First Fictions


Three alumni first-time novelists talk

about themselves and their writing,

accompanied by excerpts from their work.

Interview by Caroline Tiger

Robert Cort
Carrie Pilby
Caren Lissner
The Song Reader
Lisa Tucker

In about 18 years as a Hollywood-based producer, Robert Cort C’68 G’70 WG’74 has produced 52 movies, from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to Mr. Holland’s Opus. He never would have predicted this career path when he was an undergraduate at Penn, majoring in history. “I think I tested every graduate school at the University,” says Cort. He spent seven weeks at the law school, then dropped out and got his master’s in history in 1970, then graduated from Wharton with an MBA in 1974. This summer, Cort adds another job description to his résumé with the publication of Action! (Random House), a novel that follows three generations of a Hollywood family. The book is also a history of the town’s evolution from the crisis caused by television’s advent in 1948 to a behind-the-scenes look at today’s tinseltown, where Cort has a bird’s-eye view.

How did you get into the movie business?

It was complete fate. I’d always gone to see a lot of movies—I had to go downtown to do so while at Penn, since there weren’t any theaters on campus—but it never occurred to me when I was growing up or when I was in college that I’d work in the movie business.

In 1976, I was a management consultant at McKinsey & Company, and Columbia Pictures was one of our clients. I applied to work on a study they were doing on the marketing of major motion pictures so I could get myself and my girlfriend to L.A. for three months, as a kind of vacation. I fell in love with the business as soon as I walked onto a soundstage. I left consulting and never looked back.

How autobiographical is A.J. Jastrow, the main character in Action!?

A.J. is minor Hollywood royalty—his father was an important executive at Paramount, and his mother is the niece of the president of Paramount. His experience is very different from someone like myself, who came into the business from the outside. He is raised with the expectation that he will become a somebody in the movie industry. Like me, he dabbles in law, but mostly he never has any other idea of what he’s going to do with his life.

When did you start writing the book?

A little over four years ago—it took two years and nine months to write and another year to rewrite. I originally sold it to Random House as a history of the film business in the second half of the 20th century. I did a year and a half of research for that book and decided that people wouldn’t want to read a history book, but they might read a novel that had real characters from history interacting with fictional characters.

Why did you decide to include real people in a work of fiction?

They give the book credibility. I wanted this to be a real picture of Hollywood, of the way business is done, the evolution of the business, the relationships between the people who work in it. At the same time, I have to keep reminding people that it’s not a memoir or a history—it’s a novel.

Are you worried about the reaction that the families of real people in the book—Steve McQueen, Sam Kinison, Michael Ovitz—will have to your portrayal of them?

One of the main criteria for getting into the book was that you had to be dead! No, I’m not worried. I’m not trying to nail anybody, and their inclusion in it means they were a major player, so it should really be flattering. It’s funny because a lot of younger people don’t know who is real and who is fictional. They’ve never heard of Mike Todd, Charles Bluhdorn, Adolph Zukor.

Who’s the audience for the book?

I’m hoping it will reach more than an audience that’s Hollywood-centric. It’s gratifying when people outside the industry have recognized truths in the story about their own families, because it’s really a novel about family, and the ethical dilemmas that come up when you run a business. How much honor and morality can you maintain?

Are you working on your next novel?

I’m very much doing my day job right now, which is coming up with movie ideas and working with writers on movies that will hopefully come soon to a theater near you.


The Chair Shot First

Geographically, Hollywood was built on a fault line.
Emotionally, so was the film business.


Within a week the negotiations for McQueen to star in Don’t Tread on Me turned into a debacle that threatened to scuttle the movie. Freddie Fields demanded three million dollars, 15 percent of the profits, a dozen first-class round-trip airfares to location, ten bodyguards, two chefs, and a motorcycle. Sins of the past returned to haunt AJ and Begelman. As agents they’d ravaged buyers, but as producer and studio they now had to choke down the numbers. One point, however, proved a hopeless stumbling block: Steve’s refusal to approve Russ Matovich as the director.

In order not to overshadow Russ, AJ had deliberately skipped the initial meeting between the two men. It was a mistake, because Steve immediately called to bitch that Russ’s take on the character of Farber was too dark. AJ guessed that creative differences had been less problematic than the director’s failure to acknowledge McQueen’s stature. But the battle of egos grew more complicated than their mano a mano. By forcing AJ and Columbia to fire Russ, Steve was declaring himself the boss. Screw pragmatism—that move offended AJ.

For advice he consulted the master of talent relations. Ray Stark recovered from his pique the instant AJ needed him. “If you start searching for a director who McQueen will approve, who knows what will happen. Even if you find someone else, Steve’s crazy enough to drop out anyway. Kiss him off.”

“It’s not that easy. Columbia’s salivating at the marquee. If I lose Steve, it’s going to prick the balloon. I’m worried Begelman will kill the film.”

“You can’t allow yourself to appear vulnerable. A weak producer is like the president of Poland. The studio, the director, the actors, and the crew are all waiting to march over you. You’ll live a lot longer as a son-of-a-bitch dictator.”

But without his studio stripes, AJ evolved a different slant on the geopolitics of production. He saw himself as a diplomat whose job was to forge an alliance among the talent, who distrusted—and often despised—one another, an alliance that would last long enough to get the film signed, sealed, and delivered. So he leaned on McQueen to give Matovich a second chance, then drilled Russ on how to behave.

The site of the summit was his beach cottage. Filling a cooler with beer, he fretted that both his guests were late. To kill time he picked up yesterday’s Hollywood Reporter. The lead story covered the turmoil at Paramount following the firing of Frank Yablans. An axe was hanging inches above Evans’s neck. Had AJ remained, Charlie Bluhdorn would probably have honored his promise rather than turning to Barry Diller, who was rumored to be on his way to Paramount from his post at ABC.

Matovich’s arrival cut short the what-ifs. The director turned sullen when he didn’t see McQueen. “At USC we only waited ten minutes, and that was for a full professor.”

“For the number one movie star in the world, you toss your watch.”

Geographically, Hollywood was built on a fault line. Emotionally, so was the film business. And at the epicenter of most local temblors was a movie star in a foul mood. Was that a rumble? AJ wandered out onto his deck. Sure enough, across the sand he spied Steve marching toward him. AJ hopped the railing. McQueen’s body language announced a cocaine breakfast, which was reason enough to call it a day right here. The actor had a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson stuffed into the waist of his jeans. “Loaded for bear, huh?”

“I got too many nuts trying to prove they’re tougher than me. I don’t go anywhere without it.”

“Thanks for coming.”

“You had no fucking right pushing me into this. Matovich is a punk.”

“Come on. Let’s discuss it calmly.”

McQueen followed him into the house, but politeness didn’t survive the handshakes. When AJ suggested they talk about Farber’s dilemma, Steve cut him off. “Spare me the bullshit. I like the script. I get the character. If John Ford here wants to tell me where to stand, that’s fine. But if he thinks he’s going to tell me how to act, you’re both living in a dreamworld.”

“I’m no traffic cop,” Matovich shot back.


“I’m not.” He rose from his chair and paced the room.

AJ tried his last gambit. “Listen, Steve, we all respect your talent. Russ was only offering his thoughts. You make the final choices.”

“He wants me to play an antihero. That’s not Farber.”

“You misunderstood,” Matovich interjected. “I said Farber was complex. More than other parts you’ve played.”

“You think my performances are one-note?”

“If the shoe fits … “

AJ thanked God Matovich had said it under his breath.

Excerpted with permission from Action!, by Robert Cort, published by Random House. Copyright©2003 by Robert Cort

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03