Skip to main content

Sinatra and the F.B.I.

Editor Tom Kuntz and reporter Phil Kuntz. Their new book “The Sinatra Files: The Life of an American Icon Under Government Surveillance” (Three Rivers Press) excerpts and analyzes portions of the FBI’s massive file on Frank Sinatra. The file is 1,275 pages long and was begun in the mid 1940s and lasted until 1972. Tom Kuntz is the editor of “Word for Word,” a column in The New York Times Week in Review section. Phil Kuntz is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

21:41

Other segments from the episode on June 26, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 26, 2000: Interview with Tom Kuntz and Phil Kuntz; Interview with Peter Loehr.

Transcript

DATE June 26, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Tom Kuntz and Phil Kuntz discusses their recent book
"The Sinatra Files" that details the FBI's investigating of the
late singer and actor
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Frank Sinatra was one of the most written about celebrities of his era, but it
wasn't just journalists who were chronicling his life. It was the FBI. The
bureau amassed a 1,275-page dossier on the singer and actor. That dossier is
excerpted and analyzed in the new book "The Sinatra Files." My guests are the
editors, Tom Kuntz--he's an editor with The New York Times--and his brother,
Phil Kuntz, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

During the Rat Pack era, the FBI investigated Sinatra's connections to the
mob. During the red-baiting era, the FBI wanted to know if Sinatra was a
Communist or fellow traveler. Part of what sparked the FBI's interest was the
1945 short film "The House I Live In," in which Sinatra sang a song that
carried a message against racism. The film was scripted by Albert Maltz, who
was later blacklisted as one of the Hollywood 10. The song was written by
Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan.

(Soundbite from "The House I Live In")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) What is America to me: a name, a man or a flag
I see. A certain word, `democracy'? What is America to me? The house I live
in, a plot of earth, a street. The grocer and the butcher, and the people
that I meet. The children in the playground, the faces that I see.

GROSS: Tom and Phil Kuntz describe the FBI files on Sinatra as a shadow
biography of the singer. I asked Tom Kuntz about the FBI's investigation into
Sinatra's ties to mobsters.

Mr. TOM KUNTZ (Co-Editor, "The Sinatra Files"): The one thing that the FBI
files proved beyond any doubt is that Frank Sinatra hung out with mobsters.
There's little doubt about that. They have firsthand accounts of--you know,
of witnesses describing Sinatra hanging out with these people. They have--for
a time, they were actually observing Sinatra hanging out with Sam Giancana.
They are tape recordings of mobsters talking about their having had
conversations with Sinatra. All this, you know, proves beyond any doubt that
he was hanging out with mobsters.

What the FBI was suspicious of--and one could say somewhat legitimately--is
that Sinatra was a popular singer of the time, and he was also entertaining
and getting involved in business deals in Las Vegas and elsewhere. The FBI
was concerned that the mob was going to infiltrate those business enterprises,
and they were always on the lookout for people who were acting as fronts for
the mob. Sinatra, being a close friend of some of these mobsters, was an
obvious suspect. They never got anything, you know, definitive in that
regard.

Later, Sinatra was--also befriended some prominent politicians. And that
I--and I don't think anybody can dispute that that made him worthy of
attention if he was hanging out with mobsters and presidents and other
prominent politicians at the same time.

GROSS: One of the stories in the legend of Frank Sinatra is that he got his
part in "From Here to Eternity," the part that revived his career, because the
mob kind of went to bat for him in Hollywood. And that's a story that's
retold in "The Godfather" in a slightly different form. Any truth behind that
that you were able to find in the FBI file?

Mr. PHIL KUNTZ (Co-Editor, "The Sinatra Files"): There's scant evidence of
that in the FBI files. I think we'll have to regard that as a--you know, as a
myth, a canard.

Another myth in the Sinatra legend is that early in his career, he used mob
muscle to get out of his contract with Tommy Dorsey, which entitled Tommy
Dorsey to 43 percent of the singer's earnings for life. The files have no
evidence that the mob had anything to do with Tommy Dorsey releasing him from
that contract. So the files are interesting for what they don't prove as well
as for what they reveal about Sinatra and the FBI.

GROSS: A famous Rat Pack evening has been issued on CD--or reissued on CD.
And it was the grand reopening of the Club Villa Venice(ph) in suburban
Chicago, a club either owned or financed by Sam Giancana, the head of the
Chicago mob. And an informant tells the FBI--and this is in your book--that,
`The Villa Venice is financially in trouble. And for this reason, Sinatra and
his associates are scheduled to entertain. They are not going to receive the
amount of money they reportedly were scheduled to receive in return for their
services,' the implication being that they're doing this for their buddy, Sam
Giancana. In fact, Dean Martin kids about this in a medley of songs that he
does. Why don't we hear about his satirical lyric to "The Lady Is A Tramp."

(Soundbite from "The Lady Is A Tramp")

Mr. DEAN MARTIN: I love Chicago. It's carefree and gay. I'd even work here
without any pay.

