ANDREW KARSCHíS CAREER has been nothing if not diverse. The Academy AwardĖnominated producer ó he was recognized for 1991ís The Prince of Tides ó has worked in the filmmaking world for more than two decades, on such films as The Rachel Papers, Princess Caraboo, and Town & Country. But much of his time has been spent in another arena altogether: politics. Karsch worked on Ted Kennedyís successful 1976 senatorial campaign, and served as issues and media director during Kennedyís 1980 bid for the presidency. Now, with his new film The Emperorís Club (adapted from Ethan Caninís short story "The Palace Thief") set to open, Karsch is talking about his two distinctly different ó and occasionally similar ó careers, what he loves about each, and why he hopes never to make another movie like Town & Country.
Q: Howís it been doing publicity for this film?
A: Coming from Town & Country to The Emperorís Club is like going from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Q: How did you promote Town & Country?
A: I didnít promote it.
A: There was a director who I canít say I totally enjoyed working with, and I just thought it was an inability to take advantage of a lot of great resources: Buck Henry wrote beautiful pages, there were people there ó Warren Beatty, Goldie [Hawn], Garry Shandling, Diane Keaton ó that you would dream to work with, that just couldnít be utilized. To me, you have to have a real collaboration with a movie, and if the directorís not in sync with the rest of the group, itís going to be problematic. On [Emperorís Club], it was the antithesis: you had a director who was so deeply collaborative and deeply involved with involving everybody in a most productive way. Itís not unlike a great sports team or a great political campaign; I mean, look at the Patriots ó I donít think the personnel is so outstanding, I think the design is outstanding. And this movie was a joy. There was a great sense of camaraderie. Also, it was about something. I think there was something that appealed to almost everyone about examining an ordinary personís life. In the movie business you spend so much time getting no acclaim for your best work, or often for any work you do at all, and I think people can identify with this character and how things really worked out for him in the end. The whole notion of a good life versus a successful life.
Q: Have you reread the book since you made the movie?
A: Yeah. Iíll tell you what was interesting: I read the book when we finished making the movie, and I was really surprised ó I had told Ethan initially to think of what we were doing as a movie inspired by his work, but that we were going to be moving away from it. And whatís interesting is that we moved pretty much back to it in terms of tone, but we braided a different notion into it, which Ethan was very happy with.
Q: Do you feel a huge responsibility to an author whose work youíre adapting?
A: Well, Iíve done a number of books, and I always want to be clear; fortunately, when I did The Rachel Papers, I had told [author] Martin Amis what I had in mind, gave him the script, he was very happy with it, he said, "Itís not my book, but I really like the movie, and itís exactly what you told me it was going to be." Prince of Tides, [author] Pat [Conroy] was really happy with it. Ethan, I definitely didnít want to have to be in a position at the end of the day where I was equivocating about the work. You want to be really clear. I mean, itís an arrangement. The author is getting paid, and paid pretty well.
Q: But paid, in a way, for their baby.
A: But they donít have to sell their baby. You know, Hemingway always said he was more than happy to sell anything, but his feeling was you drive as far west as youíre willing to go, you have them drive as far east as theyíre willing to go, and you give them the book and they give you the check and thatís the end of it.
Q: Do you think people are going to compare this movie to Dead Poets Society?
A: Sure, only because theyíre both [set in] schools.
Q: Is that frustrating?
A: No. There are bigger issues to me than those kinds of comparisons. You know, Dead Poets Society might not be to everyoneís taste, and The Emperorís Club may not be to everyoneís taste; I think theyíre different kinds of movies. Theyíre both set at boarding schools, obviously. I mean, to me at this point in time, Iím more concerned about the state of all movies, and more particularly, movies that lean decidedly toward an adult audience, and can movies like that succeed in this day and age? What I feel is that if people go to the theater, theyíre going to really enjoy the movie. Will they go to the theater? That concerns me more than the comparisons. The fact is, Dead Poets Society was a success, so will it help people go to the theater?
Q: So many people go to the movies but have no idea what the producer does. How would you describe it?
A: Well, different producers are different things. What I get enjoyment out of is finding the material, something that really excites me, that I think, wow, that would really be a great movie. And then actually working on a screenplay that is going to satisfy me and satisfy the people I need to get to make a great movie. That means it has to appeal to actors, it has to appeal to all of the technical people that are essential ... and then you have to be conscientious to know that somebodyís going to be putting millions of dollars into it, so why should they do that? The excitement for me is getting it to the point where it becomes a movie. Itís how you work with people and what youíre able to do with them. And itís true in other things: I love it in politics also.
