On the 25th anniversary of Kiss Of The Spiderwoman, its producer David Weisman talks about its ongoing legacy, and his current collaboration with Paul Schrader on the Bollywood/Hollywood fusion Xtreme City.
You started out designing film posters… how did you make the move into filmmaking?
I was in art-school (1960-2) at Syracuse University where Lou Reed and I shared classes and saw our first foreign film, La Dolce Vita – an epiphany that drove me to drop out of school and flee to Rome. A knack for languages and Candide-like serendipity led to doing film posters for Pasolini and Fellini which in 1966 led to meeting Otto Preminger who hired me as graphic designer for Hurry Sundown to punish Saul Bass for tardiness with his new logo sketches. Otto effectively mentored me in the film business - and quite an education that was, much of it auf deutsch, by the way. While uptown with Preminger I got mixed up with the underground “Silver Factory” crowd downtown at Max’s Kansas City which led to co-directing Edie Sedgwick (with Warhol acolyte John Palmer) in my first film Ciao! Manhattan – whereupon Otto dumped me as an ingrate, so it was ciao to the graphic-design career …
I spent part of each year in Brazil up to 1969 but once things got scary under the dictatorship I stayed away until 1981. Leonard Schrader and I had made a film that was big in Japan and next sought a project below the equator: Len knew Latin American literature, I was fluent in Portuguese, so back to Brazil I went where serendipitously I met Manuel Puig and the rest was history.
25 years after Kiss of the Spider Woman was acclaimed Cannes in 1985, it opened Cannes Classics and is being re-released. Why do you think it still has relevance today?
In April 1986 – shortly after Spider Woman had been honored by the top 4 Academy Award nominations - I stepped into the elevator of a Beverly Hills office-tower. While the lift glided upward a dapper gnome-like gentleman kept staring at me in silence through huge spectacles. Finally he spoke in a gruff Mittel-Europa accent: “You are Veisman, correct?” Nervous, I nodded. He reached into his pocket for something then shook my hand, saying: “You haff taught this town a lesson it vill never forget. And I thank you for that.” He exited at his floor and I gazed at the engraved name-card he’d left in my palm: Billy Wilder.
Spider woman changed the meaning of “independent”…how did you make the film outside the studio system?
For me “Independent” means a film without a penny of film-business money in it until answer-print. In other words, it lives or dies by the goodness of the movie – not through pre-sales, elaborate marketing schemes, or output deals. In our case each equity investor was an art collector who wanted to see the film come to life as a work of art. Money was an afterthought – hard to imagine today, but it was that watershed moment during the 1980s before money became all that mattered, and the feeding frenzy ensued. Spider Woman sent a message anything was possible – and inspired a lot of people to go out there and try it themselves. The documentary Tangled Web, where we all tell the tale, best expresses the exhilaration of that wild cinematic rollercoaster-ride.
Your’e working with Paul Schrader on Hollywood/Bollywood fusion Xtrme City. How did it come about? What does it represent in the film world?
When Leonard Schrader died in 2006, his vast archive of vintage lobbycards (1) was serendipitously acquired by a visionary film-buff in Mumbai who brought Paul Schrader and me to India. Much has been written about this Bollywood-Hollywood fusion project (2) but The Guardian headline suggests a paradigm shift: “Paul Schrader storms out of Hollywood for Bollywood” (3)
Paul has devised a hybrid story that bridges two great filmmaking traditions. (4) His co-writer is my producing partner, Mushtaq Shiekh, whose screen credits include Shah Rukh Khan‘s 2006 megahit Om Shanti Om. Whenever Bollywood fans hear the screenwriters of Taxi Driver and Om Shanti Om have teamed up there’s a stunned beat of silence - followed by an “oh-my-god-I-cannot-wait to see THAT!”
What is the story about?
It’s both a traditional “buddy” film and “fish-out-of-water” story - a cross-cultural thriller designed for Bollywood and Hollywood co-stars. The emotional theme is “farz” - hindi for duty and burdens of obligation. Yes there will be musical numbers – Paul, Mushtaq and I love song and dance, once a wonderful Hollywood tradition lost in the 60s when musicals did not fit the times, now come full-circle. It’s another form of storytelling.
You believe in “zeitgeist”… how does it apply to your work? And where do you see yourself in five years time?
Five years ago I was immersed in my Edie Sedgwick book Girl On Fire(5); after 35 years she was back in my life from another serendipitous zeitgeist encounter: Len Schrader taught a screenwriting master-class at USC. I was addressing his students, during Q&A my “silver sixties” background arose; I was stunned how these future filmmakers had greater interest in Edie Sedgwick than Fellini, Preminger, Babenco. If someone then predicted 5 years later I’d be commuting to Mumbai, I’d have rolled my eyes. So go figure. I profoundly believe in zeitgeist but whenever I stumble into it, I’m astonished. Anyway now I’m studying hindi by learning Bollywood lyrics - a fascinating window into the world’s oldest civilization. Strange how the films of Karan Johar never fail to bring a tear to this foreigner’s eye.