(Soundbite of audience laughing)

Mr. MARTIN: I'll lay you odds it turns out that way. That's why this
gentleman is a tramp.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MARTIN: My clever agent, he worked out this deal. He said, `Go to
Chicago, it won't be for real.' And I believed him. I'm such a schlemiel.
That's why the gentleman is a tramp.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's Dean Martin from "An Evening of the Rat Pack at the Club Villa
Venice,"(ph) which was financed by Sam Giancana. How--what was the nature of
Sinatra's relationship with Giancana?

Mr. T. KUNTZ: They were--in looking over the files, I struggled with that.
And I think I've come to the conclusion that they both were kind of, on some
level, sycophantic. The mobster liked to hang out with Sinatra because he was
famous, and Sinatra liked to hang out with mobsters because he was a bad boy.

You know, Giancana had a vested interest in courting Sinatra in the 1959-1960
era because he wanted to somehow gain influence to get the FBI to back off its
crackdown on the mob. At this point, the FBI was really getting serious.
Hoover for years had denied the existence of the mob. He had recently been
proved wrong, that there was organized crime in the United States and as a
result, started a huge crackdown on them. Sinatra offered a way for them to
get friendly with--or at least have entree to President Kennedy when he
started running for president. And there's people quoted in the documents,
saying that Sinatra was working for the campaign for Jack Kennedy in order to
get the mob to have an entree.

GROSS: Now Sinatra was also close to John F. Kennedy during the period that
Kennedy was running for the presidency. What are the connections that are
documented that Sinatra made between the mob and Kennedy?

Mr. P. KUNTZ: Well, from early on, Sinatra was introduced to Kennedy by Peter
Lawford, who was a Kennedy in-law. And from early on, the FBI--which was
watching presidential candidates--from early on, the FBI knew about Kennedy's
relationship with Sinatra because Kennedy, at this point, was clearly a
presidential aspirant. This is in the late 1950s. So you have the FBI kind
of watching, almost in real time, as their relationship unfolds.

And what a relationship it was. I mean, they had a mutual--Sinatra liked
power, whether it was legitimate or illegitimate. And Kennedy and Sinatra
both liked sex, if you believe the FBI files. And the files chronicle their
wild partying. One memo refers to--quotes a gangster as saying something
about, "All those broads Sinatra brought JFK," showgirls running in and out of
the senator's suite in Las Vegas where he and Sinatra were partying. So early
on through the Kennedy administration, the FBI was watching Sinatra very
closely.

Mr. T. KUNTZ: One of--the evidence of that is that Sinatra--it was Sinatra
who introduced a former girlfriend of his, Judith Campbell, to President
Kennedy, who we now know became his mistress when he was in the White House.
And he introduced her to him in January of 1960 as Kennedy came to Las Vegas,
I think, to do some fund-raising, but ended up hanging out with Sinatra and
the rest of the Rat Pack. They were there filming "Ocean's Eleven," their
first big movie, and they were also doing shows at the Sands. Frank Sinatra
introduced Judith Campbell to John Kennedy during that visit.

And three weeks later, a memo appears on Hoover's desk saying that just--you
know, part of it said that Kennedy had been compromised with a woman there.
It didn't name who it was, but it's pretty clear that's who they're referring
to. So we didn't find out--meaning, the American public didn't find out about
Judith Campbell until 1975 or so. J. Edgar Hoover at least had a good hint
of what was going on three weeks after it happened.

GROSS: Did Sinatra also introduce Judith Campbell to Sam Giancana? She was
his mistress as well?

Mr. P. KUNTZ: She became his mistress at some point. It's not quite clear
that there was overlap there. There's some dispute about that. And that is
actually how the FBI came to find out for sure about Judith Campbell, because
Judith Campbell was associating with Sam Giancana, so the FBI started watching
her. Then they noticed that she was making--by looking at her phone records,
noticed that not only was she talking to Sam Giancana, one of his underlings
named Johnny Roselli and Frank Sinatra, at the same time that she was, on a
fairly regular basis, calling the White House, President Kennedy's secretary.
As a result of those phone calls, J. Edgar Hoover wrote a memo to the
attorney general, Robert Kennedy, the president's brother, informing him,
`Hey, I just wanted to let you know that this woman who's, you know,
apparently calling your brother, is also hanging out with mobsters.' That
letter started a chain of events that caused Robert Kennedy to finally
confront his brother about basically his relationship with both Sinatra and
Judith Campbell. And as a result of that, President Kennedy backed off
Sinatra. At one point in March of 1960...

Mr. T. KUNTZ: Two.

Mr. P. KUNTZ: ...'62, Sinatra was supposed to host Kennedy at his home in
Palm Springs, and the administration decided that, instead, the president
would go to Bing Crosby's house. That sent Sinatra into a rage. And he
later eventually--not much later, but later eventually broke off his
relationship with Judith Campbell. It's one of the more interesting things
about what this book says about J. Edgar Hoover. Because a lot of people look
at the memos that J. Edgar Hoover would write, and look at it and see in it
some sort of an evil signal that Hoover was trying to tell Robert Kennedy and
President Kennedy, `Look how much dirt I have on you. If you guys fire me,
I'm gonna bury you.' When, in fact, looked at another way, one could say that
Hoover did us all a favor because the mob was fairly close to getting some
influence in the White House, and Hoover, very quickly, very privately,
without letting anybody else know, put a stop to it.

GROSS: So, but was it Sinatra who introduced Judith Campbell to Sam Giancana?

