Q&A with producer Jeff Silver: ‘Making fewer films is good’

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.

Mostow Terminates Fans’ ‘T3’ Fears

With the relentlessness of a Terminator pursuing its victim, the fan hounded Jonathan Mostow at a convention. "You aren’t the original director of the ‘Terminator’ movies," he said. "Are you going to ruin [the franchise]?"

It’s a question observers have posed, albeit more politely, since Mostow stepped into the oversized shoes vacated by franchise creator James Cameron two years ago.

While Cameron’s 1984 "Terminator" and the 1991 sequel redefined the sci-fi-action hybrid, Mostow has just two previous feature film credits — one a submarine thriller, "U-571," prompted by growing up "in the shadow of the Holocaust," he said.

So even Mostow hesitated when the call came to direct "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," when Cameron passed after years of legal wrangling over the rights to his films. "I thought, ‘I’m going to follow in the footsteps of arguably one of the most famous directors of our time, which was daunting,’" Mostow said. "So I thought about it for a few weeks."

When he did say yes, his approach was simple. "I had to put my trepidations aside," he said. "I know people will compare my movie to Cameron’s, but I can’t control any of that. I’m a fan of his films, so I just focused on creating a movie that I, as a fan, wanted to see."

If Mostow initially seemed an unexpected choice for "T3," he has a history of thwarting expectations. Growing up in a Conservative Jewish family of scientists and classical musicians (his father was a Yale math professor), the hope was he would become an academic or a cellist. Instead, he discovered dad’s windup 8 mm camera and made his first film at age 12.

At Harvard’s highbrow visual studies program, Mostow’s senior thesis — a horror film with an exploding eyeball — "was not particularly well-received," he said. Not long after, he saw "The Terminator" and was riveted by "the epic stakes juxtaposed against intimate drama."

"But had anyone told me I’d eventually direct a ‘Terminator’ film, I would have fallen out of my chair," he said.

Instead, he waged a Terminator-worthy struggle to make it in Hollywood, sometimes living at the poverty line or working as an "SAT tutor to children of the stars" between television projects. His feature film big break was 1997’s "Breakdown," a stranded-in-the-desert story he decided to write one day while unemployed and watching "Oprah" in his underwear. The film became a surprise hit.

"U-571," about a plot to swipe Germany’s Enigma encryption device, was inspired by a childhood in which Hitler "was still a lingering horror," Mostow said. His father had taught trigonometry to artillery officers who used the math to blitz Nazis; Mostow’s uncle was shot down and killed over North Africa.

Although the director engaged in painstaking research to recreate World War II submarine life, English newspapers indignantly pointed out that the Brits — not the Yanks — stole Enigma in 1941.

More questionable press followed after Mostow signed on to "Terminator 3." Even star Arnold Schwarzenegger told Entertainment Weekly he missed Cameron before Mostow "proved to me that he had what it takes to make this work."

The director, meanwhile, had his own concerns about the project. Since "T3" was one of 23 sequels slated for 2003, including "Matrix Reloaded" and "X2," he worried it was just another studio attempt to cash in on a perceived "sure thing." He changed his mind when producers agreed to let him help rework the script to explore the psychological angst of martyr-hero John Connor (Nick Stahl).

In the "threequel," Schwarzenegger’s good cyborg protects Connor from a sexy fembot Terminatrix (Kristanna Loken). Directing actors to play these robots proved unexpectedly tough, Mostow said, because "it involves suppressing all innate human emotion." To help Loken, he approved training in mime and krav maga, the hand-to-hand combat system used by the Israeli army.

"It’s the brutality of the system they were after," Terminator krav maga instructor Wade Allen said.

While anticipating movie reviews can be brutal for some directors, Mostow is resolved not to worry. "Of course, when you know fans really care, it makes you just put the pressure more on yourself. To be safe, I won’t publish my address, although I’m sure those angry letters will find their way to me somehow."

"T3" opens July 2.

The ‘Jewish’ Side of Linda Hamilton

Linda Hamilton, the buff action star, is studying Yiddish-language tapes.

