Cannon fodder

From 'Revenge of the Ninja' to 'Delta Force', director / producer Menachem Golan is noted more for the quantity than the quality of his output. Geoffrey Macnab met him on the Croisette in Cannes, where this year, like every other year since 1965, he has been promising more than he can possibly deliver
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Once upon a time, or so the Cannes legend goes, a well-known German director burst into his Israeli producer's office on the Croisette, levelled a shotgun at his head, and threatened to pull the trigger unless he was paid for his work on a recently completed film. The producer, courteous and unflappable, pulled a pen from his top pocket and, with a flourish, wrote out a cheque for the outstanding amount. The director meekly said thank you and went home happy. The cheque (inevitably) bounced.

A few nights ago, a table of journalists reminisced about the producer in question. It was like a scene out of Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose. Everybody seemed to have a story. And every story told strained the bounds of credibility.

Menachem Golan, the source of all this colourful Apocrypha, is best known in Britain as the eminence grise behind the Cannon cinema chain; the man who, together with his younger cousin Yoram Globus, force-fed film-goers a diet of atrocious action pics during the dog days of British cinema in the early 1980s. The industry takes a more sympathetic view of a producer / entrepreneur who had chutzpah in spades, even if he didn't pay his bills.

In Cannes this year with The Road to Glory, his Minsk-based remake of that old Al Jolson classic, The Jazz Singer, Golan doesn't cut quite as an impressive a figure as in his heyday. No longer is every billboard on the Croisette and every second page in the trade press plastered with advertisements announcing future Golan ventures (few of which ever got made anyway). But the veteran Israeli mountebank (who, or so the story goes, recently staged The Sound of Music in Yiddish) still talks a good picture. The Road to Glory, he explains, is the story of a Cantor in 19th- century Russia who "becomes very famous, but betrays his faith". It has elements of both Crime and Punishment and Fiddler on the Roof (Golan claims to have discovered Topol). And it's much better than either the Jolson version or the Neil Diamond remake.

"No, it wasn't a shotgun," Golan replies when asked about the reputed incident with the angry German director. "Barbet Schroeder came to my office with a chainsaw." And no, it wasn't to collect the money Golan had somehow forgotten to pay him. "He said he was going to cut off his finger if I didn't make his film."

Golan had told Schroeder he needed a week to consider the offer and that he was going to London in the interim. The dogged German followed him across the Channel. One night, exactly a week later, he was warned by a security guard that there was a man with a chainsaw waiting for him on the street. "And that's how we came to make Barfly together," he chuckles, remembering the meandering Charles Bukowski-scripted yarn about a pair of old soaks (Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway) in downtown LA which Schroeder directed for him in 1987.

By Golan's standards, this was a perfectly normal way of doing business. When he and Globus were at their peak, Cannon was one of the largest film companies in Europe. Film-makers from all over the world, red-blooded action directors and European auteurs alike, beat a track to their doors.

Out of a strange perversity, this most commercially-minded of producers sometimes backed films so obscure and so difficult that one doubts even their directors' mothers went to see them. A case in point, and one which brings us to the most famous Golan anecdote of all, is Jean-Luc Godard's 1987 effort, King Lear, starring Burgess Meredith (Penguin in the 1960s Batman TV series) as the ornery old king and bratpacker Molly Ringwald as his daughter. "Ah," he smiles, "the napkin story."

Godard (whose new TV documentaries on L'Histoire du Cinema screened in Cannes earlier in the week) has made some of the most provocative, brilliant movies in film history, but he has spelt commercial death at the box-office since around 1968, when he fell under the deadening spell of Brecht, Mao and radical student politics. Nevertheless, when Godard appeared at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes demanding to see Golan, the producer hurried down to meet him in the bar. "He told me the story of King Lear - the way he wanted to do it. For me, the idea of any Godard movie was attractive."

The contract was promptly signed then and there ... on the back of a napkin. "Jean-Luc is the kind of a guy who shakes your hand and then goes straight into production," says Golan with obvious admiration for the French director's brisk, business-like approach. He continues: "If you're serious and professional, and you both know what you're doing, you don't need 70 lawyers to draw up a contract ... a napkin is enough."

The napkin in question is now a collector's item. Golan claims he was recently offered $10,000 to sell it to a museum in New York. (That was one deal he was not prepared to make.)

It sums up Golan's schizophrenic approach to cinema, his habit of oscillating wildly between art and commerce, that, at around the same time he was producing Godard's Lear, he was directing Sylvester Stallone as an arm- wrestling cab driver in Over the Top (another project apparently conceived on a hotel napkin). Golan's credits encompass everything from Robert Altman's Fool for Love and John Cassavetes' Love Streams to Enter the Ninja, The Delta Force and assorted shockers with Charles Bronson and Van Damme.

In the old days, Golan admits, he wasn't always discerning in his choice of material. "I'm doing less now, but I'm choosing more carefully." He has recently gone into business with a Frankfurt hotelier-turned-film magnate called Mr Blodinger. (His erstwhile partner Globus now runs a chain of theatres in Israel: "We don't work together any more.")

No interview with Golan in Cannes would be complete without the announcement of at least one unlikely new project. Sure enough, Golan and Blodinger are busy trying to hatch a new thriller-cum-biopic loosely based on the story of Italian fashion designer Gucci, who was murdered last year. It's not clear what shape this film will take. Nor is Golan entirely certain what will be an appropriate title. "We can't call it Gucci, so we're calling it The Rise and Fall of a Dynasty ... G," he explains. The story will touch on infidelity, the Mafia and the Middle East crisis, and "will be set in the glamorous world of fashion".

For Golan, a film follows a natural cycle. You announce it in Cannes one year and show it the next. That, at least, is the theory. In practice, you announce it ... and then come back a year later to announce another one. Only rarely do you go to the inconvenience and expense of actually making it.

Whether or not Golan's Gucci gangster pic turns up in one of the little market cinemas in the backstreets of Cannes next May, the producer / director himself is sure to be back in town. He first came to Cannes in 1965 and hasn't missed a year since. "I love it, it's unique ... far more important than the Oscars".