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A roundtable chat with producers Irwin and David Winkler of “The Mechanic”

Irwin and David WinklerHealthy father and son relationships are certainly more the exception than the rule at the movies. Even so, the murderous biological and surrogate father and son pairings in the original film “The Mechanic” and its action-packed update with Jason Statham and Ben Foster, are unusually problematic. It’s a tale, after all, about a junior hit-man learning from an older paid killer who has, in turn, killed the younger killer’s dad.

That, of course has pretty much nothing to do with two of the new version’s real-life father and son producers, Irwin and David Winkler. For the remake of the 1971 actioner, the pair have teamed up with another parent-and-offspring team, Irwin Winkler’s long-time producing partner, Bill Chartoff and his son, Robert. (For the record, there are a total of ten producers and five executive producers credited on the film.) Both individually and with Bill Chartoff, the elder Winkler has been involved with a remarkable number of good movies and a few genuine classics, starting with Sydney Pollack’s pitch-black Oscar winner, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and also including two of Martin Scorsese‘s signature works, “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.” Winkler and Chartoff also, of course, produced “The Mechanic,” the first time around when it was as much of a chilling look at sociopathy as it was an action flick.

Like any great producer, Irwin Winkler has had his share of interesting financial failures.  There was the ultra-culty early John Boorman film, “Leo the Last” and Martin Scorsese’s big budget 1977 disappointment “New York, New York.” Fortunately, there was also the occasional modest but high quality success like Bertrand Tavernier’s great 1986 love letter to jazz and jazz fandom, “‘Round Midnight.” He and Bill Chartoff were also key players in one of the most enduring franchises in film history, the one that started with a low-budget boxing drama called “Rocky.” Since 1991′s “Guilty by Suspicion,” Winkler has also occasionally directed. His most recent films include the musical Cole Porter biopic, “De-Lovely,” and the Iraq war drama “Home of the Brave,” which received a speedy burial.

For his part, son David Winkler has worked on a number of television movies as well as with his father on 2006′s “Rocky Balboa.” He also directed the 1998 drama, “Finding Graceland” starring Harvey Keitel.

I was personally anxious to talk to Winklers during a recent L.A. press junket for “The Mechanic” because of an oddball “only in L.A.” family anecdote. I was nevertheless beaten to the punch by an Italian reporter with a rather distinctive interviewing style who tended to dominate the discussion.

“Father and son,” she said, “and in the movie there is a conflict between father and son. How did you live?”

“We didn’t have any conflict,” Irwin Winkler responded.

“Any conflict, whatsoever?”

“Nobody’s made that comparison.” David Winkler couldn’t take a question like this seriously. “I do what I’m told,” he said

“Me, too,” said the elder Winkler.

Then I was able to play the parental card with a question, though on the maternal side. At some point in the 1980s, my mother was dabbling in commercial real estate and found herself escorting Winkler to some potential locations for one of the “Rocky” films. By this time, the films were an institution and Sylvester Stallone a genuine international superstar. However, then as now, my mother had minimal interest in, and less knowledge of, any movie made after 1965 or so. When she escorted the producer to a potential location, Winkler supposedly said words to the effect of “Sylvester might not like this place,” she responded, “Who’s Sylvester?”

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“And what did I say?” asked Irwin Winkler.

“You laughed,” I replied “You apparently found it adorable that she just wasn’t that interested in the film business.”

Winkler nodded and clearly had nothing to add. It was time to segue quickly as David Winkler had been making jokes about telling his mother of his dad’s meeting with my mother. Did the venerable producer have any memories of that time — not of my mom, of course — but simply relating to how the film business has changed in thirty years?

“Basically, it’s still hard to make a good movie. It’s still hard to make a small movie. It’s still hard to make a big movie. It’s still hard to make a movie with a big star. Those things have always been difficult. I don’t think it’s changed very much. It’s just tough.”

Speaking of film-making being a hard slog, someone mentioned the fact that this new remake of “The Mechanic” has been in motion since the early 1990s. That’s a long time to keep working on a project.

“Yeah. Probably the second biggest item in the budget is unproduced screenplays. We had a lot of writers writing them,” Irwin Winkler said.

Were any of those discarded drafts by writers we would know?

“I think you’d know ‘em all. They were all really high priced. I don’t think it’s fair to them to mention the fact that they took a lot of money and didn’t deliver anything.” After time for a laugh, the elder Winkler added, “They weren’t too bad, really. It’s enough to say that the Writer’s Guild didn’t give them any credit on the movie, but we did a lot of screenplays. We spent a lot of money. What happened was, a lot of the writers would write more interesting and bigger action sequences. It started to work for us when we went back to [Lewis John Carlino's] original script which really dealt with the relationship between the Ben Foster character and the Jason Statham character. ”

THE MECHANIC

So, what specifically worked about the screenplay they went with?

