INTERVIEW / The man with the golden gun: Need to find a parody of a loud, flamboyant, hot-shot American film producer? Joel Silver is your man. Sheila Johnston reports

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The Independent Culture
Spot a caricature of a producer in a recent American movie, and the chances are he is based on Joel Silver. He was widely believed to be the blueprint for the cynical producer played by Steve Martin in Grand Canyon. Silver himself reckons the Coen brothers used him as the model for the eccentric studio mogul who urged the solemn young writer Barton Fink to jack in his social ambitions and write a wrestling picture. See, too, The Player passim.

Silver is a loud, flamboyant man with a talent for, as the Americans say, going ballistic against anyone who stands in his path. The idiom is perfectly tailored to a producer who specialises in gunpowder plots. Explosions, fires, bullets and bloodshed all figure prominently in Predator, Commando, 48 HRS, the Die Hards, The Last Boy Scout and the Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon series. They have proved big box-office: Beverly Hills Cop 3 is in prospect and in America Lethal Weapon 3 has been (pre-Batman) this summer's, indeed this year's, reigning hit. It opens in Britain next month.

In Who Framed Roger Rabbit he can be seen in person in the film's opening sequence, going ballistic when Roger screws up one of his scenes. 'I'd never acted since high school and I didn't really want to do it,' he recalls. 'Finally Bob Zemeckis's agent called me and said: if you don't do this movie he ain't ever gonna ever to talk to you again.' Since Zemeckis currently ranks as the most bankable box-office director in the world, Silver was not about to refuse. 'So I got on a plane, I came to London and I yelled at a refrigerator for about an hour.' Was all that easy for him? 'It was OK, I could do it . . . .' You can believe it.

Until recently, he was said to be media shy and refused to give interviews, a policy which resulted in a blistering profile in Premiere magazine. That article described him as cruel and overbearing and assembled an array of exceptionally poisonous comments about him. (Silver was so upset by it he finally agreed to talk to the journalist for a - much kinder - follow-up piece.) 'If Joel Silver had been around during World War II,' a former studio head was quoted as saying, 'Hitler wouldn't have looked so bad.'

That kind of mean-spirited remark is more damning of the person who made it than of Silver himself. And Steve Martin's parody is mean too; it doesn't convey his expansiveness. A big, bear-like man - affable, naturally, to journalists, but with a hint of ursine menace - ample belly swelling under his trademark tunic shirt, foot twitching restlessly, he clearly loves to be the object of attention.

'I don't make art, I buy art,' he said once in a careless moment, and the quote keeps returning to haunt him. He would be the last to pretend that his movies offer profoundly life-enriching experiences, but he is also defensive - even when unprovoked - about them. 'The Martin character in Grand Canyon was embarrassed by his own movies. I'm not embarrassed. I think they're great,' he says. 'I like making these movies,' he insists, at least six times in the course of 45 minutes.

However, Lethal Weapon 3 (which is set in LA) opened in the US two weeks after the riots and many American reviewers found in it an irresponsibly blithe and trigger-happy approach to human bloodshed. Some felt in particular that a comic scene in which Mel Gibson's cop harasses a jaywalker had unfortunate associations. Silver delivers the expected defence: it's only a movie. 'That scene is a fun scene, the audience got a kick out of it. I mean, Mel's not going to shoot the guy, we know his character, we know it's a joke. These movies are designed as entertainment. There's good guys and bad guys and the bad guys do bad things, the good guys chase them and the bad guys lose and the good guys win. That's what they are; they're westerns.

'We try to deal with themes that are socially relevant. We don't bang you over the head with them, but the first Lethal Weapon had the selling of drugs, the second Lethal Weapon had apartheid and this one has kids and guns in the street and bad cops. We're dealing with things out there in the world. But it's not Boyz N the Hood. That's another genre of picture, which I don't have a lot of experience in.

