©Whyaduck Productions, 1996
by Robert B. Weide
I'm not nearly as well read as I'd like to be and I blame Kurt Vonnegut. I read Breakfast of Champions in high school, a little more than twenty years ago, and that was it. I had found my author and I didn't want to know about any others. I gobbled up everything Vonnegut wrote and every word written about him. After I worked my way through his entire library in record time, I started all over again, this time reading all the novels and short stories chronologically. Often, a well-meaning acquaintance would suggest that if I dug Vonnegut so much, I should try Douglas Adams or Tom Robbins or John Irving. I would make occasional sojourns into such foreign territory, but always returned home to my guy.
In the Summer of 1996, I was sitting in the back of a limousine with Kurt Vonnegut and Nick Nolte, parked in front of the Place Des Arts in Montreal. We had just been ushered through a throng of enthusiastic filmgoers at the World Premiere of the movie Mother Night starring Nolte and based on the 1961 novel by Vonnegut. Fans were cupping their hands around their eyes, trying to look in through the tinted limo windows. Vonnegut's door was slightly ajar, enough for one woman to peer in and enthuse to the famous novelist, "Thank you for all the books."
"You're welcome" the septuagenarian author replied, casually puffing on one of his ever-present Pall Malls (filterless).
What's wrong with this picture? What was I doing inside the car? Why wasn't I out there with my people?
Well, it helped that I had written and produced Mother Night.
I produced my first film in 1982, a PBS documentary on the Marx Brothers. After its initial broadcast, I wrote a letter to Vonnegut proposing that I set to work on a documentary about him. He wrote back saying that he had seen my Marx piece and enjoyed it and that he'd be happy to talk with me. I met up with him in New York soon after, and we managed to hit it off. It was another five years before I actually managed to start filming my documentary -- a project that continues to this day.
However, back in 1989, I asked him out of the blue about the availability of film rights to Mother Night. Within weeks, the rights belonged to me, all based on a handshake and no exchange of money. "You're family," was Vonnegut's reasoning.
It took me three months to write the spec script, after which my friend Keith Gordon and I spent the next five years hunting down the necessary financing. The stock speech we heard from everyone in town was, "I've been in thisbusiness for thirty years and this is one of the best scripts I've ever read. I was riveted. I laughed, I cried and I couldn't stop thinking about it for days. It's extremely powerful." (Long, thoughtful pause, then): "It's a shame we could never make it here."
Mother Night chronicles the life of (fictional) ex-patriate Howard W. Campbell (played by Nolte), an American-born apolitical playwright who is living in Germany in the years preceding World War II. One day, he is pressed into service by an American operative who convinces him to do some spying for the Allies. His job is to cozy up to the Nazis and join the Propaganda Ministry, making pro-fascist, Jew-baiting, anti-American speeches over the radio. What the Nazis will never know is that Campbell will be broadcasting code throughout his speeches, relaying invaluable information to the Allies. The catch is that Campbell's role will never be made public, so if he survives the war, he will certainly be branded by his native countrymen as the worst kind of traitor.
After the war, Campbell slips back into the U.S. and lives an anonymous life in New York City until 1961, when word starts to leak out that the notorious Nazi turncoat Howard Campbell is still alive and well. There is no one to bail him out and the only people to offer sanctuary are a motley group of imbecilic Neo-Nazis who consider him their guiding light.
The book (and hopefully the movie) captures Vonnegut's unique perspective, walking that fine-line between the tragic and the absurdly comic. (One of the wacky Neo-Nazis is a Black man, part Malcolm X, part Steppin' Fetchit, known as the Black Feurer of Harlem.)
Vonnegut says Mother Night is the only book of his whose moral he knows, which is "Be careful what you pretend to be, because in the end, you are what you pretend to be." Eventually, Campbell turns himself in to Israeli authorities and the day before the commencement of his war crimes trial, he hangs himself in his prison cell, creating a makeshift noose from the typewriter ribbons with which he had been writing his memoirs.
Go figger why no one wanted to finance this movie.
Finally, the executives at Fine Line Features put their money where their mouths were and agreed to fund us. The two caveats were that we had to deliver a "bankable" star and we had to hold to our proposed budget of $5.5 million (the catering bill on the average studio movie).
