Interview with David Picker, Author of Musts, Maybes and Nevers

A Movie Fan for Life
Interview with David Picker, author of Musts, Maybes and Nevers: A book about the Movies

David Picker’s new book, Musts, Maybes, and Nevers is a different kind of book about movies. This one comes from behind the desk, the executive side of the desk, as he recounts his years as president of three major studios: United Artists, Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures during the exciting decades of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s when the industry was in constant change. David Picker began at United Artist in the early 1960s when movie studios were not run by multinational corporations, but rather by filmmakers and film lovers.

 
Picker is definitely a film lover, and a lucky one at that. Each chapter of his book recounts the many fantastic people who have passed through his life: the Beatles, Steve Martin, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, Bob Fosse, Jon Voight, and even his former assistant, Larry Kramer. That’s only a drop from the pool of names found in this book. He isn’t the type who needs Hollywood success to define who he is—ultimately, it’s about his love of movies and his love for the great filmmakers. He writes about meeting Ingmar Bergman, “I couldn’t help but wonder at the almost awesome and extraordinary life I was leading.” That extraordinary life is unmistakable.

I recently spoke with David Picker over a light breakfast of two coffees and two “well toasted, everything” bagels. At six feet, three inches, David Picker is an impressive figure who does not show his eighty-two years. He’s a man’s man: masculine and confident, with a tinge of New York City edge. The kind of guy you can trust, whose—as Norman Lear wrote—“handshake was his word.” He’s not the typical movie biz guy from La La Land. He’s authentic, and humble—perhaps a little too humble.  But then this man—born into the movie business (his father, Eugene, was the chief buyer and booker for the Loews New York theater chain, and his uncle Arnold was a partner at United Artists)—didn’t need to be in what he refers to as the “Who’s on Top Club.” He just wanted to make movies because, quite simply, he loves movies.

West:    It’s clear from your book that you didn’t need to be in, what you call, “The Who’s on Top Club.” You write, “I am a New Yorker.  The business in L.A. always considered me that as well.”   Did you ever feel like an outsider?

Picker:  No.

West:   Not at all?

Picker:  I mean, I was very lucky because I had options. The company I choose to work with was a New York company, United Artist. It was a unique company, because once they greenlit a movie they were out of it until they got the finished movie delivered. It was a concept that was so alien to the studio concept. It really separated UA, and when I was given a position of responsibility, like was part of the decision making process, it was a unique opportunity to do the kind of films I wanted to do. How often does that happen?!

West:    Right! In the moment [at the time], did you know that you were green-lighting films that were a little different, a little edgier  than other studios?

Picker:  It’s hard to say. I knew I was green-lighting projects that I wanted to do. It was clear that the process was totally alien to the majors [studios]. Not only didn’t they understand it, it worked against everything they did. It gave UA—as it evolved—a distinct advantage in many cases of working with filmmakers. I mean, no major individual studio would have thought of going into business with Ingmar Bergman. What they didn’t understand was that the more clearance we gave with local filmmakers from say France, Germany and Scandinavia, the better playing time we got for our American pictures—because we were distributing our local product as well—and, so we had an edge in playing time in theaters that the majors [studios] didn’t have; it made it easier to maximize more of what we did.

West:    So, you were trading American films for foreign films.

Picker:  When you have Fellini, for instance, Bergman, Bertolucci, Truffaut on your list of distribution, then your American or English-language movies are going to get better playing time than the major [studio] that is going over with just their American movies—because they’re going to want Fellini, they’re going to want Bergman, they’re going to want Bertolucci; and it means we are at the advantage to get playing time in theaters for our American-based projects. We were in a better position than the majors. It’s a business-oriented result, which isn’t normally discussed or publicized because people don’t read about those things, and people don’t write about those things. But if you are going into France and you are distributing Truffaut, then you are going to get better playing time for your English-language pictures, because they [France] want to get their films to play in the U.S.

West:   I see, I get it.

Picker:  So our foreign business was proportionately greater than the majors ‘cause they were coming in with only their American films.  Say you’re a Swedish exhibitor and you own the best theaters in Stockholm, and I come to you and I say, “OK, I got James Bond, I got this, I got that, and I got Ingmar Bergman,” and then another guy comes in and says, “I got Gene Tierney, Clark Gable.” Who you going to give the playing time to? Me. They never understood it.

West:    It’s a fair trade. The other studios just didn’t want to trade.

Picker:  They just never understood, they didn’t get it. Not that if they could, they would have done it.  They just weren’t structured that way. That gave us an enormous advantage, and when I became in a position of decision-making, it gave me the option to do stuff most studio heads never had that option to do.

West:    So, the business part aside, looking back—when you were living it—did you realize you were bringing over to the U.S. market what would be great films? I mean, did that have any weight or meaning at the time?

Picker:  I was bringing over Fellini!

