The life of Robert Evans is capable of
making even the most ardent overachiever feel positively barren
and unproductive in comparison. Best known for his 1966 to 1974
tenure as Paramount Pictures’ head of production—a position
he took at the age of 34 with no prior producing credits to his
name—Evans’ contribution to the “New Hollywood”
movement of the era cannot be overstated. During this period, Evans
was responsible for bringing such landmark films as Rosemary’s
Baby, The Conformist, Harold and Maude, The
Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation,
Serpico, Don’t Look Now and The Parallax
View to the screen. Combined with the successes of hits like
Love Story, The Odd Couple and Death Wish, he took the studio from
the bottom rung of the Hollywood ladder to the number one position.
Yet Evans is almost as famous for the company he kept
(friends include Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Henry Kissinger;
romantic relationships with Ali MacGraw, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly,
Lana Turner, Cheryl Tiegs and Raquel Welch) and the circumstances
surrounding his employment at Paramount.
A former child actor, Evans was co-managing the lucrative
Evan Picone clothing firm when, in 1956, he was spotted poolside
at the Beverly Hills Hotel by Norma Shearer, who selected him to
play her late husband, movie mogul Irving Thalberg, in Man of
a Thousand Faces. Evans must have liked the role, for he soon
opted to play it in real life. Late in his Paramount tenure, Evans
would indeed produce films himself, including such hits as Chinatown
and Marathon Man, but in the ’80s, his charmed life
was shattered by a cocaine bust, dismissal from Paramount and rumored
(though ultimately disproved) involvement in The Cotton Club murder
After a period of near-obscurity, Evans returned to
the public eye in 1994 with the publication of his autobiography
The Kid Stays in the Picture, a vividly flamboyant
chronicle of his loves and losses which acquired
instant cult status (even more so when published several years later as an audio book,
recited by Evans himself in his inimitable, seductive
style). His memoirs have now been adapted into a new documentary film of the
same name—a giddy and almost sinfully engrossing real-life
Hollywood melodrama that unwinds like addictive non-fiction cinematic
candy. While moviemakers Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein have
articulated their desire to make documentaries which primarily entertain,
The Kid is still a sizeable stylistic leap from their previous
feature, the gritty, Oscar-nominated boxing study On the Ropes.
Morgen and Burstein have constructed The Kid as a rapid-fire
visual funhouse of lush archival footage, eye-catching three-dimensional
graphic effects and baroque, sensuous Steadicam tours through Evans’
famous Woodland estate, all in the attempt to create an aesthetic
vocabulary capable of mirroring the colorful details of Evans’
own life, and his prose.
The visual approach of The Kid isn’t
the only element that distinguishes it from most other documentaries,
as the film’s structure is also unusual. Devoid of standard
issue “talking heads” interview footage, the film is
constructed entirely through archival footage and Evans’ own
narration, taken largely from his book (no other parties are interviewed).
As a result, the film is largely beholden to Evans’ own
subjective and flamboyant perspective on his life, but
this is only appropriate for a film which begins with the quote
(from Evans): “There are three sides to every story: my side,
your side and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve
each one differently.” As Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein
reveal in this interview, the trick with adapting The Kid
Stays in the Picture was in balancing these three sides.
Travis Crawford (MM): You had
intended to make a film about Robert Evans, but not as an adaptation
of his The Kid Stays in the Picture book. What was the
original concept of the film?
Brett Morgen (BM): Originally, we
were approached by a woman named Pam Brady, who was the writer of
the South Park movie and one of the producers of Just
Shoot Me, and she wanted to talk to us about doing a documentary.
Pam was a big fan of the book, and of Bob’s, and she wanted
to write a screenplay that would resuscitate his career. Bob invited
her to move into his Beverly Hills mansion and write for three months,
and Pam contacted us to ask what we thought. We said “It’s
fantastic—it’s Sunset Boulevard as a documentary!”
We were all set to shoot that, when we ran into the Vanity Fair
editor Graydon Carter, who wanted to do a Bob Evans film as well,
but one that dealt more with his past. So we decided to join forces
with Graydon and make The Kid Stays in the Picture.
We didn’t—and will not ever—make the film we wanted
|“Bob was great… but there were times
we wanted to
MM: Evans was reluctant to be filmed extensively
in the present day, correct?
BM: Yeah, that’s right. Ultimately, we
were able to get whatever we wanted from Bob, but we turned that
reluctance into a positive, and it works for the film in that it
created more of a mystique about him.
Nanette Burstein (NB): We found the
larger-than-life character of Bob even more fascinating than the
Bob you would meet on an everyday level. We embraced that and made
him much more symbolic than a “real” person. And Bob
saved every single moment of his life on film or tape or stills,
so when we looked around for sources to bring the past to life,
it was an amazing treasure for a filmmaker.
BM: The day we started work on this film, the
final sequence from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was
ringing through our heads; when the legend becomes fact, print the
legend. We knew we were creating “cinema mythological,”
and that the film would have to be as large as the man himself.
Bob is a wonderful seducer and we wanted there to be that seductive
quality, filmically. We intended it to be roller-coaster fantasia
MM: The structure of the documentary is
unique in that there are no interviews and it’s told entirely
through Evans’ narration. When did you decide to adopt this
approach and did it present any problems?