Mr. P. KUNTZ: Yes, it was.

Mr. T. KUNTZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. P. KUNTZ: He introduced Kennedy, I believe, first; and later she was
introduced to him.

GROSS: So did the FBI ever find any hard evidence that Sinatra was involved
in any illegal mob-related activities, any activities beyond palling around
with members of the mob?

Mr. T. KUNTZ: They never got the goods on Sinatra. Sinatra was guilty of
association. But guilt by association is not a crime. In fact, it's--freedom
of association is enshrined in the Constitution.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the Sinatra FBI files
and my guests, Tom Kuntz and Phil Kuntz, are both journalists--and they're
brothers--who have edited the Sinatra FBI files and analyzed them in their new
book, "The Sinatra Files."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are journalists Tom Kuntz and Phil Kuntz, and they have
co-edited "The Sinatra Files," an edited book of the FBI Sinatra files, which
included the Kuntz' analysis of those files.

So I thought it was interesting that in April of 1963, the special agent in
charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, asked Hoover to consider bugging
Sinatra's home in Palm Springs, and Hoover denied the request.

Mr. T. KUNTZ: Exactly, it was another example, kind of surprising example, of
Hoover's restraint, if you can imagine that with Hoover. He--for some reason
at this time he decided that a microphone surveillance of Sinatra's Palm
Spring home was legally unjustified. They didn't have probable cause, I
suppose. But imagine, if he had approved the bug, what that bug might reveal
about Kennedy, Sinatra and the mob.

Mr. P. KUNTZ: 'Cause some of the more interesting things in the book are tape
recordings--Hoover was not above, as you can imagine, bugging somebody's
house. And he had bugs all over the place in Chicago where Sam Giancana was
known to hang out with his associates. And in those recordings, after
the--the mob helped get Kennedy elected. Sam Giancana used his political
muscle in Chicago and in West Virginia, with the unions, to help get out the
vote for Kennedy in some pretty crucial ways. That's fairly well documented.
After the election, the mob expected Frank Sinatra to get the Kennedys to go
easy on them. Instead, President Kennedy appointed his brother, who was an
anti-mob crusader from way back, as attorney general, and the crackdown only
intensified. That enraged the mob and Sam Giancana and his associates can be
heard on tape just fuming that Sinatra hadn't made good on his promise to get
the FBI to back off.

Now at one point, Johnny Roselli, an underling of Giancana's, quotes Sinatra
in a conversation with Giancana, quotes Sinatra as saying, `I took your name,'
Sam Giancana's name, `and I wrote it down on a piece of paper and I gave it to
Bobby Kennedy, and I said, "Bobby, I want you to know this man is my friend.
I want you to know that, Bob."' If that's true, it's a rather extraordinary
thing to have a popular singer going to the attorney general of the United
States and asking him to lay off a mobster. Now it's not quite clear that
Sinatra actually did that because some of the mob in the--Giancana and his
friends--voiced doubt about whether or not Sinatra was doing actually what he
said he was doing, 'cause at one point Sinatra, according to Giancana, also
promised to talk to Joseph Kennedy, the president's father. And if that
didn't work, to go to the president himself. And then Giancana starts
acting--gets very, very angry when he says, `Who knows what this guy is doing?
I don't know whether to believe him or not.'

Later, these underworld figures are quoted as actually, either fantasizing, or
thinking out loud--it's not quite clear what they're doing about assassinating
Sinatra, maybe his friend, Dean Martin. Maybe--at one point they talk about
poking Sammy Davis Jr.'s other eye out. And one mobster actually fantasizes
about throwing a bomb in the face of Bobby Kennedy and says he'd gladly go to
jail for the rest of his life if he had a chance to do that. This stuff is
kind of--it's troubling in retrospect, and it also--although neither Tommy nor
I are conspiracy theorists about the assassination of President Kennedy, it
certainly does give one pause when thinking about long-standing allegations
that have never been proven that the mob may have been involved.

GROSS: When was the Sinatra FBI file closed down?

Mr. P. KUNTZ: One's FBI is probably never closed down once they start one on
you no matter who is in power, but it trailed off after Hoover died and
that's--it's very noteworthy that once in 1972, when Hoover dies, it just very
quickly trails off, there's no more of the scurrilous memos that--mentioning
sex. It just completely dies down. And in the end, what you see--since it
is--the FBI releases everything, not just the juicy stuff--when they released
it there's a bunch of stuff from the '80s, that rather mundane investigations
into people making threats against Sinatra's life. And that kind of gives the
story of, I think, something of a poetic ending, in that the man who had been
pursued by the FBI for so long, in the end, was protected by the FBI.

GROSS: Frank Sinatra actually got his FBI files through the Freedom of
Information Act in 1981. Do you know what impact it had on him to read them
and what he did with the information?

Mr. T. KUNTZ: I don't know if he was--I think what he said publicly about the
files was that it didn't prove anything illegal on his part, mobwise or
otherwise. I don't think he elaborated very much about what was in the files.
He got the files released to him so that he could show them to Nevada gaming
officials, so that he could get his casino license restored. Neither the
gaming officials nor Sinatra made the files public at that time. And Sinatra
got his gaming license back, which suggested at the time that there was
nothing untoward in the files. However Sinatra also exerted great political
influence to get his gaming license back. He had a letter of recommendation
from President Reagan to also help him get his license back. So it didn't
answer questions about Sinatra, it only raised further ones, I think.

