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Whirling upstream in Hollywood: Douglas Urbanski

Patrick Coffin interviews Douglas Urbanski - a movie producer, theatre impresario and raconteur.

Douglas Urbanski. Photo Patrick Coffin
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Douglas Urbanski takes his Catholicism orthodox, his politics conservative, and his road less traveled. When he’s not cutting deals in his office in the funky Melrose district of L.A., the movie producer, theatre impresario and raconteur assists daily at the altar of St. Victor’s church, located off Sunset Boulevard in the marrow of West Hollywood.

Like a determined salmon whirling upstream against the prevailing river, Urbanski, 47, brings a decidedly spiritual dimension to a notably secular business. Any daily communicant who treads the trenches of crass commercialism must be on good terms with paradox. His movie projects often explore the darker, seamier side of life, while showcasing the human capacity for hope.

Urbanski is the manager of and longtime collaborator with acclaimed British actor Gary Oldman, with whom he founded SE8 Group, an indie film production company. In 2000, he helped produce The Contender, starring Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman, and winner of two Academy Awards nominations. Other producing credits include Dead Fish (2004), Tiptoes (2003), Nobody's Baby (2001) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999). He also serves on the advisory boards for the Liberty Film Festival and the Angelus Student Film Festival.

With Gary Oldman and French director Luc Besson, SE8 Group produced Nil By Mouth, a relentlessly dark look at the nexus between drug addiction, poverty, and domestic abuse. That film, written and directed by Mr. Oldman, was an official selection winner in the main Cannes competition, and took home the Outstanding British Film and Best Screenplay honors at the British Academy Awards. According to the Internet Movie Database, Nil By Mouth also out-potty-mouthed Martin Scorcese’s Casino for most frequent use of the F-word (3.9 times per minute).

In subverting expectations, Doug Urbanski is accidentally linked to another Hollywood figure who made a career out of going against the grain. One July evening in 1946, at a private meeting in the living room of Olivia de Havilland, a Screen Actor’s Guild player by the name of Ronald Reagan vowed for the first time to devote his life to fight communism. That de Havilland residence is now the Urbanski family home. “Ronald Reagan promised to fight communism in my living room,” he deadpans.

As a producer and manager of both stage and screen for over 25 years, Urbanski has worked with the highest brahmins in the entertainment caste system, including Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Vanessa Redgrave, Kevin Spacey, Sir Alec Guinness, Lauren Bacall, Glenn Close, and many more.

The natural habitat in which to pick such a paradoxical brain than at Morton’s, the famous eatery of the elite, where an intermittent stream of men in nine hundred dollar suits and lithe, air-kissing women stop by the table to offer hellos and good-to-see-yous.

SPERO NEWS: The films you have produced, such as Nil By Mouth, tend to be very gritty – not exactly the stereotype of what some think ought to from a “good Catholic” producer.

Douglas Urbanski: First, unlike other films like Trainspotting, our film does not glamorize drugs. It shows that if you do these things, you will vomit, you will hurt people, you will hurt yourself. So that’s the vernacular of the film. And yet the moral conclusions are all the right ones, I believe: the family is important; the family should be first – your wife and children. No one gets justified for the behavior in this movie. The sad reality of entrapment is present in this film, this sort of false optimism.

It’s interesting – God is not present in the movie at all. As much as I love Death of a Salesman, if the people in that play had God, there would be no Act Two -- and probably no Act One. Linda’s big monologue sitting at the kitchen table with her boys probably would not have been spoken: the centerpiece of the play could not have been articulated because they would have had different values.

Were you raised in the entertainment industry?

No, I didn’t grow up in a show biz family. But my first job in life, when I was 15, was running my own movie theater. My family owned shopping malls and they built a movie theatre that my crippled uncle and I ran in Manville, New Jersey. It still stands. I remember after school I used to schlep these three heavy film reels, which came on platters as big as this table, up to the projection room.

In the film business, talent was once understood in terms of individual function: the actor’s job was to act, the producer’s to produce, the director’s to direct, and so on. Nowadays everyone wants to be everything. Has the net result been an improvement in the quality of movies?

Well, we know that music suffered when composers stopped writing and singers started writing for themselves. Some great music came out of that. But when Irving Berlin or Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer wrote a song for a Frank Sinatra or an Ella Fitzgerald, they were writing for a voice and a sound. Today’s singer wants to write his own music. I don’t know that music is better for that.

How do you understand the difference between political conservatism and religious orthodoxy?

I’m a Pope Benedict guy, and have been for as long as he’s been on my radar screen as one of the giant world thinkers. I’ve been struck lately with these hints that he’s going to take a new look at Vatican II. All of the writing we’ve seen of Ratzinger’s beforehand points in this direction – how he wrestles, not with the Council, but with what’s happened in the Church as a result of misinterpretation. He seems to have a destiny to put the Church on the right footing. If the previous pope was the springtime of the Church, this man will be the gardener who weeds the garden and makes it beautiful again.

