‘How We Launched Quentin Tarantino’

Financier Michael Mendelsohn was on the ground floor of “Reservoir Dogs.”

If, as some say, making a deal is the most creative work done in Hollywood, Michael Mendelsohn’s career is a shining example of creativity. Working with a variety of banks and hedge fund investors, Mendelsohn’s company, Union Patriot Capital, has financed close to 300 movies for a total of more than $1.8 billion. Through another company, Patriot Pictures, he produces such projects as the recently completed "All’s Faire in Love" with Christina Ricci and comedian Owen Benjamin. Eric Estrin spoke with Mendelsohn about his career, his work with Silvio Berlusconi, and launching Quentin Tarantino.

I went to work at a place in New York that represented the legal and business affairs of a lot of big Hollywood names — Johnny Carson, Bill Cosby, David Letterman. I worked as a mail boy there, and then I went to work in the mailroom of William Morris in New York.

Ari Emanuel of Endeavor was my roommate in New York, and when we moved to L.A., he slept on my couch for seven months. Those "Entourage" episodes only capture 10 percent of Ari.

Our group of friends included Peter Berg, Steve Brill, Eric Heffron and Keith “Kizzy” Norton. Everybody went their own way and excelled in their own field. For me it was banking and production finance and producing; for Berg it was writing-directing; for Ari it was deal-making and agency-building. Brill went on to do those “Mighty Ducks” movies. Heffron went on to be the first A.D. for the biggest movies around — the Marvel movies, “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man.” The "Turtle" character on "Entourage" was based on Norton. He later died of cancer.

I went to work for Union Bank of California and created their entertainment media lending operation. Then I went on to the Paribas Group.  I worked there for 10 years.  Paribas decided that they wanted me to manage their money independently. 

My first experiences were on the creative side. I had done an internship at Columbia Pictures under Jon Dolgen and worked as a reader for Aaron Spelling and Fox. So while people in banking would only look at contracts, I would actually read the scripts and look at casting, because that was more the architectural blueprint for how successful a movie was going to be.

There were a couple of projects that we got done that nobody else could do. There was one called "The Fortunate Pilgrim" with Sophia Loren. NBC had budgeted it at over $35 million, and we took it to Yugoslavia and did a co-production with a little known guy at the time named Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. We put together a miniseries that we ended up making for $14 million. So that was a breakthrough.

And then the next one was when LIVE Entertainment was going bankrupt, and we had to pick two movies that we were going to finance, and one of them was "Reservoir Dogs," which would not have gotten financed were it not for us believing in Quentin Tarantino and Lawrence Bender. I had never heard of Quentin before this time.

Lawrence called me to ask me what he should wear to the meeting — now I ask him what I should wear. And then they came in, and Quentin spoke a mile a minute. You’d ask him what he thought about a scene, and he just launched into what he thought and what he was going to do with it.

You know, we don’t always need to agree 100 percent with the person we’re working with; we look to see whether that person has the vision and the passion to deliver what he says he’s going to deliver. We gave Quentin what he asked for, which was a million-four at the time; subsequently, it cost a little more for the soundtrack.

He didn’t have a track record so, you know, I was fully prepared to own it. And then LIVE came back to life and was able to pay off the loan.