GROSS: He had gone from being an alleged Communist sympathizer to being a
Republican. He sang at President Reagan's inaugural.

Mr. P. KUNTZ: Right. He also entertained at the Nixon White House. You can
see, however that during Hoover's lifetime and even a little bit after
Hoover's lifetime, every politician who cozied up to Frank Sinatra, was given
a detailed memo from the FBI saying `here's' you know, `just thought you'd be
interested in the background of the person that you're cozying up to.' The
Nixon White House got these detailed memos, you know, laying out all of these
times that Frank Sinatra is known to have associated with mobsters. And two
months later, the White House is actively considering whether or not to take
advantage of--Sinatra started leaning rightward and whether or not they should
take advantage of that. And eventually they did. Spiro Agnew started playing
golf with him regularly, he also played golf with President Nixon and he was
invited to state dinners and the peak of that relationship came when Sinatra
entertained--came out of retirement, he had announced his retirement in the
early '70s and at the request of Richard Nixon, he came out of retirement to
entertain the visiting Italian president at the White House at a state dinner.

Mr. T. KUNTZ: It's testimony to his iconic status that presidents, even
despite, you know, the downside of his associations with mobsters and what
have you, saw a political benefit in, you know, currying favor with this man
of great talents and a great hold on the popular imagination.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

Mr. P. KUNTZ: Well, thank you very much.

Mr. T. KUNTZ: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Tom and Phil Kuntz edited the new book, "The Sinatra Files." I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Coming up, an American takes on the Chinese film industry. Peter Loehr is
China's first independent film producer. We'll talk with him about producing
low-budget, urban themed films, in sharp contrast to the propagandistic works
turned out by (technical difficulties) studios.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Peter Loehr, an American who started the first
independent film company in China, discusses making films in
China
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Independent film has been changing the shape of the American film industry.
Now it's changing the Chinese film industry with the help of my guest, Peter
Loehr. He's an American who started China's first independent film company.
Two years after moving to China in 1996, he produced "Spicy Love Soup," which
was second at the Chinese box office only to "Titanic." In 1999, Variety
named him one of 10 producers to watch. His latest film, "Shower," will be
released in the US July 7th. It was made by the same director as "Spicy Love
Soup," and it won the International Film Critics Award(ph) at the Toronto Film
Festival. We invited Peter Loehr to talk with us about working in the Chinese
film industry, where he's come up with innovative ways of marketing movies
within the Communist distribution system and managed to make internationally
acclaimed movies in spite of state censorship. Most of his films are
contemporary urban stories. I asked him if he's consciously avoiding the kind
of historical epics that are most typical of the Chinese films that come here.

Mr. PETER LOEHR: Actually, we work with a group of young directors. When we
started this company, which is the first independent film company in China, we
really wanted to work with young directors, because young directors really had
no outlet and no way to get a film made. And a young director's going to deal
with different issues than a 50- or 60-year-old director is, because their
life experience is different. We really wanted to deal with issues that are
set in big cities in modern China. Because, as you just mentioned, most
Chinese films either deal with the cultural revolution or a big sweeping
historical epic. And we really thought those two genres had been worked out,
and we wanted to try to do something different than the older generation of
directors were doing. So we really tried to focus on the last 10 years in big
cities in China.

GROSS: What are the American films that are popular in China?

Mr. LOEHR: "Titanic" is very popular in China, just like everywhere else.
Our first film, the film we did in '98, was the number one Chinese release and
second only to "Titanic," but there's a big drop-off between number one and
number two, unfortunately.

GROSS: Right. You know, you hear so much about censorship in China and
censorship of Chinese movies. It seems kind of crazy for an American to go to
China to distribute movies. Have you had any censorship troubles?

Mr. LOEHR: We've had a little trouble, but not very much. Our films have had
certain cuts. And I think for a producer or director, any filmmaker, any cut
is painful. But in China, basically, that's the law. And you have to work
within those parameters. For us, when we started doing this, we thought it
was very, very important that the Chinese audience would be able to see the
films that we made. So the themes and the topics we've worked on have really
tried to focus on topics that we knew we'd find a way to get through the
Byzantine censorship process. You know, I think for the directors of the
films we've done and for me, if we're going to talk about China, if we're
going to talk about social issues and only foreign film festival audiences and
only foreign critics can get to see the film, we're not really sure who we're
talking to. Because if we're trying to make change or we're trying to bring
up topics that people should think about, we hope that the Chinese audience
gets to see those films and gets to talk about the topics we're trying to
bring up.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about what the censorship system for movies is
like in China now.

Mr. LOEHR: Basically, what happens is you have to first send in a script for
approval. Unfortunately, the script almost always gets approved. A lot of
things they could tell you at the beginning, they usually don't and they wait
till the end. After your script is approved, you go out and shoot the film.
And when the film is finished shooting, you send the final print in for
approval again. And basically one of three things can happen. It either can
go through without a scratch, or they can request changes or the film can be
stopped altogether. Those are the three options that you face. It's a
nervous time when you send the film in.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. What are some of the changes that censors have made you make?

