Ed Norton to Paramount’s Sherry Lansing: Burn This!

Paramount Pictures studio forces Ed Norton to star in The Italian Job against his considerable will

Courtney Love, Woody Harrelson And Edward Norton in "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" (Photo By Getty Images)
Courtney Love, Woody Harrelson And Edward Norton in “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” (Photo By Getty Images)

When he finishes his run in the Off Broadway revival of Burn This in November, Edward Norton will report to the Los Angeles set of F. Gary Gray’s heist movie The Italian Job, which will co-star Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron. Mr. Norton may show up on time, but he won’t be happy about it. According to sources familiar with the situation, Mr. Norton has agreed to do the movie only to avoid being sued by Paramount (PARA) Pictures, the studio that gave him his start.

Mr. Norton’s appearance in Mr. Gray’s film marks the culmination of a quiet but corrosive five-year contractual dispute between the actor and Paramount Pictures’ Motion Picture Group chairman Sherry Lansing that recalls days when a more powerful studio system held its actors in choke holds.

Rob Friedman, C.O.O. and vice chairman of Paramount Pictures, told The Transom that Mr. Norton is “working happily and professionally” on The Italian Job, but confirmed that the actor took the role because it was “a contractual obligation” to the studio that “[went] out on a limb and [took] a chance” on him early in his career. Mr. Norton declined to comment for this article, but one of his attorneys, litigator Marty Singer, said that although Mr. Norton has decided not to enter into litigation with the studio, he feels that he was betrayed and lied to by Paramount executives.

Other film-industry sources said that the actor is furious at having been forced into the role, and that Ms. Lansing-who also declined to comment on this story-has won a small but crucial industry battle pertaining to the leverage that talent can wield over studios.

Mr. Norton’s relationship with Paramount began in 1995 when the actor made his screen debut in the courtroom drama Primal Fear, which the studio produced. The actor’s contract stipulated that he would be obligated to make two future movies for Paramount following the release of Primal Fear. He would be paid $75,000 for the first and approximately $125,000 for the second. Such stipulations are common in the film industry and ensure that a studio taking a chance on unproven talent will have the opportunity to cash in later should the actor connect with movie audiences.

Mr. Norton connected quicker than most, winning a Golden Globe and scoring an Oscar nomination for his Primal Fear performance. Soon he had been cast in Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt, which was distributed by Columbia Pictures, and was dating his co-star, Courtney Love. He took roles in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, for Miramax , and in New Line’s controversial American History X, for which he was also nominated for an Oscar.

Though the clock stopped whenever Mr. Norton took on another project, time continued to tick away on the Paramount deal, with neither Mr. Norton nor the studio able to find a mutually satisfactory project on which to collaborate. When Mr. Norton began to negotiate with Fox to appear in David Fincher’s Fight Club in early 1997, sources familiar with the situation said that the actor believed his Paramount option had expired.

But Paramount disagreed. According to sources familiar with the negotiations, the studio contended that Mr. Norton was contractually obligated to appear in a project called Twenty Billion that conflicted with the Fight Club production schedule. Those same sources said Paramount also sent a “preemption letter” to Fox explaining the situation. In response, Fox told Mr. Norton that it was unwilling to take on a legal battle with another studio, and that if he did not resolve his differences with Paramount, he would not be cast in Fight Club.

Sources close to Mr. Norton said that co-starring in Fight Club was so important to him that he decided to make peace with Paramount rather than fight the studio. Mr. Norton and his then-agent Ed Limato agreed to a settlement that would extend the terms of Mr. Norton’s contract with Paramount.

Under the new terms of his agreement, Mr. Norton was obligated to do only one future movie for Paramount, for which he would be paid $1 million. After Fight Club wrapped, Mr. Norton and Paramount had 18 months to find a project they both liked. If they couldn’t come to an agreement, the studio got another 24 months to assign Mr. Norton a project of their choice.

