Independents: Thom and Nicolette Bret Mount
Thom Mount, 37, is perhaps the most famous of the young film executives who have characterized “The New Hollywood” over the last ten years. Formerly the president in charge of production at Universal Studios (1977-1984), Mount this year started what promises to be an important new independent production company, The Mount Company, with the help of his wife Nicolette Bret Mount, who was until recently the director of original programming at HBO.
Born in North Carolina, Thom Mount came to Los Angeles as a student at the California Institute of the Arts. His first major job in film was as principal assistant to Ned Tanen, president of Universal. From there he rose through the ranks, supervising hit films like “Car Wash,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Animal House,” “The Jerk,” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Mount’s exit from Universal last year came shortly after the arrival of its new studio chief, Frank Price.
Thom Mount’s industry reputation has always been that of an innovator. Also an artist and writer, Mount is a student of the media. He energetically involves himself in every aspect of project development, from story meetings to the selection of print-types for advertisements. Mount is also well-known for his youthful appearance and the dubious tag given him in a 1977 New York magazine article – “Baby Mogul.”
Nicolette Bret Mount began her career in communications and entertainment in 1975 after graduating from Skidmore College. She worked at J. Walter Thompson and Co., and then became West Coast bureau chief for US magazine. She later moved to television production with Alan Landsburg, as senior associate producer of “That’s Incredible.” In 1982, Nicolette moved to her influential post at HBO. She is now executive vice-president for television and home video for The Mount Company.
The Mount Company currently has fifteen projects on its slate. The first release will be “Inside Adam Swit,” an original film by screenwriter-novelist-director Roger Simon, due in September. Next will be an ambitious daily syndicated show designed to present news “the way the correspondents would really like to report it,” and a television epic based on the General Custer biography “Sun of the Morning Star,” to be adapted by Melissa Mathison (“E.T.”). Next May will mark the release of Roman Polanski’s “Pirates,” which Mount executive-produced.
As the supervisor of the movie of my book, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” Mount held our first meeting at the all-night Fatburger’s on La Cienega Boulevard. Four years later, I suggested a return to Fatburger’s for this interview. Mount respectfully declined in favor of Dominic’s, former Rat Pack headquarters to the old Hollywood. (“I need a dose of the jukebox.”) Tom and Nicolette arrived shortly after eight, and entered through the kitchen. Thom headed straight for the jukebox, pumped in a few quarters, and we began our conversation to the woozy strains of a Dean Martin classic.
Thom Mount: I love this place. Jack Webb used to sit right back there in the corner. Same booth. Every time. Jack Webb’s resonant Sergeant Friday voice was heard all over the room. I used to come here all the time, and tried to sit as close to Jack Webb as possible. He was great. You could just sit here, and get off on the transcendent Joe Friday-ness of Los Angeles, right here in this room.
Cameron Crowe: Tell me about the beginnings of The Mount Company. Was there a moment of truth when you looked at each other and decided “Now is the time?”
Nicolette Bret Mount: Yes. I got fired, and then Tom got fired.
TM: We both got fired, which had a lot to do with the company getting started.
CC: Thom, why did you get fired?
TM: New management came in and we didn’t share the same view of how to make movies, and whom to make them with. Nicolette and I both got tired of being in positions where we carried out other people’s mandates for a certain view of the world. That has, frankly, affected a lot of our decisions in this company. We wanted to do something that would bear a personal signature from both of us, and would be enormous amount of fun. Despite a lot of invitations to go work at other studios, we started the company.
NBM: What this company didn’t want to be was another movie and television production company. We’re involved in sports, in publishing, in television and cable, and all sorts of odd little things that connect with that – including a small company we just bought half of that manufactures video yearbooks for colleges and universities.
CC: These days everything is directed to the home-entertainment market. I have a theory: by 1990, no one will ever leave the house.