Mr. LOEHR: In "Shower" there was some nudity that was cut, and there were
certain scenes that maybe they thought the angle was a little bit too wide.
There's about three minutes cut, but mostly it was nudity.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Other films you've had to make cuts on?

Mr. LOEHR: The first film had about four minutes. The second film didn't
have any cuts at all. So you really never know what's going to happen.

GROSS: What was cut out of the first film?

Mr. LOEHR: In China, there's no rating system. There's no PG-13 and R. And
in the first film, which is a series of five love stories spanning five
different age groups, there was one story that was focused on first love among
high school students. And the end of the story was cut, because they thought
it was a little bit too romantic for young children. Unfortunately, there's
no rating system. We really hope that that will develop. We're very, very
willing to be the first people to make a film that people under 17 can't see,
if that does happen.

GROSS: 'Cause that's the only way of making a sophisticated film.

Mr. LOEHR: Well, not really. I think there's a lot of topics that you can
address and a lot of topics that will go over the head of a younger audience,
but it will still be meaningful for an older audience. It's just that there
are certain subjects you want to broach that are not, you know, really
acceptable for a very young audience. So without a rating system, it does add
to the limitations.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. What does it mean to be an independent film producer in
China? What's the difference between doing it in China and doing it in the
States?

Mr. LOEHR: I think independent producers, as far as productions goes,
everyone's the same all over the world. You're working on tight budgets and
short time and a lot of financial constraints. The big difference in China,
which we didn't know when we started doing this, is that, you know, a producer
in the States or elsewhere usually, after he's finished with a film, he hands
it over to a distributor, who then markets and distributes the film. So as
soon as the film is done shooting, the producer's work is 80 to 90 percent
done, whereas in China there are no good distributors who--especially
distributors who are interested in working on films by young directors with
young casts. We have to distribute and market the films by ourselves, which
is not something we planned to do at the beginning, but it's turned out that
way. It's an awful lot of work, and it's not a very fun process. The only
interesting thing about the process is that we've traveled all over the
country to places we normally wouldn't go and have been able to get very, very
close to the audience, which I really think has been a very good educational
process for us and for the directors and all the people we work with.

GROSS: So do you have to make deals with the film houses that show the movie?

Mr. LOEHR: In China, it's a very kind of archaic distribution system. In
every city in every province there's a local distributor who is a government
enterprise. And through law, you must work through them. So to distribute a
film nationwide in China, you're signing about 40 contracts with 40 different
distributors. And that entails 40 different sets of relationships. Some
distributors are very strong; some are very weak. Where a distributor's weak,
you may be signing a contract with him on the surface and then going directly
to the theater to actually arrange how the release will go. A lot of
distributors are very, very conservative. They don't spend money in marketing
the film, so you have to actually go out and market it yourself. So it's a
tremendous amount of work. We're getting better and better at it, but it
seems like distribution in China will be something that will take about 10 to
15 years for us to really get a very strong handle on.

GROSS: My guest is film producer Peter Loehr. His latest Chinese movie,
"Shower," opens in the US July 7th. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Peter Loehr, the American who founded the first
independent film company in China, where he's lived since 1996.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Loehr. He's an independent film
producer who is from America, but has been working in China for the past few
years, where he's had a lot of success. His new film, the new film that he
produced, "Shower," is opening in the United States.

Now what's it like doing business in a Communist country? Can you tell that
this isn't a capitalist country; it's officially a Communist country?

Mr. LOEHR: You know, honestly, not when you're doing film, except for the
fact that there are some, you know, state-run channels that you must go
through. When you're actually dealing with them, it's very, very
capitalistic. When you're talking about a contract with a distributor or when
you're talking about a distribution plan with a theater, you're talking
dollars and cents, just like you would anywhere else. When you're shooting a
film in China, it's very much a creative endeavor. So you don't really feel
any political or economic overtones of that. To be honest, working on a film
in China is--you don't really get the feeling it's a Communist country. You
get the feeling it's a country where a lot of people are very, very good
businessmen. And you have to be very, very careful, probably just like you
would in the States or anywhere else.

GROSS: Ever have to bribe people to get your film into theaters?

Mr. LOEHR: Never have yet. We're lucky. I think that probably does happen,
but our films have been quite strong. In 1998 we had the number one film of
the year. In 1999 we had the number two film of the year. And now our new
film, which is "Shower," which you just mentioned, is now the number one film
of the year this year. So we're lucky in that the theater owners have made a
lot of money from our films, and that makes them much more open and easy to
deal with.

GROSS: Is there a protocol for business meetings in China that's different
from what you'd expect in the United States?

Mr. LOEHR: I think China is a huge, huge country, and when you're doing
business meetings, probably the biggest difficulty that you'll face is that
every province you go to is like a different culture. If you're in Beijing or
if you're in Shanghai or if you're in Chongshoi, you're in Guangxi, these
cities, they speak different dialects, they have different ways of doing
business. They eat different food. You know, everything is very, very
different. It's kind of like doing business in Europe, where you're on a
plane, you know, to a country that's only a half-hour flight away, and
suddenly everything's very different. So it's very hard to give a kind of a
blanket protocol for business in China, though relationships are very, very
important. You know, getting to know people, having them trust you and having
them like you is a very big key to business, and that takes a lot of time and
a lot of patience.

