Paul Mazursky: A 50-Year Independent Streak

Los Angeles Film Critics honoree says he could make 10 movies (five of 'em good) for the price of one recent flop

Most of the people who'll likely be hitting the town and taking home awards on this craziest of Hollywood weekends will do so for the hot movies of the moment: Colin Firth for "The King's Speech," Natalie Portman for "Black Swan," Christian Bale for "The Fighter," David Fincher for "The Social Network" …

Paul MazurskyBut in the midst of a three-day stretch that will see the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Movie Awards, the AFI Awards, the BAFTA/LA Awards Season Tea Party, the Film Independent Spirit Awards Nominees Brunch and a boatload of soirees and shindigs, 80-year-old director, writer and actor Paul Mazursky will take the stage at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association dinner to receive that group's Lifetime Achievement Award.

"It’s impossible to imagine American independent cinema in its current form without Paul Mazursky, in all his multi-hyphenate glory,” said LAFCA president Brent Simon in the release announcing his selection. Indeed, Mazursky – whose films include "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Harry and Tonto," "An Unmarried Woman" and "Enemies a Love Story," you could say that Mazursky help lay the groundwork for many of the films and filmmakers that will also be hitting the awards circuit this weekend. And while he may not work as often, Mazursky is still forthright and opinionated. 

What was your reaction when you learned about the L.A. Film Critics award?
I never expect anything like that. I mean, when I was a young writer-director, I got nominated for the screenplay for "Harry and Tonto" and "Bob & Carol," the screenplay for "Unmarried Woman," Best Picture for "An Unmarried Woman," screenplay for "Enemies a Love Story" and "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" …  You start to really want it. And of course you don't get it.

The best thing is to not give a s___.  But this one is touching. I won once at the New York Film Critics, but I think LA is weirder and more independent. It's funkier. I like it. 

Do you think you laid the groundwork for today's independent cinema?
I think my movies appear to be independent, but they were all studio movies. In those days, in the late '60s, the '70s and the '80s, it was possible to make films that were more like what an independent film is now. It's changed radically – you can't make 'em now.

Why could you make them then?
I had good luck in finding a few executives. Alan Ladd Jr., who is a friend of mine, gave me the green light for "Harry and Tonto." An old man and a cat. 980,000 bucks, traveling across America, no movie star, and Art Carney won the Oscar. "Next Stop Greenwich Village," one of my favorites: Jewish boy in Brooklyn, lower middle class family, leaves Brooklyn, goes to Greenwich Village, the beat generation, bada boom. Who would make that movie today? Laddie gave it the green light.

"An Unmarried Woman" was turned down nine times. Every studio turned it down. Morons. Fox paid for the script, but passed on it because they had so  many women's movies they were scared. They had the Altman movie, "3 Women," they had "Julia," and they said, "We don’t want to do another women's thing." I said, "Of all the movie's I've ever written, except for 'Bob & Carol,' this is the most commercial." They didn't believe me, but "The Omen" had opened and made money. Laddie said, "We got money from 'The Omen.' If you can make it for 2 million bucks, do it." It cost 2.2. It's a pretty good movie.

An Unmarried WomanAnd you don’t see that kind of executive anymore?
No. Now it's like squeezing blood. You gotta get money from Europe, Ethiopia, Canal Plus, Focus …  You're not sure about distribution. Who’s the actor? You're dealing with CAA, they want too much money, badda boom badda bum badda boom. Many, many projects now come close and they don’t get made, whereas they do make a lot of movies that should be in garbage cans.

And here now, I'm a little shocked sometimes at the budgets that some people get to make a movie. The Jim Brooks movie ("How Do You Know") cost 100 million dollars. A hundred million. I could make 10 movies for that right now, and I guarantee you five of them would be very good. I don’t know about 10, but I have very good scripts right here that haven’t been made.

What's the biggest budget you ever worked with?
Probably "Scenes from a Mall." "Moon over Parador," which has 7,00 extras in Brazil, ended up costing about 18 million. But "Scenes from a Mall" was Woody Allen and Bette Midler, and I had to shoot it in New York because Woody wouldn't work in L.A. The studio really wanted Woody Allen and Bette Midler, and by the time their salaries came in and my salary came in – because if they're gonna get a lot of money, I'm  gonna get a lot of money – that was about 10 million bucks for the three of us. So it ended up costing about 20 million. It shouldn't have. Everybody should have worked cheaper.

You've been involved with movies that resonated in the culture in a way most don’t. Does it take you by surprise when that happens?
Well, you worry about it until the first preview. The first preview of "Bob & Carol" was in Denver. There's a moment early in the movie when Elliott Gould wants to get laid, and Dyan Cannon is disgusted, having found out that Bob [Robert Culp] had cheated on his wife [Natalie Wood], and she told them about it as if it’s a good thing, them being open with each other.

And they get into bed, and he's smoked a joint and is horny as can be. And Dyan says to him finally, "Do you want me to do it just like that, with no feeling on my part?" And Elliott says, "Yeah." It was a five-minute laugh in Denver. Not in New York, not in L.A. Denver. You couldn't hear a f___ing thing. I knew then it was going to be a big hit.

Bob & Carol & Ted & AliceI knew from the preview of "Alex in Wonderland," it's not gonna make a nickel. "Blume in Love," I knew it was going to do okay, but it could have done better. "Unmarried Woman," we had a very good preview in San Diego, but not through the roof. I didn’t know on that one until the day it opened in New York, when they took me in a limo to see the line at the theater where it opened. We're driving up, and I see no line. And I say to the publicist, "I'm gonna slink down, let's get out of here." I don’t wasn’t anybody to see me, it's bomb, it's a turkey. And as we make the turn, I see a massive line that began around the corner and went all the way around the building. Do I know why? I don’t know.

Did you ever feel as if you were going against the grain?
I was made to feel that at a certain point, when they didn't want to do some of my movies and I didn't know why. But it's a peculiar thing: I never thought, I'm going against the grain, I'm going to inform America about the problem of women, about society, about the bums on the street. I just thought, is this a good story, and can I make it work?

The European directors I love really showed me that. You make the movie you want to make, that engages you, the movie that you have to make. They got away with it for a long time. And I guess I did too.