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Novelist Arthur Golden.

Novelist Arthur Golden wrote the bestseller, "Memoirs of a Geisha" which was on the New York Times Bestseller List for one year. It's now out in paperback, and a movie version will be made by Stephen Spielberg. "Memoirs of a Geisha" was GOLDEN's debut as a novelist.(


Other segments from the episode on February 10, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 10, 1999: Interview with Arthur Golden; Interview with Peter Bart; Interview with John Pizzarelli.


Date: FEBRUARY 10, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 021001np.217
Head: Arthur Golden
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After over a year on the hardcover bestseller list, "Memoirs of a Geisha" has been published in paperback and is now number three on the paperback bestseller list. Plus, Spielberg is planning on making the movie adaptation and Madonna, who loved the book, dresses like a geisha in her new video and plans on showing up in geisha garb for the Grammys.

"Memoirs of a Geisha" is the first book by my guest Arthur Golden. The novel begins in 1929 in Japan when the nine-year-old daughter of a poor family is adopted by a businessman who then sells her to a geisha house. The novel follows her training and subsequent fame.

Arthur Golden studied Japanese art in college and received his Master's in Japanese history. Then he lived in Japan for 14 months working at an English language magazine.

I asked him to read a passage from the book about how a geisha deals with men who want a sexual relationship with her. The book draws a distinction between the geisha who accepts money for sex and the geisha who accepts an arrangement with a man referred to as a "dana" (ph). "Dana" in Japanese means husband, but to a geisha it is more of a patron who subsidizes her during a long term sexual relationship.

ARTHUR GOLDEN, AUTHOR, "MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA": "A true geisha will never soil her reputation by making herself available to men on a nightly basis. I won't pretend a geisha never gives in casually to a man she finds attractive, but whether she does or not his her private affair.

Geisha have passions like everyone else, and they make the same mistakes. A geisha who takes such a risk can only hope she isn't found out. Her reputation is certainly at stake, but more important so is her standing with her dana, if she has one.

What's more is she invites the wrath of the woman who runs her geisha house. A geisha determined to follow her passions might take this risk, but she certainly won't do it for spending money she might just as easily earn in some legitimate way.

So, you see, a geisha of the first or second tier in Gion can't be bought for a single night, not by anyone. But if the right sort of man is interested in something else -- not a night together, but a much longer time and if he's willing to offer suitable terms; well, in that case a geisha will be happy to accept such an arrangement.

Parties and so on are all very nice, but the real money in Gion comes from having a dana, and a geisha without one is like a stray cat on the street without a master to feed it."

GROSS: That's Arthur Golden reading from his bestselling novel, "Memiors of a Geisha," which has just been published in paperback. Thanks for reading that.

GOLDEN: Thanks.

GROSS: Did you ever expect that this book would be so successful?

GOLDEN: No, I certainly didn't. I mean, it seemed to me, all the years I was working on it, that the material was just fascinating material. And I really felt that if I could do my job right, somebody somewhere would be interested in it. But it never occurred to me that it would be this successful.

In fact, I think there's hardly been a writer whose ever published a book who didn't hope that it would sell well, and I certainly hoped it would sell well. But there were so many -- there are so many things that have happened with this book that I didn't even know to fantasize about.

GROSS: Like what?

GOLDEN: That...

GROSS: ...the Steven Spielberg movie.

GOLDEN: Steven Spielberg. Foreign rights. Sales.

GROSS: Right.

GOLDEN: The different kinds of people who read the book and have either written to me or I've run into. I mean, it just never occurred to me that the audience would be so broad.

GROSS: Now, what do you know about who your readers are?

GOLDEN: Well, I only know anecdotally from people telling me friends of theirs have read it, or letters I've gotten. And of course, mostly from readings that I give and the audience that's there. And it's mostly women, although I think that's true for fiction in general.

GROSS: Now, in the February addition of "Harper's" Madonna is talking about the influence of your book on her life.