GROSS: Do you speak the language?

Mr. LOEHR: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: How'd you learn it?

Mr. LOEHR: Actually, when I put together this project to make this company, I
was able to put together the group of investors before we actually started,
'cause I'd been working in Asia for a long time. And the deal I got was they
sent me off for a year to learn Chinese. So I went to Middlebury College in
Vermont for three months to a very intensive program. Then I went back to
China for six months and took classes at three different universities at the
same time and for about nine months really did nothing except learn Chinese.
The fact that I spoke Japanese fluently first probably helped a lot,
especially as far as learning characters. But I was able to nail it down in
about 10 to 11 months.

GROSS: What are you getting out of it, doing this in China?

Mr. LOEHR: You know, I really love making films. I've produced two films in
Japan. And I worked for a very big company on pretty big budget films where
there was a lot of sponsorship and a lot of pressure involved. And by the
time the films got made, they weren't films that I liked very much. And the
interesting thing about working in China right now is we have a group of
investors who have never read a script, they've never been to the set, they've
never got involved in casting. They're very, very silent partners. So it's
an interesting situation, because I can go out and make the films I want to
make, which is very hard to do anywhere in the world. Actually, we were doing
an interview in Europe one time, and somebody asked me, `What do you like
about making films in China?' I said, you know, the freedom of it, which, you
know, was very shocking to them.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. LOEHR: But the economic freedom where we're actually making the films we
want to make. I can go out and work with a director, and we can pick a
subject that we want to make, and we can go make that, and we don't have to
have a lot of creative inference from investors, which is really, really nice.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, that is a paradox.

Mr. LOEHR: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you find the filmmakers that you were interested in working
with when you got to China?

Mr. LOEHR: That was really the main reason I went to China in the first place
because I had met a lot of young people I thought were really, really talented
that I really, really wanted to work with. When we first started out,
probably one of the problems is a lot of them had been approached by a lot of
people before, both domestic, you know, other Chinese people, and foreign
people. And people had come up to them and said, you know, `I have money.
Let's make a movie together,' and it never happened. So when I first got to
China, probably the biggest problem was a lack of trust. You know, when you
kind of said to people, `Hey, you know, we're going to make a company. We're
going to make films. Let's work together,' no one really believed you.
They're like, `Oh, yeah, great,' you know? But as we've gone forward and as
we've made films, we've had--you know, it's become an opposite scenario. We
get about 70 to 80 scripts a week from around the country. We're meeting a
lot of great people. So we have about five or six more directors that we want
to work with, and we're waiting for the right script or the right idea to come
along to do that. I think the talent level in China, when you're talking
about directors or cinematographers or actors, is just absolutely fantastic.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Loehr. He's an American film producer who has been
living in China these past few years, working as an independent film producer
and having a lot of success. The latest film he produced, "Shower," is
opening in the United States.

In America, a lot of the success of movies has to do with the enormous amount
of advertising and promotion behind the major motion picture films. How do
you promote and advertise your films in China?

Mr. LOEHR: We do, but it's certainly nothing like the United States. We
can't afford to do TV commercials, and there's no Super Bowl commercial for a
summer release.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LOEHR: Basically, in China, you face a big problem. The market is very,
very flat, and the audience really doesn't like to watch Chinese films
anymore. And there's a tremendous amount of pirate product that the audience
can watch on VCD any time they want. So if you're going to attract people to
the movie theater, you've got to have something very, very special. But at
the same time, 'cause the market isn't that big, you don't have a lot of money
to spend on promotion. So it becomes very, very important to attract a core
audience. Word of mouth is essential. In China, there's really no negative
film criticism, so a movie is never panned. So when a paper or a TV program
says a movie is great, the audience doesn't really believe that, because they
never say a movie is bad.

GROSS: Well, why is it that way?

Mr. LOEHR: I think it's a cultural thing that, you know, if a movie went out
and got panned by a critic, you know, the investor or the film studio behind
that movie would call the head of the paper and say, you know, `How could you
do this to me?' And the head of the paper would turn around and say to the
critic, you know, `I think you should lighten up.' It's just kind of--there
hasn't been a tradition of criticism for film in China, because the opening up
of film where anyone can make a film about any subject is really quite a
recent thing. You know, in the last 20 or 30 years, film was very much a
propaganda tool used for making, you know, messages that the state wanted to
come out. So suddenly, you have films that aren't that way, and people aren't
used to having the right to criticize a film.

So what you've got to do with a film is you've got to attract a core public
following, and basically you have to wait for word of mouth. Word of mouth is
essential, because if someone's friend tells them the film is good, they will
believe that. If you can get that first group of audience to go in and to get
the word out, the film can take off. And we've been able to do that. I think
the fact that our films are young and the fact that we're kind of got our own
feeling right now, and people will come to see a film just based on the fact
that the film was done by this company really helps a lot. Our marketing is
kind of very much word of mouth, a lot of press-oriented stuff, not very much
paid advertising. You know, when we can, we try to find a sponsor to help
with the budget for marketing. So whereby in the States you might spend half
of your total--you know, half of a film's budget on marketing, we probably
spend more like a fifth of the total budget on marketing.

