The Kid Stays in the Picture: "Robert Evans' world, and welcome to it"
What becomes a Hollywood legend most? In producer Robert Evans’ circumstances, it was the combination of a storied professional life at Paramount Pictures in the ’60s and ’70s and his personal life, populated by beautiful women and famous friends. It was also his spectacular and very public fall from grace—“a dive deeper than any Johnny Weissmuller ever took,” according to the producer.
Starting as a New York-based fashion industry executive, then Hollywood actor, then studio executive, then producer, Evans has been a photogenic favorite of newspapers and television since the mid-50s. He’s also a bridge to a long-gone Hollywood era, when a Seventh Avenue pants designer could dive into a pool and come out a movie star—which is exactly what happened: on a West Coast business trip, actress Norma Shearer spotted Evans in the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel and later cast him to play her late husband, Irving Thalberg, in the 1957 film Man of a Thousand Faces.
Now a best-selling author, this media savvy raconteur might seem an unusual subject for producers/directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, whose previous film, the Academy Award®-nominated On the Ropes, followed three amateur boxers and their trainer as they negotiated life in their gritty, foreboding Brooklyn neighborhood. The Kid Stays in the Picture, by contrast, is a glossy, aggrandizing biopic, based on Evans’ best-selling autobiography and audiocassette of the same name.
“It’s an autobiography from a third person point-of-view,” says Burstein of the feature. After one meeting with fellow producer Graydon Carter (whose day job is editor of Vanity Fair magazine), the directors were given the almost impossible task of transforming an audio book into a movie. There are no outside voices or third party interviews. Evans tells his story off-screen, narrating in his often-imitated, sultry growl/mumble. When production began, Evans was still recovering from a stroke. Carter thought he would be most effective as a voice. “I wanted the movie to evoke the same sentiments as the book on tape,” says Carter. “It’s as though you’re listening to an answering machine message for seven-and-a-half hours; Evans is talking to one person, and it happens to be you.” “Do we need three sides to do a full portrait, or can we immerse ourselves in a singular reality?” asks Morgen, who contends the film forgoes faux objectivity for honest nonfiction. “We started out saying there’s no objectivity. Let’s immerse ourselves in Bob’s world, with all of its hokeyness, corniness, bravado and sappiness, kitsch, and take the audience on that ride through his eyes and let them draw their own conclusions.”
One of Morgen’s and Burnstein’s goals with On the Ropes was to make a nonfiction film that played like fiction. To achieve such, they utilized a three-act structure, extensive sound design and matching camera angles. With The Kid Stays in the Picture, they sought to push the boundaries of subjective experience. The film opens with one of Evans’ signature quotes onscreen: “There are three sides to every story: my side, your side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently.” Red draperies then draw back, revealing the exterior of Evan’s home at night, at its best. “The curtains are basically telling you that this is a manufactured reality,” says Morgen. “It’s one man’s enchanted world,” Burstein adds.
To present Evans’ larger-than-life story—one even too far-fetched for most screenwriters—the filmmakers sought out a new approach to shooting the myriad of photographs, print stories and headlines (both good and bad) that Evans has accumulated over his lifetime. The visual images illustrating Evans’ narration are a mix of computer- manipulated archival photos, kinescopes, TV clips, film stills and clips, newsreels, and lush, 35mm footage of Woodland, Evans’ manse and gardens. A soundtrack of choice vintage tunes (such as Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?”) is interwoven with music by composer Jeff Danna, and soundtrack cues (such as the theme from Love Story).
After tests with scanning stills and processing them through Adobe After Effects, Morgen and Burstein realized, “We could take still photographs and tell a dramatic story, bringing them to life by creating spatial planes, moving the camera through photographs as if it were a continuum of the photography.” With Adobe After Effects, the directors also could choose from a selection of camera lenses and lighting effects. Each archival photo and piece of text was approached as if the directors were walking onto a set and blocking out a scene. In addition to compositing layers of images, Adobe After Effects allows stylization through motion, animation and visual effects in both 2-D and 3-D.
