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When the Women Come Out to Dance
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Film and TV

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Stick
52 Pickup
Desperado
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Cat Chaser
Border Shootout
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Get Shorty
Last Stand at Saber River
Pronto
Touch
Elmore Leonard’s Gold Coast (TV)
Jackie Brown
Maximum Bob
Out of Sight
Karen Sisco
The Big Bounce (II)
Be Cool (2005)
The Ambassador
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Killshot (2009)
Freaky Deaky
The Tonto Woman
Sparks
Justified
Life of Crime

Monday, March 24, 2008

Introducing Mr. Walter Mirisch…“One of the Good Guys”

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Here’s Elmore’s introduction to I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, the memoir written by his friend Walter Mirisch., a truly legendary producer and filmmaker.

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When you have produced close to a hundred motion pictures since 1947, you’re allowed a series of Bomba the Jungle Boy movies during the early years-—Bomba, in a jungle created on a sound stage, gazing out at African wildlife footage Walter was able to get his hands on.  By the time he was 29, Walter was running production at Monogram-Allied Artists, coming out with second-bill, low-budget pictures, one after another that could be shot in eight days for less than a hundred thousand.

The story Walter chose as the first one he’d produce himself was a short story by Cornell Woolrich called
Cocaine.  Monogram Pictures said, “Are you kidding? 

Cocaine?”  The title was the first thing Walter lost to the Breen Office, our morals watchdog at the time.  Next came all references to drugs and the impact of the picture was gone.  Walter called it Fall Guy.

He made Flight to Mars and another three dozen pictures for Monogram, Bomba showing up now and again—-but wait a minute.  Walter also produced Wichita, a Joel McCrea western that won a Golden Globe in ’55.  The next year he supervised production of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Walter was getting ready to make first–run movies with stars.

He had gone to work in Hollywood with a degree in History from the University of Wisconsin and a masters in Business from Harvard.  The combination couldn’t have worked better.  History opened Walter’s eyes to a wide scope of film possibilities, while the Business degree gave him the clout to make solid deals with studios, to produce stories that he liked brought to the screen. 

I dedicated my Hollywood novel, Get Shorty, to Walter with the inscription, “To Walter Mirisch, one of the good guys.”

To me, the bad guys in the business were the ones who optioned my books, had the stories rewritten, and allowed actors to roam through the plot making up their own lines.  Finally, when I was given the chance to write a script, a studio exec said to me, “All you’ve done is adapt your book, scene for scene.”  I said, “Yes?”  He said, “You don’t have
to be a screenwriter to do that.”

Well, Walter believed I could write movies.

When you have produced close to a hundred motion pictures since 1947, you’re allowed a series of Bomba the Jungle Boy movies during the early years-—Bomba, in a jungle created on a sound stage, gazing out at African wildlife footage Walter was able to get his hands on.  By the time he was 29, Walter was running production at Monogram-Allied Artists, coming out with second-bill, low-budget pictures, one after another that could be shot in eight days for less than a hundred thousand.

The story Walter chose as the first one he’d produce himself was a short story by Cornell Woolrich called
Cocaine.  Monogram Pictures said, “Are you kidding? 

Cocaine?”  The title was the first thing Walter lost to the Breen Office, our morals watchdog at the time.  Next came all references to drugs and the impact of the picture was gone.  Walter called it Fall Guy.

He made Flight to Mars and another three dozen pictures for Monogram, Bomba showing up now and again—-but wait a minute.  Walter also produced Wichita, a Joel McCrea western that won a Golden Globe in ’55.  The next year he supervised production of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Walter was getting ready to make first–run movies with stars.

He had gone to work in Hollywood with a degree in History from the University of Wisconsin and a masters in Business from Harvard.  The combination couldn’t have worked better.  History opened Walter’s eyes to a wide scope of film possibilities, while the Business degree gave him the clout to make solid deals with studios, to produce stories that he liked brought to the screen. 

I dedicated my Hollywood novel, Get Shorty, to Walter with the inscription, “To Walter Mirisch, one of the good guys.”

To me, the bad guys in the business were the ones who optioned my books, had the stories rewritten, and allowed actors to roam through the plot making up their own lines.  Finally, when I was given the chance to write a script, a studio exec said to me, “All you’ve done is adapt your book, scene for scene.”  I said, “Yes?”  He said, “You don’t have
to be a screenwriter to do that.”

Well, Walter believed I could write movies.

