There are several ways one can judge the success of film producers. First, there’s the money: Did they make any? Then there’s the art: Any awards? And then there’s the Dino De Laurentiis way to calculate a producer’s achievements: Did they bring any great dreams to cinematic life?
“Many years ago,” the nonagenarian film legend says, “someone asked me the question, ‘What is the job of the film producer?’ The answer is very simple: to create a dream. That is our job.”
Dino’s “dreams” are the stuff of film history. Back in the 1950s, the scrappy Italian entrepreneur invented a little global film finance scheme called pre-sales, which quickly became the backbone of independent cinema for the next half-century.
Today, however, Dino doesn’t seem the least interested in any talk of numbers. His wife and business partner, Martha De Laurentiis, helpfully explains away the omissions by noting, “It’s not that he cares about the money least, but he cares about it last.”
Dino nods enthusiastically. “Yes! To me the only real star of the movie is the writer. And I work with writers very closely, from outline to first draft and on to the seventh draft, whatever it takes. Then my job is to support the director to make the best movie we can. Some producers try to go past them, but my job is to support them.”
On the walls of Dino’s offices at Universal are vivid reminders of how well his producing methods have paid off. Posters and golden statues and scrolls provide a short list of his major accomplishments. There are the Oscars for Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria,” surrounded by honors for such landmark films as David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” Sidney Lumet’s “Serpico,” Ken Annakin’s “Battle of the Bulge,” John Huston’s “The Bible,” Sidney Pollock’s “Three Days of the Condor,” Robert Altman’s “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” and Milos Forman’s “Ragtime.”
Promo materials attest to the role Dino has played in the careers of filmmakers as diverse as King Vidor, Sam Raimi, Jonathan Mostow, Brett Ratner, John Dahl, Ingmar Bergman, Ridley Scott, William Friedkin, John Milius and Michael Cimino, not to mention his illustrious associations with Italian filmmakers of the ’50s and ’60s, including Michelangelo Antonioni, Dino Risi, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mario Monicelli and Alberto Lattuada.
While Dino’s devotion to the written word and directorial collaboration might surprise discriminating viewers of his lesser works — “Orca,” “Mandingo,” “Lipstick,” “Flash Gordon” and “The White Buffalo” have a legendary status of a less felicitous nature — Dino is frank about the often bruising work that goes into making dreams come alive, whether they be ones that soar or ones that sink.
He explains the process:
“If we are making a movie and I have a problem with some scene, I try to convince (the director) to change it. Some producers will redo it, but with our movies that is never the case. The job of the producer in the end is to let the director direct.”
If Dino is willing to yield to the director’s wishes, he’s also honest about not being as easy on his writers. “The only fight I have sometimes is with the writer. Maybe he will not say what I want, but finally he will do it.”
Martha says that winning the argument is often the result of the contestants being a bit mismatched.
“People are intimidated by him. Sometimes the writer can convince Dino. Dino’s not afraid of an argument. The thing is you’ve got to support your idea. You just can’t let him be the end-all, be-all. He needs that back and forth. They want to give him what Dino wants. But that’s not what Dino wants! If it’s not working, his attitude is, ‘Let’s get to the bottom of it,’ ” she says.
Dino digs further into the realities of what happens when strong wills and big sums of money face tight deadlines while undertaking the mad task of making a movie.
“When producers say, ‘This director is really difficult,’ I don’t believe it,” says Dino with an exasperation undimmed by time. “It’s ridiculous because the producer doesn’t understand what the director needs! You know who creates the problem? Stupid directors! A great director brings your fantasy to life. Rossellini, Fellini, Spielberg, so many American directors. You need a versatility to work with great directors like Antonioni, Visconti, Pollack. And if they don’t respect you, it’s over.
“Then,” says Dino, his voice suddenly dropping down to a whisper, “you have directors who believe they are great, but are not great.”
Perhaps Dino’s “versatility,” as he calls it, stems from his experiences in those seminal days of the freewheeling post-WWII Italian filmmaking scene. Grappling with the economic, physical and spiritual devastation of the war, filmmakers had little more than the words of the young writers and the determination to be heard. Try to imagine a film industry without all of contemporary Hollywood’s garish accoutrements, bloated budgets, hysterical posturing and endless marketing studies. It will be easier to visualize with Dino as your guide:
“After the war, there was no industry. We lost the war. We had our whole city destroyed. No money. No studio. No film. No camera. No equipment. We would shoot in the street. We had no actors. Nothing. But we wanted to do movies. And we did the best movies in the world. One boy from the street. One worker. One bicyclist. And De Sica created a masterpiece. The critics say it was a new start to movies. They called it ‘neorealism.’ All the American filmmakers — Spielberg, Scorsese — say they learned from the Italian movies.
“What was our secret? We had come out from some bigger drama. And we had the idea to use this reality to make money. We made these movies like ‘Paisan,’ ‘Bicycle Thief’ and on and on, all from inspiration. All these genres, comedy, drama, fantasy, it’s all one big story. At that time we had the material to inspire stories similar to ‘Shawshank Redemption’ or ‘Schindler’s List.’ We put our reality onto the screen. This is what I meant when I said as a producer, you create dreams. You create a story, and even if the story makes you cry, you give an emotion to the audience and they share that emotion, that dream together. Building that dream to put on the screen, that’s what a producer does.”