Bill Horberg has a one-desk office on the second floor of a nondescript building on Kingston’s Wall Street: a place that comes complete with balky phone service, a doorbell that doesn’t ring and a dazzling view of…a couple of other nondescript Wall Street buildings. “Welcome to the world headquarters of Wonderful Films,” he says to a visitor for whom he has just answered the door. Wonderful Films is Horberg’s production company.
His office isn’t the kind of place you associate with someone who has produced a clutch of Hollywood and independent films you know and love: The Talented Mister Ripley, Cold Mountain, The Kite Runner, Milk and Adventureland, to name but a few. Take a seat in front of his semi-cluttered desk and talk to him, and in the process, forget everything you knew or thought you knew about big-time movie producers.
Horberg and his wife, Cuban-born fine artist Elsa Mora, are recent arrivals in our region. Close friends, a visit to Woodstock and to the Woodstock Film Festival and a hankering to be closer to nature led them and their children to make a home in Mount Tremper.
Horberg’s most recent project is The Promise. It cost $100 million to make, features a couple of Hollywood’s biggest stars and has a powerful backstory that has itself generated a soon-to-be-released documentary. More about both films later.
Horberg is a Chicago native who came to movies when it was still possible to do so without a film school diploma. His earliest days on the path to Hollywood were spent as the proprietor of a much-loved, rat-infested cinema called the Sandburg Theater. He was 19 years old; his business partner and friend was 21. Together, they learned firsthand the then- immutable laws of doing business in the Windy City: laws that ensured that just about everyone, from the 1913 building’s owner to the local Mafia chieftain to the designated popper of popcorn, would take their cut of what small profits the starry-eyed proprietors were able to scrape together before the building suffered a fatal-but-profitable-for-the-owner fire a couple of years later. If that sounds like the scenario for a coming-of-age comedy, Horberg has already beat you to it, though not filmically: He has written and illustrated a comic book that reads like a free-range storyboard of the saga.
Horberg pursued his fascination with film in his hometown by producing, shooting and ultimately selling blues- and rock-festival documentaries, all the while writing, developing screenplays that were never produced and securing the rights for two novels that eventually were produced.
He finally went West in 1986. The movie industry was on the cusp of several technological and cultural revolutions: the growth of independent filmmaking, the rise of home video and such new creative outposts as MTV. The young outliers of the ’70s – Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas – were now dukes, princes and even kings of a new and suddenly vital Hollywood.
Horberg was initially a serf in that burgeoning empire. He paid his dues as a freelance story analyst. “I had to read about a thousand scripts just to make the rent and get enough gas in my car to get around,” he recalled. “It was brutal, but in retrospect, it was kind of my undergraduate degree into the industry – into what was getting made and who was who in the zoo – as well as analyzing all these stories and learning what worked and what didn’t, because I didn’t go to film school, didn’t have any kind of formal education in that way.”
The next year, he got a job as a creative executive at Paramount, which was about the hottest studio around at the time. He remembers those years as his version of grad school. All grad schools should be so packed with such estimable tutors. He worked with Francis Ford Coppola on Godfather III, Mike Nichols on Regarding Henry and, he remembered with a smile, the Zucker brothers, which meant working with David Zucker on Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (“one of my favorite titles”) and Jerry Zucker on Ghost, which was one of the biggest hits Paramount ever had.
A senior executive and mentor named Lindsay Doran left Paramount to join Promethean producer/director/actor Sydney Pollack’s production company Mirage Enterprises. Horberg followed her there in 1991, and stayed at Mirage for 13 productive and highly successful years.
Pollack, who’s best-known as the director of Tootsie, Three Days of the Condor and his masterpiece, Out of Africa, died in 2008. Horberg remembered him as a man who embodied some sharp contradictions: “On one day, he wanted to be a mogul and wanted to have a mini-studio and run the world; on the other day, he was a kind of American Truffaut and wanted to run a boutique shop and make these kind of bespoke, humanist movies.”
But one thing about Pollack that didn’t waver over the years was his generosity toward other filmmakers. “There weren’t many directors as committed to giving back and producing and sponsoring the work of other filmmakers as he was,” Horberg said. “Other successful directors would spend time on their own projects, but he was a teacher. It was in his DNA. He really enjoyed coming into the editing room and giving a note or sitting in on a casting session; he just loved helping.”
