There is no Oscar for best producer, as Dustin Hoffman’s character solemnly noted in Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog.” But if there were an award for most persistent producer, the Gotham-based team of Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau certainly deserves a nomination.
Partners since 1979, Geisler and Roberdeau have produced such plays as “Strange Interlude” and “Aren’t We All?” on Broadway and “The Way of the World” in London’s West End, as well as Robert Altman’s 1983 film “Streamers” and writer Dennis Potter’s sole directorial feature outing “Secret Friends.”
The transplanted Texans spent a decade developing the bigscreen adaptation of “The Thin Red Line” at a cost of $1 million and ultimately persuaded Terrence Malick to write and direct his first film since “Days of Heaven” in 1978.
Fox 2000 is distributing the war epic, which it financed along with Mike Medavoy’s Phoenix Pictures. Skedded for a 1998 holiday release, the film features performances by Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack and John Travolta.
Now that “Thin Red Line” is in the can, Geisler and Roberdeau stand ready to reap the benefits of another 10-year cultivation. Next year, they plan to begin production on “The White Hotel,” about a female patient of Freud’s whose haunting visions of mass annihilation are rooted in the past but foreshadow the future. Before his death in 1994, Potter scripted his interpretation of the D.M. Thomas novel set in Europe between the wars.
Emir Kusturica, who won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for both “When Father Was Away on Business” and “Underground,” has agreed to direct the erotic thriller. Kusturica chose “Hotel” over an offer to direct the film version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch” for Phoenix.
If they weren’t producers, Geisler and Roberdeau could have been historians or explorers. Famous for their love of research, the pair travel to the ends of the Earth to court talent and soak up mood for their projects. “We method produce,” Geisler quipped.
Over breakfast at the French bakery Marquet, Geisler and Roberdeau recalled a recent trip to Belgrade, the Serbian capital, to meet with Kusturica. Though they were somewhat taken aback, they kept their cool when the director suggested that they fly to the neighboring republic of Montenegro for lunch. “The president of Montenegro had sent his plane for us to use,” Geisler said.
Fortunately, the journey was a peaceful one, even though the region’s battle scars have not healed. According to Geisler and Roberdeau, one reason why Kusturica wants to direct “White Hotel” is that the story echoes the genocide that has taken place in his native land.
Geisler and Roberdeau keep track of their projects with detailed timelines of story meetings and meals that take place over the years. One of the early entries for the “Thin Red Line” timeline is a May 1989 dinner with Malick and his wife, Michele, in Paris at Brasserie de l’Ile St.-Louis, where author James Jones ate lunch with his family every day in the early 1960s when he was writing the book.
February 1991 finds Roberdeau and Geisler cooking a beef ragout dinner in New York for the Malicks, the Joneses, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Phyllis Newman and others.
On their way back from meeting with Malick in Paris in August 1993, Roberdeau and Geisler stopped off in London, where they had a lively lunch with Potter at the Ivy. But after being nagged by the feisty screenwriter one too many times, Geisler abruptly left the restaurant. Afterward, Potter dragged Roberdeau along to a nearby bookstore, where the now-penitent scribe bought a collection of Kaspar David Friedrich plates for Geisler, which he inscribed with the message, “I love you.”
It was the last time that Geisler and Roberdeau saw Potter, who told the pair that he enjoyed working with them because of their “homemade, handmade approach.”
That approach was evident after the pair learned that Potter was on his deathbed. Geisler immediately sent him a copy of the Southern Baptist hymnal with the song “Marching to Zion.” In happier times, Geisler and Potter had ended a drunken evening by singing competing versions of the hymn, which they had both learned in childhood.
Another helmer who has been won over by Geisler and Roberdeau is Academy Award-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple, who is directing her first feature for them. Kopple, whose credits include “Harlan County, USA,” “American Dream” and “Wild Man Blues,” will direct a screen version of David Rabe’s play “In the Boom Boom Room.” Rabe also wrote the script for the story starring Patricia Arquette as an aspiring go-go dancer in the tumultuous 1960s.
Together with “Wild Man Blues” distributor Fine Line Features, Geisler and Roberdeau recently hosted a hearty Mediterranean meal at the restaurant Campagna in honor of Kopple’s retrospective at the American Museum of the Moving Image.
In their long-running battles to get their projects made, Geisler and Roberdeau always make sure that the troops are well fed.