Among the 30 pictures he made for United Artists, one is from an original screenplay of mine called Mr. Majestyk.  Charles Bronson starred as a Colorado melon grower who has a run-in with a vicious gangster played by Al Litieri.  Dick Fleischer directed.  The only change in the script has Bronson brining in a crop of watermelon instead of cantaloupe, since cantaloupe was out of season by the time they started shooting in Colorado.  The picture cost two million to make, Bronson getting a big chunk of the budget, and grossed 18 million at the box office.  Walter gave me a bonus the moment the picture was in the black.  Since then, Mr. Majestyk has been paying residuals for as long as Walter and I have been friends, going on 33 years.

Before I realized writing movies wasn’t nearly as much fun as writing books, and quit trying, Walter asked me to do another one for him.  Rewrite a script for Wheels, Arthur Hailey’s novel about the car business.  Walter thought I was right for it since I lived in Detroit and had spent several years writing car ads.  I remember asking my agent, H.N. Swanson, “Do I have to read the book?” and Swanie saying, “It won’t hurt you.”  I changed the focus of the book from styling to the 10-day sales report, what the car business was all about, selling cars; but I don’t recall what Walter thought of it.  I think he was busy packing, about to join Universal after 17 years of producing one hit after another for United Artists.
But what if, in the early years, Walter had gone to work for his brother Harold, the marketing whiz for RKO theaters?  “I didn’t get the job,” Walter said, “so I went to Monogram and learned how to make movies.  But you know what I wonder about?  If I had gone to work for Harold, who would’ve made Some Like It Hot and The Magnificent Seven?”

Or the string of terrific pictures The Mirisch Company, Walter and his brother Marvin, produced for United Artists: The Great Escape, The Pink Panther, The Fortune Cookie, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler on the Roof, the Mirisch Company winning Oscars for In the Heat of the Night, The Apartment and Westside Story.

Walter set up Midway at Universal.  The studio said.  “It’s going to cost way too much… but go ahead.”  And
Walter brought it in as his biggest moneymaker.  He’s won Oscars and Golden Globes, served as president of the Academy ’74 to ’78, and has earned every lifetime achievement award offered by the industry.

He’s a straight-shooter with an easy sense of humor, a pleasure to have as a friend.  He doesn’t hold grudges or make unkind remarks about all the egos he’s dealt with in the business.  You’ll read in these pages about his heated arguments with directors, but to my knowledge he’s thrown a punch at only one.  Walter?  Yes, Walter.  Studio heads who come and go have tried to limit his production, give him fewer movies to make, and he excuses them saying, “The poor guys, they’re under a lot of pressure, the company that owns the studio breathing down their necks.”  Walter’s cool.  He remains in place because he knows what he’s always known: you begin with a good story.

I remind him of endless meetings we had with an actor

Walter wanted for LaBrava, a book I wrote in ’83.

“Oh God,” Walter said, looking back at that agonizing time.  “I spent almost two years of my life on that guy.”  But then the next moment he’s smiling.  What he’s looking at could be funny, even if it means laughing at himself.

There we were sitting in a hotel suite in New York, a revised treatment of LaBrava the movie on the coffee table.  We’re waiting for the actor to arrive.  The actor is bright, intelligent, a little guy with a big nose who does have good ideas, loves the character Joe LaBrava, but can’t quite commit yet to play the part.  Walter listened, commented, without any indication the actor’s indecision was driving him nuts.  Two days in a row during the fourth month, the actor cut the meetings short to take care of personal business.  The next morning the actor arrived chipper, walked in and said, “Wasn’t it great yesterday, the sun out all day?  What did you guys do, go to the park?”

Walter might’ve said yes, he came 3000 miles to visit Central Park, and watch the Mets play baseball on television.  But he didn’t.  I didn’t mention I could’ve been home playing tennis.  We remained rational.  We took the meeting and several more to come until the short actor finally said yes, he’d make the picture.  Eventually though, he came up with an excuse to walk out.  You’ll read what Walter felt about that.

Walter said, “I thought the guy wanted to make LaBrava.  It turns out all he wanted to do was talk about making the movie.  You know what his next picture was?”  Walter starting to smile.  “Ishtar.”

Now we were both smiling.

Walter said, “You know why LaBrava was never made?  We talked it to death.  The idea became worn out.”

Walter said, “It would work fine today.  All those wacky characters with angles.  Shoot it in trendy South Beach.”

“With the same actor?”

“He’s too old.

Walter is older, too, but still knows what he knows, has a table lined with all the awards, and credit for at least a decade of movies that rank high among the best to come out of Hollywood.  Any time he wants, Walter can put his feet up and take it easy.  But what if there’s still another picture he’s dying to make?

Wouldn’t that be something?

Elmore Leonard

 

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