Jan Chats with Linda Sunshine
(First Posted in 2002)
LS (Linda Sunshine):
Working with books was all I ever wanted to do. I went to Ithaca College in upstate NY, & I got a job @ Crown Books right after college, & I worked there for about 8 years. We started a new line called “Harmony Books.” It was a really interesting time to be in publishing – at the advent of “trade paperback” books. Before that the books were either hard cover books or “mass market” paperbacks. There was nothing in between. This was the early ‘70s, & we were exploring all different sizes and shapes and definitions of books.
Did you have choice over what you worked on @ Crown or were you mostly assigned things?
It was a great place to be because nobody had done what we were doing. We were doing all weird things for example BE HERE NOW by Ram Dass which nobody at Crown Books wanted to publish because it was square & printed on paperback paper & everybody said it wouldn’t sell & it ended up selling about 1.5 million copies! Then we started doing poster books (big oversized books). One of our biggest successes, we published a book called “The Nothing Book” which was a blank book. It was great. We just did whatever.
So would you say with respect to Crown that you were “@ the right place @ the right time”?
Definitely! I was extremely ambitious at the time. I took book binding classes and book design classes. I just couldn’t get enough of it. I was completely fascinated with how the book industry worked & being around people who were interested in ideas all the time.
In the late ‘70s, I was offered the job of Editor-in-Chief of Trade Paperbacks @ Simon & Schuster, & that was my “corporate period.” I went from a “family company” to a big corporation…
I lasted 3 years there, & then I went out on my own & started doing my own thing. The first book I published was called PLAIN JANE WORKS OUT which was a parody of Jane Fonda. It was a huge best seller & it spoiled me & I thought “This is easy!” Of course nothing was ever like that again.
In the ‘80s I spent most of my time writing humor books & books about women & dating & “dealing with your mother” & that kind of stuff. It was really fun but I kind of burnt myself out. My advantage was that I had worked in publishing so I knew a lot of people. So I would come up with these ideas & write the proposals & then selling them directly to the publishers. And it did it for about 14 years & ended up publishing about a book a year.
So you originally started your relationship with Newmarket as a freelance person?
Do you still work with them on that basis?
Yes, I am totally freelance. I started doing these books for Esther [Esther Margolis, President of Newmarket Press] & I really liked them. I’m such a movie nut, totally, that for me, to be able to do these books about the movies is just great.
How does the decision get made? How do you decide that A BEAUTIFUL MIND will only get a shooting script, but FRIDA will get the “full” moviebook treatment? Do you decide what you pitch to Esther or does Esther assign books to you? How does this work?
Well it works in different ways. The shooting script books are really pitched @ the college level, to people who are interested in writing about scripts. That’s a very well established line of books, & it’s kind of formulaic. There’s not a whole lot of work that goes into them. It is what it is.
The decision about what gets published is totally Esther’s. The thing about publishing a moviebook it that if the movie tanks the book is going to tank. It doesn’t matter how good the book is, if the movie doesn’t do well the book isn’t going to do well. But she gets pitched everything. All the studios want to do these full color books & she has to decide which movies she thinks are going to be big in the coming season.
You start getting a buzz. For instance, we just did CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. It seemed clear to us that there is no way this movie isn’t going to be big: it’s Spielberg, it’s Tom Hanks, & Leonardo Di Caprio. And we read the script & it’s a fabulous script. It’s based on an amazing story. So you just look at that & you think: If anything has a shot at of working, this is it.
As for FRIDA, I just was dying to do this work because I’m a huge fan of Julie Taymor & I’m a huge fan of Frida Kahlo. FRIDA is an amazing movie. I took my cousin to see it last week & I walked in & I said to myself: “I’ll bet I’m the only person in this room who’s seen this movie 13 times already.” I had a tape of it that I just watched over & over again.
I went to see it in a theater because I was really curious about what the audience reaction would be. This audience was 85% Latino, mainly women, & it was amazing to watch it with them, because they laughed at all these parts that no one had ever laughed at that I’d shown this tape to. They cried. They applauded at the end. The enthusiasm for this film was amazing.
And here I am watching it after knowing it, literally knowing it line-by-line, & still it made me laugh out loud, it made me cry. I couldn’t stop crying. I was so embarrassed that I was crying in front of my friends. They’re like: “You’ve seen this movie so many times?” But I’d never seen it on a big screen. And I re-experienced it.
And the colors! One of the things that Julie added that I hadn’t seen before was the end scene where Frida is in the bed & the camera is moving around her. Julie added all these images from the painting. And I just burst out in tears. And the last line, which is a line from Frida herself “I hope the exit is joyful. And I hope I never return.” [Frida Kahlo’s last diary entry] that so summed up what this woman’s life was, that she managed to find joy in her life, but she was happy to let go of it.
I really like doing these books, where there’s an historical background behind it. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is the same thing. It’s based on a real person’s life, so I was able to talk to him & give an idea of what was made up. But working on FRIDA was the best – of all the movie books, it was the one I enjoyed the most. First of all, I got to sit & read about Frida for weeks, which was so much fun to do. And being able to research her life & learn more about her life & relate it to the movie in terms of what was real, what was changed for dramatic purposes, what was expanded, decisions that Julie made along the way in terms of telling the story, interviewing the people involved.
