Film: The great white shark of Tinseltown
Jeffrey Katzenberg reckons his new Dreamworks animation, The Prince of Egypt, is an epic to rival De Mille's. But then Bible-bashing is a competitive sport in Hollywood.
Thursday 10 December 1998
Jeffrey Katzenberg is the legendary 47-year-old cartoon czar who increased Disney's profits by 2,500 per cent (with movies such as The Lion King), and went on to found the first new Hollywood studio since its pre-war heydays. Dreamworks SKG was formed in October 1994 with the media mogul David Geffen, the director Steven Spielberg and Katzenberg himself. Needless to say, Katzenberg has everything to prove in the partnership; he even mortgaged his house to raise the $33m downpayment on his share of the company, a mere bagatelle for the immensely more wealthy Spielberg and Geffen.
"I want to make them proud of me," Katzenberg says, as usual, Mr Sentiment with acid for blood. Spielberg and Geffen proud of him? You see, the great white shark of Tinseltown has this unexpected need to be fathered. He wants to hide his teeth, float to the sunlit surface, and be petted. When he resigned from Disney shortly after being denied the top job there in 1994, he angrily sued Disney for $250m in percentages. This was only recently settled out of court. "It's about a father not being able to accept his son," Katzenberg then wailed to Time magazine. Uncle Walt, one feels, would have understood the boy better.
The Prince of Egypt - very much a Katzenbergian tale of stern fathers and errant sons - was the first Dreamworks film to be commissioned. As its director of animation, it is the forge on which Katzenberg's mettle is to be tested. After a frankly disastrous start with Amistad and The Peacemaker, Spielberg rode to Dreamworks rescue with Saving Private Ryan (nicknamed "Saving Dreamworks SKG" - gross so far: $420m). Add to that the comedy Mousehunt, Antz and the corny meteor yarn, Deep Impact, and the fledgling studio has had a much better year than foundering giants such as Warner Bros.
Katzenberg drums the table in front on him when I mention this run of successes. It's a combination of the touch-wood reflex and a desire to beat a triumphant I-told-you-so tattoo. It is clear that he likes to be reminded that his gamble is paying off. "It's been a great year," he yells, more like Danny De Vito in Get Shorty, the popular stereotype of the Hollywood mogul, than the cool and careful LA businessman which is what one assumes him to be.
He's giving out mixed messages, though. He waxes lyrical on the glories of his pet project: how he employed 400 people to make it; how he employed 700 people to research it - "theologians, hieroglyph readers, scholars"; and how he came up with a spectacle to "rival Cecil B De Mille". But then he resumes a black-finned, predatory demeanour in another part of the interview, assuring me coldly and without rancour that "if it bombs it isn't going to put the company in jeopardy - in a hard, cold light we'd have to look at what we'd done". These Hollywood sharks are strange beasts: when they scent blood, they swim in the opposite direction.
I question him, as everyone does, on subjects other than the movie. For most of this year, Dreamworks has been involved in environmental wrangles over the site it has chosen for its 50-acre studio lot as part of the larger Playa Vista development project. In July, an LA court slapped an injunction on the bulldozers moving in on the coastal wetlands because some rare species live there. What were the animals, I asked, and what did he think about their environmentalist friends who held up essential building work? "The animals are known as pigs," he exclaims with bizarre ferocity. "Pigs to the trough - it's all about greed", he says, rubbishing the environmentalists as lackeys to various predatory business interests. Yikes. So there will be no animations about frogs, then. Especially with an eco-friendly Ferngully plot.
He drags me back to the subject of the movie. He talks with the inanities of the salesman convinced of his pitch; of a salesman convinced that his corkscrew will answer all the world's ills. "Maybe the movie will give those who don't believe in miracles the hope that there were miracles, and can, or will be, miracles."
Didn't Moses marry a black woman, a Cushite from Eritrea? How come Katzenberg passed up a golden opportunity to play the ethnicity card? "Go back to the movie. She is black! She couldn't be more black." Well yes, in a white kind of way. Black. If he'd made her a little too ebony, rather than just coffee-and-cream, perhaps he thought he'd offend some of the Jewish faith. Does he practise a religion? "I'm not answering that question," he said blankly. "I've told everyone involved in publicising the project not to bring issues of their own religious faith into it."
Well, this seems a little disingenuous, Mr Katzenberg. Surely this version of the Exodus story is patent Judaeo-Christian proselytising? "For the last 70 years, animation has been seen as fairy tales," he posits. "We wanted to do something that wasn't a fairy tale - no dancing teapots." I suggest that someone of the humanist persuasion would see the Exodus story itself as little more than a fairy tale. "They are so insignificant," he counters with a snap of his jaw, imagining them as so much seafood. "Some people believe anything. This story is the foundation of faith for two-thirds of the world's population. It's not a fairy story in any respect."
It's clear where Katzenberg's agenda lies, even in his carefully worded PR release. "I hope audiences have a great time," he writes, "but I hope this movie engages them to want to know more about the story." In other words, Bible studies for everyone.
I present Katzenberg with the critique of Exodus by the uber-rake, the Marquis de Sade: how could one of the plagues of Egypt have killed all the horses, when we see horses bearing the Pharaoh's army in pursuit of the Israelites to the Red Sea? He won't answer the question and glares horridly at me. Oh well, I'm being churlish, I suppose. Not sufficiently respectful. In Hollywood, Katzenberg would have told me I'd never eat lunch in his town again, but luckily we're far from the warm waters of his customary cruising ground.
Later, Katzenberg is telling me about an upcoming animation project when I interject. "I know, it's called El Dorado, and it's about..." He continues to tell me what it's all about, but as he does, the title starts niggling away at me. It's only later that I realised why that is. Back in 1994, Steven Spielberg said to The New Yorker: "Jeffrey Katzenberg's exit will be Michael Eisner's Machiavellian loss - and Corporation X's El Dorado."
Corporation X is now making El Dorado. Tough luck on Disney? If the overblown Prince of Egypt is anything to go by, maybe not.
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