Hollywood puzzler: What do Eminem, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon have in common?
There was a long list of actors, some of them big stars, who dropped out of the running to play one of the two lead characters in "The Fighter." But when I was having lunch with "The Fighter" producer David Hoberman the other day, he revealed something I hadn't heard: The first person who had a shot at playing Micky Ward, the film's blue-collar hero eventually portrayed by Mark Wahlberg, was ... Eminem. "We actually first developed the project for him," said Hoberman, who spent so long putting "The Fighter" together at Paramount that the studio went through four production chiefs during the film's gestation period.
Actually, for showbiz insiders, the real shocker about "The Fighter" is that the film has earned Hoberman his first Oscar best picture nomination. Now 58, Hoberman has been a Hollywood fixture for decades, working for Norman Lear and then as an agent at ICM before joining Disney in the mid- 1980s, just after Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had began their herculean efforts to reinvent the studio. Hoberman became head of production at Touchstone in the late '80s before running Disney's entire motion group for a half-dozen years in the 1990s, cranking out family movies and warmhearted comedies.
Since 1996, Hoberman has headed Mandeville Films, where he's produced dozens of movies, including such easygoing comedy fare as "George of the Jungle," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "The Shaggy Dog," "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" and "The Proposal." Many of the movies have been hits, but none of them have attracted the kind of rave reviews that get you good seats at the Oscars — much less the seven nominations garnered by "The Fighter," including a best picture nod.
So for Hoberman (and his Mandeville producing partner Todd Leiberman), "The Fighter" is a huge first. Even though he insists he's never craved being in the Oscar game, Hoberman admits he's emotional about finally joining the elite best picture club. "Being 58, to have this movie after making more than 30 movies as a producer, it's a pretty extraordinary experience for me," he told me. "I'm really grateful for it, mostly because we put so much effort into getting the movie made."
That's an understatement. The producers tossed out the first script they commissioned when it played too much like a documentary. They brought in Lewis Colick, who penned a script that first got the project greenlighted. It was that point that the producers went to Wahlberg, who committed to playing Micky Ward. Paramount wanted to be in business with Darren Aronofsky, so he was brought in to direct. In the course of trying to find a name actor to play Ward's half brother, Dicky Eklund, the producers approached Matt Damon, who showed enough interest in the part that the producers hired an A-list screenwriter, Paul Attanasio ("Donnie Brasco"), to do a rewrite.
Hoberman isn't sure why Damon eventually passed — "maybe his schedule got nuts or maybe he didn't like the draft." But the production team moved on, zeroing in on Brad Pitt, who spent time talking to Aronofsky about the project. Hoping to reel Pitt in, the producers hired another writer, Scott Silver, to do a new draft of the script. Silver became a key player on the film, but Pitt eventually took a pass too.
To make matters worse, Aronofsky's movie "The Wrestler" became a film festival sensation and ended up being a leading contender in the 2009 Oscar race, earning the filmmaker a host of enticing studio offers. So he dropped out of the project too. "We totally understood," Hoberman says with a shrug. "He had a lot of great offers, all these people coming at him, and we still had nothing."
Regrouping, Hoberman and Lieberman sent the Silver script out to three new directors, including David O. Russell, who won everyone over with his ideas and energy. Russell had worked with Wahlberg in the past, so the actor was eager to stay involved. The producers approached a series of new actors for the Eklund part, including Joaquin Phoenix, of all people, but after Christian Bale threw his hat in the ring, everyone eagerly embraced him as being a perfect foil for Wahlberg.
Well, everyone except for Paramount, which was happy to release the film, but didn't want to finance it. With Wahlberg's help, Hoberman went to Ari Emanuel, Wahlberg's longtime agent, who recruited Ryan Kavanaugh's Relativity Media to put up the $25-million budget. "I totally understand Paramount's reluctance," Hoberman says. "Studios really aren't in the business of making these kind of dramas. They really didn't want to do an R-rated film if it didn't have stars like Brad Pitt or Matt Damon in it."
All's well that ends well. "The Fighter" not only found itself right smack in the middle of the Oscar race, but having already made $83 million, it has easily outgrossed Paramount films like "Dinner for Schmucks" and "Morning Glory," which are the kind of comic fluff that studios are willing to bankroll. As for Hoberman, he doesn't sound like a man who's been bitten by the Oscar bug.
"I'm a product of Jeffrey Katzenberg and the Walt Disney studio," he says. "Our whole identity was about doing comedies. If you look at the people we worked with back then, from Julia Roberts to Danny De Vito and Bette Midler, you could say we made stars, not Oscar films." Hoberman knows he's no Scott Rudin, who buys bestselling Oscar-bait novels the way kids buy baseball cards. "To this day, I'm still trying to find an executive who can bring books into our company, but I'll certainly never be that guy. As a producer, I was trained in the Disney system, and it just rubs off on you in terms of your interests."
So Hoberman is enjoying the limelight, but he isn't changing his style. He and Lieberman are producing "The Muppets," which finishes shooting at Disney on Friday. "This is one of those beautiful Hollywood moments, and I'm enjoying every minute," he says. "But I'm not like Dicky Eklund, who thought it wasn't good enough to just be in the ring, that you had to win. For me, just being around all these other great Oscar movies, that's good enough for me."
— Patrick Goldstein
Photo: David Hoberman at the Producers Guild Awards last month in Beverly Hills. Credit: Albert E. Rodriguez / Getty Images.