GOLDEN: Yes, well, that -- needless to say, that's another thing I never imagined.

GROSS: Yeah, and she says, "sometimes I think that what I do is like being a modern day geisha." Boy, that must be really odd for you to read.

GOLDEN: It is odd. And, you know, it's wonderful. I mean, I'm delighted by it because it's, I suppose, every writers hope that something in a book will resonate with readers. And somehow or other I find that readers respond to very very different parts of the book or very different aspects of it.

In her case, I think she -- as she states pretty clearly -- identifies with the profession. I don't think I've -- well, actually I have run across people who've had that reaction before.

GROSS: What do people most often say to you when they meet you and find out that you wrote "Memoirs of a Geisha?"

GOLDEN: Most often they say that they find it surprising or difficult to believe that the book was written by a man. That's the comment that I hear most often.

GROSS: I figured. And not only a man, but a white male, American man from another culture from the Japanese geisha. So why did you decide to write about a geisha?

GOLDEN: I first came upon this idea when I was living in Japan and met a guy whose father was a very wealthy businessman. And I thought that was fascinating. He was the illegitimate son of this businessman. And as it happened, his mother was a geisha.

But at the time, this was back in about '81, that didn't particularly interest me. I found it fascinating to wonder what his upbringing must have been like, specifically his relationship with his father. And when I got back to the States and got interested in writing fiction, I set out to write a novel imagining such childhood in third person.

And over the course of four or five years I began to do research into the character of the mother. And immediately discovered, I mean really -- pretty much as soon as I learned enough about that subculture to be -- to have a vague understanding of it, it struck me as material that was so much richer than what I had been working on.

That I gave up this novel about this young man and wrote about his mother instead. That's how I got into the subject. But for six years I worked on it as a novel in third person not in first person, precisely because it struck me, you know, a white guy from modern times in the U.S. shouldn't be writing in first person about a Japanese woman of the 1930s from a peculiar subculture.

It just seemed a little too risky to me. And I really only decided to do it in first person after other attempts had failed.

GROSS: What failed about the other attempts?

GOLDEN: Well, I wrote a draft first, which took me about three years, focusing on five years in the life of an adult geisha shortly after World War II based on a lot of book learning. Then I had an opportunity to interview a geisha which just came to me.

I hadn't even truthfully tried all that hard, because it seemed to me impossible that such a thing would happen. But a friend called me from Japan and said she found me a geisha to interview. Then I discovered I had gotten everything in my first draft entirely wrong -- really, just almost everything.

And so I started over and wrote the novel again. This time with the details properly in place, but once again in third person. And I really thought this was going to be the novel that I would finish and finally publish. But when I began to revise it and pass it around to friends and so on, I got back word that the book was dry.

And I certainly had not meant to write a dry book. What's more, it seemed to me if I had managed to make this fascinating material dry I had done something dreadfully wrong. So I formulated a plan of attack.

Step one was to have a week long anxiety attack, and I did that just absolutely beautifully.

GROSS: Congratulations. And step two?

GOLDEN: That went well. That went well. And then step two was to sit and figure out what on earth I had done wrong, and I decided after all that the first thing I had done wrong was to decide to keep my sensibility and her sensibility in separate boxes, so to speak.

That was what had led me to write it in third person. Now that I had decided the only way this novel was going to succeed was if I made an effort to merge our sensibilities. To actually imagine how she might experience her life -- there was no compelling reason not to write in first person any longer.

GROSS: Now, it's interesting that geisha, the way you describe them, seem to have led lives that were part bondage and part independence. Bondage in the sense that they're beholden to the men who pay for them and for, you know, the woman who runs the house.

But on the other hand, they get an education, and in some ways they were probably more independent than married women were before World War II.