'I don't feel that my films are unmeaningful. I feel they are meaningful. Very meaningful. There's a very famous film by Preston Sturges called Sullivan's Travels. In it Joel McCrea plays this commerical director who makes cheesy comedies that are big hits. He feels that his life is being wasted, finds a book called Brother Where Art Thou? about the 'forgotten man' and decides to make a movie about it. When he gets out there he finds that people really want to have a good time and that he should be making the movies he makes because that's a gift he has.'

Silver's protestations of social conscience aren't quite as preposterous as they first seem: this is macho film-making of a high order, but he is canny enough to slip in a few good female roles to snag that audience (there is a tough, funny love interest for Gibson in Lethal Weapon 3). And he is also notable for showcasing black actors: Danny Glover in the Weapons, Denzel Washington in Ricochet, and Eddie Murphy, who effectively has Silver to thank for his film career. That, too, makes economic sense, of course, given the size of the black American audience, but it has also earned Silver a commendation from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He is a connoisseur of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and owns two Wright houses, in Los Angeles and South Carolina, which consume a sizeable part of his sizeable income. 'He had such understanding of space and light. It's really hard to explain just what it's like to live in a Wright house. Most people live in a shelter with walls and a ceiling and go through their life. In a Wright house, not a day goes by that I don't notice something I hadn't seen before, an angle that I realise is echoed somewhere else. It's almost complete emotion. And the sites are so beautiful, and the way he places the structure in the landscape.'

It seems a sharp paradox that most of Silver's films feature buildings being blasted to smithereens (it happens twice in Lethal Weapon 3). And, although Wright's work is a passion for him, he stalls when asked if he would ever like to make a film about him. 'I don't know. I mean, I live with him practically, but . . . I don't know. I love biopics, they've always excited me. Meanwhile I really like what I'm doing. The last nine years I've made nine films that have grossed over 100 million dollars. That's a pretty staggering record and I'm proud of that.

'The Player has grossed virtually no money, even though the media are obsessed by it] It's done about dollars 15, dollars 16 million in America (since we spoke, the figure has risen to nearly dollars 19 million - 'no money' only by Silver's inflated standards). I'm sure Altman loves all the press but I promise you that he would have liked to have made a lot more money. And if he had taken Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts and made the movie he was talking about within the movie, made that picture about a girl who was falsely accused and then he came to save her, it would have been 10 times more successful.' The Willis-Roberts movie-within-the-movie is scorned by Altman as the epitome of all that is crassly commercial and simple-minded in Hollywood, but Silver enthuses about the idea without a trace of irony.

It should be said that he has had his flops too: The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, for instance, a vehicle for the infamous Andrew Dice Clay, and, more expensively, Hudson Hawk. 'It became what I would call a feathered fish,' says Silver of his most notable disaster. 'Bruce (Willis) wanted to make a quirky movie, which he did, and audiences didn't buy it. It's a shame because there were some fun things in it, some goofy scenes and interesting characters. But there just wasn't enough there. And for me it was out of genre entirely. It was a weird, strange, special, unique movie that didn't find an audience.'

The great question hanging over Silver is whether he can maintain his success by repeating himself ad infinitum. Premiere recently ranked him 30th in its top 100 Hollywood players, with the proviso 'Mired in a single genre, his feet dangerously on the path to self-parody: Lethal Weapon is to Hudson Hawk as young Elvis is to Vegas Elvis.'

But, maybe out of fear of failure - of another Hudson Hawk - maybe out of desire to remain immersed in the innocent pleasures of his youth, Silver intends to cleave to the tried and true. Apart from Beverly Hills Cop 3, his immediate slate includes Sergeant Rock, a war movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and - his most adventurous project - a comedy directed by the Coen Brothers (evidently no rancour endures from Barton Fink). 'The action genre is always the action genre. The young male audience is always the young male audience. I try to stay in touch with it because even though I'm out of that 18-35 age group (he was 40 last Tuesday, Bastille Day) and a little past it, I still remember those movies and try to make them happen again.'

Lethal Weapon 3 opens in London on 14 August.

(Photograph omitted)

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