Q: Speaking of politics, talk to me about your career in that arena.
A: The last work that I did full-time was for Ted Kennedy during his presidential campaign; I was his issues and media director. I loved it, because I love his politics; I think heís a sensational senator, and I think heís doing fantastic, fantastic work, so itís not hard to get excited about something like that.
Q: How did you get involved with Kennedyís campaign?
A: [The Kennedys] are old friends. I grew up with the family. Bobby Jr. is my brother-in-law. I just have tremendous respect for the whole family, and I really like them all. The same way I wouldnít want to make a movie just for making a movie if it wasnít something special, to me I wouldnít want to work in politics unless it was someone who was special to me, and after Teddy lost to Carter, I didnít really want to stay. And I had made a movie a year earlier that had been accepted at the New York Film Festival and it did really well, so I went right after the campaign to Paramount.
Q: Would you take a job in politics again if it was the right candidate?
A: In two seconds.
Q: Anyone on the horizon that you think could be the right candidate?
A: Iíve known John Kerry for years; I think heís a great candidate.... Johnís somebody Iíve told he can count on me in any way he wants. I think heís been a great senator for the state. Thereís not a whole lot, to be perfectly honest. He would be the one.
Q: Would you be ready to leave film for the right person in politics?
A: Absolutely. I mean, itís hypothetical, but absolutely. I mean, again, itís the dynamic of being involved, of having enough cause and effect day in, day out. Iím doing a lot of work with the Innocence Project in New York, with Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, on gun control, and with the RFK [Center for] Human Rights. I have a lot of free time that I try to put to good use.
Q: Talk to me about the similarities between film and politics, from your perspective.
A: There are an awful lot of them. At the end of the day, what ultimately you find is that when you have a group of people that are truly passionate, it can just move mountains. No matter how good the candidate is, if thereís a group of people around him that are not responding ó Iíd go to the source. With movies, when you have people willing to go to the well and really stay on and speak their mind and collaborate, everything just elevates, day in, day out. And the amazing thing in movies is that there are so many smart people, and they tend to, when you stop buttonholing them and really make them feel like theyíre contributing, itís like watering a beautiful flower. And I very much felt that on The Emperorís Club; we made that movie with very little money, very little time, everybody basically worked for a fraction of what they were used to making, and there was never a complaint. Never. It was so harmonious. Town & Country was the antithesis of that, because they knew that there was a lot of money, there was not a lot of passion ... and thatís not too interesting, and itís not too much fun.
You know, I hope we can go back politically to a time when people really can get excited about the people again. I think itís hard because the moneyís now so lopsided, just like in movies. Both are similar in the sense that they need to be overhauled financially. I think spending a hundred and whatever million on a movie and then X amount to advertise it is not going to keep movies healthy for all that long. Similarly, I donít think without seriously doing something about campaign-finance reform, weíre just not going to attract good people to government. If we want statesmen, weíre not ever going to find them this way. Because all you do is raise money and put [makeup] on and go in front of cameras. And thatís just not going to work. I think itís vital in this country that we do the things we need to do to bring people back to politics, so that there are statesmen, people who arenít just interested in serving focus groups.
Q: Do you have a wish list of people you want to work with?
A: Theyíre all dead. No, Iím working with the people I really want to work with, fortunately. Iím sure Iíll do something again with Kevin [Kline]; weíre talking about projects. When I first went to United Artists, in 1986, my office was next to Billy Wilderís, and that was somebody I wanted to work with, but he was 79 at the time. John Malkovich is one of my best friends, and weíre developing something together, and weíve talked forever about doing different things.
Q: So heís not crazy?
A: No. Heís probably the sanest person I know.
Q: In general, would you tell someone to read the book first or see the movie first?
A: I love movies. I think itís so rare when one works magnificently. Billy Wilder used to say to me, "You either think in terms of the little curtains or you donít." Very few people really do. When a movie is magnificent, itís ... but a great book, thereís nothing better. Itís a very good question, and itís a very hard one to answer because of my bias toward movies. I saw the movie To Kill a Mockingbird before I read the book, and I was just so dazzled by the movie. And I thought the book was one of the best books Iíve ever read. But does one want to be biased by Gregory Peck? Does one want to be biased by Elmer Bernsteinís best score ever? I mean, thatís a lot of good work. I think if an actor has the capacity to exceed your imagination ... thatís kind of amazing.
The Emperorís Club opens on November 22 at Loews Harvard Square, Loews Boston Common, General Cinema Fenway 13, Showcase Cinemas Circle Cinema, and suburbs. Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]phx.com