GROSS: I read something in The Wall Street Journal about a tissue box
campaign and taxis in China?

Mr. LOEHR: Yeah. What we did, actually, on this movie--and, to be very
honest, it was a big failure--but for two years, we worked on the Beijing Taxi
Authority(ph), because there are a lot of bus ads in China and they're very
expensive, and we couldn't afford them. So what we thought we would do is
we'd make tissue boxes to put in cabs that would have, you know, the logo of
the film on them, 'cause no one had ever done that. So it took us two years
of talking to the taxi authority, because they had all kinds of issues. You
know, `Well, what if people throw the tissues out the window and there's a lot
of litter?' You know, `What happens when the boxes get empty and there's no
tissues left?' And we basically worked with them for a long time, and they
finally approved it and we got the right to put tissue boxes in 20,000 taxi
cabs in Beijing. You know, we had to pay for production of all of that. And
we finally did it. The only problem was about 70 percent of the taxi drivers
liked the way the boxes looked, so they took them home and didn't put them in
the cab. So that's an example of a great idea that didn't really work that
well. Though, some people saw it. It was kind of a cool thing, because no
one had ever done it before.

GROSS: Why did you think the tissue boxes with the film's logo on it in taxi
cabs would be a big selling point for the movie?

Mr. LOEHR: Well, it's not a selling point for a movie, but it's advertising
that we can't normally afford to do. You know, we can't afford to do TV
commercials, and we can't afford to do radio commercials, and we can't afford
billboards. So we've always got to try to think of a way, and when
something's never been done before, there's probably not a price structure
built around it. You know, taxi cabs in Beijing, you really can't imagine how
many taxis there are in Beijing. I mean, we put boxes into 20,000 cabs.
That's only half the cabs in the city of Beijing. So we thought that if we
had the boxes sitting there, it might be something that drew attention to the
film. You know, we try to do things differently, things that no one's ever
done before, and we hope that that will create interest. You know, the
tissues and the film have nothing in common, but it was a way to do a cheap
advertisement in a way that tried to do something different.

GROSS: It's great. It's like you're bringing promotional capitalist knowhow
into China.

Mr. LOEHR: Well, we try. There's a lot of things you can't do. And the
nature of the market, you know, there's a lot of things you can't afford, but
we're always trying to figure out something to do that no one's done before.
You know, the first film, we released the first pop music soundtrack in China,
which sounds like a kind of very easy thing to do, but at the time, no one had
ever done it before, and actually a lot of the record distributors, you know,
didn't really want to do it. They didn't think a soundtrack was something
that was going to work.

GROSS: How'd you sell them on the idea?

Mr. LOEHR: Basically, we went around to a lot of record stores on our own.
We put up the posters on our own, and we really promoted the soundtrack on our
own, because we knew that the state-run publishing house wasn't going to get
excited enough to really do something about it.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Loehr, the American who founded the first
independent film company in China, where he's lived since 1996. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Peter Loehr is my guest. He's an independent film producer who is
American but has been working in China these past few years. And the latest
film he produced, "Shower," is opening in the United States.

What are movie theaters like in China? I guess there's probably a big range
of styles.

Mr. LOEHR: Well, they run the whole gamut. You know, actually, in Shanghai
and Beijing, there's big modern international standard multiplexes. In some
smaller cities, the theaters are, you know, horrific. You know, a lot of
people in smaller areas would much rather watch a video compact disc at home,
you know, on their TV and stereo system, because the quality is going to be
better than the theater. It really runs the whole gamut, just as ticket
prices run the whole gamut. You know, in a better theater, tickets are more
expensive; in a worse theater, tickets are cheaper. One very interesting
thing, on "Spicy Love Soup," which was incredibly successful, what you can
ultimately do is you can do 16mm distribution in the countryside. You sell
the film to these 16mm companies who actually drive around the rural areas in
a big white truck with a projector and they stop in these small towns and they
rope off a field and they put up the projector and they actually show the film
on the side of a white truck, which is amazing. I actually went to one of
these screenings. There was at least 6,000 people watching one screen of the
film, probably paying about a penny each. But the film--you know, a
successful film can be seen by a tremendous, tremendous amount of people in
China.

GROSS: Well, what is youth culture like in China now? Is there an MTV there?
Can you tell us something about like the popular music now?

Mr. LOEHR: Well, actually, we also run a record company in China. We run
China's biggest alternative music label, and we've signed, you know, some punk
bands in China. We also have a lot of alternative music coming in from
Taiwan. The youth culture in China is very, very vibrant. I think that goes
for film, it goes for music, and it goes for the Internet as well. A lot of
things are happening. You know, young people want new things. They want
different things. And that market exists. That's really the people we try to
speak to with our films and with our music and with everything we do. Last
year, we sold seven million records in China, you know, alternative records
from, you know, alternative non-pop groups. There's a big youth culture in
China, especially in the major cities.

GROSS: Has rap caught on in China and has a lot of like hip-hop lingo caught
on, fashions...