GOLDEN: I think they were. It's a peculiar paradox just as you say. One of the things that struck me when I went over to the Gion district to interview this geisha and have a look around and so on, was that something I had overlooked somehow in the course of my research -- this is the only world that I'm aware of, even now after having sort of ponder this for five or six years, where women -- in Japan I mean -- where women absolutely rule. It's their world. They set the terms. They derive the benefit.

Men are, of course, the customers and the customer is always right. So one might think that the men really set the rules, but it isn't so. When a geisha comes into a room, where men are being entertained, to join the party she greets the other geisha in the room first then she greets the host, the man who is throwing the party. And then she greets the other men.

There really is a sense -- it's a very tangible sense -- in which this is a women's world where men come. They pay dearly for the privilege of being there, and the women divide the proceeds and enrich themselves through it.

Having said all that, it is still a form of bondage -- slavery. The only women who are truly free, if they are even that, are the ones who own the houses where the geisha are indentured. And on the collections of kimono that they geisha use, they're not indebted to anyone.

But even a geisha in some debt have a lot more freedom, as you point out, than women at that time who were married.

GROSS: My guest is Arthur Golden, author of "Memoirs of a Geisha." We'll talk more after a break.


GROSS: My guest is Arthur Golden, author of the bestselling novel "Memoirs of a Geisha." And it's just come out in paperback.

Now your novel begins with two sisters from a poor family. One sister is sold into geishahood, if I may use that expression, the other is sold into prostitution. How do you compare the two roles in Japanese society?

GOLDEN: In fact I set up the novel that way precisely to show something of the difference in those two roles. Prostitutes in Japan, certainly in the modern age, are pretty much exactly the same thing we imagine them to be in the West.

In the old days it was a little more glamorous in a certain sense. Meaning that they were very -- the high level prostitutes -- were very sought after and very wealthy. And were in a position, more or less, to choose their clients and lived in very elegant surroundings with all sorts of servants.

But since the end of the circumscribed pleasure quarters, the Yoshiwa (ph) and so on in Tokyo and other areas -- in Kyoto -- which came about with the modernization of Japan in 1868. Since that time prostitution lost its glamour and became really a kind of street walking.

These are people who live not knowing who they're going to be with the next hour or if they're going to be with anyone at all. Who live very much hand to mouth. I think most of the prostitutes in this period didn't do it because they gave them some sort of a fabulous living or provided them with any kind of opportunities, but because in most cases they had no other choice.

Geisha were the same. They really had no choice but to be geisha. And they did enrich themselves through sex even though they weren't prostitutes in the strict sense of the word. Men didn't come to them on an hourly basis for an exchange of a predetermined amount of money, but rather would set them up as long term mistresses. And often for extravagant sums.

So there is some overlap. But a geisha really, principally, spends her time entertaining men. And that means being at parties, pouring drinks, telling jokes, flirting, and just being a feminine presence in a room that would otherwise be all men. That's a role that I think a prostitute probably never plays.

GROSS: Because the Geisha have to be more refined and they take singing lessons, dancing, music, tea ceremony lessons, and you say, as well as lessons in the art of conversation. That almost sounds like the MGM Studios back in the glory days, you know, without the fencing.

GOLDEN: It's funny, you know, I started off after reading what I could find on geisha imagining that they were indeed rather refined, and pretty exquisite creatures who probably sprinkled their conversations with high handed references to poetry and art.

And in fact, shamefully I confess that my first draft of the novel presented it more or less that way. This was one of the things I got terribly wrong. They are entertainers. And men usually go, especially after a couple of drinks, to be entertained not by talking about poetry, you know.

There are men who do that, and perhaps there are geisha who can satisfy their urges. But mostly men go to have their drinks poured and be told a lot of dirty jokes, and teasing and all kinds of sexual innuendo. That's really how geishas, for the most part, spend their time.

They are also trained in singing and dancing, but having said that the singing that they do with an instrument called a shamisan (ph), it looks a little like a banjo really. It's kind of like a Japanese banjo. When they pull this thing out and start to play it it sounds very classical.