At that point, according to sources familiar with the situation, Mr. Norton had a meeting with Ms. Lansing in which he expressed concern at the possibility that he would ever be forced to take a part. These sources said that Ms. Lansing reassured him that he had nothing to worry about. According to Mr. Singer, “the quote was: ‘I’ll never force you to do a movie you don’t want to do.'”

Mr. Friedman would not confirm that Ms. Lansing ever made a verbal promise to Mr. Norton, but rather said of Mr. Singer, “His job as a litigator is to build a case that he believes is an appropriate case. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s factually correct.” Mr. Friedman added: “I don’t believe he [Mr. Singer] was involved in the conversation and I wasn’t involved in the conversation. That is a recollection that I believe he was probably told by his client. That doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Either way, Mr. Norton and Ms. Lansing proceeded to spend years haggling over potential projects.

Mr. Singer said that Mr. Norton would have been happy to star in Paramount’s 2000 picture, The Talented Mr. Ripley, but Matt Damon was cast instead. He said Mr. Norton also volunteered his services for any part in Paramount’s upcoming Mission: Impossible 3, which will be directed by Mr. Fincher, but he was not cast. According to the litigator, Mr. Norton also presented Paramount with the option of producing The 25th Hour, a Spike Lee feature with Philip Seymour Hoffman in which Mr. Norton wanted to star as a man about to begin a jail sentence. Paramount declined to take on the project. Mr. Norton shot it this summer for Disney.

A great deal of disagreement arose from Mr. Norton’s decision to star in the 2001 picture The Score, with Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando. The Score was produced by Mandalay Pictures Entertainment, which at that time had a satellite deal with Paramount, which distributed the film. Mr. Friedman confirmed that Mr. Norton suggested it count as his Paramount option and that Paramount turned him down.

“Mandalay was the primary producer [on The Score],” Mr. Friedman said. “We were [just] financial partners. They offered Mr. Norton the part, he accepted, and then tried to roll it over as his commitment to us.” Paramount declined to let The Score count as the movie that fulfilled Mr. Norton’s option.

Mr. Friedman refused to confirm any of the movies that the studio offered the actor, but sources close to the situation said that Paramount-suggested films that Mr. Norton rejected included Abandon, directed by Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, and The Core, a sci-fi drama starring Stanley Tucci and Hilary Swank. Mr. Friedman preferred to look at the big picture, noting: “There were seven years of attempts made to allow Mr. Norton to fulfill his obligation to Paramount.”

In the spring of 2002 Paramount offered Mr. Norton a part in The Italian Job, which is about a group of criminals who create an enormous traffic jam so that they can get away in their Mini Coopers. Mr. Gray’s previous features include 1996’s Set It Off and 1998’s The Negotiator. Mr. Norton, who had just completed Red Dragon and was about to begin shooting The 25th Hour, told Paramount no.

But in late April, Mr. Norton received a letter informing him that he didn’t have a choice, and that the studio was exercising its option to force him to do a project. Sources close to the situation said that Mr. Norton got on the phone with Ms. Lansing to express his anger at the situation and remind her of her promise. The phone call did not make a difference.

It was then that Mr. Norton called in Mr. Singer, who sent the studio a letter “suggesting that they re-evaluate their position … and that it was not appropriate to force him to do a movie against his will.” Paramount had hired its own litigator, Patricia Glaser, who, according to Mr. Singer, promptly “threatened to file a law suit immediately unless he [Mr. Norton] agreed to do [The Italian Job].”

“Mr. Norton was told that he would never have to do a movie against his wishes and Paramount was insisting that he do this movie. And if he didn’t agree they’d sue him,” said Mr. Singer. “Rather than get involved in extensive litigation, [Mr. Norton] agreed to do the movie.”

“Usually the studios work with the actor or actress and don’t force them to do the movies,” said Mr. Singer, who has handled similar cases before, though he declined to name his clients.

How will Mr. Norton’s ire impact The Italian Job? As Mr. Singer pointed out, “If you want the best possible performance and the best possible movie, you wouldn’t want to force an actor of his caliber to perform against his will.”