TM: I think form is function in the movie business. It’s all about architecture. If I had a billion dollars to spend today, I would spend it building giant, luxurious movie houses in America’s hundred top cities, giving people environments that they couldn’t possibly afford in their post-inflation lifestyles, in their houses which have gotten ten percent smaller every year for the last twelve years. In no way would it resemble a Multiplex. Giant chandeliers and amazing Persian rugs…things they couldn’t possibly afford…
Listen, it’s the reason that in the magazine publishing business, magazines about expensive cars, yachts and homes are going crazy. The number of people who have a million dollars today has expanded radically. But a million dollars is no longer “rich.” So, separating these people from their fantasies is a very, very tough curtain of reality. Everyone is starting to face that. When my mother was my age, she looked at the Sears and Roebuck catalog, and dreamed of owning things in that catalog.
I think society is changing rapidly, and the flip side of that is cable, which provides for people a kind of instant feedback and built in critique that is astonishing. Everybody is becoming video-literate, whether they like it or not. MTV is the single greatest advance in programming in our lifetime. It has gotten everyone in contact in a way that has built in critique with video. I promise you, there isn’t a fifteen-year-old left in America who doesn’t know the difference between a good and bad video.
CC: As a production executive, almost none of the projects you’re responsible for ever bears your name. Where does the personal satisfaction come in?
NBM: I’ll answer first. The personal satisfaction for me would be in making a documentary that might only be seen by a few hundred thousand people, but those people would be changed. That is the ultimate.
TM: When I came around a corner in Venice, two weeks after we released Car Wash, and saw two car-wash attendants jiving with the machinery in tempo to the music playing on their radio and doing the Car Wash walk, that was satisfaction. We had affected culture. Originally, it was a big thrill to get Car Wash made. Then it was a giant thrill to have a hit likeAnimal House. In the long run, you’re looking for cultural impact, as opposed to the size of a hit. Because hits are, finally, a random phenomenon. A money hit is often just that – a money hit.
CC: How did you finance your company if you have no “money hits?”
TM: One of the ways you solve that problem is to work broadly in the media, so that you’re never forced to go make a movie or a television show. If tomorrow we’re stymied on a movie and we don’t feel that we can get the kind of financial response from studios or from outside financiers that it deserves, we can put it on the shelf and lock it tenderly in the dark until it’s ready to go. We can go do one of a million things that are all profitable, and all fun for us. That’s really the design of the company.
CC: Several years ago you told me this: “If you can write a book, go write a book. Don’t become another hack screenwriter in Hollywood.” It was an inspiring thing to hear from a head of studio production.
TM: There is an important thing to learn about communication as an industry. It is never too late, it is always too early to sell out. You don’t have to sell out now. You can wait a day. You can wait a week. You can wait a year. You don’t have to sell out tomorrow because somebody dangles something under your nose. You have a personal responsibility to make the decision of selling out at least a clear one. If you’re going to sell out, do whatever you’re going to do, go down that road and God bless you, but you don’t have to do that. People do respond to quality.
CC: You are a well-known Democratic fund-raiser and confidant to a number of candidates. What’s more political, electoral politics or the movie business?
TM: Equal. The advantage of being in electoral politics is that you do not have to campaign every day. In Hollywood, you campaign every day. [laughs] The other side of that is that in Hollywood you don’t have to raise a lot of money to campaign, all you need is to pay the bill at Morton’s.
CC: I’ve been around you innumerable times when you’ve been kidded about the “Baby Mogul” tag. Did you know immediately that it would follow you around?
TM: Yes. I’m not that big on publicity. When I heard about it, I was not thrilled. But the thing that was important about that article, I thought, is that it really did signal a changing of the guard in the studio system.
NBM: The fascinating thing about the movies that are being made today by the “Baby Mogul” studio executives is that when those guys started out they were making movies like Animal House. Now all those executives and filmmakers have grown up. And most of them are still making movies about pubescent problems. They made their name with a whole new wave of movies that spoke to their age group. They were 26. Now they’re 36, but they’re not making movies about 36-year-olds. Either 26-year-olds have to come in – and they have not – or the 36-year-olds ought to be making movies about us.
CC: When the average person sees a bad movie, they ask, “Didn’t anybody tell them that was a bad idea?” Burt Reynolds and Richard Pryor, for example, are friends of yours. Are you able to tell them if an idea or a project is bad, even if you’d like the star power?
