Ambition – the new thriller from New Line Cinema founder Bob Shaye – follows Jude (Katherine Hughes), a violinist who risks losing control over her mind as she attempts to find greatness in her artistic work.
While Shaye is certainly no stranger to this drive for success, he’s navigated it for the past 50 years with far more success than his protagonist in his work at New Line Cinema – the company which has brought everything from A Nightmare on Elm Street to The Lord of the Rings to filmgoers worldwide.
We sat down with Shaye to learn more about his new film – his first since 2007’s The Last Mimzy – and to hear some the lessons he’s learned from his years as one of Hollywood’s most influential producers.
While you’ve dabbled pretty extensively in horror with your work at New Line Cinema, Ambition represents a pretty significant departure from other movies you’ve directed, like the family friendly The Last Mimzy, or the nostalgic Book of Love. With that in mind, what drew you to Ambition specifically?
It’s quite different, and frankly it’s not a down-and-out horror film. It’s much more of a thriller, where a few girls get killed in the process of being thrilled. So, it wasn’t like I had an agenda of different kinds of movies to make – I was more touched in the theme of the film, which is very much about what’s in the news these days, about what’s real and what’s not real just because you see it.
In this case, it’s about watching the film and beginning to realize that you may be getting information that’s coming through somebody else other than the filmmaker. It’s a little hard to explain without giving it away, but it’s more like doing a fun puzzle with some good acting and decent film directing – if I can say so myself – and letting people be kind of thrilled – and feeling like they’ve spent a good hour and a half and that it was worth the time and effort. But also one that’s a little bit different, because it deals with the unreliable narrator theme, a little bit like Black Swan, for instance. You’re not quite sure if what you’re seeing is what really happened, and the puzzle is to figure out what did happen, and who’s who and what’s what.
So, it’s a bit of a scary puzzle, as opposed to being a down-and-out blood-and-guts movie, which it’s not.
In the film, the protagonist is told to strike a balance between order and chaos in her artistic work. I was wondering if you find yourself trying to find a similar balance, when you were constructing the puzzle of the film?
Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I was doing – you start wondering who these people are, and who actually is the perp in the story. And it’s obviously being told from the heroine’s point of view until you begin to wonder who’s the heroine of the piece. I hope I invoked enough skill to make people wonder as they’re watching the movie, because things don’t quite add up until the end, when I think they add up exactly right.
I also was wondering how you approach constructing character when you’re working with these characters that the audience isn’t quite sure what to make of when they first enter the movie.
The point at the end is that the characters who are still alive did not deserve the fate they had to suffer – even though, at the time, you thought they were all bad people and our heroine was defending herself as the righteous person in the crowd. The tables get turned a little bit, and that’s the point of the piece, in my opinion.
You’re pretty experienced as a director, but you are probably best known for your producing work for New Line Cinema, and I was wondering whether or not your work as a producer influences your approach as a director, or vice versa.
Well, when I started New Line a long time ago, I always had a little bit of a reserve about my personal demeanor. I wasn’t one of those brash, loud-mouthed film company owners and producer wannabes, and I was always worried about my investors, my audience, and what my day work was, which was – even though I always wanted to be a director, and I’m proud that I managed to accomplish it to some extent – I really spent most of my time trying to build up New Line, and eventually being a producer.
Something that always reminded me of where I was in life is when I first met Wes Craven, and he was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘what I really want to do is direct’ – even though he was directing, so that made perfect sense – there’s no question there’s a lot of people in the film business that don’t exactly like to do what they’re doing, but they really want to direct. Mostly writers, producers, DPs, and things like that.
So, I’ve always had directing in the back of my mind, but I’ve also understood that it’s really hard to be a director who makes a significant mark on the industry – they’re very few and far between – and maybe being a producer and even a distributor would give me cash flow and a little bit of family security, and a chance to be involved with the bigger picture. I’m very proud that I’ve managed to make it occur, and certainly it was not solely on my work. I’m very proud of the team of people from New Line that have moved on – some have taken my job, like Toby Emmerich. But like Mike De Luca, Donna Langley, and Mary Parent – there’s a whole list of people that were all New Liners, and they were very much responsible for finding the material, massaging it, and really doing the development. So, I had to ultimately become a businessman – although I kind of was, and went to business school and everything – to oversee what the whole company was going to be doing.
But, in my heart, I still wear that t-shirt – ‘what I really want to do is direct.’ That shirt might have gotten a little worn out, but I’m still looking for the next exciting project which will be stimulating for me, but also as a salesman who likes to turn people on – I’m looking for material which will really excite, amuse, and stimulate as many audiences as possible.