We agreed. Once Nick Nolte signed on for 7% of his normal fee, we were in business. The cast was rounded out by John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Sheryl Lee and Kirsten Dunst. My pal and co- producer Keith Gordon directed. The script was pre-approved and Fine Line, to their credit, left us alone to make our movie in Montreal, Canada with minimal creative interference. Ruth Vitale, the president of Fine Line, focused her concerns exclusively on the actress' hairstyles, and seemed unfettered by anything else. She even sent up one of the young female studio Vice-Presidents who bemoaned the fact that she had to fly to Montreal to go on "Hair Patrol."
After reading my final shooting script, Vonnegut sent me a fax, admitting that he wished he could take credit for some of the jokes I had added. He also told me that one critic responded to the novel saying anyone who found anything funny about the Holocaust was very sick. Although it would be a major stretch to classify Mother Night as a "Holocaust comedy," the film, like the book, does contain some dark humor. Vonnegut's message was clear: I should anticipate some of the same criticism for the film that he received for the book. (At one point in the film, Campbell, thought to be a genuine Nazi by the Americans and Israelis, is forced into hiding in the dingy basement of a Neo-Nazi hang-out. When Sheryl Lee's character grouses about those who would force them into such miserable living conditions, Campbell responds, "I don't know. In spite of everything, I still believe that people are basically good at heart." I figured maybe six people would ever get this twisted reference to Anne Frank's heart-breaking epitaph.)
Vonnegut remained extremely supportive throughout production. He even played a cameo in the film and after meeting Nolte declared, "Now I can't imagine any other actor playing Campbell." Regarding box-office prospects, Vonnegut was realistic, as were Keith and I. "Generally, if you produce a show that's about something," he said, "no one will come."
But people did come, at first. Mother Night premiered in the same town in which it was filmed, at the Montreal World Film Festival. A capacity audience of more than 2,000 people packed the Place Des Arts. The opening scene of the film shows Nolte being escorted to his Israeli prison cell, accompanied by Bing Crosby's rendition of "White Christmas." When I heard Vonnegut chuckle at the juxtaposition, I relaxed. It was a positive review from the only critic I really cared about.
The next morning, there was a glowing review in the Montreal Gazette. That same day, Keith and I were escorted to a screening at a local public theater, when we came upon a huge line of people literally winding around three blocks. I asked our escort what the crowd was gathered for. "This is the line for your film," she explained. I shot some photos of the crowd, knowing that lines around the block would be unlikely back in the U.S. for a film this dark and quirky.
Prior to the U.S. opening, we had a number of advance screenings at colleges, universities and film festivals. Keith and I would always hold Q&A sessions afterwards. I usually made a point to tell our audiences of the importance of word-of-mouth in promoting an independent film. "But be careful," I warned them. "The next few months will see the release of Twelfth Night, Big Night, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Mother Night, Mother and Some Mother's Son. So if you want to spread the word, please make certain you're recommending the right film."
Preview audiences were consistently supportive and enthusiastic. We started to think that our "controversial" film maybe wasn't so controversial after all. Although we were prepared to defend our movie against those who wished to question its "message," few seemed inclined to do so. Being Jewish, I was curious to see how "my people" would respond to a film that presents an ostensibly sympathetic character who acted as a cheerleader for the Nazi genocide machine. Generally, audience members who identified themselves as Jewish seemed hip to the point of the film (which is essentially a very Jewish notion): You are what you do.
So where were the people Vonnegut warned me about who would miss the point of the film and accuse us of making a Fascist-friendly movie? As it turned out, many of them were members of PEN, the international writer's group. Fine Line had set up a special screening for PEN in New York City, only hours before the official U.S. premiere. This time, Vonnegut joined Keith and me for the usual post-screening Q&A.
The first audience member to speak up was an outraged veteran who went on about his own wartime experiences as a radio operator in Korea, before finally claiming that only two Jews died in service to the U.S. during the second world war, and why was he the only one who was aware of this fact? A murmur arose from a stunned audience. I responded as honestly as I could, saying, "Sir, you are full of crap." The guy stood up and suggested I try to beat it out of him. Others in the audience shouted him down. The evening was off to a roaring start. (Someone later suggested that the veteran's statement was meant to be facetious, implying that this was the obvious point-of-view of the film.)