A well-known producer was more blunt. “I want to find out what happened to this director’s testicles,” said the producer. “If I were a director with brains and balls, I’d say, ‘This guy trashed me, trashed you [Paramount], and trashed the script!’ and refuse to have him in my movie.”

Mr. Gray did not return phone calls.

Mr. Friedman would only say that whatever Mr. Norton’s grievances, “He’s going to be there. He’s been very professional about living up to his commitment and he’s indicated as such in conversations with our management.”

Donald De Line, producer of The Italian Job, agreed. He said that Mr. Norton had been to a costume fitting in New York last week, and had been working diligently on the project.

“He has given input on the script and his character and has contributed to making it a better piece,” said Mr. De Line. “He’s a brilliant actor and we’re thrilled to have him in the movie.” Paramount shifted the shooting schedule to accommodate Mr. Norton’s Burn This commitment.

And so on Nov. 11 Mr. Norton will begin his month-long Italian Job, and possibly contemplate future legal action.

“We have not discussed it,” said Mr. Singer. “But a representation [that Paramount would not force him to make a movie he didn’t like] was made to him which has not been followed through on.”

Mr. Singer stressed that for Mr. Norton, who now makes around $10 million a movie, taking a $9 million pay cut was not the problem.

“This was never about money,” said Mr. Singer, who said that at no point did Mr. Norton agree to do The Italian Job for a bigger fee. “He wasn’t looking to shirk his responsibility. He never said, ‘I’m not going to do it.’ He’s just the kind of actor who will not do movies unless he feels strongly about them.”

The Transom did not ask about Mr. Norton’s strong feelings for 2001’s Death to Smoochy.

Mr. Friedman said that the studio’s issue was about an actor’s “contractual obligation” to the place that gave him his break.

“For us not to have that [contractual] obligation fulfilled would set a very dangerous precedent that we can’t live with,” said Mr. Friedman. “That’s not only for us, but for the rest of the industry.”

Reese’s Peace

Give Reese Witherspoon credit for understanding the perils of celebrity. Ms. Witherspoon didn’t exactly look like she was enjoying herself at the post-premiere party for her film Sweet Home Alabama at the Altman Building on Sept. 23. Her husband, Ryan Phillippe, had accompanied the actress into the soirée then disappeared with his cell phone, leaving the wispy Ms. Witherspoon to the media pack. But the actress, who kept her dark trench coat on for the duration of the event, stood in the center of the room and politely answered journalists’ questions-even the difficult ones. When The Transom asked Ms. Witherspoon if there was any truth to the rumors that her marriage was on the rocks, she replied: “Rumors are rumors. I know the truth, and I’m very happy.” Ms. Witherspoon didn’t appear happy, but also didn’t ask her publicist to eject us from the state of New York. Indeed, when she noticed The Transom’s discomfort at asking the question, she clapped us on the arm and said: “Don’t sweat it. I understand. It’s your job.”

-Noelle Hancock

Ba-Rocco DiSpirito

The theme was Belle Epoque, and Union Pacific chef Rocco DiSpirito seemed to be in a baroque frame of mind at the Perrier Jouët–sponsored costume-ball benefit for the American Ballet Theater on Sept. 19. When The Transom ran into Mr. DiSpirito at the event, which was held at the Surrogate’s Court building on Chambers Street, we asked him why he wasn’t working. “Work … work … an interesting concept… ” said Mr. DiSpirito, who was dressed in a brown velvet jacket and brown plaid trousers. And then he said something about “pancakes” that we couldn’t quite understand.

In one respect, the chef had been working-as a judge for the rather lackluster costume parade that had taken place during dessert. “It’s always been my dream to determine the winner of a Belle Epoque Black Tie Gala,” Mr. DiSpirito said with the sincerity of Don Rickles. “So they organized all of this so that I could have my moment, my big lifetime dream. It’s thrilling. Absolutely thrilling.”

