ROBERT NEWMAN IS ON LOCATION, STARING down a dead horse. The bloodied animal — a stuffed prop — lies in the back of a pickup truck, its tail hanging over the tailgate. Chester, as the film crew has nicknamed him, has just been hauled out of a bloody swimming pool — you can see the matted path where he was dragged across the lawn. Even when the actor Dennis Quaid strolls by smoking a Camel, it’s hard not to focus on Chester.
“Poor Chester! We’ve been trying to make flies land, so we’ve been pouring honey on him,” Mike Figgis says, welcoming Newman to the set of Cold Creek Manor, a thriller starring Quaid, Sharon Stone, and Stephen Dorff. Newman put Figgis up for this job, which is shooting about an hour’s drive west of Toronto, and the director looks pleased to see him.
It is early September, the cicadas are thrumming, and Figgis is amazed, he says, to find himself already a third of the way through a 64-day shoot. After all, it was just March when Newman walked up to Nina Jacobson, Disney’s head of production, and floated Figgis’s name. Movies often take years to put together. To go from an agent’s initial query to “Roll cameras!” in less than five months is unusually quick.
It started at a party thrown by another star agent at ICM, Ed Limato, who represents some of Hollywood’s biggest names. Limato’s annual bash, held the Friday of Oscar weekend, is one of the most exclusive in town. All Oscar nominees are invited, as are favored clients and studio brass. Newman was there, standing next to the buffet, when he spotted Jacobson. “I’d read the script — it was written by Richard Jefferies, an ICM client — so I said to Nina, ‘What do you think about Figgis?’” Newman recalls. He knows Jacobson pretty well — last year, during the NBA play-offs, she joined him in the agency’s skybox at the Staples Center — and he likes the way she nurtures young directors like Wes Anderson and M. Night Shyamalan. So he was glad when Disney flew Figgis in from London for a meeting. “Usually if a client has a meeting at 11 a.m. and I don’t get a call from the studio before lunch, maybe they’re interested, maybe they’re not,” Newman says. “This wasn’t that. Mike wasn’t even in the elevator before they called.”
“So I say ‘Let’s do it,’” interjects Figgis in his gentle British accent. Figgis worried, though, that the salary Newman planned to ask for was too high. The director, who had success making thrillers like 1990′s Internal Affairs, was eager to return to the genre. “I remember saying, ‘I’d be happy if you’d slightly tone that down.’ I was willing to compromise. But Robert is like, ‘No!’” Figgis says. “He’s terrible, isn’t he? He’s a monster. I can’t control him.”
Figgis wasn’t always so content at ICM. Each client of the agency — Newman’s included — is shared by a team of agents. Back in the early 1990s, when Figgis was writing Leaving Las Vegas, the director’s principal agent was Newman’s boss, ICM president Jeff Berg. But the team system — “which means you can call Jeff if you’re desperate,” Figgis says, “but you work day-to-day with a string of other agents” — left him feeling neglected. “I was seriously thinking of taking a hike.” Then Figgis met Newman. “I thought, ‘I’ve got this wacky little project. We’ll see how this goes.’”
Newman recalls a colleague telling him Leaving Las Vegas would never get made. Newman disagreed. “I read it in my office over lunch. I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, this is really good.’ It wasn’t a $ 100 million movie, but it was like a cool ’70s movie. I thought Elisabeth Shue could be like Jane Fonda in Klute — the ingenue who plays a hooker. There’s a bedrock audience like myself who would be attracted. So we took it door-to-door, pitching it.”
In the ’50s, when studios were the only source of financing for movies, agents didn’t have to troll for seed money. Now it’s an essential part of their job. Leaving Las Vegas was a tough sell. Nobody wanted to finance a dark comedy about a man bent on drinking himself to death. Newman convinced Lumiere, the French film production group, to put up the $3 million budget.