Well, that's because these were folk songs in the 1860s, which to us sounds classical. But in the 1860s it was exactly like pulling out a guitar and plunking away at it. It was very modern. It wasn't dry or erudite or anything like it.

GROSS: You write in the book, "you must remember that a geisha, above all, is an entertainer and a performer. We may pour saki or tea for a man, but we never go and fetch another serving of pickles."

GOLDEN: Mmm-hmm. Yes, that's right. Well, I mean, they have maids who do all that kind of thing so they are sitting there uninterrupted in their entertaining.

GROSS: Geishas wore kimono. What's the significance of the type of kimono that a geisha would wear?

GOLDEN: The difference in the kimono themselves from what a geisha wears, say, and what a housewife might wear are nothing important. Except that most of the time the kimono that geisha wear, that are somewhat formal, pull at the feet. And women seldom wear that kind of robe except in ceremonial occasions outside the world of geisha..

It's very beautiful. It makes a kind little train like a wedding dress. And the traditional image of an apprentice geisha certainly is of holding the hem up in the left hand in order to be able to walk down the street. Because otherwise the thing would be dragging in the dirt.

But the way they wear kimono is also a little different in that the housewives use lots of little pads and things to make a kind of columnar shape. That's the ideal look. And they go to kimono schools to learn to wear kimono.

It isn't something that is done in the house any longer, but there is a very particular body language and a very particular manner that's used in wearing kimono that really has to be taught.

Geisha, on the other hand, tend to wear their kimono in a more fluid fashion. They pride themselves on being the only ones left in Japan who really know how to wear kimono. They don't use as many cushions. They use some perhaps, but they look more natural in them. At least they feel so.

GROSS: The geisha in your book have a hair style that you describe as the "split peach" hairdo.

GOLDEN: Mmm-hmm.

GROSS: Would you describe it, and describe its significance?

GOLDEN: Well, the apprentice geisha wear it really. And it is a kind of hair style that's made by gathering -- sweeping the forelocks back along the side along the ears, and up on the top. So you divide the hair sort of into three. And then making a kind of "shneah" (ph) in the back -- well, gathering it up into a bun is what I'm leading up to. That's the really significant part of the hair style.

Is that there's what amounts to a bun on the top of the head. And it's formed by wrapping the hair around a piece of silk fabric, and that silk fabric, at a certain point in a geisha's life at least, is red. And it struck me that the split in that hair style and this splash of red inside clearly had a kind of sexual look to it.

And I have a man in the book at one point saying to the principal character, "you have no idea how sexual this hair style -- this split peach hair style -- really is." You know, here you have a young geisha walking down the street and somebody -- some man behind her thinking of all the things he'd like to do to her, and he looks up and sees this cleft hair style with this splash of red inside. And what do you suppose that makes him think of?

And she says, "well, it doesn't make me think of anything at all." And he says, "well, you're not using your imagination." At wish point she gets what he's saying and blushes.

GROSS: Geisha wore traditional white makeup. Kind of like what actors wore in kubuki (ph) theater. What's the point of the white makeup?

GOLDEN: That white makeup goes back to the Heyon (ph) period. Which is to say around 1000 A.D. Just about the time the very first novel ever written was written in Japan -- "The Tale of Benji." (ph) And in that courtly atmosphere the aristocratic women wore this very strange, to us very strange, white makeup. And in fact plucked out their eyebrows entirely and put their eyebrows painted in up on the lower part of the forehead.

And they also, after marriage, blackened their teeth. It makes altogether for something of a strange aesthetic. But I, quite recently, ran into a woman who has written a book about beauty -- ideas of beauty. Who pointed out to me in conversation something I thought was fascinating.

That often these kinds of traits are sort of a hypertrophy -- exaggeration really -- of feminine qualities. That women tend to have eyebrows which are somewhat higher than men. So to exaggerate this, the eyebrows are plucked and painted in at a higher point on the forehead.

