Few people changed the film industry the way Bob Shaye did. As a young student filmmaker in the 1960s, he knew it would be a hassle to find distribution for the kinds of films he wanted to make and share with the world, so he decided to make his own distribution outfit. It was from these modest ambitions that New Line Cinema was founded, in Shaye's apartment on 14th street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan, New York. By the time Shaye left the company in 2008, New Line Cinema had produced hit film series like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Rush Hour, Austin Powers, Blade, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Under the Fine Line banner, the studio released prestigious titles such as My Own Private Idaho, American History X, and The Sea Inside. Then, he combined blockbuster spectacle with awards season prestige with The Lord of the Rings, one of the most universally beloved fantasy trilogies of all time.
In addition to his status as a legendary studio boss and film producer, Shaye is an accomplished director, having helmed the cult favorite Book of Love and the refreshingly intelligent family adventure, The Last Mimzy. His latest film, Ambition, is produced by his new studio, Unique Features. The provocative psychological thriller follows a young violinist with a curious connection to the death of another musician, and like all good thrillers, nothing is as it seems. It's equally harrowing and entertaining, a satisfying exercise in the power of film to take viewers on an unpredictable ride into a delightful mix of the jolly and the macabre.
While promoting the release of Ambition, Shaye spoke to Screen Rant about his work shaping the film and, indeed, changing the film industry as we know it today. He talked about his approach to the art, his never-ending desire to "turn people on," and whether or not he would be able to build an empire like New Line Cinema in today's vastly different cinematic and economic landscape. He also shares a pair of stories from his career as a producer, regarding the controversial ending to the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and how he righteously claimed The Lord of the Rings from right under the unsuspecting nose of Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, simultaneously expanding Peter Jackson's original pitch from two movies to the timeless trilogy we all know and love today.
First of all, before anything else, I have to ask you this. What's more important: artistic merit or financial viability?
For me, what's most important is that I turn people on. It's the thing I really love to do most in the world. I get a thrill out of cooking dinner for people. It's just about putting something on the table that makes them feel satisfied that they've gotten an hour and a half worth of challenge, excitement, fun... Something that justifies my request to sit there in a dark room and watch what I have to say. Above all, that's really what I care about. If I manage to get it right, I'll get compensated for it, and if I manage to get it wrong, I'll get my fanny whipped for it. It's what my goal is.
Can you talk a bit about the contrast between the two coasts, and why New York City – my home – is way better?
(Laughs) Well, I was in New York. I went to school there. I started New Line there because that was just where I was. There was an option, I mean, a personal option, to pack up everything and move to Los Angeles and try to figure out the landscape, but I frankly wasn't up for that. I figured, since I was going to be my own employer, I could do it wherever I wanted, instead of running around taking people through meetings and trying to sell myself to the rest of the world. It was kind of an independent motivation I've always had. The inception of that idea came from my doing a couple of shorts and trying to get them distributed and hearing people say "no, no, no, no, no" I finally said, "What the hell. I don't need to have these guys decide whether I'm good enough. I think I'm good enough and I want to get to my audience." That's why I started the company. Eventually, we moved to Los Angeles, at least in certain part, because, obviously, the business is here. But we had enough stature and momentum to begin our own business in this direction without having to go and romance the studios and things like that. That was the whole reason I became a distributor. It wasn't because I wanted to distribute movies. It was more about gaining independence and having a direct route to my customers.
That independence feels so much more rare in today's landscape of movie studios. I was able to talk personally to Lloyd Kaufman of Troma, and he was talking about how studios are more and more vertically integrated and how studios are less interested in distributing projects they don't necesssrily have, let's say, a majority stake in. If you were transposed fifty years and you were just starting out right now, how would that journey be different for you?
That's a good question. The platforms are so multiple at this point. It's clearly not knowing how to talk to old men with cigars. Now it's talking to young men with cigarettes, I suppose. But the point is, it's a really different game. As it turns out, though, the distributor we have for Ambition, Shout! Studios, has a feeling to it... Even going to their offices, it was a little bit more New Line-like. It's hard to say where things are going, whether I would actually try to be a distributor again, myself, is uncertain. That was then. I am where I am and I've done what I've done, and it's sort of like, almost doing the bidding, so to speak. The facts are on the table. I think it's an excellent question, and I don't know where there's a place for the smaller distributors, but there seems to be a lot of them these days! And they are not just worrying about theaters, but Video on Demand and streaming. There's more distribution outlets then there ever have been. Certainly from when I was – pardon me – younger.
