Jeff Silver, 53, has produced more than 30 feature films, including “300,” “Training Day” and his latest and biggest project, “Terminator Salvation,” the fourth installment in the sci-fi franchise, this episode starring Christian Bale. We caught up with him at the 101 Coffee Shop in Hollywood, where he talked about his first boss, Otto Preminger, as well as Hollywood’s chronic work obsession and how to deal with megalomaniacs.
Jewish Journal: Was there an epiphany that inspired you to enter the movie biz?
Jeff Silver: My aunt gave me a little Super 8 camera for my bar mitzvah, and I thought I would use it to become Jacques Cousteau. But it wasn’t until I went to college that I thought I didn’t have to become a dentist like my father or a lawyer like the rest of the Jews.
JJ: Your first film job was working for Otto Preminger, a film giant. How’d you manage that?
JS: Preminger was this historical figure — an Austrian Jewish, Teutonic monster. He had a reputation as an ogre, larger than life, and he was completely bald. His office was at 711 Fifth Avenue, top floor penthouse, so I just decided to put on a suit and go visit him. I said, ‘I’ve got this ticket to go to Europe, I’m on my way to get a passport picture, but I’ll throw this away….’ And he replied, ‘You would sacrifice your trip to Europe? You start tomorrow! Fifty dollars a week.’ Mind you, this wasn’t the Depression — he just knew I wanted it, and he was an exploitative bastard.
JJ: Producers can do many different things. What kind of producer are you, exactly?
JS: Well, I think I’m a chameleon. I’m the producer that the director on the film needs me to be. I think a producer is somebody who enables art to happen: You take a vision and an economic framework, and you have to meld them together. The studio has an economic interest, and the director has a creative framework, and those grammars have to be applied creatively and cleverly.
JJ: You’ve worked with some of the biggest stars in the business — Johnny Depp, Marlon Brando, Denzel Washington. What’s it like telling movie stars what to do?
JS: I think it’s like karate. You use the weight of your sparring partner to get them to do what you want them to do, hopefully in a subtle fashion. A way that benefits everyone is to get people to do what you want them to do — and make them think it was their idea.
JJ: Were you ever star-struck?
JS: With Marlon Brando, certainly. He was so distant and unapproachable, so heavily weighted with history in my mind.
JJ: If I had to categorize the kinds of films that you make, I’d say most of them have to do with macho men. Are you trying to work something out here?
JS: I don’t really have, nor do I aspire to have, a brand, or working out of any deep personal issues. To grow as a producer, I’ve moved into these more challenging films, and while they are more macho in a way, I took them on because they’re extremely technically and artistically challenging. And, believe me, I begin every movie in a state of fear. It’s more than machismo.
JJ: With the advent of new media, not to mention the travails of the U.S. economy, studios are making fewer and fewer films. Does the future of the movie business scare you?
JS: Making fewer films is good, because there are too many films in the marketplace and too much pressure to perform in the first weekend. I think it’s a market correction to have fewer movies out there, and maybe there will be more of a premium on originality. Right now, there’s a lack of ideas in Hollywood. People are recycling ideas, not reinventing them.
JJ: How is another ‘Terminator’ film not recycling?
JS: First of all, there’s no Arnold. This is an Arnold-free ‘Terminator,’ although I do have a surprise there, but if I gave you the scoop I’d lose my producer stripes in Hollywood.
JJ: Are there as many megalomanics in Hollywood as people think?
JS: (Laughs.) You know, the funny thing is I think there are a lot of nice people in Hollywood. What people think is megalomania is work obsession and an obsessive desire to project power.
JJ: How do you deal with them when you find them?
JS: I used to want to fight the tough guys: Otto, Menachem Golan — this Israeli producer — Robert Duvall. Now my reaction is to work with them. Let them exhaust themselves until we’re on equal footing. It’s the Zen approach. Sometimes it takes exposing yourself, showing your vulnerability and then they’ll show you theirs. I find disarming is better than fighting.
JJ: There’s this myth that Jews run Hollywood. What does that mean to you?
JS: It means nothing to me. I’m not deeply religious or theistic. Half of my friends are Jewish probably, but they’re my friends first and Jews second. With a good portion of my business associates, it’s the same. There is a subtle way in which Judaism has infused my ethical life — which is significant, but it’s not Judaism per se that is a cognizant part of my day-to-day life.