And similarly, women tend to have paler complexions and so to accentuate this they paint over with white. Also, I think part of it had to do with being an aristocrat and not a peasant out in the sun. That's something that even in the West is familiar, the idea of a pale aristocrat. And I think geisha really borrowed the makeup from that image -- from that aesthetic.

GROSS: There seems to be this almost distancing affect of the makeup and the stylized kimono and the stylized hairdo. Where the geisha's no longer just a real woman, she's an idealization of a woman -- a theatrical version of a woman with theater makeup. And that somehow would seem as if the individuality of the woman is at least temporarily lost in service of this kind of idealized theatrical woman that is presented.

GOLDEN: Mmm-hmm. I think you're quite right. And geisha themselves are conscious of this as they -- they say that as they put on their makeup. That's really when they become geisha. In the early years, during the apprenticeship before age 18 and even as a young geisha, they tend to wear that white makeup all the time.

At a later age, maybe 25, they'll just wear regular makeup like we do in the West. That's more of a modern phenomenon, but in any case even then just putting on that Western makeup they feel themselves transforming into a role. It's really a role that they're playing.

And one of the sad or painful things about were being a geisha is that you really don't get to seek any kind of personal fulfillment. You're always playing this role.

GROSS: Arthur Golden is the author of the bestseller, "Memoirs of a Geisha." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Arthur Golden author of the bestseller, "Memoirs of a Geisha" which has just been published in paperback. It follows the life of a geisha in pre-World War II Japan.

How does a geisha lose her virginity?

GOLDEN: The -- though this doesn't happen any longer in the geisha world, which does still exist, in the old days "mizuage" was the way it happened. And that is a term that nobody is really sure where it came from, but it kind of means "putting on the water" or "raising the water." Something like that.

And this was a kind of ritual, you might say. With a popular young geisha it was often subject to a bidding war, and in fact this woman that I interviewed told me, and was very proud of this, that her virginity had set a record selling for -- guess how much?

GROSS: How much?

GOLDEN: Well, you know, $30,000 would sound pretty outrageous, but sold for 100 million yen which is $850,000. Which is a staggering amount of money.

GROSS: Especially considering this was years ago.

GOLDEN: Especially considering this was years ago, although that's in today's dollars. Back then when it was a 100 million yen it probably was only a mere $250,000. But still a pretty astonishing sum, which I think is even more astonishing when you consider that geisha really aren't prostitutes.

And even though we in the West have this idea -- I mean, it's hard to say they're not prostitutes when you talk about how much their virginity sold for. But what I mean by that is this isn't how she's going to go about making her living.

I mean, we don't tend to think of geisha as what they really are. In the West we see them as concubines trained in the arts of sex, and they're not. This 17-year-old going in for her "mizuage," who has raised a remarkable sum for it, doesn't know anything about what's going to happen.

I mean, the traditional way this occurs is her mother tells her -- her adopted mother usually -- tells her just lie still and it will be over. And that's about all she knows. Somebody I was telling this to one time said it reminded her of "think of England."


GROSS: So the woman -- the Japanese woman -- who you spoke to in depth before rewriting your book who had been a Geisha, she went through this process herself?

GOLDEN: She did. Yes. And she would have been about 19 when it happened. And I think she was sold at the age of seven in 1956. So what does that make -- 1967, '68, something like that. Nowadays in the '90s this "mizuage" may still occur very occasionally, but it is not a requirement. Back then it was. You really couldn't become a geisha until you've had your "mizuage".

GROSS: What's left of the geisha tradition in Japan?

GOLDEN: The experience of being entertained by geisha today is probably still pretty much like it was 40 or 50 years ago, or at least more similar than not. There are geisha. There are tea houses where they entertain. There are geisha houses where women still own these fabulous collections of extraordinary kimono.

