Filmmaking partners Levinson, Johnson are drifting apart

January 19, 1994|By Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka,Los Angeles Times

Hollywood divorces need not be bitter. In movie-making, as in life, two people who have shared a harmonious partnership can wake up one morning with disparate needs and goals.

So it was with the director-producer team of Barry Levinson and Mark Johnson, who turned out such hits as "Diner," "Good Morning, Vietnam" and the Academy Award-winning "Rain Man." After 10 movies and 12 years, they suggest, the time had come to call it quits.

"I would hate for people to think there's any animosity between us," says Mr. Johnson, who first met the director when they both worked for Mel Brooks in 1977. "We're not trying to split things up and see who takes the children. We're pleased and relieved. He'll work on his projects. I'll work on mine. And we are still working on a number of movies together."

Thoughts of a breakup began to surface early last spring when the two found themselves operating in very different spheres. Mr. Johnson was immersed in pre-production on "A Perfect World," a project Mr. Levinson sidestepped because of reservations about the script. Mr. Levinson was focused on NBC's police series "Homicide" and writing "Jimmy Hollywood," a spring release about an actor on the fringe of show business, which Mr. Johnson and he were shooting for Paramount Pictures.

Because Mr. Levinson's voracious directorial appetite left him little time for their production company, Baltimore Pictures, Mr. Johnson found himself carrying a disproportionate amount of the load.

"As a director, I work fairly constantly," Mr. Levinson explains, "so overseeing a broad slate of other people's movies became complicated and overwhelming. It becomes a question of philosophy: How many things can you -- and do you want to -- watch over? Producers are concerned with getting movies made, but that's never been my priority. Once you open the door to producing other people's projects, you drift away from those you feel passionate about."

It was only last April that the twosome signed a lucrative three-year, nonexclusive deal with Paramount Pictures, which received news of the split less than two weeks ago. Though Mr. Johnson and Mr. Levinson expect to continue developing and producing existing projects at the studio, it's still uncertain what the future holds.

"No discussions have taken place," Mr. Levinson says. "Given the corporate battle [between Viacom Inc. and QVC Network] to take over Paramount Communications, I'm sure the studio has more important things on its mind."

Industry insiders place the ball in Paramount's court. "Since the production entity with which the deal was signed no longer exists, the deal is null and void," says one. "Paramount now has to decide whether it wants to deal with each one of them separately -- which might be done on a case-by-case basis. From the studio's point of view, the deal wasn't a bad one. They own all the projects currently in development and, in less than a year, came away with 'Jimmy Hollywood' -- a movie they like."

News of the rupture took the studio by surprise. "No one saw it coming," admits one Paramount source. "Barry and Mark seem to have the perfect relationship, and there doesn't seem to be any hidden agenda. I suspect Mark just wants more identity and independence."

Mr. Johnson is currently in pre-production on "The Little Princess," a Warner Bros. movie based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1905 classic, written by "Fisher King's" Richard LaGravanese. He and Mr. Levinson will be producing HBO's "Paley," a project based on the life of CBS founder William S. Paley, which will begin shooting in a few months, as well as MGM's feature "Donnie Brasco," the story of an undercover FBI agent, which, pending the selection of a director, will get under way in the spring. The two also collaborated on "Quiz Show," project based on the Charles Van Doren TV scandal and directed by Robert Redford, which is scheduled for release by Hollywood Pictures in September.

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