He said that Pollack had a sort of “X-ray vision” for problem-seeing and -solving, and that it was a gift that forced people to think in different ways about storytelling. “Nothing was arbitrary; everything had to be there for a reason, and had to service the what-is-it-about of it all,” he said. “It was quite challenging and frightening at times, because Sydney was such a towering presence. And he didn’t suffer fools.”
Another great writer/director, Anthony Minghella, joined Mirage as a partner after writing and directing The Talented Mister Ripley. He went on to win Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for The English Patient in 1996. Minghella died at the age of 54 in 2008, barely two months before Pollack died at the age of 73.
Horberg’s recollection of those days brings a softness to his voice. “For me to have the privilege of working with two of the most in-demand, humanistic filmmakers of their era and to be associated with them, representing them and collaborating with them, to be deep in the skirts of their process, to see how these guys thought and how they worked – that was just an incredible chapter in my life.”
Their deaths seemed to portend the end of an era for Horberg, and for the industry as well. “The kind of films those guys made and the values that they represented are just not what’s at the center of our global media landscape today: the internet, digital era, the triumph of technology and visual effects that combine to create the cinema of spectacle, which is the era we’re in now.
“That stuff just wasn’t their preoccupations; they were really about the spectacle of the human heart, the spectacle of human nature. Those were the things they got out of bed driven to tell stories about.” A wistful look passes across Horberg’s face. “In some ways, I don’t know what they would do if they were still here.”
Horberg’s latest film, The Promise, resembles a big-budget Hollywood film (nothing says Hollywood like a $100 million budget), but, like The English Patient and before it Doctor Zhivago, it tells an intimate love story against a vast and largely forgotten historical panorama – specifically, the genocide of the Armenian people at the hands of what is now Turkey shortly before the onset of World War I.
The film is the legacy – Horberg called it a “passion project” – of the late movie mogul and businessman Kirk Kerkorian, who grew up in a community created by the diaspora that followed the massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks that began in 1915. It was a project that had been thwarted over the decades by Turkish interference and obstruction going back to Irving Thalberg’s day, Horberg said. But all those efforts had been stopped, particularly in light of Turkey’s increasing strategic importance to US interests in the region: interests that continue to this day. The government of Turkey continues to deny that the Armenian genocide even occurred.
Kerkorian, who died in 2015, set up and funded his own production company, Survival Pictures, thereby eliminating the possibility of studio or back-door governmental interference. After securing the services of Terry George, the Northern Irish writer of In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda, Horberg signed on as the film’s “boots-on-the-ground” producer, responsible for coordinating locations, budgeting, scheduling and the infrastructural needs of a small army. “That script had everything you don’t want to see as a producer: children, boats, animals, mountains, weather, period, thousands of extras, battle scenes. It was unbelievable.”
Kerkorian’s vision of The Promise was not, Horberg said, to make a small art film. “He wanted it large, he wanted it a love story and he wanted to evoke the movies of a different generation – Lawrence of Arabia, Zhivago, Reds, The Killing Fields – the kind of movies that really don’t get made anymore.”
For Kerkorian and for the people who made his movie, The Promise isn’t just a movie; it’s a cause. “This movie will be a vehicle to raise worldwide consciousness, to force a conversation, to break through the denialist infrastructure which has tyrannically robbed Armenians of any sense of closure or justice,” he said.
In addition to The Promise, an unusual “companion documentary” called Intent to Destroy will soon be released, about the making of the film as well as its topic. “It’s a very unusual film in that [acclaimed director Joe Berlinger] was embedded in the making of our film, so there’s a lot of on-set footage of The Promise as it explores how and why it happened and why it has been buried by official versions of history.”
Horberg made a surprising admission about The Promise: “It was never going to be a big-box-office boffo hit. It wasn’t made for that reason. It’s not the lens through which we’re judging its success. This is a PG-13 movie; we want it to have a long life, want it to be taught in high schools. We want to change the conversation. There’s nothing like a film in pop culture to serve as the actual educational reference point to history.”
So, in ways large and small and mixtures of the two, Bill Horberg is reblazing a trail that his former partners and friends pioneered a decade ago: making movies that still touch the heart – and maybe make, or remake, some history as well.