Exclusive: Director Brett Morgen on Getting Close - Very Close - to Subject of His Documentary 'The Kid Stays in the Picture': "I Moved Into Robert Evans' House"
Morgen remembers Hollywood legend who died Saturday: 'I learned more from him about producing than you could ever learn in any film school'
As a movie producer and studio chief, Robert Evans broke the rules.
"Bob had a sixth sense about him," says Brett Morgen, the director who along with Nanette Burstein made the 2002 documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture about Evans. "He was a gambler in a town where very few people are willing to take risks."
For his award-winning portrait of Evans, Morgen tells Nonfictionfilm.com exclusively that he also chose to break the rules.
"When I started making documentaries in the early 90s, late 80s, there was a popular sentiment that documentarians were supposed to maintain a degree of objectivity when making films and that was an idea that I wholeheartedly rejected... My goal, what I was interested in, was making immersive movies, immersive nonfiction films," Morgen explains. "The Kid Stays in the Picture was really the first opportunity I had to do that. For six months, beginning in January of 2000, I moved into Robert Evans' house, with the sole goal of trying to get inside Robert's head so that I could show the world through his eyes, if you will."
The Kid Stays in the Picture is not a cinema vérité film and yet I spent more time with my subject on that film than I have on any film before or since.
As a result, Morgen got very close to his subject, the man who ran Paramount Pictures from 1966-1974 and brought classics to the screen from The Godfather to Rosemary's Baby, Harold and Maude, Love Story and The Conversation. Evans also produced Chinatown, Marathon Man, Popeye and The Cotton Club.
Morgen and Evan's relationship, as the project got off the ground, amounted to a tango.
"As a documentarian, one often is in a position to try to seduce your subjects, if you will, metaphorically," Morgen notes. "And of course Bob was in the habit of seducing the press and so the seducer was being seduced by the seducer seducing the seduced. I mean, it was just a very kind of meta experience. I imagine as such I probably got the best version of Bob Evans that anyone's really been presented with."
In our conversation after news of Evans death was announced on Monday, Morgen recalled the producer's allure.
"I would go to Woodland [Evans' estate in Beverly Hills]. What was supposed to be an hour long meeting would turn into 10 hours," Morgen recalls. "And that's the thing I will miss most about Bob is that when you're with Bob there is nowhere else on Earth you'd rather be. He was the best friend, probably one of the best friends I've ever had in my life. One of the attributes about Bob that I think very few people understand and was really the key to his charm was his ability to be empathic. Because Bob, being the legend that he is, you would sit down with him and he would turn it all on you. And I would see him to do this - it was an art form. I would see him do this with members of the press. I would see him do this with colleagues or potential collaborators I would bring to his house. And he would put all of the energy and attention onto them. And it was powerful and seductive."
As Morgen and I talked, he kept switching back and forth between past and present tense to refer to Evans, perhaps an inevitability when describing such a larger-than-life figure.
"Bob was one of a kind, in every way, shape or form. My experience with Bob is, was, very rich. My life was, is, will never be the same and never was from the moment I met him."
Morgen reveals the original idea for the documentary bears little resemblance to the final product and wasn't going to be based on Evans' memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture.
"It was originally conceived as a cinema vérité film starring Bob Evans and a screenwriter named Cam Brady," Morgen recalls. "Cam and I met with Evans and we discussed the idea... that would be about a young Hollywood screenwriter who moves in with an aging Hollywood maverick to write a screenplay to resuscitate their career. Cam was going to be the young screenwriter moving into Robert Evans' house and we were going to document the entire experience. And that was the movie that we set out to make."
Morgen and Burstein raised a tidy sum of money for the film and were all set to begin shooting it the Monday after the Oscars in March 2000. But then...
"I received a call from my agent at Endeavor and he said, 'Hey, listen. I just got word from Graydon Carter's office that Graydon has the exclusive nonfiction rights to Bob Evans' life. Unfortunately you guys are going to have to cease and desist.' I was like, 'Wow, okay,'" Morgen remembers. "So I called Evans. I said, 'Bob, I just got the most disturbing call from my agent. He said that apparently you had given the rights to do a documentary on you to Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair.' And Bob goes, 'Well, that's a problem.' He goes, 'Why don't you come over here, kids. We'll discuss it.'"