TM: Sure. Not only can you, but you have a responsibility to. The last thing Burt Reynolds wants to do in life is make a bad movie. Like the rest of us, Burt Reynolds is mortal, he can make mistakes. So we all have this kind of mutual obligation to keep each other from stepping off the cliff. It’s more true in Richard Pryor’s case. Richard has such a grasp of the subtlety of his art that, on his worst moment on a bad day, he could make Eddie Murphy break out in a cold sweat. But you can’t get through to Richard Pryor without a little investment, a willingness to sound off. Richard and I have gone down the road together for seven years. We’re in good shape together, and God knows we’ve made enough movies together, mostly because we’re perfectly willing to yell at each other, and push issues with each other and not take it personally.
CC: Were you at Universal when they passed on Star Wars?
TM: No, that was before my time. I was there when we passed on Ghostbusters, though. I can give you a long list of projects we passed on, in one form or another…we passed onThe Big Chill, An Officer and a Gentleman, dozens of projects. On the other hand, we made a long, long list of very successful hits that gave the studio five or six years of record projects. The nature of this game in Hollywood is that you are wrong some of the time. The decision on Ghostbusters, for example, was that it was too expensive a venture to undertake. We were wrong.
CC: William Goldman has written that if every studio made the movies that they passed on, and passed on the ones they made, everything would still be the same.
TM: He’s close to right. You get groups of executives who learn to play hunches in a good way for a period of time, but it’s exactly like running a baseball team. You have moments when you are hot, and you have batting slumps, and when you have a batting slump, let me tell you, my man, there is no force on earth that can drag you out of that pit. You just have to keep batting until it goes away. The biggest single problem with the movie business is that the older men who own the studios aren’t willing to let their executives fail long enough to succeed. As a result, there’s a perpetual executive shuffle that weakens the creative fiber and the profit structure of the business. It’s absolutely true.
CC: Your May release will be Roman Polanski’s Pirates. How did you come to be executive producer of this project?
TM: The day after I got fired at Universal, Universal dropped Polanski’s Pirates, which I had in development.
TM: The new management didn’t want to pursue the film. And so I made a partnership arrangement to executive-produce the picture with Tarak Benammar, who is the producer, and with Roman, who is the director. And we went out and raised the money from all sorts of sources, and got the movie started. It took Roman ten years to put this movie together. Roman conceived of the movie when he was making Chinatown. He and Jack (Nicholson) went to Disneyland, took the Pirates of the Caribbean ride one weekend, saw these whacked out Disney pirates running around, and came out and said, “That’s it. A pirate movie.” Originally, it was conceived of as a product for Roman and Jack to both act in, as well as for Roman to direct.
CC: Why isn’t Jack Nicholson in the movie?
TM: Ten years passed, and everybody got old. When Roman finally had to face making the picture for real, we said, “Who should play Captain Red?” He said, “Wallace Berry.” We said, “That’s fine, except he’s hard to get these days.” We looked around for a Wallace Berry, and I think that’s Walter Matthau. Matthau and Polanski hit it off from the first day. It’s Matthau’s best work in years and years.
CC: The Mount Company is based on both of your high hopes for mass communication. Do you ever wonder if the public really wants the same high-minded material that you’re developing?
TM: The great curse of awareness for humankind is this: once you are aware, you have an obligation to try to lift the people around you. It’s like no longer being a virgin, it changes you forever. This isn’t today’s struggle, this is mankind’s struggle. This is my problem with Miami Vice. I enjoy the show in a lot of ways, but I’ll tell you something – the only people that have any fun are the crooks. They’ve got the Ferraris, the beautiful girls, they’ve got the yachts, and the only time the cops have fun is when they go undercover to be like the crooks. What’s that about? All Miami Vice says to me, every week, is “Dealing cocaine provides a great lifestyle.” I’m not sure that’s enough. I’m not arguing for boring liberal television, but I do think you’ve got to be careful. The question is not will we take control, it’s what will we do now that we have control.
Courtesy of Interview Magazine – Cameron Crowe – September, 1985