BH Interview: 'His Way' Director Douglas McGrath, Part 1

The documentary feature “His Way” premiered on HBO this past Spring. “His Way” is based on the autobiography “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead,” which highlights the life and career of the great film producer/concert promoter/manager/philanthropist/entrepreneur Jerry Weintraub over seven decades.

Weintraub first managed musical acts ranging from The Four Seasons to The Moody Blues, then promoted artists such as Led Zeppelin, John Denver, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Kiss, Aerosmith and Queen. He also promoted the “comeback” tours for Elvis Presley, then Frank Sinatra. Weintraub’s movie producing credits include “Nashville,” “Oh God!,” “Diner,” “Cruising,” “The Karate Kid,” “National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation,” “The Karate Kid” (2010), and the 2001 remake of “Ocean’s Eleven,” as well as “Ocean’s 12” and “Ocean’s 13.” He appeared in all the “Ocean” films as well as “The Firm.”

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“His Way” is the first documentary feature film directed by Douglas McGrath. McGrath is an actor/writer/director whose past directing credits include “Emma,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Infamous,” and “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” In my opinion, “His Way” is pound for pound and frame for frame the most entertaining and inspirational documentary of this past year. “His Way” was shot and edited for nearly ten months and culled from approximately seventy hours of interview footage.

KW: You took an autobiography and turned it into a documentary film. That doesn’t seem like it is usually done very often.

DM: It wasn’t quite as direct as that. Graydon Carter [Managing Editor, Vanity Fair] had called me and asked if I was interested in making a film about Jerry and Jerry’s book was not out at that point. So I read Rich Cohen’s piece that he had done for Vanity Fair and said, “Boy, this guy sounds like quite a character.”

I was going out to L.A. and I said to Graydon … I should meet him. I said, “you know, it would be great if I could read it [Jerry’s book] and then we could meet.” But, Jerry always being Jerry, thinking what is the best way for things to work and what is the right order for them to work in… he brought the manuscript to me himself. Meeting him first and hearing his own speaking voice allowed me to read the book in a more informed way. Meaning I could really tell what kind of person it was that was writing that book. So when I was making the film … I wrote out all the kinds of questions I wanted to ask him, but I didn’t really use the book in the way that I’ve had other films of mine and adapted novels for the screen. I used it sort of as a springboard for conversations.

KW: And what was that experience for you, moving from narrative film into documentary for the first time?

DM: Well, I cheated a little bit in that. I kind of knew the structure I wanted. By which I mean I had this idea early on that I would ask everyone early on to finish the sentence, “Jerry Weintraub is…” And so I wanted to start the movie with a lot of people saying what they thought Jerry Weintraub was. So everybody I interviewed, the Bushes, Brad Pitt, didn’t matter… I said I want you to finish this sentence for me however you can. “Jerry Weintraub is…” and we got a lot of great stuff. I knew I wanted to start that way and then I knew I wanted to get into his personal life, where he was from, what world produced him. I just wanted to kind of follow that arc. So, I just kind of asked questions knowing that was my shape. It wasn’t kind of an outline, but it gave me a general idea. When we were out at his house in Palm Desert, the thing that knocked my socks off were those moving glass doors that open at the beginning of the film.

KW: It’s an amazing shot.

DM: I just thought, “That is how the movie has to start.” Because I noticed that he had all these monograms. And I thought we’ll do a series of monograms and then we’ll end and reveal him at these doors which are opening without his touching them. And which reveal what appears to be the whole world at his feet. I thought that is a good way with just pictures to tell us, that this is a guy if you don’t know him, who might have an interesting story. So in that way, I had that much narration in my head. And then, I knew that people would speak to certain sections of his life.

KW: Were there some particular challenges with this type of story that maybe, you wouldn’t encounter with narrative or even a different type of non-fiction subject?

DM: Well, that’s a very good question. Compared to narrative … with a documentary you have to be careful. Because it’s like quicksand if you’re not careful. You can think deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper into a subject depending on what you are writing about. You think of those guys who did that wonderful “Hoop Dreams” or obviously, bigger things like “The Civil War” or “Shoah”… you think, “Oh my God, I know how to get into it, but I don’t know how to get out of it.” I wanted to tell the story of this guy, whose greatest job of salesmanship was selling himself. And I could see that pattern early in his life. He just talked his way into jobs, he talked his way into relationships. He was successful doing that because he had a very appealing personality and a very astute understanding of other people’s personalities and I saw that there’s a journey there.

He wasn’t poverty-stricken, but he was not wealthy. He started out in a comfortable life, but then only built up from there. And he learned from his Dad. And I thought, I want to trace that journey and then I want to take … what most people knew about him, which was his professional success and I wanted to show how there was an application to his personal life as well. That he had some impossible successes in his professional life and then he managed to do the same thing in his personal life with Jane (his wife) and Suzy (his girlfriend). And you know, I have a section of the film where a lot of other guys go … “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it.”

KW: I love the one of Barbara Bush and President Bush. It’s classic…

DM: Barbara Bush is practically the funniest person in the movie.

KW: Really?

DM: Sometimes, when we first showed the film … when it first came out … the line she says, “I’d kill George Bush if he did that” gets possibly the biggest laugh in the entire movie. .

KW: It is a good mix of people and when you go to the Bushes, they are like the grandparents in that situation. I thought it was hilarious too.

DM: I loved having the Bushes in the film and, what I really knew I wanted to do once they had agreed to be in it was… unlike everyone else who I knew I was interviewing as single subjects. I never wanted anybody coupled up because I wanted their individual thoughts about Jerry, except in President and Barbara Bush’s case. They’d been married for 65 years. I knew they would have the give-and-take and the push-and-pull of an old married couple. And by our standards the standards of “His Way”… that’s an action sequence for us. That’s as much explosive power as we’re going to get. And their dynamic between the two of them just killed me.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which Douglas talks about the rest of the film, including the amazing segments on Jerry’s experiences with Elvis Presley, Colonel Tom Parker, and Frank Sinatra.


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