While the David Bowie/Queen song, “Under Pressure,” was blasting from the loudspeakers Larry Kasanoff, a guest of honor at the 25th Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival, posed for photographs outside the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, and he could not have looked more relaxed.
When Kasanoff, noticed a poster for the James Bond movie, Moonraker, decorating the cinematheque plaza, he grinned, because just a few minutes before he had spoken about how he was inspired to get into the movie business when he saw his first James Bond movie.
“My father took me to a James Bond movie when I was a very little kid and I came out and said, ‘I want to be James Bond and also, who’s that guy who’s called a producer, what does that guy do?’” he recalled.
Kasanoff, the CEO/chairman of the Threshold Entertainment Group, learned very well what a producer does.
He has produced dozens of blockbuster films, among them the Mortal Kombat series, and the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger/Jamie Lee Curtis movie, True Lies, directed by James Cameron.
As a producer and/or studio head, Kasanoff has made such huge hits as Platoon, Dirty Dancing, and Terminator 2 Judgement Day. His movies are such crowd-pleasers – as you look over the list of his credits you can practically smell the popcorn – that it should come as no surprise that the word that came up most often during our interview was “fun.”
“Fun is so underrated,” he said.
“You’ve got to make movies that work for everyone, that are pure fun.”
In today’s political climate, he worries that the impulse to have fun and to create has been stifled.
“I think that people now are scared to be their most creative. I think people are afraid to really go for it…
“And for art, for product development, for movies, for whatever you do, I think creativity is a wonderful thing and it’s being squashed.”
A Touch of the Madness
Kasanoff has a personal philosophy about nurturing creativity and he has even written a book about it, A Touch of the Madness: How to be More Innovative in Work and Life… by Being a Little Crazy, which will be published by BenBella Books in September.
“I wrote the book to encourage people to be their most creative selves. To create anything, you have to embrace your crazy side. . . That crazy idea in the back of your mind, that makes you think, ‘People will hate it, my parents will hate it, I shouldn’t do it,’ . . . That’s the one – go do it. And in the book I explain my philosophy of how to do that, using movie business stories… I want people to embrace the madness.”
His own “touch of madness” helped Kasanoff sail through the pressure cooker of big-budget filmmaking. It seems that, to paraphrase a principle of mindfulness, wherever he went, there he was, finding something he needed to teach him how to keep finding the fun in what he was doing.
When he was researching martial arts and meditation while working on Mortal Kombat, he met a Vietnamese Thien Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, whose serenity he found inspiring.
“After two hours with him, and his monks and sisters, I felt like I had been on vacation for weeks. I asked him what his secret was and he said, ‘No secret, practice.’ I thought, ‘Wow, I could learn to feel this way?’ So we became great friends… He was funny, he liked to laugh and it has helped me tremendously.”
Kasanoff asked the monk, “What do you do when someone on one your movies has done something so stupid, so financially costly, how can you not get mad?’ and he said, ‘Your peace is more important.’ . . . And I thought, what is being mad going to do? It’s not going to get me my shot. And I’m always trying to get the next shot… [Mindfulness training] has been incredibly helpful.” It’s notable that although he has produced hundreds of movies, he has only a handful of directing credits and the most recent one is for a documentary called, Mindfulness: Be Happy Now.
Kasanoff said he will be happy to share these – and many other – insights with students at the master class he was going to teach later in the week. He has been to Israel many times before, and said he admires the can-do spirit he has found among Israelis,
“It’s really interesting getting into the hearts and minds of Israelis. And this time I’ve also noticed a kind of relaxed-ness.”
But it isn’t only the festival that has brought him here. He is also working on a treasure-hunting movie that will be set in Israel, Jordan, and all across the Silk Road into China. This movie – about which he cannot share too many specifics – “will be like The Big Bang Theory meets Indiana Jones.”
While he acknowledges that special visual effects are great – “I’ve used tons of them” – he said there was nothing like going on location.
“You can’t really replicate it. We all work for the audience and I think the audience can feel it, that something’s not really right,” when filmmakers shoot in a studio with computer-generated effects.
Twenty-five years ago, Kasanoff filmed one of the films in the Mortal Kombat series in Petra with an Israeli crew and he was pleased that on this visit, he has met many of the people he worked with then.
He visited Petra again on his way to Tel Aviv: “It was 98 degrees, we were covered in flies and I was in heaven.”
Asked whether he couldn’t send someone else out to do that kind of thing, he said, “When I can go to an exotic location and shoot a movie, it’s my favorite thing to do. I’m fascinated by archaeology and the history and the whole thing. . . It’s a lot of fun.”
There’s that word again. He is excited about the research he has done so far into the trade routes, noting that, “Israel and China have been trading partners for 2,500 years… Two thousand and five hundred years ago, you could go from Jerusalem to Beijing and never skip a kosher meal. These countries are all brother and sister countries from years ago and our movies show that.”
He is impressed at the cooperation he has been part of among people from different countries on movie sets: “We all just work together to tell a story. . . Globalization is the future of the movie business.”
Noting that, “I feel empowered now more than ever,” as a filmmaker, he acknowledged that he took risks on the way. Raised in a middle-class Jewish family in Boston, he went to Cornell and then to the Wharton School.
After that first James Bond movie so many years ago, “I knew I wanted to be in the movie business and I had to figure out how to do it, I started planning how to get into the movie business when I was 11 and my parents were very supportive.”
Following his graduation from business school, he turned down a safe-sounding job in a cubicle at HBO to be head of production at Vestron Pictures, a production and distribution company.
“My marching orders were: 80 movies a year, buy ‘em, make ‘em, co-produce ‘em . . . but don’t lose money,” he said.
Vestron made genre movies like horror, action, romcoms, and raunchy comedies, but then they got the script for Platoon, a serious drama about the Vietnam War, written and directed by Oliver Stone, which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1987. Kasanoff wanted to do it, and his boss told him to go ahead, with the warning, “If you f**k it up, if it doesn’t work, you’re fired.” – “So I took the shot,” said Kasanoff.
He said he was the only person “ever to giggle his way through Platoon,” because he was so relieved that it had turned out well. As a photographer showed up to take some pictures for the festival, he had time for one more anecdote, recalling how he ran into Stone in a bar in New York not long after the Platoon premiere.
The director complimented him with the phrase that has since become his credo: “He said, ‘I like you, kid. You’ve got a touch of the madness.’”