The Outsider: The Life and Times of Robert Lantos
Producers just don’t get no respect.
We assume they’re just the money guys. The people who have put up the cash, spend the shooting days on a yacht off St. Tropez and then swoop in to pick up the plaudits on Oscar night. Yeah sure, sometimes they’ll helicopter in to witness an hour or two of shooting. They’ll demand a better chair and some fresher coffee. They’ll start a fight with the director about choices (though they’ve likely never read the script) and then try to pick up the leading actress and fly her off to Casablanca. All in all, they’re what’s wrong with the industry, right?
Well, not always.
“In producing, you’re in on every single element of the show,” says Peter Gentile, the producer of tonight’s CBC Life and Times program on Canadian film mogul Robert Lantos. “You have to be the second smartest person in every department. You have to be the second best lawyer, the second best financial guy, the second best writer, the second best director and the second best camera guy. You’re the ultimate generalist. You’ve got to be able to talk to everyone about their little piece. Plus, you have to be able to motivate people and keep it together; to take all of the energy—the good and the bad—and direct it in the same direction.”
People’s misconceptions about producers were part of the reason Gentile wanted to make The Outsider: The Life and Times of Robert Lantos.
“Everyone always focuses on the stars and the directors,” Gentile says, sucking back a cigarette on the back patio of MDF Productions’ offices at Richmond and Parliament. “Being a producer myself, I know that these projects don’t happen unless there’s someone there to put them together.”
Throughout his over twenty-year career, Gentile has put quite a bit together. At MDF, he and partner Remo Girlato have been behind five Life and Times projects: Veronica Tennant’s award-winning performance film, Shadow Pleasures and 2003’s incredibly successful Mob Stories, which aired on History Television and Quebec’s Canal D.
That said, when he was getting his start, the Canadian film and television landscape was pretty barren.
“When I came out of university, there wasn’t place for me to go and work,” Gentile recalls. “I could have gone to the NFB or to the CBC, but that was it, so I had to set off on my own. Suddenly, Robert Lantos came around and everything started to change. He built a company and then, ultimately, an industry. there would not be much of what we today call the Canadian film and television industry if it weren’t for him.”
When Gentile set out to make the film about Lantos, he desperately wanted to discover what made the founder of Alliance click. In his more meagre days, Gentile put together trailers for films like Black Robe . During such occasions, he’d had limited encounters with Lantos, all of which had left the impression that the mogul was a mere dollars and cents guy.
“That’s why it came as such a surprise when he struck out on his own and left the company in 1998,” Gentile says. “I thought that that company was his whole life. But as we proceeded with the project, I realised that it was absolutely inevitable that he was gonna do that. He’s a business guy because he needed to know business in order to get things done. But he’s a storyteller more than anything.”
Gentile’s film follows Lantos’ life from the streets of Budapest where he was born to those of Uruguay, where he lived a short time, and Montreal. There, a boy who’d always been an outsider suddenly found himself in what he calls “a city of outsiders.” It was there, at McGill university, in the midst of a cultural revolution, that Lantos discovered there was money to be made in film. From there, he fought his way, tooth and nail, against censors and sceptics to the top of the industry.
Where the film succeeds best is where it outlines the intense connections between the films that Lantos has pushed, both before and after his departure from Alliance, to his personal life. While this type of treatment is often afforded directors and actors, it is rarely the case with producers. Here we see that Joshua Then and Now was an ode to his early years in Montreal; Istvan Szabo’s Sunshine was an exploration of his family’s plight between the turn of the century and the Hungarian Revolution; and Being Julia was an ode to his mentor, Alexander Korda. Personal insights like these help the audience understand why the likes of Annette Benning and Jeremy Irons are so willing to talk to Gentile’s camera.
Whether you think he was foolish to back Atom Egoyan’s laborious Where the Truth Lies or whether you think he built an empire on the back of soft-core porn, you can’t deny that Robert Lantos is a visionary whose life has been steered by his passions as much as his pocketbook.