But you ask me about orthodox or conservative or liberal. The mainstream media will always put religious or theological matters in earthly, secular language, and will call things liberal or conservative when in fact they have no application. So what happens when this outside-the-Church language comes in, is that Catholics become confused themselves and they start to see options as Catholics that do not exist for Catholics.

To some extent, yes, we’re all cafeteria Catholics. This is our struggle – to accept all the Church’s teachings. I’ll tell you one thing: I do accept them as correct. Whether I can practice and live them or not is the challenge. And we can fail at that. However, you’re either a Catholic or you’re not. There is no room to call yourself a Catholic if you see that there’s such a thing as a liberal Catholic or conservative one. Catholics, by the way, are afraid of offending other Catholics. Priests are afraid that if they teach Catholicism from the pulpit, they’re going to lose their parish or numbers will drop. But the opposite has happened. The more orthodox or traditional the parish is, the fuller it is. The church I go to still uses a kneeling rail for Holy Communion.

Do you think Christian writers tend to tip their hats, so to speak, and, out of a fear of making a crass movie, include overt Christ-figures or religious messages?

I am friendly with the community of Christian writers in this town. But I’m not concerned with crassness as much as with what Pope Benedict is concerned with, which is moral relativism and having the correct moral compass.

It’s much harder to live that than to moan and groan because “they” won’t make my movie because it does or doesn’t have dirty words in them, or some what have you.

Christian writers’ films will not be made if they stay obsessed with nonsense -- meaning that the vernacular of our world is the vernacular that our Lord lived with in His world. He wants us to live in our world. The vernacular of our world is the only way you can speak to the people -- whether you like it or not. And we don’t have to like it.

Can the medium of film evangelize?

If the Internet -- the devil’s playground -- can evangelize, and apparently it does, then I guess any medium can evangelize, sure. Our image of America, of apple pie and white picket fences, of kids saying, “Let’s put on a show,” of Christmas trees and nativity scenes – the image of all the things we consider wholesome – came mainly from one man, a Jew named Louis B. Mayer, a hardcore conservative, as they all were. He believed films could evangelize.

Does self-identifying as a conservative in Hollywood mean banishment to a lonely life?

Oh, no, once they know you’re a conservative, and a Catholic, they come out of the woodwork. You make more friends than you can imagine. It’s true!

Is that because other like-mindeds tend to stay under the radar screen, but will gravitate to a kindred spirit?

The younger generation of Hollywood is less concerned about staying under the radar than my generation. The agents, writers, directors and producers I know who are in their 30s are much more eager to be open and talk about it – with less whispering. But it’s great. You do tend to gravitate together.

What has been the most satisfying work experience?

I’ve had obviously satisfying theatre experiences in my life, which was a whole other bag. But I have a very soft spot for The Contender. I do love it. It’s a political Rorschach test. Your reaction to that movie, for people interested in politics, tells me everything I need to know about you and a lot more, by the way you parse out the movie. If you’re a conservative, there are things that should make you mad. And yet the great character in the movie who has no style but all substance is a villain -- because he has no style. And the apparent hero, at first blush, is all style and no substance whatsoever.

What’s up next in the production hopper?

It’s a very exciting time. There are several films in the works. One of them is Mr. Oldman’s next screenplay, which is sitting on my desk. People forget this about Gary. You know he’s never won a prize as an actor even though he’s been called the greatest actor of his generation. The big prize Gary won was the British Academy Award for Best Screenplay for Nil By Mouth. But our next project I mentioned is Chang and Eng, the story of Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous Siamese Twins everyone remembers from the Guinness Book of Records.

The film is based on Darren Strauss’s outstanding book. And it’s dazzling. The wedding scene where Chang and Eng dance with their wives – they married two sisters and had a bunch of kids – is one of the most beautiful scenes. I was crying when I read it.

Shades of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man?

There is a lot of difference between this and that. These men were never exploited. After P.T. Barnum brought them over the first thing he did was release them from their contract. He said, “Now I’m going to negotiate with you. I’m going to make you rich and famous.” Capitalist to the end!

There’s a marvelous scene when they’re putting on their tuxedo getting ready to be married and it’s all done by candlelight. You see these four arms tying neckties, putting on trousers. It’s like a ballet. In their day, the twins were as big as the Beatles, and they were Christian. You’ve never seen a film like this. 


Patrick Coffin is the host of Catholic Answers Live national radio show, the top rated Catholic broadcast in America, heard 6-8PM EST on Channel 160 Sirius Satellite.

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