Book excerpt: How "Schindler’s List" and "Jurassic Park" came to be

In his new memoir, “Who Is Michael Ovitz,” the agent discusses how he was able to work deals involving Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Michael Crichton, and the germ of an idea about dinosaurs.

Read the excerpt below, and don’t miss Rita Braver’s interview with Michael Ovitz on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” September 23!

For months in 1989 I pushed Marty Scorsese to commit to “Cape Fear,” a remake of a noirish film from 1962 about a psychopathic ex-con named Max Cady (played by Robert Mitchum) out for revenge. It was commercial, it would fulfill Marty’s deal with Universal, and I knew he’d nail it. “It’s a remake,” he kept saying. “I don’t do remakes.”

That’s what he’d said about sequels. It was an edict I knew I could work around. But there was a further problem with “Cape Fear: Steven Spielberg, not Marty, controlled the rights. At the time Steven had no agent, though I was working hard to rope him in. He’d caught wind of a script that Scorsese controlled, “Schindler’s List,” and he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Based on “Schindler’s Ark,” a novel by Thomas Keneally, it told the story of a German industrialist who saved a thousand Jews from the Nazi gas chambers. Steven saw Schindler’s story as the ideal vehicle for an accessible movie about a monstrously difficult subject.

It seemed to me that the wrong people were matched to the wrong projects. Steven needed a more culturally relevant film to broaden his profile: to get bigger he had to go smaller. So I did what I always did – I represented the client before I actually, technically, represented him. “You know,” I said to Marty, “I understand why you want to do ‘Schindler’s List.’ But you don’t need to do it. Steven doesn’t need another picture like ‘Cape Fear.’ Why don’t the two of you swap?”

Marty was unconvinced. I tried again: “Look, you can cast Bobby in the Mitchum part and have a field day.” Working with De Niro always appealed to Marty. But it was never easy to talk him into or out of anything – he had to work his way through it. He was as deeply Catholic as Steven was deeply Jewish. Religion permeated his movies and he was eager to explore another faith. It would be wrenching for him to part with “Schindler’s List.”

From countless nights with Marty and his 16mm projector, I knew of his passion for genre movies, from horror to obscure Asian pictures, the bloodier the better. (Years later, the Hong Kong drama “Infernal Affairs,” which he’d shown me in the eighties, would inspire his Oscar-winning “The Departed.”) “‘Cape Fear’ could be something you’ve never achieved before – a Scorsese-style film noir,” I said. “You’ll create a truly sinister villain!” Marty loved the dynamic in the original between the Mitchum character and the budding-but-innocent girl played by fourteen-year-old Lori Martin. He’d created a similar vibe in “Taxi Driver” between De Niro and Jodie Foster, who was thirteen at the time.

Five or six bruising conversations later, Marty was finally ready. I called Steven and said, “Marty has a terrific take on “Cape Fear.” You guys should talk.”

I set a call between Steven and Marty. They’d never had a business conversation, but given their shared intrepid spirit, I wasn’t surprised to hear that they had hit it off. Hesitantly, Marty joined Steven in asking me to put the switch together. Within a week they had an understanding. Steven agreed to produce “Cape Fear,” with Marty directing on a generous back-end deal, and Marty passed “Schindler’s List” to Steven.

In the midst of this statecraft I took a call from another client. Stanley Kubrick said, “I hear that Marty’s doing a Holocaust project.” “That’s not quite true,” I said. “It looks like he might be trading with Spielberg.”

“Because, you know, I’ve got one, too.” Stanley had grown up during World War II in a Jewish family in New York. He’d been thinking about making a Nazi Germany picture called “The Aryan Papers” for years; he made so few films because he treated each one like a doctoral thesis, nailing down every detail. It had stalled on his development list, until the rumors about “Schindler’s List” rekindled his interest. Now he wanted me to read his first-draft screenplay and help me decide his next move. Because Stanley didn’t send scripts out, and because he hadn’t flown in twenty-five years, I went to see him in the English countryside at Childwickbury Manor, his enormous house in Hertfordshire. First, a messenger came to my hotel with the “Aryan Papers” script, sat outside my door as I read it, and collected it when I was done. It was tense reading because I knew there was room for only one Holocaust film; two would dilute the box office and spark unfortunate comparisons. Soon I’d be advising a hall-of-fame artist to surrender a passion project — either one of our most venerable clients or the director we most hoped to recruit.