West (laughing): Yeah! That’s weighty!

Picker:  You make a list of the greatest pictures every made—and Fellini’s going to be on the list, Bergman’s going to be on the list. So I was in a position to pursue a policy that had been established at UA to go out there and make deals with all these people, and . . .

West:     . . . Bring back Bergman!

Picker:  You know, what makes this Bergman story so much fun is that it’s true. And when I talk with my friends about the business, about actually dealing with Ingmar Bergman, it’s like, “Yeah! That’s what we did.”  And having them give us better playing time for our American [pictures] over there, and then over here we had the art house market.  Then when we would come up with something like Bertolucci’s The Last Tango [in Paris], something very provocative, where Time magazine goes out of their way to describe [it] as a pornographic movie. It’s like a home run!

West:    Was it rated X?

Picker:  We rated Midnight Cowboy X and, yes, certainly Last Tango.

West:    Excellent. That brings me to my next question. Since we are talking about provocative films and groundbreaking films, Midnight Cowboy was rated X, and even Tom Jones was kind of saucy for its time.

Picker:  It certainly was.

West:   You mention Sunday Bloody Sunday in your book. You wrote, “Two men actually kissed on screen in 1971. It was about time.” That’s heavy stuff for forty-two years ago. Do you consider yourself a groundbreaker?

Picker:  No. I think that would be extremely self-serving. I’m someone who loves movies, and I was in a position—a unique position—to be able to influence that content in my time, because of the corporate situation that I was fortunate enough to be part of. I mean, if [I] had been head of the studio, I would never have been able to do those kinds of movies.

West:    It could have backfired, no?

Picker:  Any movie could have backfired. I mean, we had lots of unsuccessful movies in the business, but we also had had enough successful movies.

West:    You wrote, “I was sharing in the decision as to whose films we would encourage and support, what dreams of theirs we would be part of making happen…”  So, you could have said no, and none of these films would have been made? Could you have said, “I’m not interested in Midnight Cowboy”?

Picker:  Yeah. Sure. Look, do I know that somebody else might not have done it? No, I don’t know that for sure. I think the odds of anyone else doing [it] were low.

West:    Right.

Picker:  But, I wanted to be in business with John Schlesinger. John Schlesinger said, “Read this little book. It’s a terrific little book, but it’s a brave decision.” My decision wasn’t based on how much we could make. It was based on if it didn’t work out, how much I was prepared to risk. We got lucky.

West:   You mention the first screening—when you saw the finished product for the first time. How did that feel?

Picker:  That screening—I have no idea why I told everybody to come. I just knew, and I felt that the material was good—the script was terrific, the cast was terrific. I hadn’t seen the film yet; we didn’t see the dailies, but I believed in it. It’s funny because I was watching TV last night, and there’s Jon Voight in a TV show called Ray Donovan. I remember when Marion Dougherty cast him in Midnight Cowboy; nobody knew who he was

West: Had Midnight Cowboy not been made, or if he wasn’t cast, their might not be a Jon Voight as we know him today.

Picker: You never know, but it certainly started his career.

West:    Or an Angelina Jolie.

Picker (laughs): Maybe. Jon was obviously a young actor on the rise. But once he got Midnight Cowboy, he was set.

West:    Now, let’s switch to James Bond. Like Midnight Cowboy, you made the Bond films happen, right?

Picker:  Yeah. To this day, I don’t know why Columbia [Pictures] didn’t do it. Cubby [Broccoli] was under contract. Not contract, but they rolled his movies for him. He went to them first. See, the difference was they were prepared to do it, but they were prepared to do it low—based on the movies that Cubby had made before. The average in those days was around $600,000 to $800,000.  I had a clear vision of why I thought it would work, and I could match what Columbia was prepared to do and spend an extra four or five hundred thousand dollars or, a million two, and give it the look, the style, the women, that class—why you like the look. So, let’s not do it on the cheap, but do it at—sounds silly today—but at $700,000 or $800,000 to a million one. Columbia turned it down, they didn’t want to make it at a million one, so they turned it down

West:     If you had turned it down or didn’t do it, would someone else have made it?

Picker:   I have no idea.

West:    Well, if it were made, it wouldn’t have had the look of the Bond that we are familiar with today.

Picker:  No, no, we didn’t do that. Cubby and Harry [Saltzman] did that. They chose Ken Adam, they chose the guy who did the credits [Maurice Binder]. Those were all their decisions. We approved the script, we approved the budget, we approved Sean Connery, and we approved Terence Young, the director. We saw it when it was finished. That’s the way we operated.

West:    Amazing. Well, Connery alone makes the Bond movie.

Picker:  The studios didn’t understand it then, and they certainly don’t understand it now.

West:    What do you think about movies that are coming out now?

