March 29, 2020

Producer Marc Platt: The man behind “Wicked” and “Bridge of Spies” aspires to great art

They say you can’t have it all, but Marc Platt seems to defy the conventional wisdom.

The Oscar-nominated producer of “Bridge of Spies,” the Cold War-era drama directed by Steven Spielberg, has developed some of the most successful film, theater and television entertainments of the last 30 years: As a top film executive at Orion and Columbia Tristar, he had a hand in some of the best-loved films of the 1990s — “Dances With Wolves,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Philadelphia” and “Jerry Maguire.” As an independent producer who pivots among film, television and theater, he’s responsible for the Broadway mega-hit “Wicked,” and has a growing film resume that includes “Legally Blondes,” “Into the Woods” and “Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling.

Marc Platt & Reese Witherspoon 2005 – At WICKED Tour Los Angeles opening. Photo by BEImages

Platt is also a father of five (two of his sons are stars on Broadway) and the longtime husband of Julie Platt, chairwoman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. He is also a devoted philanthropist, a sought-after speaker and a practicing Jew.  

“My personal challenge is always balance,” Platt said at his office on the Universal Studios lot. “My life has a lot of compartments to it, and I care about each of them deeply. So I wake up each day thinking, ‘How am I going to balance today?’ ” 

It’s hard to believe anyone whose office is plastered from floor-to-ceiling in signed movie posters, theater paraphernalia and celebrity photographs has time for anything other than work. So, just for fun, I asked Platt for a rundown of his day:

Wake up at 6, exercise, take grandson to visitor’s day at Sinai Akiba; “Then, run as fast as I can to the office,” get on a call about next (unnamed) Broadway project, watch a cut of a movie in post-production and give director notes; back on the phone about TV project; go home, have dinner with 17-year-old (the youngest of his five children) and, if called to speak to a Federation group, or attend a benefit, or support his synagogue, he does. 

When Platt is away on set — “I’m a very hands-on producer” — he tries not to stay for more than 10 days at a time, lest his 17-year-old son complain. “I can tell you his biggest complaint: ‘Dad’s not home enough,’ ” Platt said. For “Bridge of Spies,” which earned Platt his first Oscar nomination for best picture, he traveled to Brooklyn, Berlin and Poland.

While on set, his role varies, he said, depending on the director. “You’re not gonna tell [Spielberg] what shot to do,” he said, wryly. “But Steven enjoys being challenged. He liked my presence at the monitor with him, and liked the questions that I asked. Mostly however, I just wanted to watch in awe.”

For a man who has produced his fair share of playful, family-friendly fare — including several musicals and most recently “Grease: Live” for Fox — “Bridge of Spies” represents somewhat of a departure. Based on the real-life tale of James Donovan, an American lawyer (played by Tom Hanks) who represents an accused Russian spy, “Bridge” is a poignant political drama that deals with the core values — and conflicts — at the heart of American democracy. 

“Ultimately, what drew me to the film is a central idea in almost all of Steven Spielberg’s movies,” Platt said. “You have a very ordinary man who is thrown into extraordinary circumstances — and does the right thing.”

He is referring to Donovan, the Harvard-educated attorney conscripted by the U.S. government to represent Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, who received a supporting actor Oscar nomination) and who also negotiated a prisoner exchange for the captured downed U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers.

The film is historical, but also strangely prescient concerning the U.S.-Russia relationship. “The issues, ideas and conflicts that James Donovan [dealt] with are the exact same conversations we’re having today,” Platt said. “How far do we pursue national security at the cost of personal freedom and constitutional rights? What rights are immigrants entitled to? What is our relationship to Russia?” 

Although Platt and Spielberg have known each other for a long time, “Bridge” is the first film they have collaborated on as a producer-director team. It was clearly a dream for Platt, who talks about their partnership in terms usually reserved for one’s spouse: “We’ve courted each other before,” he said, “but this was the one where we finally got married.” 

If Spielberg is a director’s director, Platt is his counterpart: an old-school producer’s producer who nurtures a story from seed to screen, who knows his own power — as well as his limits. “One of my skills is knowing, ‘This is where I’m needed, and this is how I’m needed; and where I’m going to be in control, and where I’m going to cede control; and why.”

The two coming together was especially illuminating for Platt.Steven is not just the consummate, master filmmaker; he’s also someone who has the kid inside of him that loves making movies. He loves every moment and every detail of it; so when you’re with someone who cares about every detail, and works so hard, and is so joyful every minute to be on that set, you can’t help but be joyful, too.”