Then Mr. DiSpirito volunteered that he had a “lot of crazy dreams that most people would label as insanity.”

Like what? The Transom asked.

“I’d like to be a judge at the benefit for the world’s shortest man,” he said with a regal air. “I’m fond of midgets, midgets make me very happy. And then maybe the best Asian prostitute contest, that would be fun too. I wouldn’t actually test myself. I’d have to take the word of qualified testers.” Oh.

-Elisabeth Franck

Magic Is Hell

On Sept. 16, David Copperfield, who has been branded by the Library of Congress as an official “Living Legend,” turned 46. On Sept. 20, he celebrated his birthday at the GQ Lounge at Pressure, located under the tennis bubble above Bowlmor Lanes on University Place.

Mr. Copperfield claimed to be at the party stag, having broken up in the spring with a girlfriend of two years.

“I’m a Virgo,” he announced to a small crowd ensconced on a mound of Fila pillows near a wall where Kenneth Cole quotes were being projected. “Being a Virgo means I’m a perfectionist, and I’m detail oriented. It also means I have big feet and big hands and … ” Yes? “Well, two out of three ain’t bad!” he said with a smarmy smile.

A dark-haired girl in a backless dress rushed up to the swarthy guest of honor.

“I saw your specials on prime time when I was 12 and I thought they were awesome!” she yelped.

He smiled coyly. “That must mean you are of age by now? I’m good at mathemagic.”

He suddenly dropped to his knees, put his right palm to the ground and rotated his hand around 360 degrees.

It was an evening of many such enigmas.

Matt Dillon, Donald Trump and Tommy Hilfiger all stopped by to toast Mr. Copperfield, a self-proclaimed “Communicator of the Impossible.” The magician’s parents, Rebecca and Hy Kotkin, originally of Metuchen, N.J., were also in attendance. They’d escorted him to see Hairspray earlier in the week.

“He has intensive eyes,” said plastic-surgery poster-monster Jocelyne Wildenstein, the big-haired divorcée who was wearing a necklace and cuffs she’d had made out of gold and the hair of elephants-Jackie and Dumbo-who she’d owned in Kenya “before zee divorce.” She said she’d first met Mr. Copperfield at a polo party in London when he was still with “what’s-her-name.” We assume she meant Claudia Schiffer, Mr. Copperfield’s ex-fiancée, whose mug was ironically flashed occasionally on the lounge’s many L.C.D. screens that were showing a loop of footage from fashion shows of yesteryear.

Over near a room full of red velvet beds, Chloë Sevigny-clad in a black turtleneck with black suspenders, cut-off jean shorts and high-heeled lace-up boots-chugged beer while shooting pool. She explained that she and Mr. Copperfield currently share a hairdresser, Jeff Francis.

Meanwhile, Paris Hilton, who seemed to be fresh off some designer’s runway-there was still black lace glued above her left eye-discussed magic as she hung on to her boyfriend, Tommy Hilfiger underwear model Jason Shaw.

“David Blaine levitating is phat!” she said. A friend whispered in her ear and she blushed.

“Oh, yeah. David Copperfield is cool, too,” she said.

Had she ever performed a magic trick?

“I can make McDonald’s French fries disappear! And I made him fall in love with me,” she cooed, flashing a massive diamond which she said was a family heirloom and not an engagement ring. “We’re not engaged yet, but we will be soon,” she told us. Ms. Hilton also said that as a child she was good at making small change vanish.

Back over near the Fila pillows, a leggy brunette balanced a hamburger platter on her knees and didn’t even look up as Mr. Copperfield, clad in a bloused white shirt, announced he was about to perform an illusion. He stuck his nose in the air, threw his shoulders back, breathed deeply and slowly walked a small circle through a loosely gathered group of people who weren’t paying attention to him.

“See! I moved around and I didn’t say excuse me once!” he said.

-Anna Jane Grossman

Ed Norton to Paramount’s Sherry Lansing: Burn This!