And the only difference is that the numbers have diminished greatly. But beyond that, in fact, the life of a geisha and not a customer coming there -- you know, to be entertained nowadays by maybe 60 geisha in all of Gion rather than 600 or 800 40 or 50 years ago. But for a Geisha life is quite different.

There are child labor laws now. You can't become a geisha at age eight and be an indentured servant. Instead, you have to graduate high school and actually apply to become a geisha. They try to turn away the people they think are really in it for the opportunity to meet kabuki actors and movie stars and heads of state.

And instead pick only the ones who are serious about the profession and serious about continuing their study of traditional arts, because I don't think you can come into it cold. So at age 17 or 18 girls now -- young women really now -- become geisha, and are very desired because that look of an apprentice geisha, all in white makeup with hair ornaments and the glamorous looking kimono, is an icon.

And lots of parties are regarded as incomplete unless there's one there. Even though the role of a young geisha really isn't to speak, to entertain, but just to sit there and be beautiful. This is such a desirable role that they really have to -- the geisha that is -- have to be sure that it's appealing to young women so that they won't quit. Because they are, after all, in a position to quit, which wasn't true 50 years ago. So they do that by making it -- keeping it entertaining and fun.

GROSS: Arthur Golden. His novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" has just been published in paperback.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Arthur Golden
High: Novelist Arthur Golden wrote the bestseller, "Memoirs of a Geisha" which was on "The New York Times" bestseller list for one year. It's out now in paperback and a movie version will be made by Steven Spielberg. "Memiors of a Geisha" was Golden's debut as an novelist.
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Arthur Golden

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Arthur Golden

Date: FEBRUARY 10, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 021002NP.217
Head: Peter Bart
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The Academy Award nominations have been announced, and several of the films up for major awards came out last summer including: "Saving Private Ryan," "The Truman Show," and "Bulworth."

No surprise the most promoted film of last summer, "Godzilla," is not nominated for Best Picture. Studios take in 65 to 75 percent of their annual revenues in the summer, but they don't usually release their most serious films then.

My guest Peter Bart has written a new book about last summers hits and misses, and what they say about the state of Hollywood. The book is called "The Gross." Bart is editor in chief at "Variety," and is a former film studio executive.

I asked what lessons from the summer of '97 studio execs may have applied to the summer of '98.

PETER BART, EDITOR, "VARIETY" MAGAZINE; AUTHOR, "THE GROSS": Well, I think the big lesson of '97 was that special effects per se wasn't going to do it. I mean, there was a very expensive picture -- a sequel -- called "Speed 2" that seemed to have everything going for it.

It was a sequel, sequels are supposed to be safe, had a lot of effects -- that's supposed to be perfect for summer -- and on and on. The trouble was it was a lousy picture. And its failure in summer '97 really shook up the front offices in Hollywood.

No one is smart enough to know what's going to succeed, and that's why I think the central lesson of summer '97 and '98 was that the people who own the movie business in Hollywood basically don't like it. They're scared to death of it.

GROSS: Are they losing money too?

BART: They're not making money. The film business as such is diseconomic. In the sense that more studios lose money than make money from their live action movies.

GROSS: I can see why. The budgets are so big. Just the marketing and advertising budgets are so big.

BART: That's correct. You know, when I actually was fortunate enough to spend some years as an executive for three different movie companies before I returned -- before I happily returned to journalism and went to "Variety," of which I am now the editor.

But the risks that we used to take, say, in the early '70s of $2 million, $3 million -- even "The Godfather" cost about $7 million. There wasn't that much at stake. Plus, you opened a movie on three or four screens and spent a modest sum of money to launch it.

You didn't have to mobilize a $60 or $70 million advertising campaign and open in three, four, five thousand theaters across the country. And that is -- those factors are the biggest risk inhibitors today.

GROSS: Let's take a look at one of the movies that was supposed to be the big summer movie, "Godzilla," and ended up doing very poorly, I think, at the box office. Is that a fair assessment?