Sounds like a whole different playground.
I think it's extremely challenging, but there's also plenty of places to go. I don't really know that much about it these days, and that's why I'm glad to have a competent and experienced distributor like Shout! behind the film. If I would start up all over the same way... Probably not. On the other hand, we are producing movies and we're producing movies for Netflix and for Fox and people like that. But in a way, it's not the same feeling of independence I had when I felt like I could go directly to a consumer, almost, and deal with them. Then again, I'm kind of kidding myself, because even booking theaters was difficult and there's a whole trick to it. And I had to have guys who were experienced with it and knew how to do it and knew who the players were. In a way, it's the same challenges. But as I said, in terms of opportunity, from what I see, it seems like there's even more opportunity to get films shown and to make money from the showings in today's market because of the number of outlets that are available. But it's not something that I particularly care about doing again.
You're so well-known as a studio head, as a producer, but I think what makes you different from a lot of, as you said, old guys with cigars, is that you are a filmmaker. You have this palpable, if I can speak for you for just a moment, a love for cinema that you just don't see from... Well, really anyone. It's incredible to watch interviews with you and see the joy you clearly have for this art form.
That's an accurate assessment. I appreciate your understanding it. I do feel that way. Knowing how films are made, and having the experience of, one way or another. Not making, at least until the end of my career, big fancy Hollywood films. I really did have an appreciation, in a general sense, about what was required and how to do it, and how to make judgments about doing it. At the end of the day, the thing, as I said, that I was really trying to do, that I think everybody – or at least most people – in the business are trying to do, is trying to make movies that are going to be popular. And if people will look more deeply into what that entails, it's making movies people want to see, are excited about seeing, and think are worth the two hours to spend watching them. I think even Tarantino's film, when one of the characters says something like, "You go into the theater for two hours, and you're asking people to spend the most valuable thing they have in their life, which is their time." It's a big responsibility. I always took it seriously, but I didn't always get it right, that's for sure. But it is what my objective was.
I'd say you got it right more often than not!
I think I had a good foundation for getting into the business, because it wasn't like I made money in real estate or I loved selling, particularly. It was because it was the freedom to get as close to my customers as I could without having to go through a lot of people with a lot of egos. I was really the outsider. I think everybody in the company were outsiders. From Mike DeLuca to Sara Risher, to Tobey Emmerich, to Donna Langley, we were all outsiders. We didn't come from Hollywood backgrounds at all, I think. There was virtually nobody in the company who even lived in Hollywood for a long time, until we ended up having to open up an office out here. I was really glad to have a team that felt as passionate about movie-making as I did. Even the guys in the shipping department cared a lot about films and cared a lot about the films we were making. There was a real team spirit involved, and I think it helped propel the company.
Another element of your spirit can be seen in your own directorial filmography. In the past 30 years, you've directed three movies, but they're all so different. I mean, from Book of Love to Last Mimzy to Ambition, there's no through-line there other than just a love of the medium.
The through-line was... The reason I got into this business, really, was because I wanted to be a director. I didn't want people to tell me they didn't want me to be a director. I wanted to direct, myself. I started having fun being a distributor, and I eventually had fun being a director. Everyone in the company expressed this to me, after I left New Line, people would come up to me in the street, old New Liners, or even people who are still there, they'd say, "We never had so much fun, we couldn't wait to get to work in the morning, because we were all working on something we believed in, loved, and didn't feel like we were just small cogs in some big industrial wheel." That has always been very exciting for me, and very much the spirit I was trying to instill in the company. It seemed to work, if that was their response in my latter day. But I didn't have a real agenda except I wanted to try making movies.
Can you tell me a bit about what inspired you to direct those movies?