Mr. LOEHR: Well, hip-hop lingo hasn't caught on, because people speak, you
know, in Chinese.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LOEHR: But there's a tremendous amount of slang that's used in China.
And you do find new music and you do find film, and you do find a lot of
things changing slang, and slang is ever evolving. You know, hip-hop music,
actually, trance is very, very big in China; house music is very, very big in
China. I think you'd really be amazed, if you went to Beijing and you went to
the clubs, because they're very, very much like a club would be in London or
New York, believe it or not. There is a very, very serious night life in
Beijing, like right now, which there wasn't two years ago. I've been in
Beijing for five years, and it used to be really boring. And suddenly it's
just really, really picked up. I've had friends who've come over to Beijing,
and they're like, `I can't believe this. You know, this is amazing. Where I
live is very boring compared to this.' So, you know, China's a very different
place. But like any place, there is going to be, you know, an ever-evolving,
very powerful youth movement going on all the time, and that's certainly the
case right now in China.

GROSS: Is that kind of night life or, you know, techno music or post-punk
music ever denounced by the government?

Mr. LOEHR: I don't think there's ever really a direct denouncement. It's
just not something that's very accepted. You know, you can get the record
out. It takes a lot of work, just like it does for us to get the movie out.
You spend time and you understand, you go through a censorship process, but
you can get through that censorship process. It just takes a lot of patience
and a lot of work. You know, there are Chinese songs with expletives that,
you know, get through censorship. You just have to be willing to do that.
Now there are some limits. I mean, the big state central run TV station is
not going to play a music video by, you know, a thrash band or a punk band. A
lot of radio stations won't play the record. But with the Internet evolving
and a lot of other stuff going on, there are ways to get it out. There are
fanzines in China. And as long as the record can get through censorship,
you're going to find people to listen to it.

GROSS: Do you ever feel that the government is suspicious of you as an
American doing business in China?

Mr. LOEHR: I think we are very smart about that. At the very beginning, you
know, though, obviously, the government knew what was going on, because we had
our legally established company, we try to be very lo--I tried to be very low
profile. On the credits, I use my Chinese name. I didn't do interviews. I
never went on TV. I never went on the radio. I just kind of stayed back.
And the first film was very, very successful, and it also won almost all the
major awards in China that year. And by the second film, I think we were much
more accepted, because we were making films that, obviously, the Chinese
audience could relate to, and we were doing things within the law, and we were
doing things the way that it had to be done. So I think that built up a
certain amount of trust. And as the films have been more and more successful,
we've been able to create a relationship with the government where I don't
think there's a lot of suspicion. We have a mutually decent relationship.
You know, obviously, there is going to be debate and conflict sometimes about
issues, but I think we get along pretty well with them. And I think they know
what we want to do and where we're going with that. So there probably isn't
as much suspicion as there was at the beginning. I mean, at the beginning, we
have the first independent film company ever established and there's a foreign
guy running it, and that's something that's going to make people nervous. But
I don't think that's really happening anymore.

GROSS: You've told us a lot about how you've been getting your films produced
and distributed in China. Your new film, "Shower," is coming to theaters in
the States. How have you gotten it distributed in the States?

Mr. LOEHR: "Shower," to us has just been amazing. Actually, the last year in
September, "Shower" went to the Toronto Film Festival, and I was a young
producer with a young director with a Chinese film that no one really had
heard of, and there's 360 films at Toronto. And in the first day, the first
time the film was shown to an audience, the audience just went crazy over it.
And the next day, the press and industry screen was full. You know, we went
from being very ignored to suddenly being very hot. And we were able to sell
the film to 17 countries in that one afternoon, basically based on that first
audience reaction to the film. The film ended up winning the International
Critics Award at Toronto.

We've won, actually, six awards at six different festivals, and there's really
been kind of a grass-roots groundswell around the film. The film was
ultimately sold to 56 countries, you know, which I think is a record for a
Chinese film, which is something we really never expected. And Sony picked
the film up for the States, which is the first of our films ever to be
released in the States and, obviously, the first ever by a big distributor
like Sony. So it's been a fantastic ride and nothing we expected. And, you
know, being here today is an incredible treat, because usually we're doing
this in China. Suddenly, I'm back in New York, and this is where I'm from,
and I'm doing an interview in New York, which is really, really nice. So I
think the film is ultimately going to be out in 50 cities around the country,
which to us is just amazing.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us about your work.

Mr. LOEHR: Well, thanks so much for having me. It's been great.

GROSS: Peter Loehr is an American who founded China's first independent film
company. His latest film, "Shower," will be released in the US July 7th.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

'Monuments to the Unthinkable' explores how nations can memorialize their atrocities

In How the Word Is Passed, author Clint Smith explored U.S. sites that deal with the legacy of slavery. Now, in The Atlantic, he writes about German memorials to the Holocaust.

42:42

Journalist Maria Ressa explains 'How to Stand Up to a Dictator'

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist faced criminal charges in the Philippines after her news site's reporting angered government officials. How to Stand Up to a Dictator is her new memoir.

08:48

Maureen Corrigan's favorite books of the year: 10 disparate reads for a hectic 2022

Some years, my best books list falls into a pattern: like a year that's dominated by dystopian fiction or stand-out memoirs. But, as perhaps befits this hectic year, the best books I read in 2022 sprawl all over the place in subject and form. Here are 10 superb titles from 2022:

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue