Alan Ladd, Jr.: “The basic rule is, if you don’t have good material, you don’t have a good movie”

The son of actor Alan Ladd (1913-1964), who made his screen debut in 1932 and became a leading man with Paramount’s “This Gun for Hire” (1942) co-starring Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd Jr. (b. 1938) found his own niche when he started working in Hollywood as a talent agent in 1963, representing Natalie Wood, former MGM star Judy Garland and newcomers Warren Beatty and Robert Redford.

After moving to London in the late 1960s where he produced a string of movies, he then returned to California to become a highly acclaimed studio executive and a successful independent and Oscar-winning film producer.

Alan Ladd Jr. during our interview in Ghent, Belgium, in October 2005. Photograph: Leo Verswijver

In the late 1970s, when he was President at 20th Century Fox, he greenlighted projects that became box-office hits such as “Star Wars” (1977) and “Alien” (1979), among many others, while later at MGM, his hits include “Moonstruck” (1987), “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988), and “Thelma and Louise” (1991). As the driving force behind The Ladd Company which he founded in 1979, the list of his film output became even more overwhelming with features as “Outland” (1981), “Body Heat” (1981), “Blade Runner” (1982), “The Right Stuff” (1983) and “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984).

Mr. Ladd was reserved, low-profile and extremely modest about his achievements in the film industry when I met him at the Film Fest Gent in Belgium in 2005. As a man of few words, he took the time however to reflect on his childhood and his career in films. So here’s the film tycoon most people might not even have ever heard of, but they’ve all seen his pictures.

Mr. Ladd, you grew up in the movie business. Is that the reason why you got involved in this industry as well?

Well, that’s the least you can say, that I grew up in this world of movies. Even when I was young, I used to go to twenty films a week sometimes. I’ve loved movies my whole life and I hoped to be involved in films.

So you’d consider yourself a film buff?

Oh yes. I grew up with my mother, but on the weekends I’d visit my father. In those days, they had to work six days a week in Hollywood, so on Saturdays I would be the whole day at Paramount. Not that I spent the entire day on the set; I liked wandering around the studio lot, and go to the New York street, the Chicago street, places like that. But the problem with my father is that he didn’t work too much with good directors, and that’s why many of his films didn’t stand the test of time. “Shane” [1953] was directed by George Stevens, one of the best filmmakers ever, and so it became a classic, although I think “The Great Gatsby” [1949] was his best film because he knew that part better than any other part he ever played. He was that character, a very poor boy when he was growing up who didn’t have any money. He was always very shy and insecure.

What about the four films he made with Veronica Lake?

You still see them on television from time to time. It was a great era when they were made. Everybody was under contract to a studio and they went from one picture to another, working with the same crew, the same electricians… You couldn’t do that now anymore, but my father felt very comfortable in that situation. And working with Veronica Lake was easy for him, because they knew each other so well. On the other hand, with the studio system, I don’t think he was able to expand his career that much. They never gave him any comedies, for example, and I’m sure he would have loved to do that. He often played a certain kind of role, the quiet hero, that’s the kind of character he was usually offered and made him popular throughout the country.

Two stars who died prematurely at age 50: Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, here in a publicity still for “The Blue Dahlia” (1946). They appeared in four films from 1942 till 1948, three of those were classic film noirs. But while Mr. Ladd quickly rose to stardom and stayed there, Ms. Lake suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, and her career had fizzled out by the time they made their fourth and final picture, “Saigon” (1948). Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

You were a very successful studio executive from the 1970s through the 1990s and you had your own thriving production company, The Ladd Company, which produced numerous outstanding films. On top of that, you were also involved in many projects as a producer yourself, including winning an Academy Award for “Braveheart” [1995]. Has producing been one of your most rewarding jobs so far?

It’s certainly much easier than running a studio, I can tell you that. You have much more time for yourself when you’re only producing, because running a studio is very time-consuming. You have to read six, seven scripts a weekend, you’re previewing movies all the time, you’re out of town, always meeting people, so it’s very difficult to be with your family.

Would you consider “Braveheart” the highlight of your career?

I would say one of them. But it took quite some time before “Braveheart” got made. When I was at MGM, I had already shown the script to Mel Gibson, but he was unavailable at that time. A few years later he called me and asked me what had happened with the screenplay. I still had Randall Wallace’s script, because I liked it so much. So we met, talked about it, and that’s how it got started.

Were you surprised that the film was such a success, both commercially and artistically?

No, because I knew Mel was doing an exceptional job. He knew very well what he was doing. Of course, when the film won five Academy Awards, we were very surprised – you’re always surprised when that happens. But I thought from the beginning that it looked very good.

Was it a gamble to have Mel Gibson directing the film? Because up until then he was known as a very accomplished actor.