BM: From day one we decided that we were going
to do the film with a disembodied voice, and that we were going
to find a new way to present archival material. The obstacles came
about in scripting and the early stages of editing, when we found
that there were certain stories we would’ve liked to have
included in the film, but we didn’t have the visual material
to support them. And we wanted there to never be a moment in the
film where the issues/47/images were simply “holding” shots that
you were looking at because we had nothing else to show you—we
wanted the issues/47/images to always be proactive.
NB: Our limitations forced us to make something
original that we probably wouldn’t have done if we had an
assignment to go out and do a more traditional film. We wrote a
script on paper and assembled the voiceover that way, and looked
at a screen that was all black, and we looked at each other and
said, “What the fuck are we going to see?”
MM: How did you approach adapting the book,
with respect to knowing what stories could be omitted and what had
to be included?
BM: The book is laid out very anecdotally,
with a number of stories laid out chronologically, though not necessarily
feeding into the next. But our strength as filmmakers is traditional
narrative storytelling, so we decided to approach it as a three-act
linear narrative. So we had to find stories that we liked, but that
also furthered the narrative. The Ali MacGraw-Bob Evans relationship
furthers the narrative personally and professionally. And we didn’t
want to be in a situation where we would tell this great story and
then just end up at a brick wall. And we had arguments with Bob,
because what works well in a book may not necessarily work well
on film. We had to choose stories that would work well filmically,
and make it as fast and furious as we could. We knew we were making
kitsch, a sublime experience—so we wanted this film to be
like a Bob Evans ride at Disneyland!
MM: Was Evans cooperative as a subject?
Were there events in his life that he wanted to avoid discussing?
NB: Bob wanted to avoid everything after 1980,
the second half of his life. You’d go to record voiceover
with him and we’d get into these ferocious fights. Up until
very late in the film, Brett’s voice was going to be narrating
a good half of the movie because Bob just wouldn’t talk about
it. Finally, he agreed to do the voiceover, but it was a very difficult
BM: Bob was great… but there were times where
we wanted to kill [him], and I’m sure he wanted to kill us.
Bob had omitted the drug bust stuff from his book-on-tape and he
kept saying to us, “Well, the book-on-tape was successful,
why do we have to put it in the movie?” and we were saying
“Bob, it’s not even an issue. Either you’re going
to narrate it or we’re going to find a device to deal with
it.” He thought it was his ass on the line, but we thought
more so that it was our ass on the line as filmmakers—we knew
we would get killed if we left that stuff out. We were respectful
of his legend, but not intimidated by it.
|“We were respectful of his legend,
but not intimidated by it.”
NB: Plus it would just ruin the story. The
whole thing is about the rise, fall, and rise again of a Hollywood
producer, and without the fall, you have no narrative. And at the
end of the day, Bob now appreciates that part of the movie more
than anything else—he likes the scandal and he sees that it
works within a whole perspective of his life.
MM: As you were locked into advancing the
narrative through Evans’ own narration, did that ever create
a conflict between your own perception of these events and Evans’
personal take? There’s a moment in the film where Evans is
discussing the “Get High on Yourself” ’80s TV
special that he produced following his drug bust. He refers to the
event as the “Woodstock of the ’80s”…
BM: …Which I thought was hilarious!
MM: Exactly, because you then immediately
cut to footage from the TV special, which doesn’t exactly
validate Evans’ statement.
BM: Bob is so over-the-top and melodramatic,
and we weren’t going to contest that. That bravado is the
reason why the book was so successful. And we co-wrote the film
with Bob—it wasn’t always his words, it was our words.
When Bob calls it the “Woodstock of the ’80s,”
it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek.
|Perhaps more legendary than his
career was the company Robert Evans kept, which included friends
Roman Polanski and Henry Kissinger.
I think as documentary filmmakers, the greatest thing
we can do is create a film that is truly objective. When you use
“he said, she said” material, you create a faux objectivity
and you lead the audience to believe that if you give them this
point of view and that point of view, then you’re getting
the whole picture. But we believe that the intensive immersion into
a subjective reality is really the only honest filmmaking. So for
us to come out in the first frame of the movie and say that there
are three sides to every story—we’re being about as
honest as every non-fiction filmmaker has ever been. When I hear
criticism that the film is too “inside Bob,” I just
feel like that’s the only form of objectivity one can achieve.
NB: And being honest about that subjectivity
from the very beginning allows you to explore certain subtexts that
you wouldn’t be able to do if you were struggling to create
objectivity. Embracing the imagery of the film, you’re acknowledging
that this is a man who got everything in his life because of image
and lost everything in life because of image—you capture the
real truth about Hollywood.
MM: Why do you think Evans remains such
a fascinating and important figure?
NB: Evans came about in the 1970s when Hollywood
was not the corporate Hollywood of today. It was like the wild west,
where people like Evans—who had never produced a movie before—could
come in and be huge risk takers and make these radical movies.
BM: Bob was a gambler, and
a blind gambler. He only had to answer to Charlie Bludhorn, and
Bob essentially had the ability to greenlight a film.
What makes Bob such an endearing character
transcends his contributions to Hollywood. He approaches life as
art; life is a stage for Evans. I once asked him “Why did
you save everything?” (photos, film, etc.), and he said, “Because
when I was 14 years old I realized I was living an extraordinary
life.” And he wasn’t bragging. It’s true! Bob
was involved in some of the greatest productions in the history
of Hollywood, but his greatest production has been his own life.