As the former president of production at New Line Cinema, Michael De Luca made some of your favorite films of the nineties, including Boogie Nights, Se7en, Rush Hour, Friday, and Austin Powers — in short, the sort of scrappy, unusual, and surprising films that seem to be in short supply today. Fortunately, through his current production deal at Columbia Pictures (he left New Line in 2001), De Luca has continued to make smart and challenging films like The Social Network, Moneyball, and this weekend’s Captain Phillips. All week, we’ve been telling you how to make a movie, and who better to weigh in on that than the producer who has best weathered the radical changes in the industry over the last twenty years? Plus, there’s a little movie De Luca’s currently working on called Fifty Shades of Grey …
Which of your New Line classics would be the hardest to make today, and which actually might find a bigger audience, given how things have changed?
Man, I think they would all be hard to make today … I think some of them might even be impossible today! I think American History X, with its provocative subject matter and controversial director, would probably be impossible to make. But a lot of things that worked for us in the nineties might make for great cable series: American History X might be a series for FX, or Boogie Nights might have been a great HBO show. On the other hand, with the widening audience for movies from people like Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers, I think there might [now] have been a wider audience for some of the writer-director stuff we did, like [Paul Thomas Anderson’s] Magnolia. Paul’s developed an audience for himself. It might have had a better day in court today, positioned as an event from an auteur filmmaker.
Do you think that the audience’s appetite for certain films has changed in the last two decades? For example, take the romantic comedy, which has fallen on hard times.
I’m probably going to sound like a Luddite, but I don’t think audiences fall out of favor with genres that they liked before. Every time a certain genre is pronounced dead, it just takes one good one to bring it back. Like, the Westerns were dead before Dances With Wolves, and then they were back, and then they were dead again before Unforgiven. Or the horror film was dead before Scream, and Scream invented a whole new subgenre. In my career, over and over, I’ve seen the punditry say, “Oh, this genre is dead, and the audience isn’t interested,” but I think they’re always there, and they’re always up for it. It’s just that they don’t always get served the best meal.
Is that how you’re approaching Fifty Shades of Grey? Back in the nineties, there were plenty of sexy dramas and provocative thrillers from directors like Adrian Lyne and Paul Verhoeven, but it feels like the movies have ceded that territory to premium cable.
The advent of cable TV — and what you’re allowed to get away with — probably filled a niche, if you were only looking for that. But I think with Fifty Shades of Grey, [author E.L. James] is dealing with these powerful archetypes wrapped up in a really compelling love story. Whether it’s the Beauty and the Beast archetype you’re into or it’s the Cinderella archetype you’re into, she’s playing with some powerful things that have come before. So I think those elements in the DNA of the story, plus a provocative filmmaker, are gonna get people to the theater. It’s a package that they’ll leave the house for, and it’s the kind of thing that movies do really well. Especially with anything erotic or anything sexual, subtlety and suggestion go a long way onscreen, so I do think it will be a return to form. I remember going to see those Adrian Lyne films when I was going to see movies in the nineties, and I was jealous he wasn’t working at New Line.
You recently cast Dakota Johnson as the lead in Fifty Shades of Grey, and the first time a lot of people noticed her was in another one of your movies: She plays the college girl Justin Timberlake has a memorable morning-after with in The Social Network. What stood out to you about her then, and how did you navigate another new facet of the industry — appeasing opinionated fans on Twitter — when casting Fifty Shades?
On a gut level, we were watching the dailies, and she just held the screen with Justin Timberlake. And Justin is a megawatt star with huge charisma. This girl was completely holding her own, and it made me feel like she was going to be a movie star. You know, it’s funny, I’m a film buff — I go deep with my historical references. When we were casting Fifty Shades, I immediately thought, This like the frenzy of casting Gone With the Wind, with the public demanding to know who’s going to play Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. We just kind of kept our heads down and thought the best thing we could do to honor the process was to just do the best job we could. We just methodically went about trying to cast it the best way like we did The Social Network or any of our other movies. We ignored the noise and just stuck to the job, and I think we ended up in a great place.
Has there ever been an unconventional casting choice that you went to the mat for, and it paid off?
This is ancient history, but there was a contingent at New Line that wanted Martin Lawrence in Rush Hour. My thing was, we had home-grown Chris Tucker in Friday and Money Talks. He was ready for the big leagues, and a fresher way to go. I won that argument, and I’m proud of that because it represented what was really great about New Line at the time. You might have had sales people saying, “Go with the tried-and-true star,” who’s more expensive and needs the movie less. But we went with the fresher guy who needed the movie more and would work his ass off for us. That was one case where I thought we bet on the right person.
You’ve spent the last twenty years trying to develop several movies based on video games, like Metal Gear Solid and Gran Turismo Why do you think none of those has really popped, at least not on the level of comic-book movies?
Chronicle could have been a video-game movie. The original RoboCop and the remake could have come from video games. Any elevated escapist genre film could have been based on a video game, but they have to be done in a way that compels the moviegoer to say, “Oh, that was given triple-A treatment, and I’m going to enjoy that as much as the last Star Trek movie or the last Batman movie.” But it hasn’t happened yet. There’s an audience there, but now that there have been so many lame video-game adaptations, the audience can smell a rat. They almost expect a letdown.
How has the financing situation changed with mid-budget dramas? You’re one of the few producers who can get them made anymore.
We’ve had great luck at Columbia because [top execs] Amy Pascal, Michael Lynton, and Doug Belgrad believe that there’s an audience for these movies. And in a way, if you make these movies for the right price and they’re executed the right way, it’s actually easier to get an audience to go see these movies because the audience for these is slightly older and they’re not sitting at home playing Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. You just can’t break the bank with budgets. If they’re done in the right way, you end up with Argo, you end up with Rush, or Gravity, or hopefully Captain Phillips. There’s a business there for that kind of movie — it just can’t be your whole slate.
You’ve had a lot of creative successes, but what were the box-office success stories that mattered the most to you?
Oh, I can think of two right off the bat. Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me. The first film had a life on home video, and we suspected that a bigger audience was waiting for a follow-up, so we made the sequel for almost twice the budget. It was risky for us at the time, but I remember at ShoWest, Harvey Weinstein ran into me and he said, “You know this is going to be your first $200 million-grossing movie.” I was like, “Get out of here!” I thought he was kidding with me, but he’s always right. When I first got those box-office numbers, I was like, “Fuck yeah! This is gonna be cool!” The first Rush Hour was a nice surprise, too. The numbers on that opening weekend really made me feel good that we had put out a wide release movie without a Caucasian star. We had Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, and it was proof that you didn’t need established stars if you had the right genre. Its success in this country and around the world made me feel that you don’t have to follow a standard formula to have mainstream success.
Is there anything that’s actually better about the current moviegoing climate than when you started?
It’s diversified. Listen, I happen to think that studios can walk and chew gum at the same time. I think they can develop, plan for, release, and market big-budget tentpoles while also feeding their slate with other kinds of movies, whether it’s a rom-com or movies from a financing partner or movies that are done through their specialized film labels, like Sony Classics or Focus or Fox Searchlight. I think as digital comes of age, I think there will be more places to put a movie than ever before, and when VOD really comes of age internationally, I think there’s going to be another spike in terms of a need for product. They might not be 2,000-screen product, but there’s going to be a need for content, and there always has been. I think it’s only going to grow. There are more eyes on how things are getting done, but I think that’s fine. I think that raises the bar for the whole industry.