No, it wasn’t a gamble. I don’t know why, but actors are very often good directors. Look at Robert Redford, Warren Beatty – Orson Welles was a great director, Marlon Brando did a terrific job when he directed “One-Eyed Jacks” [1961]. So no, it didn’t really scare me. Mel had directed one picture before “Braveheart”: “The Man Without a Face” [1993] which was very good, very well done. And then, sometimes it happens that actors who have directed a film wait a long time before they decide to direct again. That’s also what Mel did after “Braveheart,” he waited about nine years before he directed his next film, “The Passion of the Christ.” It was a project that was very close to his heart, but the subject he was dealing with, was very difficult. The first time I heard about it, I thought, ‘Is he crazy?’ But he went out and did it – with his own money. He knew what he was doing. He even paid for the prints and the ads himself, and it became a tremendous financial success [U.S gross over 370 million dollars, worldwide gross approximately 610 million dollars].

What does it take to be a successful studio executive?

A lot of luck. That’s it, basically. And then choose the right properties, and work with creative people. It’s like when we did “Star Wars” [1977], George Lucas had made “American Graffiti” [1973], and it was just pure luck that we got to make “Star Wars.” I liked the story a lot, but at that time, I knew nothing about the technology, so I hoped that the technology he told me about would work out. And it did.

When you were running a studio, did you always give your directors carte blanche?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We always read the script, we made our comments, and I always considered the writer’s and the director’s views more important than mine. Sometimes we had to make compromises, but I thought that was always very easy. That’s what life is all about, isn’t it?

How do you collaborate with your directors?

Well, there are meetings beforehand, to make sure that you’re on the same page. Not that one is going one way, and the other one the other way, you know. So it’s more or less like when I was running a studio.

You set high standards for yourself, don’t you? If you look at the films you did, either as a studio executive or with The Ladd Company, films like “Blade Runner” [1982], “The Right Stuff ” [1983], and there are so many others… They’re all terrific films, aren’t they?

Well, “The Right Stuff” was a wonderful screenplay, based on a very popular book by Tom Wolfe. So the basic rule is, if you don’t have good material, you don’t have a good movie. If you got a bad script, a great director won’t be able to make it any better. You need a good story, or else you’re in a lot of trouble. I think that’s what’s missing in many American films now, there is a lack of story. You need to make good movies and not only big budget special effects movies. You need to tell stories about people.

Would you still be interested in running a studio now?

No, the business has changed too much. There are so many people involved now – the managers, the lawyers, press agents, business managers… It was much simpler when I was at the studios. You’d shake hands, go away and make it. And now, too many people are involved.

Do you have a favorite film of yours?

No, not really, it depends on what genre you’re dealing with. “Star Wars” is a very good special effects movie, so are “Blade Runner” and “Aliens” [1986], while “A Fish Called Wanda” was a very good comedy.

Film Fest Gent, Ghent (Belgium)
October 12, 2005

FILMS

THE WALKING STICK (1970) DIR Eric Till PROD Alan Ladd Jr. SCR George Bluestone (novel by Winston Graham CAM Arthur Ibbetson ED John Jympson MUS Stanley Myers CAST David Hemmings, Samantha Eggar, Emlyn Williams, Phyllis Calvert, Ferdy Maine, Francesca Annis, Bridget Turner, Dudley Sutton

THE BALLAD OF TAM LIN (1970) DIR Roddy McDowall PROD Alan Ladd Jr., Stanley Mann SCR William Spier (poem by Robert Burns) CAM Billy Williams ED John Victor-Smith MUS Stanley Myers CAST Ava Gardner, Ian McShane, Richard Warris, Cyril Cusack, Stephanie Beacham, David Whitman, Fabia Drake, Sinéad Cusack, Joanna Lumley

A SEVERED HEAD (1970) DIR Dick Clement PROD Alan Ladd Jr. SCR Frederic Raphael (novel by Iris Murdoch; play by Iris Murdoch, J.B. Priestley) CAM Austin Dempster ED Peter Weatherley MUS Stanley Myers CAST Lee Remick, Richard Attenborough, Ian Holm, Claire Bloom, Jennie Linden, Clive Revill, Ann Firbank, Rosamund Greenwood

VILLAIN (1971) DIR Michael Tuchner PROD Alan Ladd Jr., Jay Kanter SCR Dick Clement, Ian La Frenias (adaptation by Al Lettieri; novel by James Barlow) CAM Christopher Challis ED Ralph Sheldon MUS Jonathan Hodge CAST Richard Burton, Ian McShane, Nigel Davenport, Donald Sinden, Fiona Lewis, T.P. McKenna, Joss Ackland, Nathleen Nesbitt

THE NIGHTCOMERS (1971) DIR – PROD Michael Winner EXEC PROD Alan Ladd Jr., Elliott Kastner, Jay Kanter [all uncredited] SCR Michael Hastings (characters created by Henry James) CAM Robert Paynter ED Arnold Crust Jr. [Michael Winner] MUS Jerry Fielding CAST Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham, Thora Hird, Harry Andrews, Verna Harvey, Christopher Ellis, Anna Palk

ZEE AND CO. (1972) DIR Brian G. Hutton PROD Alan Ladd Jr., Jay Kanter SCR Edna O’Brien CAM Billy Willliams ED Jim Clark MUS Stanley Myers CAST Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Caine, Susannah York, Margaret Leighton, John Standing, Mary Larkin, Michael Cashman