One man stood up, said he was a Catholic and wanted to know why Campbell had to commit suicide. "What about the notion of forgiveness?" he asked. A black woman wanted to know why our film didn't address the contribution of Africans to the second World War and why the film didn't mention that Joseph Goebbels was born in Africa. (He wasn't, but why would she want that advertised if it were true?) She also told us she resented the use of the expression "black humor" (which had been bandied about during the evening), declaring it a racist phrase. I responded, saying "I'm not particularly offended by the phrase 'white lie,' but to each their own."
Another guy had memorized a page of Campbell's first-person narrative from the book, recited it out-loud, and asked why it wasn't duplicated in the film. I told him that I wrote the script for people who hadn't memorized the book. The guy obviously thought he was defending Vonnegut's work. Kurt thought the guy was whacked.
Somebody asked Vonnegut what his credentials were for writing about such a subject. He explained that he was a Veteran of the second world war, had been taken prisoner by the Germans, had directly witnessed the aftermath of the holocaust, has many friends today who are survivors and felt he was quite qualified to write about this time in history. One old woman stood up, announced herself as a survivor of Auschwitz and asked how this film was supposed to help her. Another man suggested that the virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric spouted by Campbell in the film would likely serve to recruit Neo-Nazis.
I was struck by the irony that PEN's charter is based on the preservation of artist's rights -- protecting the written word, even when it expresses an unpopular viewpoint. The subtext of many of the comments that night were that we had no right to make this film. (What's the old joke about a liberal being someone who will lynch you from a lower branch?) In any event, we finally found the "controversy" that Vonnegut had warned of. In fact, the ugliness of the evening upset Kurt enough that he went home afterwards, foregoing the official premiere later that night.
A few weeks later, we held a special screening at the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. As the predominantly Jewish audience filed into the theater, Keith and I meandered through the current exhibits. When we came upon the Anne Frank display I turned to Keith and announced solemnly, "we're dead." This time, I introduced the movie, hoping to give some context to the film's ambiguous nature by quoting Elie Weisel: "I write not so that you'll understand, but so you'll know that you can never understand." Thankfully, they seemed to get the movie. I even heard laughter at the Anne Frank joke. Afterwards, one Holocaust survivor told me, "You've made a very important film. It should remind people that evil doesn't always come from the obvious monsters. It lives in everyone."
The plan was to open Mother Night on an exclusive "art-house" basis -- only eight theaters in L.A. and New York. The most theaters we ever played at any one time would be 40. (A major Hollywood studio film may open in 2,300 theaters. 1,000 theaters would be a moderate release.) Opening day was November 1, 1996. That morning, reviews started to arrive via fax from the studio. I had learned early on in my career not to get emotionally involved with reviews. (I once heard a "critic" defined as someone who walks onto a battlefield after a war has been waged, then shoots the wounded.) However, a small "arty" film such as Mother Night would be dependent on positive reviews for its very survival. As they continued to roll out over the next few weeks, I found the rough breakdown to be as follows: 60% positive (about half of those, full-fledged "raves"), 25% mixed, 15% negative (about half of those, "rants").
The most consistent theme I noticed among the critical response was their lack of consistency. For every review that said the script was too slavishly devoted to the novel, another would cite that the screenplay strayed too far from the source material. A few critics loved the rather straightforward dramatic pacing maintained throughout the first half of the film, but felt that it lost its way once it took a comedic turn. Others felt the first half dragged, but the film really picked up once the comedy kicked in. One of my favorite criticisms accused us of perpetuating a racist stereotype with the portrayal of the negro Nazi. (I had honestly felt that our film put a different spin on the typical Hollywood portrayals of negro Nazis.)
I was surprised at the number of people who would ask me how Siskel and Ebert responded. I've always thought it sad that people rely so much on critics to help them form their own opinions. I now realized that we had regressed to the next step. Limited attention spans won't make it through an entire review anymore; so inquiring minds want to know, "Where are the thumbs? Show me the thumbs!" In the case of Siskel and Ebert, they were pointed South. Their TV review especially burned up Nolte when Siskel opined that the film was guilty of "romanticizing hate." Nolte actually got on the phone and called Siskel in Chicago, challenging him on this point. Siskel admitted to being wary of a current trend in films that make heroes out of morally ambiguous characters. When Nolte asked for other examples, Siskel offered up Ransom, currently in release (and coincidentally featuring Nick's 10-year-old son, Brawley). The following week, Siskel and Ebert gave Ransom two thumbs up.