Platt grew up in an observant Conservative home in Maryland, where his family kept a kosher home, celebrated Shabbat and went to shul often. His father worked in the retail shoe business and his mother was a schoolteacher. “I can remember my mom taking my brother and I to an amusement park in Baltimore [when I] was very young. She wanted to show us a sign that said, ‘Dogs and Jews and [Negroes] not allowed’ — that it was a restricted amusement park, and my mother wasn’t going to let us go into a place that was restricted.”

Each year before Chanukah, Platt’s mother ordered her sons to take stock of their toy collection and donate anything they no longer used or wanted. “She made us take them in person down to the children’s hospital and hand them out in the children’s ward at Christmastime.” The family also marched for Soviet Jewry and supported the civil rights movement.

“It was just the DNA of my family,” Platt said. “Giving back didn’t feel like an entitlement; it was an obligation.”

At the University of Pennsylvania, Platt found a kindred spirit in his future wife, Julie, who, he jokes, was already running the Federation campaign at Hillel as a freshman. “So that was my indoctrination into that,” he said.

At the same time, Platt began producing and directing student productions at school (he even cast Julie as Mrs. Darling in “Peter Pan”). During his senior year, he commuted to New York to produce an off-Broadway play based on the life on St. Francis of Assisi, which did well enough to get invited to a larger venue before it fizzled out. That’s when Platt decided to develop his business sense and apply to law school at New York University.

Marc Platt on the NINE set in Italy in 2008. Photo by David James

During his New York years, Platt interned with Nelle Nugent and partner Elizabeth McCann, considered the top producers on Broadway. After earning his law degree, he got a job as an entertainment attorney working directly with the legendary agent Sam Cohn, whose mentorship still looms large: At one point during our visit, Platt paused to point to a framed New Yorker sketch of Cohn that hangs on the wall in his office. 

Through Cohn, Platt met many of the filmmakers and actors he would later work with — among them Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Robin Williams and Meryl Streep. “Every great filmmaker of that time period,” he recalled.

In Los Angeles, Platt spent the first part of his career working as a film executive at major production houses, where he oversaw the entire film slate (he ticks off credits that include “Rudy,” “As Good As It Gets” and Brad Pitt’s big break, “Legends of the Fall”). At Orion, he worked with director Jonathan Demme on the 1991 film “The Silence of the Lambs,” which went on to win five Oscars. When they contemplated what to do next, Platt had an idea: “I wanted to do a film about AIDS and homophobia — I [thought] that was a story line worth telling — and that’s how ‘Philadelphia’ was born.” 

In the mid-’90s, Platt became president of production at Universal Studios. A few years later, he formed his own company, Marc Platt Productions. When the studio asked if he wanted to take any of his projects with him, he recalled, “I said I only want one, and that was ‘Wicked.’ ” 

Platt first tried to develop the alternative telling of “The Wizard of Oz” as a film, but ultimately decided to set it up for Broadway. Universal came on board as the largest investor, and the show premiered in 2003. By 2013, “Wicked” had out-grossed every other Broadway production in history and, combined with the U.S. touring production, was sometimes making upward of $7 million per week — for years.

It is, by far, Platt’s most lucrative endeavor, but it is the value-driven story that he remains passionate about. “ ‘Wicked’ is an entertainment,” he said, “and people love the spectacle and wit of it, the magic of it. But at its essence, [there is] a tremendous amount of profundity about the nature of good and evil, and about tolerance, and [that we should] judge people by the character of their soul.”

Asked if there is any guiding principle to the stories he chooses, Platt said, “Most of the characters I’m attracted to involve outsiders of some sort” — from Elphaba in “Wicked” to Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde” to Driver, Gosling’s character, in “Drive.” But, he added, “The bottom line is that you want to entertain people; you want people for two hours to transcend to a different place. And you hope that in the process of entertaining, that there’s a takeaway besides the pleasure of the film.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the same boy who visited an amusement park that was closed off to him, and others, would go on to tell the stories of people who are marginalized or misunderstood. “As a storyteller, you kind of are who you are,” Platt said. “So I think people are attracted to stories that reflect a piece of them in some way.”

The identity that kept Platt out of the park ultimately became his foundational driving force for how he would conduct the rest of his life. He would do it all — yes, all — Hollywood, Broadway, family, philanthropy — but he would do it distinctly as a Jew. “Judaism informs my behavior as a person; and my behavior as a person has to inform what stories I tell, who I tell them with, and how they are told. It’s what defines me — my spirituality, my belief in Judaic values. It’s the fabric of who I am.”

Despite his success, Platt still burns to produce something he considers truly a work of art, but also said he gets his greatest gratification at home. “There’s nothing like my family,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t try really hard to be a great producer, and it doesn’t mean I’m not competitive and don’t want to earn Oscar nominations. But the place where I’m happiest and the best is in my home.”

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