Risky business

On the razor's edge with Harvey Keitel

Published January 14, 1996 6:26PM (EST)

Outside, New York was snow-white. Inside, on the 50th floor of the Rihga Royal Hotel, Harvey Keitel was watching the NFL playoffs. His hair was greasy, his face unshaven. Bare feet stuck out from under a table cloth. Promoting your new movie can be an unglamorous task, especially when you have to slog through a blizzard to do it.

Keitel, who gets busier as he gets older, is currently starring in "From Dusk Till Dawn," a Quentin Tarantino-scripted vampire movie about a lapsed preacher (Keitel), two homicidal brothers (Tarantino and George Clooney) and a kidnapped family who end up in a Mexican bar from hell. Questions about Hollywood business practices and whether his friend Tarantino is already a has-been elicited sharp responses.

You helped discover Tarantino and starred in his two big movies ("Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction"). While you're still a big fan, others say Tarantino has lost it.

That's absurd. He's out there exercising his talent, putting his thoughts and guts on the line. If he stumbles along the way, good for him to have the courage to stumble. He's done great things, and I'm expecting even greater things from him.

You sound defensive. Why?

We have to understand what our resources are here. We have to learn to regard what is quality. We can't keep taking potshots at people if in one's opinion they stumble. It's too easy to take potshots. As a writer, Quentin is in a league of his own.

What troubles you most about Hollywood these days?

There's a stronger drive than I can ever recall toward pre-packaging films and reducing the risk to zero. You have a pre-sold director and actor. The thrust has been to disregard the nature of the film itself. That cuts off the creativity of young talent, the talent that needs to explore. The studios' idea is that you need such and such a name to generate capital. My contention is the project needs to be done right to generate capital. Can I continue?

Sure. You're on a roll.

The problem is, too much money is spent on individual films, $70 million, $100 million, $200 million. Everyone is always looking for that blockbuster hit. Somehow in there, they believe, is their identity. "Wow, my film made $200 million. What did your film make, a lousy $10 million? You're a bum."

Anything else?

Yeah. The studios get too involved in the director's cut. If you don't trust him with the final cut, you shouldn't be in business with the guy.

Your resumi is filling up with risky low-budget and art-house fare. Some people call you "daring." Do you take that as a compliment?

I'm more angry than complimented. I'm just upset at the way things are, the unwillingness to walk the razor's edge, because at the end of it are great rewards.

By Ron Dicker

Ron Dicker is a writer who lives in New York.

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