After decades in the business as a studio head and a producer, legendary New Line Cinema founder Bob Shaye has returned to directing. Taking a break from his duties at his new production house, Unique Features, Shaye is back with his third directorial debut, Ambition, a shocking tale full of twists and turns that is sure to please audiences everywhere.
In Ambition, a young aspiring musician preparing for a competition is incredibly confidant and gets herself involved in a frightening trap that she has to find her way out of. It raises the question: If an insane person is telling a story, is it real?
I had the honor to catch up with Bob to talk about Ambition, his vision in creating the thriller, working with his sister Lin Shaye again, as well as a slew of other anecdotes from New Line Cinema’s storied past.
Bob Shaye: Hi Brian. How are you doing? You got me caught in your “Movieweb.” That’s cool.
Absolutely, for many years now.
Bob Shaye: Beautiful. Thanks for your interest.
Thank you for taking the time to do this. Before we start, I just have to gush a little bit. I just want to thank you and what you did with New Line, for my movie-going youth.
Bob Shaye: Well, I so much appreciate you offering that. It’s something that I never ever expected, frankly. I guess first of all, I’m getting older, but it came to my somewhat startled attention recently that I’ve been involved in almost 600 movies. Some of which, I think I remember them all, but I thought I remembered all the employees that we used to have and when it got to about 300 of them, I just stopped remembering their names.
Bob Shaye: Anyhow, I have had a lot of friends and new friends and I dare say fans and aficionados who have offered certain praise for what I was involved with. It’s so heartening to know that there’s sort of like an afterlife that, or a previous life, I guess I should say, that that sustains. So thanks for that. You’ve actually made my evening.
You haven’t directed in awhile. I’m curious what inspired you to jump back into the director’s chair for Ambition?
Bob Shaye: Actually two principle things. One is I was getting a little burned out to what I was doing at Unique [Features]. We didn’t have the kind of action that we had when we were at New Line and it’s taken a little bit of time to do a couple of things. One is to relax and the other was to regain my balance quite honestly.
We did some interesting films, but I had to stand back a little bit from them and they didn’t really have the stamp that I wanted on them and that includes Mortal Instruments and When the Bough Breaks particularly. We have some more films coming up, but I’m reminded of a T-shirt that Wes Craven was wearing, I think the first or second time that I met him and the legend on the front said, “What I really want to do is direct.”
The truth was it really burned another little hole in my heart because it was what I really wanted to do and it was why I started New Line. People were not interested in me, my short films or anything else I was about, and I was not interested in going out to Los Angeles and acting like everyone else.
I’ve actually been thinking of working on a longer piece, which is really called “The Outsider” because that’s what we were and we’ve never really been part of the Hollywood scene except as an interloper.
Bob Shaye: You can’t believe how much … It didn’t really matter to me that much, but I mean the kind of disdain we incurred from the whole community cause we just weren’t a part of it and we didn’t play the game. I didn’t start in the mail room and I wasn’t somebody’s assistant and actually I took her room in my apartment, which was a five-story walkup on 14th street and started showing Czech art movies and that was because I just didn’t care.
It was a long haul and it was a very challenging and rich one, but … Getting back to Wes’s T-shirt, I’ve always really wanted to direct and that was the reason I started New Line in the first place, but then I realized that nobody wanted me to direct. I thought maybe I ought to start something that could make a living and build a foundation with. I just got into distribution. That’s a whole different long story, but it was very, very, as I say, in New York, cockamamie distribution. I was getting Czech movies and distributing my own shorts too, which was really the reason for the exercise and found myself in the distribution business. As I say, it’s been a very rich and very fortunately for me, rewarding long time.
Absolutely. You’ve always had this knack for finding rising stars, whether it be actors or directors that have gone on to great success. I’m kind of wondering how you applied that this time around to Ambition?
Bob Shaye: It wasn’t because of the script, but it was because of the theme that the script almost didn’t realize that it comported, or the writers didn’t realize that they included it, which was actually the theme from the very first short film I made, which won some prize and got me on this track of being my own man in this very complicated business.
The theme was, how do you know what you see is real? I mean, it’s not like I’m the first guy to do that, I was just thinking about it. I mean, Black Swan had a little bit of that and the Scorsese movie about the … Oh damn, I keep forgetting the title of it. Leonardo DiCaprio is in. It’s in an insane asylum.
Oh, yes. Shutter Island, right?
Bob Shaye: Yes. Yes, exactly. Both of those, they deal with an aspect of unreliable narrators and I don’t want to give away the whole story to possible viewers, but I always loved that sort of thing. A long time ago I saw a commercial in the infancy of CGI, a Dyson commercial, where I saw Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner. I saw it. I saw it with my own eyes. The internet is now the same way. I saw it. I saw Hillary Clinton shooting into a pizzeria with my own eyes, so it’s gotta be true. But people are still duped by these things. There’s still old fashioned people who trust their instincts and their judgment. People probably of your generation and younger who have learned, unfortunately, how to be very skeptical of everything they see.
Bob Shaye: I mean to see lions and tigers that are absolutely lions and tigers you would not in a million years say that they’re not talking English (i.e. The Lion King). But you have to ask yourself, what the f*@k? What’s that all about?
This script has elements of that, which I have to say, myself and a couple of other colleagues accentuate or tried to build on. That I think is really quite fun. I mean, how do you really know what’s going on unless you’re there? I tried with a very, very modest effort to give the look of the film kind of a Douglas Sirki in formality that helps you believe that this young woman is really a proper woman and she’s trying to take care of business, but then pose the question “Why is this happening to her?”
