September 23, 2019

The Other Avenger: Tarantino’s Producer Lawrence Bender

Producer Lawrence Bender is sitting poolside at the Four Seasons Hotel, celebrating an unrivaled triumph: he’s just helped Quentin Tarantino kill Adolf Hitler.

This is the outcome of their new film together, “Inglourious Basterds,” which rewrites history so that it’s the Nazis who burn and the Jews who orchestrate their incineration. Perhaps only Tarantino, the not-at-all Jewish auteur director with a penchant for violence and an obsessive worship of B-movie genre films, could deliver such deliciously uncomplicated revenge. As his producer would attest, Tarantino is one of the few in Hollywood who has both the imagination to avenge the Holocaust through fiction and the gall to edit history without concern for any deeper meaning.

Not so for Bender.

As Tarantino’s longtime producer — the pair go all the way back to 1992’s groundbreaking “Reservoir Dogs” — Bender was the first Jew to read Tarantino’s “Basterds”  script. When he finished, he said, he told the director, “As a fan, I thank you; as your producer, I thank you; as a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you.”

Surprised, Tarantino asked, “Really?” To which Bender replied, “Are you kidding me? This is a Jewish wet dream!”

That’s because — for what may be the first time — “Inglourious Basterds” puts vengeful Jews in control as they turn the horrors of Holocaust brutality onto its perpetrators.

Bender’s pride in Tarantino’s reversal of power may stem, in part, from his own experiences of anti-Semitism as a child. “It wasn’t like my life was threatened, but I got pushed around for being Jewish. People would call me ‘Bender kike’ and throw me up against the lockers.” In the same way the film inverts revenge, Bender unleashed his anger in high school, beating up on other Jewish kids. “I hate that I did that,” he said quietly. “But it’s just the truth. Sometimes Jews can be the worst anti-Semites.”

If for Tarantino the film is an experiment in genre, for Bender, a prominent Hollywood liberal and pro-Israel activist, “Inglourious Basterds” brings together his greatest passions: movies, politics and a cherished Jewish identity. In his professional, political and private lives, Bender has often sought involvement in things that matter, whether writing about fuel efficiency for the Huffington Post or traveling to Israel to meet with heads of state. And while he has worked on his share of glitzy Hollywood films — “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” for example — he has also produced films with social impact, such as the Oscar-winning Al Gore documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and the Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting,” about a math genius with a social conscience.

“When we do movies, we can make a difference in the way you think or feel,” Bender said of the influence of Hollywood. But it is only through activism, he believes, that one can make a difference in the way people live.

Bender, 51, was born in the Bronx, the eldest of four children. He spent most of his childhood in South Jersey, where his mother was a kindergarten teacher and his father a philosophy professor at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University). Bender said it was his parents who planted the seeds of his own political activism when they brought him to Washington in the 1960s to protest the war in Vietnam.

In college, Bender was something of a floater. Although he studied civil engineering, he considered an array of careers — chef, potter, karate instructor — none of which he found particularly inspiring. In an unlikely twist, he wound up studying African dance and was later recruited for a professional dance company, but was forced to give it up when he suffered a back injury. For a time he lived in New York and tried his hand at acting — studying with some notables, including Sondra Seacat, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler — but eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he enrolled at the American Film Institute.

In Hollywood, Bender discovered he could merge his artistic inclinations with his practical skills. After landing his first on-set job, he quickly worked his way up from dolly grip to producer. He raised $100,000 “by hook or crook” to produce his first film, a horror flick called “The Intruder,” and it was the director of that film who introduced him to an emerging young artist named Quentin Tarantino.

The two have made eight films together, including Tarantino’s breakout hits “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” as well as “Kill Bill” 1 and 2, though they’ve also shared a few bombs (anyone see “Four Rooms”?). Over the years, as Tarantino’s status has surged, Bender has stayed quietly behind the scenes, leading some to suggest that Bender got a lucky break.

“You always have people who either look up to you or are jealous or think you’re just lucky. That doesn’t mean anything to me,” Bender said, unfazed. “I can’t say I’m equal to Quentin — he’s a big star; he’s an auteur. I would even say he’s my boss. But when we’re making a movie, we’re partners. And what’s great about Quentin is that he brings out the best in everybody. I’ve never worked harder for anybody than when I work with Quentin.”

But where Tarantino is a showman, Bender seems understated and soft-spoken. At 51, he carries the sharpness of youth with chiseled features and a dimpled smile. He proudly displays a photo of his 3-year-old son, Misha, who clearly takes after his father. Bender has never married, and asked about family, it becomes clear that not having one is one of his regrets. “I don’t think it’s the business. It’s just me,” he said. “I want to have a family; I definitely want more kids. But when you get to be 50 and have 50 years of experience, it becomes harder to match up; it’s one thing to fall in love with someone, it’s another thing to have compatibility in interests and in the way you live.”

As one of Hollywood’s leading Democratic fundraisers and activists, Bender maintains a high profile. He has hosted many of Washington’s elite in his Holmby Hills backyard. He likes to boast of being an early supporter of Barack Obama, since he pledged his support when Hillary appeared to have the edge. Bender has leveraged his political clout to support causes he cares about. A devoted environmentalist, he developed a series of TV spots with William Morris Endeavor chief Ari Emanuel on behalf of The Detroit Project, a grass-roots campaign to support fuel-efficient cars led by Arianna Huffington. And it was Bender who, after hearing Gore speak about climate change, persuaded the former vice president to put it on film.

Bender likes to tell the story about the moment he decided to get involved. It was 1998, and he had been invited to Camp David by then-President Bill Clinton to screen the film “Good Will Hunting” along with its stars, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Robin Williams, and Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein. There, surrounded by the president, the first lady and the secretary of state, Bender realized, “That’s what’s missing in my life.” He explained, “I felt like making movies wasn’t everything for me, because I was sitting with all these people that were 100 percent dedicated to trying to make a difference in the world.

“I think politics is really important to our lives. At its best and highest form, it can make the biggest difference in the world and at its worst, it is the worst skullduggery on planet Earth.”

Since then, Bender has become involved with both AIPAC and the more left-leaning Israel Policy Forum. He describes his politics as left-of-center, though to suggest that it is policy that draws him to the Jewish state belies his real passion. Bender lights up when he talks about Tel Aviv’s beaches and clubs, Israeli women, the marvels of the high-tech industry and the Israeli way of life.

“What’s amazing is you meet anybody there — you meet a gardener — and they know more about the history than a professor here in the United States.”

And for him, “Inglourious Basterds” offers one more benefit.

“I have to tell you how excited I am to take this movie to Israel,” he said. “I feel it’s like a little pin in the hay, like, ‘Hey guys, go to Israel.’ I think it’s such a great place, and Hollywood does need to focus on it more.”