It was even more ticklish because the two directors formed a mutual-admiration society. Stanley vocally admired the younger director’s work, and Steven felt the same way about “The Shining” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” They had hours-long phone calls, and Steven dropped by Stanley’s house whenever he went to London. But Hollywood friendships had often been wrecked by lesser conflicts.

I drove to Stanley’s estate bearing bad news. “The Aryan Papers” wasn’t as good – or as commercial – as “Schindler’s List.” It had no complex protagonist, no Oskar Schindler, for an audience to engage with. And because Stanley took longer than Steven in development, plus forty weeks or more to shoot (roughly twice the norm), he’d be in theaters second, putting him at a major disadvantage.

We sat at the wooden picnic table in Stanley’s kitchen. I told him “Aryan Papers” was too similar to “Schindler’s List” and too derivative of “Sophie’s Choice,” the acclaimed film from eight years earlier. “It’s just not Kubrick to be unoriginal,” I said. Seeing that he was still uncertain, I lowered my voice and added, “Plus, in all candor, we just killed ourselves switching scripts between Marty and Steven.” I only used the help-me-out-for-once card because I knew that what I wanted, in this case, was also what was right for Stanley.

“I get that,” he said, gravely. The following week, he called Steven to tell him he was letting “Aryan Papers” go. His act of generosity brought the directors even closer, and they remained intimate friends until Kubrick’s death in 1999. Two years later, Steven completed Stanley’s unfinished “AI: Artificial Intelligence,” and dedicated it to Stanley.

“Cape Fear” would gross $182 million worldwide, more than three times Marty’s record, and seventeen-year-old Juliette Lewis would earn an Oscar nomination for her not-so-innocent flirtation with De Niro. “Schindler’s List” would win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Steven’s first Oscar for Best Director. Marty was happy. Steven was happy. Stanley was not unhappy. This was extremely unusual.

I became a Michael Crichton fan with “The Andromeda Strain,” his first scientific thriller. Michael was a Harvard MD and Salk Institute research scientist. He’d been published in Atlantic Monthly and Playboy and the New England Journal of Medicine. He wrote with authority about subjects as far-flung as architecture, computers, and Jasper Johns. He could delve into any topic and make the reader feel like an expert within a dozen pages. He also wrote cinematically; his books unfolded as a series of pictures in your head. I called him out of the blue to say how much I liked “Coma,” a film he’d written and directed from the Robin Cook novel. A year later, in 1978, when I visited Sean Connery in England on the set of “The Great Train Robbery,” which Crichton had adapted from his own work, I met the author. He was six foot eight, shy, and such a polymath that I felt smarter after talking to him for just a few minutes. It was the beginning of what would later become a beautiful friendship.

My opening came the following year, when I made the deal for Bob Bookman, Michael’s movie agent, to move from ICM to ABC Entertainment. Michael was talking to other agents, but he had yet to sign. He felt frustrated, he told me, because nobody believed he could drive a hit film. Most agents were bound by yesterday’s thinking: audiences came out for movie stars. But Michael’s novels sold on his name, and people flocked to his lectures. I told him he was a brand in the making, which was what he wanted to hear – and also true.

Though we began working with Michael with high hopes, his first two screenplays misfired. We planned to package a new Crichton novel with another director and keep Michael focused on his next big idea. But he slid into a depression. For two years in the late 1980s, he shut down completely. I called every day to try to get him up and moving, and I visited him often. When offers came in for him to direct or to rewrite a script, I had our agents say he was busy on an original.

A pillar of CAA’s philosophy was that we told our clients the truth. That didn’t mean we told everyone else the truth. I often had to offer more than I could deliver in order to be able to eventually deliver what I had offered. If the truth was bad for us, we had to change the reality, and then deliver it as what we’d said it was all along. In the meantime, well, you’d get creative. One of our best cover-up jobs was convincing the town, for two years, that Michael was hard at work when he was actually curled up in a ball. We didn’t get caught on this kind of smokescreen because it hardly served the client we were protecting to throw us under the bus.

One day Michael Crichton called and said, “I want to tell you about an idea I’ve been working on.” I was elated to hear the vigor in his voice, and we made a date for lunch.

He arrived in his signature blue blazer, gray slacks, and penny loafers. As he folded into his seat, he said, “Three scientists get trapped in an amusement park where they’re cloning dinosaurs. The clones over- run the fences, and everyone has to flee for their lives. Chaos ensues. What do you think?”

I said, “Wow!” Everyone I knew was nuts about dinosaurs, from my kids and their friends to my seventy-year-old father. Having quietly put in months of research as his depression began to lift, Michael said he could finish the manuscript in six months. I told him we’d all stand in line to see “Jurassic Park,” and we spent the rest of lunch plotting the book’s afterlife as a film.