Each one of those movies came for different reasons. Book of Love was because it was exactly the way I grew up in Detroit in the 1950s. And Bill Kotzwinkle wrote the book, Jack in the Box, and he was exactly my age. He grew up the same way I did, in Scranton. We were completely in sync about the whole thing, about the comedy and the awkwardness of being 15 or 16 years old in high school and trying to go through all the pain and the passion that we did when we were kids. I thought it was a very funny book, and it made me laugh a lot. I thought, I think this is something I could do very well, because I'm familiar with it. It was about familiarity with the material. The Last Mimzy was from a very famous science fiction short story, and I was very much involved with science fiction when I was a kid. I was very anxious to be involved with something science fiction-oriented in cinema. We got the rights from Michael Phillips, about ten years before we ended up making the movie. It was a short story that had a lot of problems, but it had a great theme, and we went through several different writers and scripts over the years. We started building up a big deficit in how much we were paying for development. I think we had three or four million dollars invested in the project. I was feeling guilty we weren't making the movie, because we just couldn't get a script that was right. Bruce Joel Rubin, who's actually from Detroit, and was a good friend of mine from high school, he always loved this story. Of course, he won the Academy Award for Ghost and is a very talented writer in his own regard, in Jacob's Ladder, for instance. I finally convinced him to write the script, and it came out well enough for me to take the plunge and do it. It wasn't a pure (endeavor)... It had collateral reasons for accomplishing it, but I thought I could do the job and I thought it was a good story.
And this brings us to your latest film, Ambition.
In the case of Ambition, it's a little bit more of a thought piece, as opposed to a... Hmm, 'thought piece' isn't the right word, but what really attracted me to it was not so much the actual story, but that it was so much like the first short I made, Image, which challenges the viewer to ask the question, what is real? Is it what you see on screen? Are you seeing what the character is seeing? Are you seeing what the director sees? What the writer sees? Who is telling the truth? It has an aspect of the unreliable narrator that I've always enjoyed, even in things more contemporaneous, like Black Swan and the Scorsese film, Shutter Island, where there's kind of a zinger at the end, you make a sharp turn. I hope that film comports as fun and puzzling. I particularly meant for it to be attracted to millennial women, because all the principal actors are all female, they're all in their early 20s. I hope that we could generate a feeling of identity with that particular audience that will get caught up in the story and then get surprised.
Ambition kind of reminded me a little of one of my favorite movies, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, from 1964.
Yup, I can see that. Yup. Well, I mean, it is really intended to be challenging thriller, and not a horror film by any stretch of the imagination. We still have to sell it, so we have to sell it to as broad an audience as we can. I hope it has its thrills and chills in it, but it's not one of those Texas Chainsaw Massacre affairs, which also had its place in cinema history... And which we ended up distributing, incidentally. My ultimate objective was to make it into a worthwhile, satisfying, entertaining experience for an audience that was drawn to it.
And I love the nods to your career in it, like when they quote Nightmare on Elm Street 2 in their little game, and they've got the poster for Reefer Madness hanging in the back. There's so much, I feel, of you and your sensibilities, and your own ambition, it can be seen in the movie, which adds a whole new level of appreciation for those who know of your work.
You're an industry legend, and you've made decisions that altered movie history, there's no doubt about that. One of those decisions was changing the ending of A Nightmare on Elm Street. I love that, in Ambition, the quote they use is from Elm St. 2, which wouldn't exist if Wes Craven had his original ending. People still go back and forth about the merits of one ending over the other. Was the drama between the two of you thrown out of proportion? What was that relationship like at the time, and how did it smooth over as the sequels went by?
I'm a little bit more, on my surface, emotional, than Wes was. Wes was a very opinionated guy and a very talented guy, but a very passive-aggressive kind of guy. We, very willingly on both sides, spent a lot of time, six months, working on the script after we optioned it. But the ending of the film, as we got closer to it... The way Wes had originally written it was that Nancy wakes up in the morning and her mother says, "have a great day at school," she walks out the door, the sun is shining, and the camera tracks behind her, and she goes to school... And that's the end of the movie. It's a little bit about, aesthetically and philosophically, what you want, but it's also about, how do you satisfy an audience? With Friday the 13th, for instance, or some of the other successful horror films that had come out before, you always had to have some kind of zinger. I hadn't thought so much about a sequel. In fact, I hadn't thought about it at all. I just thought about having people say, "Wow! Oh my goodness!" at the end, and be surprised. I wanted them walking out of the theater talking about it, as opposed to saying, "Is that all?" and walking out disappointed.
How did you come up with the zinger?
Wes and I did argue about that, and we ended up doing three endings and testing all three. One didn't test better than another. We were really at loggerheads about what to do. Wes finally said, "I don't know." We were getting closer and closer to the time when we had to lock the picture... And we finally said, and we agreed, "let's use them all." So that's what we did. He had Nancy get up and walk out, and the car pulls up, and the mother comes out and gets pulled through the door. To me, it was kind of ridiculous, but it turned out that the audience found it funny and weird and accepted it. It wasn't just the kind of, like, well, life is just a dream and we're drifting off. There had to be something that paid off the whole theme of the story, which was that you could get killed in your dream. Yes, she did get away from it, she got away from Freddy Kruger, but did she really? I actually don't remember why my emotions prompted me to get into a rather heated discussion with Wes about it, but he was not a pushover, by any stretch of the imagination. Your readers and everybody else must believe me that he accepted the ending that we had as much as I did. It didn't make perfect sense, but it was at least something that was fun and people enjoyed it.
