How the motion picture Don Juan DeMarco got made is “one of those traditional stories where you turn down huge offers” to let someone else direct it, according to first-time director and screenwriter Jeremy Leven.
How big an offer for his screenplay did Leven refuse?
Leven, a Connecticut psychotherapist with only two little known screenplays (Creator and Playing for Keeps, based on his 1980 novel) to his credit, turned down a “seven-figure offer” for his Don Juan DeMarco screenplay.
And lucky he did. By turning down “an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Leven is making his directorial debut with “The Godfather” himself, Marlon Brando, as well as Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway.
Leven, a faculty member at Harvard University as well as a clinical psychologist, noted:
“I’ve always considered myself an outsider. It’s not what I do for a living. And sometimes that’s good. I feel that if anything ever went wrong I could go back to seeing patients, or I could do novels. I have a lovely place in Connecticut where I live, and a nice barn. And I go into my barn and I’m a very happy person.
“People find that somewhat intimidating because it means that their threat that ‘You’ll never work again in this town (Hollywood)’ has no substance. That’s great. Just tell me how.”
Agents, studios and Hollywood cognoscenti advised Leven to “move on to something else, just sell this.”
“And I said, ‘No. This is something I want to do,’” recalled Leven. “‘This is the next step that I want to take in my life and my career and I want to direct this movie.’”
In the romantic comedy, Depp plays Don Juan DeMarco, a young man convinced he’s a descendent of the legendary Don Juan. Devastated by the loss of his one true love, the young man considers suicide. Dr. Jack Mickler (Brando) successfully coaxes DeMarco from a ledge. Dunaway plays Brando’s wife.
Leven completed the Don Juan DeMarco script in January 1993. He spent about three months trying to get the film made independently. After New Line Cinema optioned the script, it was sent to Francis Ford Coppola, whose American Zoetrope agreed to produce.
Don Juan DeMarco reunited Brando with Coppola for the first time since Apocalypse Now on which they had their differences. Coppola also directed Brando in The Godfather. A meeting at Coppola’s Napa Valley vineyard smoothed over residual resentment, if any, between Brando and Coppola.
Still, the pundits continued to have their say. According to Leven, he was told, “‘You may have thought you’ve written a low-budget movie but you’ve written a $20-million film,’ which is in fact what it cost to make.
“And actually that cost is only because we had Marlon in it. Because, once we had Marlon in it actors came from all over saying, ‘We’ll do this for less than our fee or scale or something, just to be in a scene with Marlon Brando.’
“I’ve always admired Marlon’s performances but I had no idea the legendary status he has among performers. I’m talking about the top actors now working in the field. I had lunch with Anthony Hopkins regarding another project and I mentioned Brando . . . and he was in awe of Marlon Brando.”
Leven’s agent at high-powered ICM got the script to Depp, also represented there. Leven said casting Brando was Depp’s idea:
“He (Depp) wanted to work with Marlon a whole lot. Marlon and Johnny are represented at the same agency where I had my script . . . Obviously, I did not have Marlon Brando in mind when I wrote the film.”
When asked why he suggested Brando, Depp said, “When I read the screenplay I just kept seeing him (Brando) as the psychiatrist. I don’t exactly know why. I just had a feeling that it would work.” Depp added that acting opposite Brando was “a big factor” in his decision to do the movie “just because I felt so passionate about it.”
Depp said that working with Brando “surpassed any thoughts or dreams that I may have had . . . Obviously, we all know Marlon Brando as a great actor, probably one of the most important actors of the last 100 years.
“It was great see that this legend was a real human being, incredibly intelligent, with the most fascinating mind and a heart that’s so generous . . . He’s an amazing guy. He provokes thoughts . . . very subtlety . . . without being manipulative. He’s stimulating. The idea of Marlon Brando being 70 years old is actually a lie because I think he’s about 20. He’s a kid, a child.”
Was Leven nervous about working with Brando, two-time best actor Oscar winner (1954’s On The Waterfront and 1972’s The Godfather), five-time best actor Oscar nominee (A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata! Julius Caesar, Sayonara and Last Tango in Paris) and best-supporting actor Oscar nominee (A Dry White Season)? Said Leven:
“You don’t really have the time to be intimidated. There’s so much to do.”
But what was it really like to direct Marlon Brando?
“Let’s put it this way: Marlon doesn’t walk up to you and say, ‘How about I do this?’” said Levin. “And it may not be the way the director wants to do it. You have to hash it out. Some points I would win. And some points he would win.” Leven said he and Brando would meet in his trailer for about 30 minutes and then on the set for one or two hours to work on scenes before the cameras rolled.
And how did Brando get along with Depp? Observed Leven:
“He (Brando) worked with him . . . And I felt like I was watching probably the greatest actor now working passing the torch on to the greatest actor in his 30s (Depp).”
The “torch-passing” figuratively takes place in the opening scene when Depp’s character considers suicide. A “cherry-picker” crane rises and Brando asks Depp to step on board.
Said Depp, “I couldn’t think in terms of having a torch passed to me. I just appreciate the experience of working with him (Brando).”
Still, Leven thinks Depp a natural heir to Brando’s acting legacy: “They’re both instinctive actors. Although they’ll discuss on an intellectual level with some emotional grounding, when they finally get down to it I don’t think they have a clue what they’re doing in front of a camera. It’s totally instinctive. It’s just brilliant. And they’re constantly surprising.”
One thing about Brando, who turned 71 last Monday, didn’t surprise Leven:
“I had a decision to make about what to do about Marlon’s weight, regarding the fact that he is heavy. Actually, it was Marlon’s idea who, when we started shooting (the first scene) that, suddenly he walks up to (actor) Richard Zerafian and taps him on the tummy and says, ‘Putting on a little weight.’ That came out of nowhere. I never wrote that line. That was Marlon’s line. But I figured, ‘Well, that was his way of dealing.’”
Leven’s artistic vision for Don Juan DeMarco was inspired by Lord Byron’s Don Juan—“450 pages, most of which is political polemic . . . and, of course, he (Byron) never finished it.
“(With) my initial idea of doing the ultimate romance, I couldn’t use all of the book. I could use a few scenes, which were very nice, and then I had to build the whole story around that.”