The lessons I learned in 1980s Hollywood

In this exclusive extract from his new autobiography, Tony Garnett recalls his experiences as a British producer in 80s Hollywood, an industry he found peopled by ‘socially functioning psychopaths’.

Tony Garnett

Handgun (1984)

Handgun (1984)

I was developing projects at Warmers, occasionally being indulged to pursue my ideas. Like most studios, Warners was profligate in the number of projects at screenplay stage, perhaps because no one knew what might make money. Better to cast the net wide at the front end, which costs the least; then pick a few, sending them out to see if they attract A list talent. But my projects were not thought profitable and most were politically distasteful, even though executives thought their decisions were not based on ideology, merely on hard-headed business. They might have been right. Creative freedom is a complicated idea.

Fashion dictated much of what was made, as executives tried to guess the zeitgeist; difficult when your green light may be two years before the premiere. But some areas, or at least some ways of looking at them, were taboo. The situation behind the Iron Curtain in Stalinist countries was the same, as it was in London. It was difficult to know what was a response to anticipated audience prejudice, what was an attempt to guess fashion and what was outside the executives’ frame of reference. In the 50s even a married couple couldn’t be seen occupying a double bed and until very recently movies with a black leading character fighting white racism were not green lit, on the grounds that they wouldn’t play in the south. Until the 60s casual prejudice against black culture was common, but anti-Semitism was taboo. Certainly, I painfully discovered that my preoccupations, my wish to explore American culture, were not shared by Hollywood.

I also took meetings with whoever [Warners executive] Lucy Fisher wanted me to meet. One morning I went over to the main building to spend an hour with Dolly Parton, who I vaguely knew about. Why she was being burdened with me was a mystery, but I was supposed to hear her ideas and give her mine in the hope we could find a vehicle for her at Warners. She was short and busty and all hair, just like her professional image. I supposed that each time she left home she was ‘on’. This perfect image of a dumb, sexually available blonde was the exact opposite of the woman underneath. Within a few minutes I saw she was a razor sharp professional, intelligent, canny and tough as old leather. She was also a very successful business woman. Her business was ‘Dolly Parton’. We talked at length and I found her really interesting. I’ve no idea what she made of me. Nothing came of it, I’m glad to say.

So I was gradually getting the hang of Hollywood, how it worked and what could get made. The problem was that it offered nothing of any interest for me. I needed money, of course, like anyone with a family. The romance of poverty can only be enjoyed by those who’ve never been threatened by it. I knew plenty of young aristos in London who despised money, choosing to forget they were trustafarians. But money just ceased to interest me once I had my house nut. Alan Parker joked I was the only one he knew who could produce four movies out there and not make any money. But I never got into debt. Uncle Harold was always on my shoulder.

The typical newcomer to Hollywood rents a nice house in Brentwood and leases a new Mercedes. Front is everything. I was horrified when my business manager said I had to borrow the money to buy a little Toyota, or he couldn’t get me a credit rating. I reasoned that if you’re in debt, the studio owns you. I knew I could take a plane on a Friday and be free to start at the BBC TV Centre on the Monday. It was beginning to tempt me.

Tony Garnett

Tony Garnett

I was still fascinated by America and learning about it each day. It was more and more horrifying and wonderful as I peeled back each layer of its history and uncovered its complexity. I realised that each time I hit on a generalisation about America, the opposite was also true. It was not wall to wall MacDonalds, as tiresome London snobs assumed. I longed to explore this on film. But I was failing.

I don’t feel bitter about this. Hollywood has more psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism and people dissociated from their true feelings than most places. This is because enormous rewards of riches and power are dangled daily and the fight for them is ruthless. It offers sun, sex, celebrity and wealth. Winners take all. But the casualties are many. Look closely at most faces, look behind the tan, and deep in the eyes you will see fear. Just beware of those whose fear you can’t see. These are the socially functioning psychopaths and they’re dangerous. London is now trending that way. The individual isn’t the problem. It’s the system which offers fertile opportunities for them to thrive. But my sticking point was my disinterest in embracing the only kind of success on offer and their disinterest in what I needed to make.

Despite this, I learned  many professional lessons there. Some very bright and talented people are drawn to its opportunities, especially writers. I worked with and admired some of the best, brilliant technicians lost to rewrites, their original screenplays taken from them and given to another to improve. Warners had around 130 movies in what it called “active development”. It’s comparatively cheap to punt at that end of the process. One day I took from their library a project and read the first draft submitted by the original writer and then the sixth draft, after two other writers had worked on it. This last draft was like a Swiss watch, perfect in its structure. It was also lifeless, dead on arrival. The first draft was a structural mess, with action occasionally ending in a cul de sac, but it was alive, bursting with energy and the characters came off the page. There was a lesson there. I never forgot it.

I’m grateful for all those pros in Hollywood who taught me the tricks of the trade. Our early films would have been better if I’d had their expertise.

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