by Kasey Caminiti | November 12, 2013 7:37 pm
My introduction to filmmaker James Toback when we meet at HBO’s midtown Manhattan office is consistent with the reputation that precedes him: a charismatic gambler always with an angle.
“I was teaching at City College when I was 23 and I was in some gambling trouble,” Toback tells me without introduction. “I said to the class about halfway through, ‘by the way, if anyone has $10,000 they want to give me in cash today I’d appreciate it, and I can pay it back at some point in the future.’ The most indigent looking member of the class, Eddie Webberman, raises his hand and said, ‘I could do that.’ I said, ‘Really? Today? Is your bank nearby?’ He said yes. I said to the rest of the class, ‘I think we’re finished for the day.’
“It turned out that his father had died recently and had left him everything he had, which was like $150,000, and he gave me the $10,000. I paid him back a year later.” Toback continues, “I’ve always thought, who knows? Maybe there’s another Eddie Webberman lurking around.”
Toback has since spent the course of his forty-year career in film honing his pitching skills, the importance of which is captured in his new film, Seduced and Abandoned, a documentary airing on HBO that follows Toback (the director) and actor Alec Baldwin to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival as they search for potential investors for their film. An Orson Welles quote helps set the stage: “I look back on my life and it’s 95 percent running around trying to raise money to make movies and 5 percent actually making them.”
The pitch that goes into getting any film off the ground is rarely seen by those outside the industry, but it can be one of the most important performances related to a project. “The way you succeed in Hollywood is to convince everyone in the room that you know something they need to know. You’re the only one that knows it. It’s perception, it’s history, it’s prediction, and sometimes it’s total lying,” Toback says.
His forthrightness about what it takes to get a film funded in Hollywood these days shouldn’t be confused for a lack of moral compass; he truly believes in the transcendent art of the cinema. Toback’s go-to pitch for potential investors is asking them what better way of securing a small piece of immortality than by having their name on a great and important piece of art. As shticky as it sounds, it’s the reverent belief in the enduring power of art and cinema that underscores the routine and serves as the basis of his friendship with Baldwin.
The two had originally met on the set of Woody Allen’s Alice over twenty years ago, but it wasn’t until the 2009 East Hampton Film Festival that they thought to work together. “It was clearly on both of our minds that we were having far too exhilarating a time meeting socially not to use that in some way cinematically,” Toback recounts. As they traverse Cannes, Seduced and Abandoned plays like a buddy picture. The duo of Baldwin, with his steely blue eyes, raspy voice and masculine gait, and Toback, with his penguin-like waddle, impeccable timing and eternal optimism, rivals Hope and Crosby or Dean and Martin with a chemistry that shines through when pitching.
In one scene, they sit with billionaire Denise Rich on her yacht. Baldwin leans in and gently prods her deepest desires: “What’s the one thing that you’d like to do but can’t do?” Obviously charmed, she answers with generalities like creating world peace, and without missing a beat, Toback offers her the next best thing—a chance to invest in an important piece of art, their film Last Tango in Tikrit, a remake of Last Tango in Paris to star Baldwin and Neve Campbell. Their pitch, although ultimately unsuccessful, is a feat in timing and synchronization on the level of Astaire and Rodgers: Baldwin tees it up and Toback takes a swing.
Interviewing the likes of Scorsese, Bertolucci, Polanski and Coppola throughout the documentary, Toback describes filmmakers as perpetually caught in limbo: passionate for their art yet at the mercy of investors needed to bring their ideas to life and plagued with the constant feeling that you need to sell your soul to express what’s inside it. But he and Baldwin share a kind of bittersweet but enduring love for it all. “The movie business is the worst lover you’ve ever had,” says Baldwin. “You go back again and again and again to recreate this experience you want to have. You are seduced and abandoned over and over and over again.”
After a week of having their expectations for Last Tango in Tikrit severely diminished (they are told flat out that Baldwin and Campbell lack the star power to drum up the 15 to 20 million needed to make the movie), the duo stands in the midst of the Vanity Fair party. Toback wonders, “So many people with so much money—you know what might be a good idea? Theft. Just kidding, although… maybe not. The touching thing is that they are gliding around oblivious to the one undeniable certainty that unites them—that they are all going to be dead. What good is their money going to do them then? They might us well have financed us—at least they’d have their name on a great work of art.”
Back in HBO’s conference room, Toback explains: “[I’m not] hustling them. I’m certainly not selling religious immortality, telling [them] that if you’re a good boy and give me money, you’ll go to heaven. But as long as there is civilization, this movie will be somewhere and you will be part of it. I can’t sell people on something I don’t believe in. I can’t approach them that way, so I at least feel that my propaganda is real.”
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