BART: Well, it did well by all normal standards. I mean, it could end up grossing well over $300 million around world -- well over 300. So in just the terms of raw bucks it was a success, but it was hugely expensive to produce and to sell. And as a result it was a disappointment because it didn't do the "blockbuster" business that Hollywood expects.

GROSS: Now, a lot of movie profits, I'm sure, have to do with tie-ins, you know, free glasses or other kinds of little souvenirs that you get at fast food hamburger places or other little tie-ins that you can get: T-shirts, mugs.

BART: Merchandising.

GROSS: Thank you. That's the word, merchandising.

BART: You can't go to a Taco Bell without getting something.


GROSS: Well, what were the merchandising tie-ins with "Godzilla," and did that help the movie profit or was that just more expense to worry about?

BART: Well, the trick of most of merchandise is that about -- well, more than half the sales of the stuff move out of the stores before a picture opens. With "Godzilla" there was such secrecy about the look of these little monsters that they didn't want to sell anything. They embargoed all of this stuff until after the picture opened.

When the picture opened and all the kids wandered into the stores, and "Godzilla" was, frankly, sort of prosaic looking. He looked like a fallout of "Jurassic Park." They were OK little creatures, nothing to justify the spectacular hype that had gone into it.

And again, it was just part of the big lesson of "Godzilla," which may be sort of the ultimate Hollywood lesson of last year. That is that too much hype creates expectations that are self-defeating.

GROSS: Was that the conclusion the studio reached, that there was too much hype about "Godzilla" and that hurt?

BART: The studio really felt that they ended up getting almost carried away with themselves. And they're smart guys at Sony. There's a man named Bob Levin (ph) who is the head of marketing -- Jeff Blake, the head of distribution. And I know, I ran into them in the weeks before "Godzilla" was to open, and they frankly admitted that they were concerned.

That there was too much being written about the marketing of "Godzilla" -- the selling of "Godzilla." And it was all becoming to self-conscious and to self-referential. And they were all scared to death that they were going to end up stepping on their own toes. And they did.

GROSS: Two studios, last summer, had comet crash movies. There was "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact." As you point out in your book, movies sometimes seem to come in pairs like "Antz" and "A Bug's Life," or the two Wyatt Earp movies, or "Outbreak" and "Crisis in the Hot Zone."

What happened when two different studios realized that they were both doing comet crash movies?

BART: It scared the hell out of them. It was really -- they were terrified. And indeed, there were a lot of phone calls between them trying to intimidate the other into delaying or canceling, because they were both hugely expensive pictures. There is a lot riding on them.

GROSS: How do they go about trying to intimidate each other?

BART: Well, phone calls are made to studio chiefs saying, "look, we're going to be out first. You don't really want to compete with us do you?" And of course, in this case, they did want to compete with each other.

And the movies were somewhat different in approach in the sense that "Deep Impact" was more akin to an old nuclear movie called "On the Beach" made years ago by Stanley Kramer. Whereas "Armageddon" was more like a "The Dirty Dozen" in space.

So they -- the rationale was we got the same basic premise, but the "Deep Impact" people led by Steven Spielberg felt they were going to make a much more thoughtful humanistic movie. In the end, they made the slightly more thoughtful humanistic movie.

GROSS: Which did better at the box office?

BART: "Armageddon." "Armageddon" was a huge picture. It did about $500 million worldwide. But "Deep Impact" was a big hit.

GROSS: And was opening first an advantage for "Deep Impact?"

BART: It was a small advantage. Not that big a deal, actually.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Bart, editor in chief of "Variety" and author of the new book "The Gross." It's about the films from last summer and how they didn't the box office and why.

One of the movies you write about in your book, "The Gross," is "Saving Private Ryan" which was a huge success last summer. And really kind of goes against the common wisdom that you can't do a serious or an agonizing film for the summer. People want fun. And "Saving Private Ryan" was not a fun film. Did people try to discourage Spielberg from making that as a summer film?