So in the sensibility you bring to filmmaking –
As a filmmaker, I don’t have any presumptions that a producer ought to tell a director what to do! If you pick a person to do a job – just like I wouldn’t tell a DP exactly what to do, or I wouldn’t tell an actor exactly what to do. I’d offer a deal – you do what you want to do and then do one or two for me for what I’d like to do, and we’ll let the editor sort it out. Being a dictator is not what I think is productive in a really collaborative and creative profession – I get a big kick out of collaborating with people, and I have a lot of stories about how scenes got together.
One of the things I’ve always told everybody at New Line – all the aspiring and junior producers – is that you can’t really insist or demand that talent does what you want. Your greatest skill may be in co-opting them into trying what it is that you’re suggesting. That’s what I think is a little bit of my specialty, and I’ve had a lot of great successes with that. Actually, when you’re running a company, instead of running around telling people what to do, it’s also good to get people on your side who want to do it, and do it well – and in some cases do it much better than you can do yourself.
You are, in a sense, a producer or a director, whether it’s getting the right poster or getting the right music or getting a moment in a mix so that the score and the sound under it promote the music and the story – those are very satisfying things. When you’re making a movie, it’s very much, “what do we have to do the next day?” “where do you put the camera?” So it’s very much a micromanaging thing. I’ve found great joy in not micromanaging, but trying to find really talented colleagues who could take over the job and do all of the micromanaging that was required from the studio’s perspective.
So, the team you’ve built over the years really enables this kind of movie to be made.
It’s not like I’ve loved every movie that we’ve made – it’s not like I’m a film snob, or a Cahiers du cinéma superhero – I’ve basically read material – even things I didn’t exactly even get in some cases – but I got prompted by the people who brought it in, who explained what the values were. I’ve been very proud of making movies for other people. I happen to have that kind of personality – like a clown, I guess – to enjoy entertaining people. I like to cook, and I like to have people over, and that’s my hobby. So, if I can have $350 million dollars to promote my hobby, I’m in seventh heaven – that was Lord of the Rings.
One of the things New Line Cinema has been especially known for over the years is keeping a bit of that subversive, youth-oriented edge over the years – producing everything from John Waters to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was wondering if that sensibility informed your approach to Ambition.
To Ambition the film, or my ambition personally?
To both, I guess!
I believe I just saw it on the TV show Succession on HBO, that the most valuable thing you have in your life is your life, and if I can seduce people with advertising to come into a movie theatre and then have them waste two hours – notwithstanding the twenty bucks – in the faith they put in what I’ve sold them and to be disappointed – I feel like I’m a total failure! A few times, I didn’t think I was doing it, but it turned out I was because I was just wrong about public taste.
The more that I could really make people feel– to use dining terms – you know, you walk into a restaurant, you have a good meal, you pay your bill and you walk out, and you feel good for the rest of the evening. Most restaurateurs really prize that experience that they’ve done their job – you know, mission accomplished. People came in, they sat down, their entertainment fuel tank was at 100%, they watched the move, and it pretty much delivered what they expected it to. Whether it’s 70% or 80% –or if it’s 100%, but the home runs are few and far between.
It’s not necessarily an intellectual pursuit, it’s a hedonistic pursuit – making people feel like they’ve spent two hours at my request, and it was spent well. When they walk out of a movie and say, “you know that was pretty good – I think I spent two hours of my time well” – you’ve been responsible for giving them a little bit of good investment advice.
As a producer and a director, you’ve been working in this kind of genre for a long time, so when you are approaching that kind of showmanship and trying to get people in the theatre, how do you keep audience’s interest over the years?
I follow the rules that I’ve taught myself, and that the world has taught me, and I just do the best I can. You talk about John Waters – we distributed Chabrol, Mizoguchi, and were one of the original sponsors of Jim Carrey – we’ve had a broad range of people that we’ve included. But very little of it was intellectual.
To quote Samuel Goldwyn, who at least had really good taste in knowing how to entertain people, “If I wanted to send a message, I use Western Union.” There are very few movies that I’ve tried to send a message with. Although, in things like Lord of the Rings – there are plenty of movies that have an underlying message that I hope is worthwhile, and that we don’t do anything which is pejorative or too fatuous. Even Pink Flamingos, in its wildness, has a purpose which is kind of like Dada, and a lot of famous artists who have picked up that theme of ridiculous self-parody and social parody. There’s something about that which makes people think. They’ve invested two hours of their time in my work, and I hope that the investment goes beyond, from time to time, an occasional chuckle, an occasional reflection, or something else.
That’s my fervent hope – without being too pedantic.
If you want to see more, check out the trailer for Ambition below!