The DP, who’s a really talented guy named Brian Hubbard, that’s what actually got him to join the production. When I mentioned Douglas Sirk, he said, “Well, I’ll do the best I can, but I admire his style.” It was a little bit of a modality that I thought would be fun and it would be a little bit different take on things and for an hour and a half would be worth the time and investment of your time to solve the puzzle and get into the characters and have some excitement.
I don’t think it’s too gory and it’s not a horror film really. My sister was gracious enough to take a small part in it for me and she’s become this sort of Betty White of horror right now as you probably know.
She’s fantastic in the movie, even if just for bit part.
Bob Shaye: It’s really kind of fun after all these years. We were four years apart and we’re both from Detroit and it’s not Jake Gyllenhaal and Maggie Gyllenhaal, but it’s Bob and Lynn Shaye and we finally found our respective niche in the community of entertainment, which is exciting for me too.
All in all, I felt it’s so exciting when you’re making a movie. At least it is for me. When you’re trying to solve the puzzle of how do you deal with this or how do you deal with that? I’ll give you a quick example. In the phone sex scene, the girl who played the lead, she didn’t want to take her clothes … She didn’t want anything sexy. I was trying to figure this out as we want to have this scene, but I don’t know what to do with it. I didn’t want to get her pissed off.
I mean, I have to kind of call up various people and try to think of a way so that it would work for her. That’s the kind of thing you deal with every day. Solving that puzzle to get the movie done. She made it really clear and she wouldn’t sign the nudity waiver. Her agents said that she signed it, but she didn’t want to go through with it. I wasn’t going to do anything salacious. I didn’t think it mattered to me. It came to me just before we were going to start doing the scene, maybe I’ll just switch it around and have her being the solicitor for phone sex and him being the the one doing it instead of her.
We made a film with director Jack Sholder called Alone in the Dark with Jack Palance. When I called Jack I said, “tonight’s the first night of night shooting.” He said, “I don’t do night shooting.” “What do you mean? The name of the movie, Jack, is Alone in the Dark.” He said, “I know, but I don’t like to do night shooting.”
So I set the guy who was the executive producer into a trailer. I said, “Please have him come out of the trailer. It’s dark. Okay, but that’s what the point of the movie is.” He finally came out and then he said, “I’m not killing anybody.”
So we had to figure out a way to move all of the scenes where he killed somebody to Erland Van Lidth, who played the big tough fat guy. It didn’t change the story that much and it made life easier.
You know, we hear stories about Clint Eastwood. Not that I’m in any way, shape or form that sort of talent, but where he just says, “All right, you don’t want to do it? Fine. Get the stunt man in. Have him do all the scenes with his back to the camera and we’ll just dump in your voice so forget it.” It’s that sort of thing that changes your vision for the film as you move through the production.
We made The Island of Doctor Moreau with Marlon Brando and John Frankenheimer called me up. In fact, if you haven’t got anything better to do on Netflix, there is a documentary on the making of the movie, which I happened to also be in.
I’m very aware! I’ve seen the documentary. I love the documentary. The story is so crazy.
Bob Shaye: Yes, yes. Well, he calls me up and he says, “Bob Shaye, we haven’t met. You hired me to do this film because that crazy director got fired.” He said, “But I’ve just had an experience that I don’t know how to tell you this.” They were somewhere in the middle of Australia, Canberra or some place.
I said, “Well, what is it John?”
He said, “Well, I’m driving with Marlon to the set for rehearsals and he makes me stop the car and he says, ‘I got a great idea'”.
I said, “What is it?”
He said, “Let’s fuck Bob Shaye.” He said, “I’ve never had an actor say this to me. Let’s fuck the producer.” I mean, he meant it figuratively, of course.
I said, “What are you talking about?”
Marlon said, “I don’t like what these guys are doing. I have a great idea for this movie.” He said, “let’s change the idea. During the movie I’m gonna be wearing a hat and at the end of the movie I’m going to take my hat off and I’m really a dolphin.”
(laughs) Wow, that’s amazing!
Bob Shaye: I said, “A dolphin?”
John says, “I don’t know what to do with this guy.”
We hired John Frankenheimer because I knew that Marlon was going to be such a handful and there’s a whole bunch of other stories that go with that, but I said, “Whatever you have to do to get through this thing with this guy, let’s do it. Tell him, yeah, you can be a dolphin at the end or something.”
That’s where the scene came up with a little guy playing the piano. That was just his idea and he just insisted on it. When you’re dealing with personalities like Marlon’s, without sacrificing the core, the heart and soul literally and the spice of the movie, you have to be able to work around it either with the actor or the story.
Those kinds of challenges are great fun for me. I really enjoyed this one too because it was a much lower budget. The most responsive group of people who’ve seen the movie are millennial females and they really kind of get it. In fact, the tagline on some of the social media stuff that went by, it starts off with, “Do you ever think of murdering your roommate?” These girls, they actually came up with it. “Stop playing the violin or I’m going to kill you.”
I’m hoping that resonates and people have fun with it. My whole intention is not so much to preach philosophical good or to change the politics of the world, but to turn people on and to make them say when they walked out of the theater, “This guy sucked me into spending an hour and a half of my time and I think it was pretty worthwhile. It was worth an hour and a half and I’m glad I did it.” That’s what my objective is for every audience member. I hope it works for this too.
I think you did exactly that. The twists and turns you don’t coming and it definitely keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire time.
Bob Shaye: That’s really nice of you to say, Brian. Well, I appreciate you. As I said, you really made my day. That’s wonderful praise. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Bob. It’s been fantastic talking to you.
Bob Shaye: Okay, my friend. Thank you very much. Take care of yourself.
Ambition is on Digital and On Demand everywhere right now. The movie stars Katherine Hughes, Giles Matthey, Sonoya Mizuno, Dylan McNamara, Kyanna Simone Simpson, John Kroft and Bryan Batt with a special appearance by Lin Shaye.