Ace Up Our Sleeve
Politics in Hollywood Moviemaking
A Political Move Into The Movies
By JOSEPH HANANIA | Published: April 14, 1996
THE LAST SUPPER," A new film about murderous graduate students and the ridiculous conservatives they poison at dinner, has been described by reviewers as evenhandedly nasty to both ends of the political spectrum. But its author, a 32-year-old named Dan Rosen, is an unabashed liberal.
The idea for "The Last Supper" came to Mr. Rosen during the 1987 Iran-contra hearings, which he watched when he was an undergraduate at Towson State University in Baltimore, where he grew up.
I watched people lie and get a medal for it," he said. "I wanted to write about people who know they're lying but do it anyhow because they think it's the right thing to do."
Last year, Mr. Rosen, who had been supporting himself as a freelance writer, finally wrote up the idea that had been in the back of his mind: What would you do if you invited someone to dinner who held political views drastically different from your own? How far would you and your guest go in arguing your points?
Bypassing traditional channels, Mr. Rosen gave the script to Larry Weinberg, a 31-year-old would-be producer and businessman whom he had met through family friends in Staten Island. Mr. Weinberg passed the script to Stacy Title, a 31-year-old Californian whose only previous film was a short work, "Down on the Waterfront," a sendup of "On the Waterfront" that was nominated for an Academy Award for 1993. Thus did three movie-making novices embark on their first feature project.
Ms. Title's cousin, Jason Alexander, who is best known as George Costanza on the television series "Seinfeld," agreed to a star turn as a right-wing demagogue. Then Ms. Title took the script to the actors Mark Harmon, Cameron Diaz and Ron Perlman, persuading each to work a day or two at scale -- a few hundred dollars a day -- in return for the apparently irresistible prospect of playing "extremists."
Mr. Perlman, who works out at the same gym in Los Angeles as Ms. Title, started reading the script at 9 on a Sunday morning. "I was on the phone to Stacy at 10:30 A.M., telling her our friendship was over if I didn't play the Rush Limbaugh-type character," he said.
Ms. Title also went after Bill Paxton, a rising Hollywood star. It seemed unlikely that he would agree to be in such a low-budget film. Mr. Paxton, however, was intrigued by the concept of playing a neo-Nazi dinner guest.
Part of the film's light-on-its-feet quality stemmed from its budget of $500,000, less than half of what a television movie usually costs. The film was made almost entirely at one location, on a compressed 18-day shooting schedule.
"In most productions, you keep shooting until you get it right," explained Ms. Title. Here, she said, the stars "were in and out the same day, so we had to get it right in no more than three takes."
Even with this schedule, finances were so tight that when the film was completed last June, Mr. Weinberg was forced to market it immediately, rather than waiting for the fall film festivals through which independent films are traditionally sold. "I could hear the meter ticking the interest on our loans," he said. "We just couldn't wait the three extra months."
Instead, Mr. Weinberg approached distributors directly. The result: A bidding war that brought him and his partner, Matt Cooper, $2 million from Sony Pictures Entertainment and a percentage of the gross. Sony also put up $3 million for promotion and other costs.
The film's good fortune didn't stop there. An election year that had promised to be dull suddenly took off with the emergence of the archconservative Pat Buchanan, who "has been giving us free publicity every time he opens his mouth," Mr. Weinberg said with glee.
Other conservatives have actually echoed lines in the film, he said. One character says she will kill anyone wanting an abortion because that is what the "right to life" movement is about. Subsequently, Mr. Weinberg heard a talk-show caller justifying John Salvi's murder of two workers in a Boston abortion clinic by saying he was "one of God's foot soldiers."
All of which feeds into the film's theme: as Ms. Title put it, "We need our enemies in order to define ourselves."
In the end, Ms. Title expects the film to rouse passions all along the political spectrum, since it not only parodies conservative points of view but also portrays liberals as craven killers.
Mr. Rosen adds: "As the Cameron Diaz character says, liberals get caught up in a bunch of issues, rather than focusing on one thing at a time, like conservatives do. I hope the film helps motivate liberals to talk politics less and act more on their convictions -- in a responsible, effective manner."Presumably, pursuing one's beliefs in a responsible manner would rule out murdering dinner guests.
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