FEAR IS THE KEY (1972) DIR Michael Tuchner PROD Alan Ladd Jr., Jay Kanter SCR Robert Carrington (novel by Alistair MacLean) CAM Alex Thomson ED Ray Lovejoy MUS Roy Budd CAST Barry Newman, Suzy Kendall, John Vernon, Dolph Sweet, Ben Kingsley, Ray McAnally, Peter Marinker

POLICE ACADEMY (1984) DIR Hugh Wilson PROD Paul Maslansky EXEC PROD Alan Ladd Jr. [uncredited] SCR Hugh Wilson, Neal Israel, Pat Croft (story by Neal Israel, Pat Croft) CAM Michael D. Margulies ED Robert Brown, Zach Staenberg MUS Robert Folk CAST Steve Guttenberg, G.W. Bailey, Kim Catrall, Bubba Smith, Donovan Scott, George Gaines, Andrew Rubin, Georgina Spelvin, Hugh Wilson

VICE VERSA (1988) DIR Brian Gilbert PROD Dick Clement, Ian La Frenias EXEX PROD Alan Ladd Jr., Dean O’Brien SCR Dick Clement, Ian La Frenias (novel by F. Anstey) CAM King Baggott ED David Garfield MUS David Shire CAST Judge Reinhold, Fred Savage, Corinne Bohrer, Swoozie Kurtz, Jane Kaczmarek, David Proval, William Prince, Gloria Glifford

DEATH WARRANT (1990) DIR Deran Sarafian PROD Alan Ladd Jr. [uncredited], Mark DiSalle SCR David S. Goyer CAM Russell Carpenter ED John A. Barton, G. Gregg McLaughlin MUS Gary Chang CAST Jean-Claude Van Damme, Robert Guillaume, Cynthia Gibb, George Dickerson, Art LaFleur, Patrick Kilpatrick, Joshua John Miller, Hank Stone

THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE (1995) DIR Betty Thomas PROD Sherwood Schwartz, Lloyd J. Schwartz EXEC PROD Alan Ladd Jr. SCR Laurice Elehwany, Rick Copp, Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner (characters created by Sherwood Schwartz) CAM Mac Ahlberg ED Peter Teschner MUS Lionel Cole, Guy Moon CAST Shelley Long, Gary Cole, Christine Taylor, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Jennifer Elise Cox, Paul Sutera, Olivia Hack

BRAVEHEART (1995) DIR Mel Gibson PROD Alan Ladd Jr., Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey SCR Randall Wallace CAM John Toll ED Steven Rosenblum MUS James Horner CAST Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack, John Kavanagh, Ian Bannen, Sean Lawlor, James Cosmo

THE PHANTON (1996) DIR Simon Wincer PROD Alan Ladd Jr., Robert Evans SCR Jeffrey Boam (characters created by Lee Falk) CAM David Burr ED Bryan H. Carroll, O. Nicholas Brown MUS David Newman CAST Billy Zane, Treat Williams, Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Remar, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Bill Smitrovich, Samantha Eggar, Patrick McGoohan

A VERY BRADY SEQUEL (1996) DIR Arlene Sanford PROD Alan Ladd Jr., Sherwood Schwartz, Lloyd J. Schwartz SCR Harry Elfont, Deborah Kaplan, James Berg, Stan Zimmerman (story by Harry Elfont, Deborah Kaplan; characters created by Sherwood Schwartz) CAM Mac Ahlberg ED Anita Brandt Burgoyne MUS Guy Moon CAST Shelley Long, Gary Cole, Tim Matheson, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Christine Taylor, Paul Sutera, Jennifer Elise Cox, Jesse Lee Soffer

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1998) DIR Randall Wallace PROD Randall Wallace, Russell Smith EXEC PROD Alan Ladd Jr. SCR Randall Wallace (novels by Alexandre Dumas) CAM Peter Suschitzky ED William Hoy MUS Nick Glennie-Smith CAST Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gérard Depardieu, Gabriel Byrne, Anne Parillaud, Judith Godrèche, Edward Atterton, Peter Sarsgaard, Hugh Laurie

AN UNFINISHED LIFE (2005) DIR Lasse Hallström PROD Alan Ladd Jr., Kelliann Ladd SCR Mark Spragg, Virginia Korus Spragg CAM Oliver Stapleton ED Andrew Mondshein MUS Deborah Lurie CAST Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Josh Lucas, Damian Lewis, Camryn Manheim, Becca Gardner, Lynda Boyd

GONE BABY GONE (2007) DIR Ben Affleck PROD Alan Ladd Jr., Sean Bailey SCR Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard (novel by Dennis Lehane) CAM John Toll ED William Goldenberg MUS Harry Gregson-Williams CAST Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, John Ashton, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver, Michael Kenneth Williams

CHEYENNE OF THE NORTH (2018) PROD Alan Ladd Jr. SCR Robert Benton, Leslie Bohem, Bradon Camp, Mike Thompson (novel by Thomas Hardy)