Jerry Weintraub on Taking Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace Biopic to HBO

Photo: Larry Busacca/2008 Larry Busacca
NEW YORK - JANUARY 01:  Liberace performs at Radio City Music Hall in 1985 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/WireImage)
Liberace. Photo: Larry Busacca/2008 Larry Busacca

As Vulture reported earlier this week, Steven Soderbergh’s biopic of Liberace is no longer headed to the big screen; instead, it will air on HBO. Behind the Candelabra (the newly released title) is set to star Michael Douglas as the flamboyant entertainer and Matt Damon as his younger lover, Scott Thorson. We spoke with producer Jerry Weintraub about the film’s move to HBO, why he cast 41-year-old Damon as Thorson (who was only 24 when he sued Liberace for palimony), and, randomly, his “Communist” granddaughter.

Tell me how Behind the Candelabra ended up on HBO.
It ended up at HBO because HBO bought a documentary about my life called His Way, which was a big success. And I had a great experience with them. I got very close to Richard Plepler, who’s the chairman, and Mike Lombardo and all the creative people and the press people, Nancy Lesser. I worked very closely with them. And I just felt, I wanted to get the biggest audience for Liberace that I possibly could in the United States. And that they could deliver it for me. And they were very, very excited about it, the minute I mentioned it to them they were excited, because it’s a very big movie for them. They don’t usually do anything this big. And I said, “Great, I’m gonna do it on HBO.” I had to go back and get Soderbergh into that frame, and the actors, and we did.

So you approached HBO before you told Steven Soderbergh?
Uhh … yeah. [Laughs.] But Steven and I work together all the time. We do things in shorthand. But he was very supportive of the idea. He liked the idea.

At one point, you said this would be the movie to win Michael Douglas an Oscar.
Well, it can’t now. It will get him an Emmy now. I’m going for whatever. I’m going to make a hit. The fact is, it’s going to be released theatrically overseas, so he’ll get plenty of awards.

Is it a recent thing that you’d consider HBO for a project like this? Would you have wanted this film to be on HBO ten years ago?
You know, I wasn’t doing anything for television ten years ago. I am now. What I look for in the people who are distributing my project are people who are good salespeople from a good organization, and who care about the product and are enthusiastic about what I do. If they’re not enthusiastic about what I do, and they’re just doing it because I’m Jerry Weintraub, that’s not the answer. They have to be enthusiastic about the product I’m making. Because we work very hard on this stuff. Everyone thinks it just happens. It doesn’t just happen. I’ve been working on this for years and I want to do it exactly right. At the end of the day, we all have plenty of money, all the people involved in this movie have plenty of money. And we’re at the stage of our lives — I’m 74 years old — where we want to do things that satisfy us creatively. And HBO fits into that place right now in my life.

Does being on HBO —
How old are you? You’re 24.

I’m 30.
Where’d you go to school?

Hampshire College, in Western Massachusetts.
I have a home in Maine, in Kennebunkport. And I also have a granddaughter who lives in Vermont. She was phi beta kappa, summa cum laude at University of Vermont. She’s a Communist. Dyed in the wool Communist. She’s very upset with me because I have all these big homes and there’s nobody living in the bedrooms. She thinks I should open them up for the [Occupy] Wall Street crowd. She sent me an e-mail this morning, she said, “You wanna send me some money? We’re doing an Occupy Wall Street event. Do you want to pay for it?” I said, “No, I don’t want to pay for it.” She called me this morning, “For $2,500 you can make a big difference in the world.” I said, “I make a big difference every day! I don’t want to occupy Wall Street, those are my friends!” [Laughs.] She said, “What are you talking about? They’re the Antichrist.” I said, “They’re not the Antichrist! Let’s not get into this discussion, honey.” You have a grandfather?

I do. He’s 88.
Does he talk to you like that? Tell him about this discussion!

I will! So back to HBO. I get the sense that in some ways you have more freedom —
It’s not about freedom. I have freedom wherever I go. When Soderbergh and I make a movie, we’re free to do what we want to do. Nobody gets in our way. But from the point of view of people seeing this movie, and the support we get from HBO, and the fact that it will be one of their biggest programming coups of the year, that’s what’s exciting.

So no changes in the content or the format of the film?
No, absolutely not.

I was reading up on Liberace, and when Scott Thorson got involved with him, he was 16. Matt Damon is 41.
Don’t you think Matt has a cherubic kind of youngness about him? I’m going to tell him that you said he was old! I’m going to say, “Matt, I talked to this writer at New York Magazine and she thinks you’re much too old to have a romance with Michael.” I’ll say, “She thought I should get Justin Timberlake.” I will! He’ll call you and tell you off.

Okay, but they did cut off their relationship when Thorson was 24 or something. Didn’t it start out as a father-son thing?
Well, I don’t know if it was a father-son thing. It’s kind of a timeless story, timeless romance between the two of them.

But Liberace had Scott get plastic surgery to look like him …
Yeah, that’s in the movie. But we can do that easier with Matt and Michael than we can with Justin Timberlake, your suggestion. I’m kidding! You’ve got two stories here. You got enough, don’t you? I want to have my glass of wine and go to bed. Tell your grandfather that story. Drop me a note and tell me what he said after you tell him.

Jerry Weintraub on Taking Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace Biopic to HBO