I'll tell you one of the other things that happened. With Elm St. 2, which had a very crazy history itself. It was one of the least successful of all the Elm Streets in the franchise. It should have been the most, being the first sequel, and Jack Sholder was a totally different kind of cat from Wes Craven. We think we made the mistake of having Freddy Kruger jump out of the dream and show up in the swimming pool sequence in the end. He's just another guy in an outfit running around and scaring people. It wasn't the great Nightmare raid that you wanted to see! There was nothing supernatural about it; he's just running around growling at people. We talked to a lot of the audience over the years after that, and it seemed like that was a thing that sort of, you know, humanized him too much. It wasn't that sort of quipster kind of villain and supernatural murderer who was chilling.
I could honestly talk to you about Freddy all day, I have so much to ask about every movie in the series, but I've got to move on! You are responsible for the biggest gamble in the history of cinema: The Lord of the Rings. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the legend is, Peter Jackson pitched two movies, hedging his bets, and you were like, "Let's just do three, baby!" Is that true?
Well, it's a little more complicated than that, but I'm glad to share it with you.
(Laughs) Yes, please!
Another company (Miramax) had bought the rights, and they were a subsidiary of Disney, and Mike Eisner, as I understand it, told Harvey Weinstein that they only wanted to make one movie, and they would only spend $80 million to do it. And so Peter Jackson left... Well, I don't know, I wasn't there, but he got very upset to the point where Weinstein said, "I'll give you one week to get somebody who will make two movies for you, and if you don't get them, we're gonna make one movie for me." So he went around to all the studios and everybody said "no," which almost always happened; almost every movie we got, including A Nightmare on Elm Street, everybody had passed on it a hundred times. We were always at the bottom of the pile, the real outsiders. But Peter came to us because he had written a sequel to Nightmare on Elm St which we didn't use, but he stayed in Los Angeles with Mark Ordesky, who was, I think, running Fine Line at the time. They got to be good friends. Anyhow, they said Peter was coming and he wanted to do a pitch. I said, "Okay, let's hear what he has to say!" But they said, "There's one thing."
They said we'd have to give Harvey Weinstein 5% of first dollar gross, or he won't give up the rights. I said, "Screw that, that's never gonna happen, definitely not." So Mark said to me, "Peter's coming tomorrow to pitch the film anyhow. Because he's a friend of mine, I hope you don't mind if he does. But maybe you'd like, since you know him and you're friendly with him, you might like to join. So I said sure, as a courtesy, to be gracious. I said, "Of course." So I sat in on the pitch, and the pitch was fantastic. He had a pitch reel. He had incredible photographs of the production design in New Zealand. I never imagined it existed like that. He had Ian McKellen and so much other stuff, and how he was going to use Forced Perspective. So he said, "What do you think?" I said, I don't know, what's it gonna cost? He said, "Well, the first picture is going to cost somewhere between 70 and 80 million dollars." At the time, I was having a big argument with Mike DeLuca, because he wanted to make films that were up his alley, that I didn't think had much of a chance, and he was getting very arrogant about it, and I... The teamwork was falling apart. And we didn't really have a terrific development slate, and this, to me, was just a slam dunk. So, we had the money, and we had the room, and we had the permission, because I didn't have to ask permission.
You didn't have to ask to spend all that money?
I had a budget that came from Time Warner, and we spent it, as long as it yielded films that made a profit. Every year that we were at Time Warner, we did make a big profit for them. So they didn't challenge it too much. We had our budget meetings, but that was it. At the end of the whole thing, I was thinking, geez, it would be really terrific if we could have three films. He said, these films, they're not going to be more than $80 million each. So I said, "How about doing three?" And there was a silence over the room. And Ken Kamins, who was his agent at the time, kicked him... I think. I heard a noise, and what I think was Ken kicked Peter under the table so hard that it almost broke his leg. So, the answer to your question is, it's true.
Ambition is out now on Digital and On Demand, and releases on DVD and Blu ray on November 5.