David Winkler answered first. “It was something you don’t see nowadays. You don’t see movies that are more serious in tone, that the action is not ‘Spider-Man.’ As much as I like those movies, I think people like to feel that there is something around the corner that is realistic and not necessarily big and high-tech. Here’s a man whose code of honor is to kill people in way that is a little more subtle than what the C.I.A. would do. It was very faithful to the original in terms of structure and tone. It’s got a satisfying ending, but it’s still somewhat dark.”

Our Italian friend then asked, in a rather long-winded way, which of Irwin Winkler’s many movies “lived in his heart” — i.e., was his favorite.

Winkler responded that it would have to be one of the movies he personally directed because of the greater commitment directors make to their movies, and his favorite was “De-Lovely.” “I loved the music. I loved Kevin Kline.”

Since “De-Lovely,” while not a giant hit, got a decent amount of attention, I wondered if there was something Winkler had done that he was less well known but which he wished more people knew.

“Yeah, my last movie, ‘Home of the Brave.’ It was the first film that really came out about the war in Iraq and about the soldiers coming home. I loved doing it because I did this big action sequence in the beginning. I’d never done anything like that either as a producer or a director. Then, I thought I really got into the character of these servicemen and women and the problems they had after [returning from] the war. I was very, very disappointed that we didn’t get any audience. We didn’t get reviewed…It really got almost no distribution. We had made a deal with MGM and they were supposed to spend a great deal of money on it. We opened against all these big movies over Christmas, which was probably crazy, in two theaters. We didn’t do any business and that was the end of the movie.”

HOME OF THE BRAVE

Winkler continued. “I co-wrote it — it was my original idea and I got [story] credit for it from the Writer’s Guild. I worked very closely with the writer [Mark Friedman] who did a terrific job. We went off to Morocco to shoot it and then up to Spokane to shoot the American part. I was away from my family for a considerable amount of time. Whenever we showed it to servicemen, or ex-servicemen, they were very moved by it.”

Does that kind of lack of recognition really hurt, someone else asked, or after so many years in the movie business was Irwin Winkler able to just let it go?

“I’m still talking about it,” he deadpanned. “I haven’t directed another movie since,” he continued to further prodding. The poor reception of the film clearly bothers him more than a little, but he had to admit that the Iraq war has turned out to be a difficult subject to make a successful movie about. “‘Green Zone‘ was a terrific movie. Nobody went to see it. It was part of that trend nobody wanted to see the war in Iraq.”

One of us wondered about Irwin Winkler’s long association with MGM, as their star has very seriously faded in recent years.

“When I got there their star was fading! From 1966 on their star was fading!” Winkler said to some laughter. “I don’t know. I made movies for Paramount. I made them for Warner Brothers. I made them for Fox. I made them for everybody. But, you’re right, most of them were [with MGM], but it was U.A. [United Artists]. We made ‘New York, New York.’ We made ‘The Mechanic.’ We made ‘Busting’ [a just about forgotten action film starring Elliot Gould and Robert Blake]. We made ‘Raging Bull.’…Then MGM basically merged with UA, so it ends up with the MGM label, but a lot of them were U.A., which was a great place to work.”

Then came a question about the film’s production company, Millennium Films, which the questioner felt had a somewhat unusual approach to film-making these days.

David Winkler answered. “Thank God there’s somebody like Avi Lerner. CBS Films bought our movie and decided to distribute it after seeing it. Avi is one of the few remaining gamblers who will sell a movie based on its foreign sales, put his own money on the line to get the movie made, and then hope it sells. There used to be a lot of Avis ten years ago. Now it’s a difficult world to get a movie made.”

What are the Winklers up to now?

“We have a film in post-production right now called ‘Trespass,’” Irwin Winkler answered. “Joel Schumacher directed it for us with Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage.”

Looking at the press material, I got the somewhat incorrect impression that Irwin Winkler had been involved with a number of very tough “existential” films involving killers and not only the 1971 “The Mechanic.” In particular I was thinking of John Boorman’s somewhat arty, ultra tough first film adaptation of Donald Westlake’s The Hunter, “Point Blank” starring Lee Marvin.

David Winkler joked that maybe it was because he and partner Bill Chartoff were “closet hit-men.”

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The elder Winkler responded, “Maybe I’m a closeted existentialist. Those are the two. We made more personal dramas. I kind of like ‘The Gambler’ a lot better.”