'Get your ass over here.'
But once Morgen and Burstein got over to Evans' place the news didn't get any better.
"Bob came in and said, 'I'm so sorry. Years ago I had told Graydon Carter that he could do a documentary about The Kid Stays in the Picture. I never thought anything would come of it. I haven't heard from him, but he's recently called on me. I'm so sorry. I'm going to have to pass on our project.' I said, 'We're supposed to start shooting on Monday.' And he goes, 'I know. I'm so sorry.' And I remember leaving his house with my head down, not angry at him at all but like feeling bad for him, almost feeling like, 'Is there anything I could do for you?' And that alone was part of Bob's charm, right, that he just totally screwed me over and yet I felt bad."
The story didn't end there, of course. "About three hours later I'm at my apartment... and I get a call from Bob Evans. I picked up the phone and he doesn't even say hello. He goes, 'How fast can you get over here, kid?' I said, 'Huh?' He said, 'I'm sitting here with Graydon Carter. He wants to meet you. Get your ass over here.' And he hung up. And I raced over Coldwater to Woodland, to Bob's house, and I met with Graydon and we made a handshake deal to do The Kid Stays in the Picture."
There's a kicker to the story.
"Cut to many months later... At this point I got to know Bob pretty well and I said to him, 'Evans, knowing you the way I know you, there is no way you were ever going to let us do a cinema vérité film on you, and like film you 24/7 unfiltered.' And he goes, 'Of course not.' I said, 'Are you kidding me? You were never going to do it, were you!' He goes, 'No. Never.' And I said to him, 'Then why didn't you say anything?' He goes, 'Well, look where it brought us.' And that's Evans. When you talk about a gambler - he didn't know where it was going to land, you see. He didn't know when he woke up that morning that putting Graydon and us together was going to be the secret to this whole exercise. But he had a gambler's instinct and he knew that if you just followed your intuition that it will land right. And I've taken it with me in life. I think it's a wonderful thing."
The success of the documentary helped restore Evans' reputation in Hollywood, which had been damaged first by a severe cocaine addiction and later by the murder of an investor in The Cotton Club, the 1984 film that Evans produced and Francis Ford Coppola directed. Evans was never charged in that case (he was represented by Robert Shapiro, later O.J. Simpson's attorney). An acquaintance of Evans' was among several people convicted in connection with the investor's death.
That background is necessary to appreciate another story from Morgen about Evans.
"Bob really did not want to discuss the Cotton Club murders or his cocaine bust in the documentary," Morgen comments. "He said, 'In the book on tape I didn't mention the cocaine or the Cotton Club murders and the book on tape was wildly successful.' And that was his argument. He basically refused to lay down audio for those sections."
Morgen continues, "For the purpose of editing I had learned to do a pretty good Bob Evans impersonation... We were one week from premiering at Sundance. My voice was still narrating the third act of the film! And finally we brought Bob into a recording studio in Burbank, on a Friday night, and he begrudgingly laid down those tracks. I mean it was just painful.
"We go to Sundance. The film was a big hit. And two months later we're at Bob's house [for a star-studded screening]... And I was sitting in Bob's bedroom while the screening was happening and he picks up the phone and he calls the projectionist and then he starts to get up. I said, 'Where are you going?' He goes, 'They're on reel 7.' He goes, 'It's my favorite part now.' And he gets up to go see reel 7 which was essentially the cocaine, Cotton Club murders part... Bob understood that it made good cinema."
Morgen says he and Evans remained close in the years after The Kid Stays in the Picture came out. He last saw Evans only a few months ago. Last year, as Morgen racked up honor after honor for his documentary Jane, about conservationist Jane Goodall, the filmmaker says he saw Evans regularly.
"You remember we had a pretty good run with some of the awards shows that season," he tells me. "I think there were three or four consecutive weekends in January or February of that year where we were fortunate enough to have won I think the PGA and the ACE and some others, WGA and whatever, and every time we won an award I would go to Bob's house afterwards with it... I remember after winning the PGA, Burkie [producer Bryan Burk] and I went over to Bob's house and he brought out some Dom Perignon [champagne] and he toasted us with tears in his eyes saying it was one of the happiest moments of his life."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.