It was such a “labor of love” for Salma Hayak. I know that line has been used a lot & all of the publicity has really been based around Salma & rightly so – she did spend about 8 years getting the movie made. Unless you’ve dealt with the Mexican government to get the rights to the work of either Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera, you have no idea how much bureaucratic red tape you have to go through!
I originally discovered Frida thru a book I did about Diego. I also do these art & poetry books (I take a poem & I marry it to an artist) & along the way of learning about Diego Rivera, I stumbled upon Frida.
I was down in La Jolla & they had some of her paintings in a contemporary art gallery. Most of Frida’s paintings are very small, so you have to get really close to them. Diego did everything huge. You have to look from a distance. But Frida – you’ve got to really step up to the painting & look @ it. And I hit this show & the women would be mobbed around these paintings. “Look at that! Do you believe she did that?!?” that kind of thing, pointing to little tiny details in this painting. It’s so amazing that you look @ these paintings & not only do they look like they were painted today, they look like they’re painted ten years from now.
What’s interesting to me: the movie is incredibly accurate on one level. There’s a black & white painting of Frida & Diego marching, & Julie copied that exactly. And yet, there’s this totally imaginative fantasy part of the movie where she’s walking into the paintings.
I absolutely loved the King Kong references!
That was totally from Julie’s imagination, because they couldn’t afford to shoot in New York. So she said: “How do I get around this problem of not being able to go to New York?” And it is true that when Frida was in NY she spent a lot of time at the movies. But to make that leap to King Kong, that only would come from the mind of Julie Taymor!
Can you tell me about some of your other experiences?
When I first started doing these books, I used to sit down with Esther & we would go thru 15 or so movies trying to decide which should be this kind of book which should be that kind of book, which we should publish, which we shouldn’t. And I’m such a movie fan, I see everything & I always think I have such a good take on what’s going to work & what isn’t. Because you’re looking at scripts… You have to do at least half the book without seeing the movie, because the book has to come out the same time the movie opens. So you have to think: It this movie going to be big or not?
My experience was this: after I did the CABARET book [the Newmarket book about the Broadway revival of the musical CABARET], after I had interviewed Sam [director Sam Mendes], he had moved to LA to do AMERICAN BEAUTY. So I talked to Sam & now he’s doing AMERICAN BEAUTY & he’s telling me this story about how Steven Spielberg came to see CABARET & went backstage & said to Sam: “I’ve seen everything there is to see about the Holocaust, & you taught me something I didn’t know. And I want you to do a movie for me for Dreamworks.” What director wouldn’t want that? And they started sending him all these scripts & he picked AMERICAN BEAUTY. So they had just started filming the movie & he said: “Why don’t you do a book on AMERICAN BEAUTY?”
So I read the script & at the same time, I got the script for MAGNOLIA. I had loved BOOGIE NIGHTS. So I read the script for MAGNOLIA & I think it’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever read. It reads like a dream. It’s so interesting & complicated. It reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez – all this magic realism. And I say to Esther: “We have to do MAGNOLIA. This movie is going to be amazing.” She said: “What about AMERICAN BEAUTY?” I said: “You know, I read AMERICAN BEAUTY & I don’t get it. It’s boring. It’s this dumb story & I don’t think it’s going to work at all.” So we do MAGNOLIA. We don’t do AMERICAN BEAUTY.
Well, I go to a screening of MAGNOLIA & I just can’t believe how it doesn’t work for me. The frogs, on paper, were brilliant. The idea! But on the screen, it was just these frogs, plopping down on people’s heads. It was disgusting! Then AMERICAN BEAUTY comes out & it’s completely brilliant. And I thought: “Well, this is it. I can no longer do this & know what’s going to be, because scripts are so much ‘the bones’ of something…” If you had read the script & saw what the script was & then seen the movie in that order – to see what Sam
did with it!
It must be so hard to decide which ones you’re going to do…
I have to have some kind of connection to the movie on some level. Like with FRIDA, I would do FRIDA no matter what the circumstances were, no matter what the price was, just because that’s a movie that I’m really interested in. TERMINATOR 3? I could pass on that.
So what is coming up in your queue?
I’m doing 2 books that are not movie related, that’s what I’m concentrating on @ the moment. I’m doing a series of books for Clarkson Potter (a division of Random House) that will come out in ’03 – they’re little art books. The big book that I’m working on is called ALL THINGS OZ. That’s a 350 page book, also from Clarkson Potter. Not the movie, this is back to Frank Baum.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN will come out @ Christmas & that’s the last one I did for Esther just recently. We’ve talked about others, but nothing’s decided yet. Esther keeps the company very small & she focuses on the things she wants to do & I think it’s worked very well for her.
Linda relaxing at home in LA
Our thanks to Julia Moberg of Newmarket Press for arranging this interview with Linda.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (12/12/02) – Special for Films for Two. Reposted with permission.