do. We have a saying here at HBO,” he concludes: “If we’re the smartest people in the room, then we’re in deep shit.”

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