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Peter Davis

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Remembering Bert Schneider

Posted: 12/28/11 03:20 PM ET

On Christmas Eve 1973, Bert Schneider, the richly innovative Hollywood producer who died this month, decreed a screening of what eventually became my film on the Vietnam War, Hearts and Minds. We had been in the editing room for six months, at which point an executive on a fiction film has every right to ask to see a rough cut. A documentary is a different animal, and what we had at that point was nothing resembling a rough cut; rather it was an almost random assemblage of footage we had culled from the 200 hours we had shot. Five and a half hours.

Of Hell. Not the film, though that contained plenty of Hell. But for us, the two creative editors -- LynZee Klingman and Susan Martin -- and me. And for the 50 or so friends Bert, to my horror, invited. These were film people all right, accustomed to seeing movies that weren't quite finished, flattered to be treated to an early look. But they were Hollywood fiction film people, where there's a script the director and editors can use as a guide in getting to a rough cut in a lot less than six months. Documentaries are often simply chaos before they achieve a structure, and I was nowhere near finding one yet.

Mercifully, the awful screening ended before dinner time. One of our assistant editors sprang to a phone and I heard her apologize to her date for being late on Christmas Eve, then added, "I've just seen the worst piece of crap I've ever been connected with." And she was on our side. I may not be remembering her in my will.

As for Bert's friends, none of them could conceivably have had a single kind thing to say about the disaster they had just witnessed. I heard one tell his wife, just before the elevator doors closed, "Jesus, that was forever." I couldn't have agreed more. The one friend I'd invited to bolster me, a novelist and screenwriter, said only that she'd call me; that right there is the Hollywood version of the Mafia warning that you will soon be sleeping with the fishes. Charitably, she didn't call me, and we're still friends.

When he had seen all his invited guests out, Bert came back into the screening room where LynZee, Susan and I sat essentially performing an autopsy on the corpse, figuring out the most likely cause of death. Bert said six words, "It's incredible, but it's a mess."

Well, you say, anyone could have said that. Yes and no. If a child tells you he is having worse problems in math than you ever had, you comfort him. If Einstein (okay, I'm grandiosing here in the Hollywood manner) says his problems with mathematics are much greater than yours, you've just learned something that reverberates. Bert had used the word "incredible" -- overused in Hollywood perhaps even more than in contented bedrooms -- and that meant we weren't performing an autopsy. We were figuring out how to make something from nothing, but it was a conglomeration of reasonably promising nothings with a potential to be something. The hateful screening helped us, it actually sped up the editing process by forcing us to watch and hear the breathing of the audience more than we watched and heard the film assemblage, feeling when energy lagged or even dropped below zero, as it did many times during the five and a half hours. I still hadn't forgiven Bert for a humiliating experience, making us have the screening in the first place, but in his canny way he had helped us.

The day after an impatient Christmas (I wanted to get right back into the cutting room), when I was speaking to him alone, Bert asked, "How about a little peace and quiet to start with?" That's all he said, just a question, not even a suggestion much less a Weinsteinian (as in Harvey) command. We had begun the terrible assemblage with a Vietnamese villager showing us her bombed out house, followed by some bombing. Bert's question was the right one because it told me don't show all your aces the first time cards are dealt.

Of course we began again, and we began with a little peace and quiet in the village, what it was like when there was no war -- a horse-drawn cart, a farmer's crop in a field, only a few shots, and then soldiers walking across the field, no fighting, no violence of any kind, just walking, not even marching.

The thing about Bert was people wanted to please him. He had almost infinite charm coupled with that terrifying quality, a kind of aura, that surrounds certain personages -- among them politicians, entrepreneurs, athletes, artists, actors and filmmakers. With Bert it was not only his accomplishments but also his looks. He seemed larger than any room he was in. Tall and lanky, a searching gaze from his blue eyes, with high cheekbones and a corona of curls, he was frequently in those days described as an Adonis. It wasn't much of an exaggeration. He displayed a visible dynamism, which alternated with a holiday spirit of fun and sometimes with plain indifference that made you want to do handsprings to recapture his attention.

By the time I met him, Bert's small production company, BBS, which he had formed with his partners Bob Rafelson and Steve Blauner, had created a shining moment in Hollywood that is still celebrated. BBS made three stunning, very much still watchable films: Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, and my own favorite, Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces. Bert was never satisfied, least of all with himself. But he had beaten the old studio system, forged a process in which filmmakers dominated financiers, and Hollywood has ever since been better for that. Bert gave independence to the independents. "This was a beginning of the independent movies and, more than that, a kind of celebration of anti-establishment movie subjects," Bob Rafelson said. "Bert broke with everybody's rules."

Yet the old system held sway most places in Hollywood, and you can see it today at studios which make pictures costing well over 100 million dollars that have to gross half a billion before the studio is happy. Bert became disillusioned and tired of fighting the very system he had appeared to beat. For him, the canonized "New Hollywood" lasted less than 10 years. Still in his prime 30 years ago, in his late 40s, Bert stopped making films. He told me he had done what he came to do. For a long time he remained a threat to do something amazing. Though he never produced another film he was an inspiration to far more young filmmakers than there are studio executives to squelch them.

If film no longer engaged Bert, he became passionate about politics. His support for egalitarian causes never wavered. He articulated his positions as well as a lawyer who spends months preparing a brief. In a contradiction to his proletarian impulses -- he was large, he contained contradictions -- Bert was a self-described elitist. His elitism, however, was not social or economic. It was aesthetic and intellectual. If someone, anyone, had a fresh idea, he'd listen and then maybe argue. He suffered bores for less than 30 seconds. His radicalism was utterly sincere, but I always thought this aspect of Bert was more a path to enlightenment than to a program for government.

There is no way of talking about Bert without talking about women. Good women loved Bert. The aura, Adonis. Wonderful gifted women. (As well as some who preyed on him, others whom he himself preyed on.) No point in fame dropping here, but there were smart, beautiful, accomplished women. He lost them. It would be an oversimplification to say that the best women Bert knew tended to outgrow him, but in order to become their own fullest selves they needed to get away from that aura.

It is also impossible to talk about Bert without mentioning drugs. Lots of people take too many drugs and still work in Hollywood, but drugs combined with disillusionment are lethal. You have to have illusions in Hollywood, or you can't make anything. Bereft of illusions, Bert subsided into drugs. Indifference slowly took over from dynamism. Drugs wasted him, made him solitary. He withdrew from our 30-year-friendship about a decade ago, and unfortunately I was one of too many to count.

As we were getting to know each other in the early 70s, Bert asked me what I wanted out of the film I was beginning to make about the Vietnam War. I gave some breathy Ivy League answer about trying to interrogate the American ethos (oh please) as it transformed from republic into empire. Ugh. Then I asked him what he himself would like to see. "Lines around the block," he said.

My father Frank Davis, a retired screenwriter (there is no such thing but let's pretend; pretending is essential in Hollywood), scoffed when I reported this conversation to him. "Nothing has changed since I worked for Louie B. Mayer," he said. For once, my father was wrong. Bert didn't say lines around the block to be like the Mayers or Warners, whom he didn't resemble in any way. He knew who he was dealing with -- an earnest young guy, ambitious, innocent of anything so base as craving popularity -- and so he said it to aggravate, scare, motivate me. Bert knew and loved film, but he knew and loved filmmakers even more.

Nor did many of us ever stop loving him. In a parallel universe I like to think Bert is resuming his decades-old argument with Dennis Hopper about film, politics and the most blissful way to achieve enlightenment. In our own orbit though, Bert's absence makes the world just a little less interesting.