BART: Steven has always sort of owned summer. Every -- between films he's directed and produced, every summer he's had two, three, four films that have -- that have just led the summer. And even this summer, if you examine it, he had -- Spielberg, between all of his manifestations, basically had four films out.

Ranging from the frivolous like "Small Soldiers" to "Saving Private Ryan" to "Deep Impact" to "Zorro." So he covers the landscape. He confessed to me even before he made the picture that he was worried about "Ryan."

That it wasn't the prototypical summer picture. That the ideal audience in summer were -- consisted of young kids who probably never heard of World War II. He was also worried about the fact that -- he always liked to open pictures in late May, early June. This was the first time he went much later in summer.

So he was really more nervous about this picture than anything he's done in many years. But did anybody try to talk him out? Nobody talks Steven Spielberg out of a caper like that. He's his own man. And by God he stuck it to us. I mean, it was -- it was a brilliant movie and it did huge business. Fortified by these Oscar nominations, it's going to do even more grandiose business.

GROSS: You think that one of the lessons of 1998 is that the budgeting for special effects films is really out of control. How is that being registered inside the movie industry? Did executives talk to you about that?

BART: I think everything about special effects is out of control. They always go over budget, and they're always late. I mean, almost all of the movies of the summer like "Armageddon" and "Godzilla" that were big effects movies, were finished like the day before the release date.

So all the things that movies -- that need to be done to movies: the caressing of them, the testing of them, the cutting and the honing down --none of that could be done. So you do have a kind of tuning setting in. That's why when you see many special effects movies they tend to be too long, they tend to be too noisy, they tend to be badly edited.

The reason is that they're always shooting the release dates, as they say in Hollywood, they're always running right up against D-Day. It's a terrible way to live.

GROSS: So is there an attempt being made to rein in the special effects?

BART: There's an attempt being made to schedule special effects movies with a flexible release date so that -- mindful of the fact that with George Lucas -- look at the way George Lucas makes the sequels to his -- prequels -- to "Star Wars."

He's in control of the release date, and he has given himself an extra year to finish his picture. He's not being pushed because he owns the negative and he's in control.

GROSS: I'm wondering if there is any kind of new common wisdom about demographics, about film audiences, who goes to see movies. You know, teen comedies are obviously really big now. Is that where the money is, in teenage moviegoers?

BART: Well, I get sort of irritated about this point because, sure, the studios look at the demographics and say, the fastest growing audience consists of kids. Therefore -- even last week Disney said many many more of our pictures are going to be aimed at teen audiences and at the family audience.

On the other hand, there is another growing demographic that is sort of being ignored. And that is there are a lot of couples in their 30s and 40s who are still single or single again, who are actually husbands and wives -- that ultimate rarity who go out with each other on a date. There's an enormous number of people like that who'd really like to see somewhat more serious pictures or more character driven pictures. Or more pictures such as emerged from the '60s and '70s.

And that demographic somehow has been subsumed beneath the teenage rage. I think the studios are going to come to grief on this, because you know, that teen audience is very picky, very choosy. You can't predict their tastes. And the sort of machine tooled, assembly-line pictures that are coming out now aimed at exploiting the teen audience -- they ain't going to work.

GROSS: So you think the movie industry will rethink its emphasis on teenage moviegoers?

BART: I think that there's going to be a tough year ahead in terms of pandering to teens.

GROSS: OK. Well, Peter Bart, I want thank you very much for talking with us.

BART: Thank you. It was nice to talk to you.

GROSS: Peter Bart's new book is called "The Gross."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Peter Bart
High: Editor in chief of "Variety" magazine Peter Bart. He's written a new book about what the summer blockbuster means to the film industry and the resources that go into making them. His new book, "The Gross," takes a look at the 1998 summer season. Bart is a former reporter for "The Wall Street Journal" and "The New York Times." He's also a former Paramount studio executive.
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Peter Bart

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Peter Bart
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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