The image is startling for anyone who remembers her as Sarah Connor, the all-American waitress-turned-warrior in James Cameron’s “Terminator” flicks. It’s even more startling when you consider that the Yiddish is for a play, Lou Shaw’s “Worse Than Murder: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg,” which opens tomorrow at the Ventura Court Theatre in Studio City. Hamilton plays Ethel Rosenberg, who was strapped into the electric chair in 1953 and executed, along with her husband, for conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Soviets.

Sitting on a faded gold couch in the bland rehearsal space at the Court, the petite, smoky-eyed actress says even she was surprised she accepted the part. “I’d sworn off heavy roles since ‘Terminator 2’ because I was just so sick of playing these very earnest, strong women,” she says. Instead, Hamilton did some acclaimed TV movies, films such as “Dante’s Peak” and a comedy or two.

But when her manager came calling with “Murder” six weeks ago, the 45-year-old actress couldn’t resist. “Its very largesse attracted me,” she says. “It’s a period piece, it’s a romance, and I have to transform myself into a tenement Jew from the Lower East Side.”

It’s only her second theatrical role in two decades, but then again, Hamilton — who’s declined a role in “T-3” — can afford to be picky: “I married well,” she says, wryly alluding to her hefty divorce settlement from ex-husband Cameron. “Of course, people raise their eyebrows when I tell them I’m doing theater in the Valley, but I don’t care. I’m just so ignited with joy to be onstage again.”

Hamilton was born three years after Ethel Rosenberg died, and a world apart. She says she grew up in “a very boring, white Anglo- Saxon” Maryland home, where she struggled to differentiate herself from her identical twin sister, Leslie, a cheerleader. “I voraciously read books,” she recalls. “I got fat, and I cut off my hair and my eyelashes. I wanted to be ugly.”

She also wanted to become an actress, which she accomplished after studying theater in New York and landing the role of the ethereal DA on the CBS drama, “Beauty and the Beast” in 1987.

Hamilton morphed into a muscle-bound Amazon for the “Terminator” films, enduring excruciating training sessions with ex-Israeli commando Uzi Gal on “T-2: Judgment Day.” “I hated him most of the time,” she says with a laugh. “He would yell at me and throw tennis balls while I was shooting weapons blindfolded. I’d go off to the bathroom to cry for a minute, then I’d wipe away my tears and go back.”

The Rosenberg play –in which Ethel requests the “Kaddish” en route to the electric chair — requires preparation of a different sort. Hamilton, who’s been reading Torah and studying old union songs, says she feels “overwhelmed by the challenges of not just playing Jewish, but steeping myself in [Yiddishkayt].”

Yet she identifies in one organic way with her character: “I don’t have to work very hard to bring up abandonment issues,” says the actress, whose father died when she was 5. “For Ethel, it was abandonment by family and country. For me, it was abandonment by father and a series of men.”

Hamilton adds that she’s chosen not to meet the Rosenbergs’ sons because “they were too young to have anything but emotional memories of their mother.”

Conversely, Shaw, the co-creator of “Quincy,” spent dozens of hours interviewing the now-50-something sons at their homes in Massachusetts. The brothers granted the 76-year-old writer the rights to their book, “We Are Your Sons” and their parents’ “600 Death House Letters.” Apparently, they found a sympathetic ear in Shaw, who’s been fascinated by the Rosenbergs since following their trial as a young writer during the Hollywood communist witch hunts. Though most historians now concur that at least Julius Rosenberg was guilty of some kind of espionage, Shaw says he came to a different conclusion after perusing FBI documents, trial transcripts and some 30 books.

While some viewers may feel his melodrama whitewashes the Rosenbergs, Hamilton insists she’s uninterested in portraying Ethel as a “wronged woman.” “I want to play the whole person — hubris, flaws and all,” she says.

Yet she isn’t above a case of nerves about the show: “It’s just fear, like someone has their hand over my heart,” she says, placing her hand on her solar plexus. “The role is huge, and I’m already prepared for the critics to be unkind to me, like, ‘Why is she playing a Jewish character’ or ‘What’s she trying to do, prove she’s an actress?’ But the fear is just part of the process. It lets you know you’re doing a good job.”

For tickets and information about the play, call (818) 752-8563.