Research was the phase Michael enjoyed most. After putting off writing as long as possible, he went at it eighteen hours a day, seven days a week until he was done. He banged out “Jurassic Park” in a fury. It was like he’d been in hibernation, amassing energy for his signature work.

I read the rough draft in two sittings. “I think it’s the best thing you’ve ever written,” I told him. “And it’s a gangbuster movie.”

With Michael’s assent, we did something unusual with his unpublished manuscript. We offered “Jurassic Park” exclusively to Steven Spielberg – who still hadn’t signed with CAA. Steven was the one director Michael and I knew who possessed both the technique and the sense of wonder to pull the plot off. Playing favorites on this one would alienate a lot of our other filmmakers, but it was worth it. Bob Zemeckis, for instance, saw everything that came through CAA except for one or two projects. This was one of the one or two. When he and a half dozen other directors asked me about “Jurassic Park,” I told each of them, “Michael Crichton feels very strongly that only Steven can pull it off. If that doesn’t work out, I will absolutely get you a meeting.”

It was worth all the flak because this was how I could finally land Steven Spielberg as a CAA client.

To instill urgency, I asked Steven to read the book in one evening. He called at 6:00 the next morning and said, “I love this story. I’ll do it.” You couldn’t get a top director to attach to an unfinanced project, much less to attach himself overnight, but “Jurassic Park” was the very rare exception. Kathleen Kennedy, Steven’s partner and producer at Amblin Entertainment, followed his lead. With Michael helping to adapt his book as a screenplay, all the key elements were locked down. Casting would be secondary; the dinosaurs were the stars.

Given Steven’s close ties to Universal’s Sid Sheinberg, there was no screen rights auction. I called Sid and said, “I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?”

“The good news?” he said, uncertainly.

“The good news is we have a Michael Crichton book about dinosaurs that will be published in six months. Steven has committed to direct it as his next film. Michael will write the screenplay with David Koepp. Kathy Kennedy says it can be done for sixty million, all in.”

“That sounds fantastic! What’s the bad news?”

I said, “The bad news is we own it and you don’t.”

Sid laughed nervously and said, “Well, how do we remedy that?” I laid out the deal, a more radical version of what we had done on “Twins” – a a fifty-fifty joint venture between the studio and Michael and Steven, who’d waive their above-the-line fees up front. Costs came off the top. Once the gross covered the budget, every subsequent dollar would be split down the middle. If the movie flopped, my clients wound up with nothing. But Jurassic Park‘s story and talent made that a smart gamble.

As Universal was mired in a long dry spell and desperate for a blockbuster, Sid didn’t come back to us asking for 70/30 or 60/40 or even 55/45. He came back with a yes. We’d moved from typo-ridden manuscript to fully financed studio commitment in less than a week. And Steven was finally a CAA client! We never actually had that conversation or filled out any paperwork; I just started representing him from that point on, taking it for granted.

The hardest part of “Jurassic Park” was fielding the calls from the other studios. The execs were furious – not with Michael Crichton, but with me. Eisner was a master at beating the crap out of me, trying to soften me up for next time, but it was a ritual they all engaged in. They’d say, “How could you do that to me after we did [Movie X that bombed] with you?” I’d say, “You’re right, and we feel awful.” And then I’d explain the particular circumstances: in this case, that “Michael wanted Spielberg, and Spielberg insisted on honoring his relationship with Universal.” They’d call back after the movie had a test screening to repeat their complaints if it looked like a hit. If it tanked in testing, they didn’t bother.

It was all theater.

Steven never watched his films with an audience, never held a test screening. He was as sure of his instincts as he was sensitive to rejection, so what was the point? But I felt so confident about “Jurassic Park” that I coaxed him into joining us for the opening at the Avco Embassy. Judy and Kate and I dragged him into his back-row seat as the curtain rose. From the first jolting scene with the raptor in the box, the audience was there, riveted. After shielding his eyes with his hands through the first fifteen minutes, Steven began to relax. As the credits rolled, and we ran out of the theater amid wild applause, he was higher than I’d ever seen him.

“Jurassic Park” grossed nearly a billion dollars, minting money for Universal. And for once the deal was equally good for the artists who made the film.

From “Who Is Michael Ovitz. Copyright © 2018 by Michael Ovitz. Excerpted by permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

For more info:

  • “Who Is Michael Ovitz?” by Michael Ovitz (Portfolio), in Hardover, eBook and Audio editions, available via Amazon

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