Smart and funnier

How ‘Green Book’ producer Charles Wessler won the Hollywood game

By
July 31, 2019 21:59
Smart and funnier

CHARLES WESSLER (right) is interviewed during a master class at the Jerusalem Film Festival. (photo credit: MATAN KOCHMEISTER)

Charles B. Wessler, the producer whose latest film, Green Book, won the Best Picture Oscar this year, reminisced about his first job in the movie business as a production assistant in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Monday and later at a master class for the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund  at the Jerusalem Development Authority at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

“I got to the set and they gave me a bucket and a sponge and told me, ‘Wet down the lesbian skin divers and clear the frame,’” said the producer, who in addition to Green Book, which was directed by Peter Farrelly, is known mostly for comedies, including There’s Something About Mary and the Dumb and Dumber franchise. That movie of his first job, made in 1977, was Can I Do It... ‘Til I Need Glasses? which Wessler describes as a “filthy comedy.” If that anecdote isn’t risqué enough, Wessler expands on it by saying he soon realized the lesbians were transsexuals.

How he got from dousing ambiguously gendered actors to accepting an Oscar from presenter Julia Roberts is an entertaining and sometimes inspiring story, filled with memories and jokes that: a) Cannot be printed in a family newspaper, and b.) Wessler insisted must be off the record. Don’t worry, Charles, I’ll never tell.

If reaching the pinnacle of Hollywood success isn’t enough of a contrast with the onetime down-and-dirty production assistant job, Wessler is using his time and influence for a good cause, one that is deeply connected to his Jewish identity. This kid from California who came to Israel on his own as a teenager and went from kibbutz to kibbutz (kicked out for predictable infractions) and eventually ended up as a driver in the IDF, took a trip to Warsaw recently and was astonished when he discovered that the Warsaw Ghetto Museum was just an office filled with hopeful researchers on the floor of an apartment building. In a video message he posted recently, Wessler appealed for funds and donations of photos, memorabilia and other artifacts to turn the project from an office into a real museum, to be built on the site of a Jewish children’s hospital from the 1870s, a place where Janusz Korczak once practiced.

Wessler was appalled to discover that at the site of the ghetto “everything was rebuilt over it... it was destroyed on so many levels.”

While he understands that Yad Vashem and other Holocaust museums around the world do a fine job, he feels it is important “that there be something right there, right where it happened.”

He says in the video, “For the sake of our children and future generations, let us learn from the past.”

His enthusiasm for the project, for which he hopes to purchase the last trolley left in Warsaw from that era, is infectious.

Wessler, who grew up in California, the son of an emotionally distant father who ran a business in Europe, and a mother who had a clothing shop in Beverly Hills, didn’t have “a serious Jewish upbringing... but I was always proud of it, being a Jew and having that heritage.”

He remembers kids from the local Catholic school yelling at him, “You killed Christ!” but says, “I never figured out who Jesus Christ was, so I asked my mother. ‘Mom, who’s Jesus and why do people say I killed him?’”

His childhood friends helped him get through absurd moments like this, among them Carrie Fisher, the late actress and novelist who was extremely candid about her struggles with mental illness and drug addiction. They stayed close until her death. One of his earliest jobs, after the lesbian diver movie, was as production assistant on assistant on the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, in which Fisher starred as Princess Leia.

WHEN WESSLER found himself unexpectedly accepting the Oscar for Green Book, he found it only natural to say, “I want to dedicate this to our great friend, Carrie Fisher.” At the master class, he specified that he meant “our” in the sense of belonging to the entire world, not that she was specifically a friend of the production.

Asked how he felt at the moment that Green Book was announced as the winner, Wessler said, “Shocked. I never dreamed of winning an Oscar. When I was doing Dumb and Dumber I thought, ‘I’m never gonna win an Oscar doing this.’ I do think about how lucky I am to make movies that make people smile.”

He did have an inkling that Green Book might be a runaway success, though. “When we looked at the rough cut of Green Book, I thought, ‘We could win a couple of awards.’”

That prediction turned out to be an understatement, as the movie won the coveted People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, widely considered to be predictive of the Best Picture Oscar, as well as Oscars for Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay (for Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie).

That the movie – which details a life-changing road trip through the 1960s South, in which a tough Italian bouncer from New York, Tony (Viggo Mortensen), who is a racist, drives the educated and sophisticated Dr. Donald Shirley (Ali), a classical and jazz musician, to his tour dates – has drawn criticism for its supposed portrayal of a “white savior” character, befuddles Wessler.

“A film about a black guy in 1962 who had the balls to hire a white guy to drive him through the South as a way of saying ‘F**k you’ to all racists, to criticize that as a ‘white savior’ story, is a simple misunderstanding of the truth... it’s about a black guy who saves a white guy’s soul, that’s just a fact.”

While some have quibbled with a few of the details, Wessler said, “We did our best to portray the story truthfully.”

Wessler entertained the audience at the master class like an accomplished stand-up comedian. Asked how he met his frequent collaborators, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, he didn’t miss a beat before answering, “We were working as young prostitutes.” But he didn’t only go for laughs. Asked how he was following up the Oscar-winning movie, he spoke about the Warsaw Ghetto Museum project and talked about other movies that are in different stages of production. While he doesn’t rule out doing comedy again, it seems Green Book has changed his outlook in certain ways. One film, which will be directed by Fisher Stevens, will tell the story of an ex-convict who stumbles into a surprising and life-changing situation, which could also be a description of Green Book.

He is also working on a movie based on a Swedish book, A Guide to Superheroes, about a little girl who finds the book in the library and starts teaching herself stunts. It will be his first animated film. 

But he’s been around long enough to be philosophical about the movie-making process, saying, “I hope they get made.”

At the end of our interview, Wessler’s thoughts drifted back to Warsaw and he repeated his appeal for materials for the museum. “It’s simple, if you are a survivor, or if you are children of survivors, please contact us,” he said, before heading out to the master class to make a couple of jokes to the adoring crowd.

Telling the story of how Steven Spielberg helped with Green Book, he recounted how Spielberg called Peter Farrelly to say he would use his power to make sure the movie got a release date at Thanksgiving, Wessler said, “That’s the best f**king date to have a movie released in America. Pardon my language – I won’t say ‘America’ again.”

Anyone who would like to make donations to the Warsaw Ghetto Museum can get more information online at 1943.pl.


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