Historically, few Hollywood agents have become successful film producers, and probably none in the past 50 years has done better than Barry Mendel, whose Judd Apatow film “Funny People” opens this week. Twice nominated for Oscars, (“The Sixth Sense,” “Munich”), Mendel began agenting as a way to learn the business while figuring out his true path. He talked with Eric Estrin about how he landed his first client — and which line from “Rushmore” sums up his life.
I was in bands when I was young, and I moved to L.A. in hopes of making money as a musician. It wasn’t terrible, but I was barely getting by. After a while, I decided to just bail and give up the dream.
I thought maybe I could get a job as a creative executive in Hollywood — I was a creative person, and I would see that job title when I read the trades. But no one would hire me. I somehow forced my way into interviews, and people would say, “There’s like a million people who want these jobs, and most of them are more qualified than you.”
Then I would ask how did they get started. They all seemed to start in the mailrooms of agencies. That’s where David Geffen started; that’s where Bernie Brillstein started; that’s where directors like Walter Hill and John Badham started. Everything goes through agencies.
And then I thought: I know a lot of movies, but I have no credits, no experience, no years in the business, no Type-A personality, no major relationships. If I try to work in movies, what am I gonna bring to the table? I thought, well, writers and directors of movies, and actors, too, respect people who know a lot about film. That’s one thing I can control.
I decided to become the most well versed person about film in the room at the beginning of my career as a way of having a reason to be there without feeling like a complete faker.
I started watching movies and making lists of all the films that were nominated for Best Screenplay, or all the films that were nominated for Best Director, or all the films of Ingmar Bergman or whoever. So over the course of five years, it was like my predilections came out by forcing myself to watch so many films.
Really, through that process I discovered who I was and what my taste was. It happened in a very simple but unconscious way.
While that was going on, I got an interview for ICM’s training program, and I gave them the answers I figured they were looking for. I got the job.
Then I found out this novelist who I’d really admired was also a very prestigious screenwriter, and that was Calder Willingham. So I wrote him a two-page letter in care of his publisher, asking him why he hadn’t published anything lately. He called me a few months later and asked me to represent him. I wasn’t even a full agent, but he became my first client.
I began working with him and developed other clients as well and eventually got to become an agent and represent people.
When he died suddenly from lung cancer, I realized that doing that job for him was almost something I would have done for free. It was a great learning experience — I couldn’t believe I got to do it. It almost made me euphoric in a way. The rest of my work representing other clients and stuff like that was more of a job. It was a good job; it paid well and it gave me great access, and I learned a lot about the business, but it was a job.
So after he died I was curious if there was a profession I could enter where I felt that great sense of euphoria all the time. I came to believe that there was — and that producing was it.
I was offered a lot of jobs as a studio executive when I was an agent. I had really good clients that reflected my sensibilities, and people knew that I really worked hard on the scripts with writers or worked hard on the movies for directors and really helped those people with their creative decision-making. Also, I had proven that I knew the business side.
So as the offers kept coming and I realized it was time for me to become a producer, I would just say, I don’t want to be a studio executive — but if you want to work with me, here’s a way to do it. I was fortunate enough to get that call from Hollywood Pictures at the time Michael Lynton and Charles Hirschhorn were running it in 1996, and they were kind enough to give me a deal and to stake me.
I failed pretty badly for a couple of years. But then toward the end of my deal, the last people that I would have expected came around. Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson called. They said, “Hey, do you want to produce this movie we’re trying to do … ‘Rushmore’?” And right around the same time, I got a call from M. Night Shyamalan, who was interested in talking to me about working on the “The Sixth Sense.”
So at the last minute, it turned around for me.
Everybody spends a lot of time trying to figure out, “Do I make this move or that move,” and my belief is, No, you don’t need to do any of that. Everybody has their own unique course of action. You need to follow your own course and listen to yourself. And if you do that, it’ll take you where you’re meant to go.
That’s actually what Max Fischer said in “Rushmore.” The Bill Murray character asked him, “What’s the secret, Max?” And he said, “I don’t know, I think you’ve just gotta find something you like to do and then do it for the rest of your life.”
I guess that’s the ticket.