Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Trouble With Harry


The first "big time" Hollywood producer I ever met was a guy named Harry Alan Towers.

Harry produced a lot of forgettable films like "Psycho-Circus" and "Sandy the Seal" as well as a massive library based on almost any novel that had also been turned into a "Classics" comic book. He was also responsible for such memorable films as "Ten Little Indians" and "Cry, The Beloved Country".

Harry's philosophy on producing is probably best summed up in a line Michael Caine utters in one of Harry's later films "Bullet to Beijing" -- "Here's to Capitalism and big tits!".

Although few who worked with him at the time were aware, Harry also had another life as a "big time" pimp. He was linked to not only the Profumo scandal but a vice ring at the United Nations and is purported to have supplied President Kennedy with a woman who turned out to be an East German spy.

Some say that was just a sideline, a method Harry used to get the connections or the money or influence he needed to get his movies made.

A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do…

When I met him, Harry lived in London and used to make "sales trips" to LA every year. But on the way, he'd always spend a couple of months in Toronto first.

His MO while he was in town went like this...

In an era when entertainment news and gossip wasn't reported with the turgid abandon it is today, Harry's stable of Hollywood chippies would supply him with intel on what the studios had in development, the big movies they were putting a lot of time and money into bringing to the screen. Sometimes they even got him the scripts or at least the coverage the execs they were servicing were reading.

Back in the 70's nobody knew there were any screenwriters in Canada. But there were a handful who were pretty good, including a guy I knew who, either out of boredom or the need to feel more screen-writery, mentored much of my early output.

Harry would come into town and offer this guy $4 - 5,000 to take one of the LA scripts and write a version of the same story.

He didn't want a scene for scene copy but a script with virtually identical characters and a very similar plot. My writer friend would bang one out in a couple of weeks while Harry made the local rounds on the hunt for new talent he could employ in one capacity or another in his film business, as well as see what kind of deals he could set in motion from that part of the colonies.

And the latter isn't as far fetched as it might sound. A lot of people don't know that Alec Guinness ended up gracing the stage of the first Stratford Shakespeare Festival because of a deal made in the manager's office of the old Carlton Cinema at College and Yonge in Toronto.

Toronto Theatres. Odeon Toronto Theatre, Carlton east of Yonge St. Photo taken by Harold Whyte in March 1963.

One of the Stratford organizers stopped in to see a Guinness film, learning that the Rank Organization, which owned both the cinema and the actor's contract, had given him a hiatus to do some theatre. A call from the local movie house owner to the studio revealed that Guinness still had enough un-booked weeks in his summer to become part of Canadian theatre history.

By the end of his stay and with the help of some of the other writers in town, Harry had a portfolio of 8-10 scripts scarily similar to what the majors were hoping to shoot in the coming year.

A complete waste of money? Not at all.

Harry would fly to Hollywood and one by one take meetings with the studio executives making the films he'd targeted. They'd get yakking and when the guy mentioned his pet project, Harry would become very troubled and say he was developing the same idea (or was already shooting it in Europe).

He'd give the guy the script to read, implying not a theft of intellectual property but his concern that the studio might lose money on their deal because a similar (and cheaper) film would soon be available to distributors -- especially in the foreign territories where even huge studio turkeys could still earn a profit…

They always paid him handsomely to hand over the rights to scripts he never had any intention of making in the first place.

And then Harry would buy a couple of well known stars and go somewhere else to make the film he actually wanted to do -- usually one based on material that was already in the public domain.

Brides Of Fu Manchu Title Card

Now you might consider Harry's tactics "questionable" and you'd be correct in that assessment. But what you can't question is his dedication to his major job function as a producer -- finding the money. Harry took great pride in the fact that everybody who worked for him got paid.

Doing what you know you need to do is one of the hardest jobs writers have to come to grips with as well. And while there are always suggestions that James Cameron cribbed "Avatar" from "Pocahontas" or Christopher Nolan got the idea for "Inception" from a Donald Duck comic, we all know that every worthwhile script that gets written actually comes from applying a simple formula: Ass to Chair then Pen to Paper.

A detailed and entertaining explanation of how that process works can be found here as Brian Clemens describes the lost art of great TV writing.

We don't necessarily have to get our hands dirty the way Harry did to make good films and television. But a little honest sweat and some grit under the fingernails never hurt anybody.


Cunningham said...

And people make fun of The Asylum and their Mockbusters...

Rusty James said...

Worthwhile feature in the Canadian Rue Morgue magazine (10 bux, WTF!) about director Joe Dante and Roger Corman's JAWS rip-off, PIRANHA.

Mr. Corman had a talent for talent (Scorcese, James Cameron, Ron Howard et al) which stemmed from finding filmmakers who were young and hungry - willing to do multiple jobs in order to get the *whole* job done.

Hard to find nowadays when everyone just wants to be famous.

John McFetridge said...

I think I saw Turgid Abandon at the El Mo in the late 70's.

Thanks for this post, good stuff. Guys like Harry were very important to the movie business (I worked for Maurice Smith) and they haven't been replaced by a better system for developing writers.

Piranha is a good case in point - don't forget John Sayles was involved in it, too.