Picker:  What’s fun about the movies today is that what you are seeing is terrific stuff made by younger directors coming along, and they find an audience.  The means of reaching an audience is so much more complex today. I mean, in the old days everybody went to the movies twice a week. You went to see what was playing at your local theater. Some went a little more, some a little less. But now you gotta go to see a specific movie. And the big job the distributors have is identifying the movie that they think you want to see the most.  If it’s a commercial movie, they do it by sheer volume. If it’s a special picture, they do it with reviews and word of mouth. It’s very different. Also, the challenge from quality television is so amazing.

West:   Yeah, some of the best writing is on TV.

Picker:  Oh, without a doubt. It’s head and shoulders above the average. I mean, among the average of good movies and good TV, the writing on TV is better. They get to express themselves in a way that reaches more people over a longer period of time. It’s just fabulous stuff.

 

West:  You briefly mention Madeline Kahn. You wrote, “[she] became a dear friend.” I think she was a tremendous talent. I wanted to read more. Do you have more to say about her, Madeline Kahn?

Picker:  Well, she’s delightful, funny, professional. Put those together, and making a movie with her is so much fun. When you do it with people that are professional and you care about, it’s a pleasure. My pictures for the most part were on budget, because I worked with people who made pictures that way. I came from the executive side of the desk, which was concerned about costs; And when I decided to produce, my goal was to work with filmmakers to achieve their goal, while at the same time keeping it within the parameters of risk. I felt responsible to the people who funded the movies. My pictures came [in] on budget because I was able to—with satisfaction—work with people like [Bob] Fosse, who—as creative as they were—were disciplined. Fosse, being a dancer and a choreographer, was about as disciplined as you can get. What he directed, he did it creatively, but he did it with discipline.

West:    That’s interesting. I was thinking about that when you mentioned Fosse. In your book you speak so highly of him.

Picker:  Well, you know, the fact that I was able to work with Bob was really amazing. There is a wonderful book that’s coming out on Bob written by Sam Wasson called Fosse that you should read. It should be in stores soon. It’s a fabulous book.

West:    Did you—at the time—realize how fortunate you were to have that unique experience with Fosse

Picker:  He asked me to work with him. What happened was, I agreed to do Lenny when I was running UA. When I told Bobby [Fosse] that I decided to leave UA and produce, he told me “you should come join me on the movie.”  Working with Fosse was one of the highlights of my career.

West:    The big difference is that a disciplined director or artist makes it much easier for you as a producer.

Picker:   Yeah, but then there are fabulous directors who are not disciplined. So, the challenge is how to get the most out of them while at the same time still observing the responsibilities to the financier. So that something that I’ve always tried to do is respect the people who gave me the money to do the movies. That’s the unique perspective, because I used to be the person who gave the filmmakers the money.

West:    You mention that you would often have dinner with Fosse, Herb Gardner, [Paddy] Chayefsky, Sam Cohn. I want more; you don’t write enough about that time in your life in the book.

Picker:   Yeah, but it was just commonplace for me.

West:    So, it was just an every day thing for you.

Picker:  No, I was aware how special a time it was; but once you put that into historical perspective, it seems amazing. At the time, it was just friends having dinner with each other, because we wanted to be with each other. I think I mentioned [in my book] that we all went to visit Bob in the hospital, and we saw that he was connected to the monitor by wires and tubes. I mean that’s what we did. And Herby, Paddy, Bobby—what a privilege to have been part of that world!  And remember, it’s not commonplace for someone on my side of the desk to be there. It was just the nature of the world I lived, and the friends I made. I’m eighty-two, and I look back on it, and it was really a privilege.

West:   While I was reading this section, I thought, this would make an interesting play.

Picker: You couldn’t capture it. Just to sit in that restaurant with those guys. I’m a very lucky guy!

West:    You talk about appearing in Woody Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors. But the scene didn’t make it into the film. Did you ever have a desire to be on the creative side of films—as a director, writer?

 

Picker:   No. I wanted to produce.

West:    Or act?

Picker:  Never act! Direct?  Here’s what I think I could do. I could certainly direct a movie. But I could never be Fosse or one of those people. I couldn’t be them then. What’s the point

West:    Interesting.

Picker:  I don’t want to do it just to do it. I would never do that. I would only do something which I know that whatever that best I could be, would be something that I could bring something to. The fact that I know what a director does. Fine. I know what a director does. Do I believe I could get the best out of the actors? Maybe. What do I want to prove that I can do it? I don’t want to be a director.

 

Before I left David Picker at the Fairway Market Café and Steakhouse, I asked him to autograph my copy of his book. “You’re not going to sell it on eBay are you?” he said with a smile. My answer: a very used, worn, earmarked copy—fringed with yellow Post-it notes sticking out that read, “007,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Fosse,” “Producing?” “Bergman” and “wonderful life.” He handed it back with the inscription “from one David to another David, movie fans forever.”

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