For example, the film’s establishing photo of Evans, circa 1956, shows him perched halfway out of the water, on the edge of the Beverly Hills Hotel’s pool. The image was first hand-painted; Evans was given a golden glow, while other figures remained monochromatic. The camera moves into frame as if it were craning down and pushing in at the same time.
“Adobe After Effects allowed us to create a rack focus effect,” Morgen notes. “As the camera is coming towards Bob, everything in the background blurs out of focus.” Simultaneously, the pool water moves. The idea was to convey the feeling of entering another world.
As Burstein explains, Evans’ Beverly Hills estate has been a stabilizing force in his life, perhaps even defining his identity. Since Evans wasn’t going to appear on camera, it was important to portray the house as if it were an animate character. Cinematographer John Bailey, A.S.C., captured the luxuriant look of Evans’ estate and his art and memento-filled home on 35mm film.
According to producer Carter, unlike with most documentary films, financing The Kid Stays in the Picture was a relatively easy sell to distributor USA Films, which is releasing the film this month. After Carter bought the rights to Evans’ autobiography, he sought out USA’s Barry Diller for production funds, and Diller agreed to finance the film. “Once you have a shingle, things start coming your way,” says the magazine editor, whose sideline is now nonfiction productions, including the highly rated CBS documentary 9/11. “It’s something I feel quite fortunate for having stumbled into.” Production costs on the documentary were less than $40,000. Licensing the archival footage, film clips (including scenes from Chinatown and The Godfather), and music cues were the largest line items in the budget. The administrative costs of carrying the production over two-and-a-half years, however, helped push the budget to slightly over $1 million.
The Kid Stays in the Picture premiered at Sundance in January 2002, notably at the festival’s largest venue, the Eccles Theater. The sell-out screening received a standing ovation. The filmmakers believe that Evans’ maverick style meshes well with Sundance’s indie spirit. The documentary community continues to be very important to the filmmakers, who cite the IDA Distinguished Documentary Award for On The Ropes as the honor that they hold in the highest esteem.
Working with a media-savvy film subject who has spent his life manufacturing imagery had its own set of problems. Morgen, Burstein and Evans admit to conflicts over almost every frame of the film, with particular difficulties in the third act. “I didn’t want to bare myself to the world,” says Evans, contending that mentioning the Cotton Club murder trial would validate the allegations of his complicity. Despite raising his blood pressure to dangerous levels, the filmmakers convinced him that it was essential not to gloss over the notorious aspects of his personal life.
“I say royalty fades and infamy stands,” pronounces Evans. Morgen admits that before working on the project, “I thought Bob was everything that he’s afraid people think he is.” As a public figure who has been defined by the media from the start of his professional career, Evans was an easy target, particularly after he was arrested. “Brett and I fell prey to the tabloid scandals,” Burstein recalls. “But when you go behind the curtain, you see a whole other side of him—though it’s not flawless.”
Evans is still a charmer, but it is his insights into moviemaking that impressed the filmmakers most. Some lessons learned: “Don’t negotiate a deal you’re not prepared to blow”…“Own the property, [and] you’re a king; if not, you’re a peon.”… “Compromise yourself, but not the integrity of the film.”… “If you have too much reverence for something, it will invariably turn out underwhelming.”… “Film is like parachute jumping,” Evans observes. “You get one shot, if it doesn’t open, it’s dead.” Unlike other products, there’s no second time around, no close-out value for movies. The filmmakers maintain that The Kid Stays in the Picture is more than just a Hollywood story. It has wider appeal, because, despite his transgressions and setbacks, Evans is a survivor. “The film is about you and it’s about me,” says Evans. “No matter who it is, it’s tough to stay in the picture.”
Kathy A. MacDonald is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to Variety and Daily Variety’s editorial special reports. Travel writing is her sideline.