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Bogdanovich on hits, flops and surprises

By Todd Leopold, CNN
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Wed July 10, 2013
Famed director Peter Bogdanovich ran into problems with his musical
Famed director Peter Bogdanovich ran into problems with his musical "At Long Last Love."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bogdanovich credits Fox employee with saving film
  • "At Long Last Love" was mess until James Blakely fixed it, Bogdanovich says
  • Bogdanovich: Some criticism aimed at him, not movie
  • Director's career includes "Last Picture Show," "Paper Moon"

(CNN) -- Peter Bogdanovich would like to thank a man he never met.

The man's name was James Blakely, and he was a member of the editorial department at 20th Century Fox. He loved musicals and Cole Porter, and was primed to like "At Long Last Love," Bogdanovich's Porter-infused musical.

After the 1975 film flopped, Blakely quietly decided to recut it.

"Obviously he took one look at what we'd done and said, 'These guys are screwing up the movie. I'm going to fix it.' And he was right," says Bogdanovich in an interview. "And he took his time and did it right and saved the movie from the garbage can."

The film is now out on Blu-ray.

Bogdanovich, who's preparing a new film produced by Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson, took a few minutes to talk to CNN about "At Long Last Love," the value of previews and his thoughts on today's Hollywood. The following is an edited version of the conversation.

CNN: Tell me how "At Long Last Love" came to be.

Peter Bogdanovich: I was reading through (a Cole Porter book) Cybill (Shepherd, his then partner) gave me, and enjoying the lyrics, and thought maybe I should write a musical based on these lyrics. And then I read one of the songs, a very unfamiliar song and not a very famous one, called "I Loved Him (but He Didn't Love Me)." It sort of gave me the idea for the whole picture.

CNN: Burt Reynolds was unusual casting.

Bogdanovich: I didn't have Burt Reynolds in mind. I was thinking of Elliott Gould, who was a song and dance man, and then Sue Mengers became Burt Reynolds' agent, and she was my agent, and she said, "Why don't you use Burt?" So I met with him and I liked him, and I figured we'll try him, he's a big star, and I thought he would be charming. And he was.

Burt could do anything -- he was very talented. He was limited by his action-hero persona. I remember when we made "Nickelodeon," he had a scene with a rifle and the first take was a little macho. I said, "Can we do it a little less Burt Reynolds?" He laughed.

CNN: When you were making "At Long Last Love," were you worried about the timing was off? The mid-'70s was an era full of dark pictures.

Bogdanovich: I guess I didn't give a s***. I had purposely made "What's Up, Doc?" as a G-rated comedy, and that was in '72, and they asked me when we were making it are you sure you don't want to make it a PG? I said no, I want to make it for the whole family -- a G-rated comedy with no socially redeeming value. And they all laughed and left me alone, and that was the biggest success of my career. So I thought a musical with a similar light touch would be welcome, but I didn't realize how difficult it is to find the right balance between singing and talking, which is the key to it. And Jim Blakely found it.

Putting Hollywood's biggest bombs back together

CNN: Did the reviews sting?

Bogdanovich: I didn't read all the nasty reviews. The thing is, before the picture opened, the critic Judith Crist -- she was a friend -- called me up and said, "How is the picture?" I said, "Pretty good, I think." She said, "It better be good. They're waiting for you with the knives out." And she was in the critical establishment -- she knew from which she spoke.

We showed them the worst version that existed. (The film) began with Cybill, which was the worst thing to begin with, because they hated her and me particularly. That was the period when you couldn't open a newspaper or magazine without seeing some nasty crack about us.

Cary Grant, who was a friend, called me and said, "Peter, for Chrissakes, stop telling people you're happy, and stop telling them you're in looooove." "Why, Cary?" " 'Cause they're not happy, and they're not in love." "I thought all the world loves a lover?" "Naaaa, don't you believe it."

So that was the climate at that point. The picture was killed, except for people such as Roger Ebert, who liked it to a degree, and the Newsweek critic, who liked it to a degree. Woody Allen told me years later that, "I saw that picture at the (Radio City) Music Hall three or four times. I really liked it." I said, "S***, Woody, I wish you'd told me that then."

Nobody was more surprised than I was when I saw it streaming on Netflix and I thought, "This is good." You can get too close to a picture. We needed to put it in front of audiences -- it would have taken five or six previews and we would have gotten it right. We only had two previews, which is ridiculous for a musical.

CNN: Did you find previews helpful?

Bogdanovich: I had very interesting experiences. "The Last Picture Show" was at one of those places where the audience was told to turn a knob one way if they like it and another if they don't. And the picture was not liked at all. Columbia turned to me and said, "What do we do?" I said, "I think they need to be told it's a good picture." And they snapped their fingers and said, "Tastemaker screenings." So we had 30 screenings for small groups of people and the buzz was extraordinary.

We previewed "What's Up, Doc?" in Denver and it was a spectacular success. We previewed "Paper Moon" in Denver and it played perfectly. We didn't preview "Daisy Miller." And we did preview "At Long Last Love," and you know the results of that. I was told by people I trusted to take things out that really damaged the picture.

CNN: What do you think of Hollywood these days? Does the tentpole mentality concern you?

Bogdanovich: It's crazy. When Jim Cameron was making "Titanic," everybody was (saying) it's going to be a big flop, Cameron's folly. I said, if that picture's a hit, we're in real trouble. And sure enough, it was a hit. And sure enough (budgets skyrocketed). Spend $150 million! Spend $200 million! And that's where we are today.

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