I couldn’t exactly disagree as the 1974 film written by James Toback, directed by Karel Reisz and starring James Caan as a gambling-addicted literature professor was a terrific piece of work that I suddenly had the desire to revisit the moment Winkler brought it up. I also mentioned another classic, Sydney Pollack’s film version of Horace McCoy’s bleak depiction of dance marathons during the Great Depression, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” It was the 1970s and that’s probably the best explanation of the tone of these films which, today, no major studio film producer would dare touch.

After that, what seemed like idle questions about what the two Winklers thought of “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech” (they both thought both were very good), led to an observation from Irwin Winkler.

“In all the press we’ve been doing, we’ve been talking about how difficult it is to make films today and all that. Then, when you look at the films that we think are going to be nominated for an Academy Award…they’re all kind of small, intimate, interesting films. The biggest one is “True Grit” which is budgeted at under $40 million. You don’t have “Lawrence of Arabia” — unfortunately, I’d like to see “Lawrence of Arabia” — but you have these small dramas like “Black Swan” or “The Social Network,” [and] “The Fighter.” All these films seem to be not only getting attention, but also getting business,” Winkler said, alluding to “The Hurt Locker,” which, despite being a Best Picture winner, was far from a box office dynamo. (The exception to the trend of smaller movies being major league Oscar contenders this year is obviously “Inception.”)

Was Winkler surprised by the unexpectedly large success of “True Grit”?

“I’m stunned by it. I’m not only stunned by it, we pulled out a screenplay we had from 1993 that was sensational that we literally haven’t done anything with in 18 years. We just put it in a drawer because we knew we couldn’t get anybody to finance a western in the last 15 years…We took it out of the drawer this week because we said, ‘Okay, now maybe you can get a western off the ground.”

Of course, the matter of which films succeed and fail at the box office has always been a mystery.

“I’ll tell you how the mystery is,” Irwin Winkler said. “We were in the mixing room doing the final edit on ‘New York, New York.’ My editor was Marcia Lucas, who at the time was George Lucas’s wife. ‘My husband can’t finish this film that he’s doing.’ She called it a ‘cockamamie film.’ He can’t finish because he’s running out of time at Warner Brothers in the mixing studio. So, [she asked if] he could come when we finish mixing ‘New York, New York’ at like 7:00 at night. Could George bring in his film and finish it up at night? So, I said, ‘Sure.’ I couldn’t say ‘no.’ That was ‘Star Wars.’ She called it a ‘cockamamie film.’ Nobody knew what it was gonna be. What William Goldman said is true, nobody really knows anything about moves, about Hollywood.”

“By the way, ‘New York, New York,’ we made it at almost the same time as ‘Rocky,’ United Artists, which financed both films, said ‘We’re going to make a fortune on ‘New York, New York.’ [It had] Liza Minnelli, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese directing it, a great song…First of all, nobody wanted to play the song. It took two years for Frank Sinatra to make a recording of ‘New York, New York’ for it to be a hit. ‘Rocky’ became the hit and ‘New York, New York,” nobody cared about.”

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Changing topics slightly, did David Winkler want to follow in his father’s footsteps a bit and return to directing movies as well as producing them?

“I have a four year-old boy and a two year-old girl. The idea of being so engrossed in something from six in the morning until ten at night…I found something more fun than directing.”

So, is producing movies easy, compared to directing?

“I don’t know if it’s easier,” Irwin Winkler said. “It’s different.”

“It’s easier on your family,” David Winkler added.

After that, the Winklers and us journalists meandered through a few odd subjects, including praise for co-star Ben Foster and the popularity of animated family films, which they enjoy but are happy to leave to the experts at Pixar and elsewhere. Then, we returned to the topic of supposedly moribund genres like musicals and westerns. Someone’s gag about remaking “New York, New York,” a problematic musical drama which has failed to accumulate even much of a cult following over the years despite being directed by Martin Scorsese, led to a nice summation of the situation by Winkler as he commented on the success of “True Grit.”

Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire in “It also tells us you never know what genre is gonna work. The only genre that works is the ‘good’ genre. In other words, you make a good movie and people are going to see it…When we made ‘Rocky,’ everybody said ‘nobody wants to see boxing movies.’ ‘Women won’t go to see a boxing movie.’ ‘She’s not the prettiest in the world; he’s not the handsomest in the world — it’s not Robert Redford up there.’ Yet, people went to see it. I think the best advice we could have for ourselves is ‘make something good and, hopefully, they’ll come.’”

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