Dino De Laurentiis: The last emperor of Hollywood producers
I remember having drinks one night with an ambitious young producer who was still trying to find his place in the industry. But he already knew his role model — Dino De Laurentiis. And why? “Because regardless of whether the movies were good or bad,” the young producer said admiringly, “he kept getting them made. He’s a guy who knows how to get things done.”
De Laurentiis, who died Wednesday night at age 91, was the last emperor of Hollywood producers, a man who made movies with everyone from Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard and David Lynch to Sidney Lumet, Michael Cimino and Brett Ratner, as well as a host of hacks that were never heard from again. Along the way, De Laurentiis changed the shape of the movie business, inventing the system of financing films by selling off movie distribution rights to foreign territories. Most independent producers still live by that today.
A diminutive man with outsized ambition, De Laurentiis knew how to coddle movie stars, court lordly filmmakers and hustle up money from the most unlikely sources. His English was never good, but being a consummate salesman, he knew exactly how to get to the heart of any matter. Even though most of the original creative team behind “Silence of the Lambs” wanted nothing to do with the sequel, eventually known as “Hannibal,” Dino forged ahead undaunted, proclaiming: “The pope dies, you get another pope.”
When critics and historians celebrate the great movie producers, they often forget that the real art of the profession involves problem solving. Sometimes De Laurentiis used charm, but sometimes he relied on cunning and stealth. When Fellini refused to cut a glacially paced 10-minute segment out of “Nights of Cabiria,” De Laurentiis simply stole the footage from the editing room. In the 1970s, when people told him there were no facilities to house his crew on Bora Bora where he wanted to film his disaster epic “Hurricane,” De Laurentiis bought a freighter to ferry the equipment and built housing for his crew and an army of extras.
Stacey Snider made several films, including “Red Dragon” and “U-571,” with De Laurentiis when she was chairman of Universal Pictures. She found the producer “unbelievably charismatic,” but what she valued the most was De Laurentiis’ professionalism. “Even though we were financing the pictures, Dino treated everything as if it was his own money,” she told me Thursday. “If he gave you a number for the budget, he’d come in right on the mark.”
In 2001, not long after 9/11, Snider was organizing the studio’s annual retreat, made all the more important that year as a way to bring some good cheer to people still trying to get over the heartbreak of the terrorist attacks. “We had hired the Gipsy Kings to be the entertainment, because we thought their music would be joyous and life-affirming, but they were in Europe and with all of the post-9/11 security measures, they couldn’t get visas to get into the country.”
Who could possibly solve such a thorny problem? Snider called De Laurentiis. He came by the studio, sat at Snider’s assistant’s desk and made a number of phone calls, which were punctuated by a lot of emphatic yelling in Italian. After nearly an hour, De Laurentiis hung up the phone, turned to Snider and said, “Don’t worry. It’s done. They’ll be here.”
After Snider profusely thanked him, De Laurentiis revealed an extra tidbit of information. “It’s not really the Gipsy Kings — it’s their cousins,” he said with a sly smile. “But they play their music. No one will know the difference.” Snider laughs telling the story now. “And it’s true — no one did know the difference,” she says. “They put on a great show. Everyone loved every minute of it.”
De Laurentiis was great with talent, always knowing what button to push, what weak spot to attack. He was shrewd enough to know that everything began with the script. Unsure of his English, he had an assistant at the ready to translate everything into Italian. De Laurentiis was always hiring the likes of David Mamet or Steve Zaillian to work on his projects, knowing they would lend an aura of class to the proceedings.
Lorenzo Semple Jr., who first got to know De Laurentiis while writing “Three Days of the Condor” for him, says that De Laurentiis wasn’t impressed by clever dialogue. “He’d always say, ‘I don’t want to be fooled by pretty words. Just tell me a good story,’ ” Semple recalls. Semple’s agent, however, tried to keep him away from De Laurentiis, worried that the producer would somehow woo Semple into writing disaster epics instead of more ambitious work.
“But Dino knew my weakness,” says Semple, who went on to write less distinguished pictures like “Hurricane” and the 1976 “King Kong” for De Laurentiis. “He’d call me up and say, ‘How’d you like to come London? I’ll send you a couple of tickets for the Concorde. We’ll have a good time.’ And that’s how I’d fall under his power. My agent would beg me not to go, but I couldn’t resist. I liked Dino too much.” It hardly mattered if the movies were memorable or not. Everyone was happy to be around De Laurentiis. He was small in stature but when it came to filmmaking, he was larger than life.
Photo: Dino De Laurentiis at his home in Beverly Hills, in a file photograph from 1984.
Credit: Wally Fong/Associated Press