"Can those guys be bought?" Nolte asked me. I reminded him that Siskel and Ebert's show appeared on ABC which is owned by Cap Cities which is owned by Disney. Ransom was released by Touchstone, a distribution arm of Disney. "I don't know if they can be bought," I said. "But I'll bet they've been optioned."
The Jewish press was consistently kind to us, but the winner of the missing-the-point-award was Philip Berk of the L.A. Jewish Times, also a leading figure in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, sponsor of the Golden Globe awards. Berk accused the film of being anti-Semitic, citing as one example our ironic use of the song "White Christmas" written by Irving Berlin, a Jew. It didn't occur to Berk that we had to license the song from the Berlin estate who granted us the rights on a cut-rate basis after reading the script and voicing their support of the film's message.
The L.A. Jewish Times would eventually print my written rebuttal to Berk's attack, the low point being his questioning of Vonnegut's agenda by referring to him as "the son of a German-born American." I informed Berk that Vonnegut's family had emigrated to the U.S. before the Civil War (not that it should matter). Vonnegut would be less diplomatic in a personal letter to Berk, asking him, "What kind of a twisted monster are you?"
The film actually performed quite respectably during its opening week. However, Fine Line apparently expected bigger things for this dark film about an ambiguous but sympathetic character with Nazi tendencies who eventually kills himself. Literally, after the first night in theaters, a studio will calculate what the product will gross in its theatrical lifetime. After determining that Mother Night was not going to be the next Pulp Fiction, Fine Line shrunk our newspaper ads down to postage-stamp size for the second weekend. I told Vonnegut that filmgoers would now have to hire a private detective to find where our movie was playing. That weekend saw a fairly precipitous drop at the box-office which then made Fine Line's prophecies self-fulfilling. The next week, Vonnegut, Nolte, Keith and I all made phone calls to the studio's top brass asking them to please replace the rug which they had surreptitiously pulled out from under us. The next weekend saw a slight increase in the ad-size as well as the box office receipts. Clearly though, without genuine support from the studio, Mother Night would have an uphill battle at best. It proved to be a battle that the film would not survive. Fine Line had already placed all their eggs in a basket called Shine, an Australian acquisition and Oscar-contending crowd- pleaser, which, to their credit, they mined beautifully.
After the question about Siskel & Ebert, the next most-asked question is, "What are your chances for an Oscar?" The answer, of course, is two-fold: "Who knows and who cares?" With all the talk of how well independent films are doing at the Oscars, most laypeople don't realize the amount of advertising dollars pumped into trade ads that promote Academy nominations for the studio's favorite contenders. No ads = no nominations. Fine Line was betting on Shine and took out countless double-truck color ads asking the industry for their Oscar consideration. Mother Night received exactly zero ads. Keith and I were still thrilled that the film ever got made, and felt the rest was just so much gravy. Vonnegut said that he felt bad for Nick, who was totally overlooked at Oscar-time for what many critics cited as a career-best performance. So it goes.
Well-intentioned friends were insisting that the film would surely do well overseas as Mother Night would obviously appeal to European sensibilities. In England, we had the dubious fortune to open on the same day as The English Patient, a similarly-themed, big budget, heavily-promoted movie that won a slew of Oscars including best picture. The British distributors opened us in all of two theaters, reneged on flying Keith out to London for publicity, then spent nothing on advertising. I was getting E-mail from British Vonnegut fans asking when the film would open in London. "It's playing there NOW," I told them. "Stop looking for ads. There aren't any."
Mother Night was invited to play at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. We were anxious to see what reaction the Germans would have to our little treatise on guilt and responsibility set in World War II. We'd never get the chance to find out. The German distributors declined the invitation to play the Berlin Festival. They would either go straight to home video or dump the film altogether. When I relayed this news to Vonnegut, his response was pragmatic: "These are still very sensitive issues. No one wants to risk rocking the boat. When are you going to make a commercial film?" he deadpanned. "When John Grisham gives me a free option on one of his books," I answered.
Two weeks later, I would call Vonnegut with more good news: Like their German counterparts, the Israeli distributors had decided to dump the film and eat their investment, rather than put it on public screens. "Do you realize what this means?" I asked Kurt. "Together we've created something that Israel and a reunified Germany can see eye-to-eye on. Talk about a New World Order!"
"Well, Bob. Let's face it," Vonnegut cracked. "You must have made a crummy movie."
I wasn't going to let him get in the last zing. "Hey," I said. "Garbage in -- garbage out."