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His two production companies have been
springboards for a generation of directors moving from music videos to feature films.
[Zoë Bruns caught Steve between telephone calls at his office in Culver City, CA.]
ZOË: In 1986, you started your first production company, Propaganda, specializing in music videos. You realized their potential influence on pop culture well before the rest of the film industry.
STEVE: Back then, I firmly believed that as MTV grew, music videos would have a huge impact on TV commercials and movies in the not-too-distant future and that's exactly what happened. Music videos popularized a much choppier, slicker, glossier look. Miami Vice was born out of that, with its bright colors and its emphasis on fashion and music.
ZOË: Propaganda became a magnet for directors doing music videos and commercials who would later go on to successful film careers. You represented directors such as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry when they were just starting out.
STEVE: Dominic Sena, David Fincher, Nigel Dick, and Greg Gold were our four original directors. Propaganda became successful right away because those guys were so hot at the time.
ZOË: It seems like you had very close relationships with your directors at Propaganda, more so than at other companies.
STEVE: Yeah, we really nurtured our directors, helping them through the transition from directing shorts to making feature-length movies. I've always enjoyed working with filmmakers who want to work on a lot of different types of projects I don't want to work with people who only do movies, or only do commercials. That was and still is
my philosophy. We also had a very good eye for identifying talent. And we could be very persuasive in signing meetings.
ZOË: It's a very competitive business. How do you convince directors that your company is the best one out there?
STEVE: A director needs to know that you will give them the best representation, and that you have a really good vision of their career development. We had a wide scope of projects to offer directors videos, commercials, and, from 1992 onwards, movies.
ZOË: You have produced some of the most inventive movies of the past few years Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Nurse Betty. The scripts for those films are really out there you'd never guess they were funded by major studios.
STEVE: To me, an indie film has more to do with a state of mind than with who is financing it. You can make an indie film with a studio, and you can make a studio film with an indie company. Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite were both independent films produced by Fox Searchlight. Eternal Sunshine was an independent film, even though Focus Features is owned by Universal. Many of the indie production companies are now owned by the big studios, as was Propaganda.
ZOË: Polygram bought half of Propaganda in '87, and the rest in '92.
STEVE: Yeah. That was when we really started to concentrate on making movies. None of the other video and commercial production companies would have tried to transition into making films. But making movies had always been our original goal.
ZOË: Did you get bored producing music videos and commercials?
STEVE: It was fun in the beginning. I still like doing it, and I continue to be very involved in that world. But there's not much longevity to that stuff. A commercial is only on the air for, say, three months. Music videos get longer play. But if you make a good movie, it'll be shown forever.
ZOË: You grew up in the 1970s, one of the golden ages of American cinema.
STEVE: The films of that period really inspired me to get into the business Mean Streets, Being There, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, even Jaws. I studied film at NYU, and then I enrolled in the producing program at the American Film Institute. But I didn't know anything about how the business actually worked when I graduated in 1981. My first business partner, Joni Sighvahtsson, and I really didn't have a clue what we were doing in the beginning. I started out working as a line producer for Roger Corman on low-budget movies, while trying to get my own projects going at the same time.
ZOË: Were you writing your own screenplays?
STEVE: I was mostly working with writers I'd met at film school, like John Dahl and David Warfield. We were all good friends. In '83 or '84, they invited Joni and me to produce a music video they were directing. It wasn't for anyone particularly famous, but producing music videos felt so much better than working on shitty low-budget movies. We used the money we made to develop our own projects. By the time we started Propaganda, Joni and I had worked on tons of videos.
ZOË: You guys dominated the video and commercial industry throughout the 1990s.
STEVE: Building Propaganda was a very organic process. I already had long-standing relationships with that generation of new talent because they were my friends. I never imagined how big the company would become. It's funny at first the studios were so doubtful that video and commercial directors could become movie directors. Jerry Bruckheimer took a huge risk when he gave Michael Bay a multi-million-dollar budget for his first feature, Bad Boys, in 1995. A lot of our directors who were up-and-coming at the time have gone on to become some of the biggest movie directors in the business. Spike Jonze, David Fincher, and Mark Romanek, who directed One Hour Photo, were all there in the mid-'90s. It was an awesome time. I was heartbroken when I got fired. It was really fucked up.
ZOË: What happened?
STEVE: After Seagram bought Polygram, Propaganda was sold off in 1999 to this bunch of total idiots at an investment group called SPC. At that time, there was so much money flying around because of the internet boom they paid a ridiculous amount of money. But they didn't know anything about the business and went bankrupt. They ruined a great company.
ZOË: It must have been hard to walk away from a company that you'd built from scratch. But you bounced back almost immediately you founded your new production company, Anonymous Content, later that year. How did you convince yourself you could do it all over again?
STEVE: My anger fueled me. I woke up every day and told myself, "I'm going to succeed, and I'm going to fuck those guys." I think that attitude damaged my health in the long run. So did all the hard work getting Anonymous Content off the ground.
ZOË: Why was it so taxing?
STEVE: I was older and had a bit less energy. And most of my contacts were still signed to Propaganda, so I had to convince people to move over. I wanted to make Anonymous as big as possible as quickly as I could.
ZOË: You certainly managed that. You guys boast
an impressive roster of talent, like Wong Kar-Wai and Gore Verbinski, who directed Pirates of the Caribbean. Anonymous Content has over one hundred employees, with a management arm that represents writers
STEVE: Yeah, especially considering all the shit that happened within those first few years. There was the actors' strike in 2000, when the actors' unions, SAG and AFTRA, rose up against the commercial advertisers. Then there was a massive advertising recession, and then September 11th. And, in 2002, I got sick with bone cancer.
ZOË: How did you manage to run the business and take care of yourself?
STEVE: It was a rough fucking ride but everybody at Anonymous was really supportive and worked together to keep the company going. It was a miracle, because at one point I was really out of it. There are eight months when I have almost no memory of what happened. A week after I had my last cancer treatment, I moved to New York for ten months while we filmed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I remember how cold it was there. I didn't have any hair when we began shooting, but it had grown back by the time we finished.
ZOË: How many projects does Anonymous Content have under development at any given time?
STEVE: We have something like thirty-five projects in different stages at the moment. We develop movies both with studios and on our own. Right now we're developing a script in-house with one of our directors, Malcolm Venville it's called Perception. We're also developing William Gibson's most recent book, Pattern Recognition, with Peter Weir directing, at Warner Brothers.
ZOË: Did you always have Peter in mind?
STEVE: No, but I've always wanted to work with him. We were having lunch together just as he was finishing Master and Commander. I told him I had optioned the book, which he had read and loved. It was proving tricky to adapt, so we started talking about possible solutions. It just seemed natural to do it together. Peter's working on the adaptation now with David Arata.
ZOË: Do you prefer to buy scripts that are ready
STEVE: It totally depends on what it is. Chad Hamilton, who works with me, gave me a copy of Pattern Recognition to read and bugged me about it for months. It was intriguing, but I wasn't immediately like, "I have to have this." I went back and forth with the agent for about six months before I eventually optioned it. But I don't have a rule. I'll buy a magazine article, a book, a script, a pitch, it doesn't matter to me it's simply about whether I like it or not.