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INTERVIEW: Susan Lacy On American Masters Inventing David Geffen

Originally Posted: November 20, 2012

Nicole Barylski

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David Geffen, circa 1972. (Photo: Joel Bernstein)

"American Masters Inventing David Geffen," made its U.S. premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival and is premiering nationwide on PBS. The film was directed and produced by Sag Harbor resident Susan Lacy and features more than 50 new interviews with his friends, colleagues and clients including Cher, Clive Davis, Tom Hanks, Yoko Ono, Steven Spielberg, Don Henley, Neil Young, Elton John, Jackson Browne, Mike Nichols, Irving Azoff and Nora Ephron.

The notoriously press and camera-shy, Brooklyn native David Geffen reveals himself for the first time in this unflinching portrait of a complex and compelling man during the two-hour documentary.

Tom Hanks during American Masters Inventing David Geffen. (Photo: WNET/American Masters)

Lacy said that she is always looking for interesting subjects and had interviewed Geffen previously for the Joni Mitchell film which she had directed along with for the Ahmet Ertegun film on History of Atlantic Records. After finding out that Geffen was the person who had a great effect on Laura Nyro's career she wanted to find out more about Geffen. Lacy said, "I looked into him, I read a book about him, I read his history, and I thought this is a man who has had an impact in three major areas of cultural history music, theater and movies. That's very rare."

She set up a meeting to discuss the documentary and Geffen agreed to the film. When asked whether Geffen had any hesitations Lacy said, "It always takes a little bit of convincing but this didn't take as much as some of them do. I mean (Bob) Dylan it took ten years."

The filming does not include Geffen's everyday life. When choosing what to include in the film Lacy said, "Did I film in his everyday life? I did not. There was probably a time in his life when that would have been more possible, but he is a very reclusive man and very private." Due to the fact that he is no longer actively involved in his businesses she wanted to focus on interviews with those who know Geffen the best.

With no set air date for the documentary Lacy was able to take her time and secure all the interviews she felt was important and it took around three years to film. One of the challenges she faced during the three year process was scheduling interviews. Lacy reflected, "This one it took a really long time because everybody in it is a celebrity, so you can't really pack a lot of interviews in one day. You gotta do them on their schedule and where they wanna do it." She continued, "Their was a tremendous amount of rescheduling when your dealing with this level of celebrity. I think with Cher we scheduled and rescheduled four times, we finally did it in Las Vegas after one of her shows." Lacy thought that an important part of Geffen's story is the vast number of people and things that he influenced and she wanted to make sure got everybody.

Elton John during American Masters Inventing David Geffen. (Photo: WNET/American Masters)

She interviewed people who had worked with him, lived with him or had a love affair with him. One of the most notable relationships Geffen had was with Cher. Lacy said of the relationship, "Their kind of an interesting as Elton John says "Odd couple"." She joked, "Their have been a few of those but that's certainly right up there, the sexiest woman on the planet with this guy who is clearly gay." The relationship is covered during the movie and Geffen says in the movie he read somewhere about their relationship, "What fag isn't in love with Cher".

Lacy said early on she made the decision on what she wanted the film to depict stating, "When you are dealing with someone as rich as David, there can be a temptation to show that and to go and see the boat and the art collection, I made the decision not to do that." Lacy's reasoning was she though if that was the approach she was taking it could quickly veer into "Life Styles of the Rich and Famous" had Geffen been open to it. Lacy said, "I was not making a movie about him because he was a billionaire or because he has a big boat or art collection." She continued, "I am making a film about him because he has absolutely influenced the culture and I have a hell of a lot of stories to fit into in two hours."

The only aspect of Geffen's wealth you do see during the film is the Warner Mansion which Lacy thought was important to show due to the symbolic purpose it has to Geffen. You learn during the documentary that Geffen started out as a young boy who would sneak off to Broadway or go to Times Square with his dad to see movies from Brooklyn. Lacy said, "As a young boy around nine he picked up a book about the story of Louis B. Mayer called the Hollywood Rhaja and said he read the biography over and over ago and that's what he wanted to be when he grew up but he had no idea how to do that, he never even knew their was a word called show business." She elaborated, "It's like when a little kid says oh I want to do that when they are young, like I want to be an astronaut. He had no idea how to make that happen and that's part of what's so interesting about his story." Lacy wanted to show how Geffen came from a very unlikely place to become who he is today and for her the Warner Mansion had huge symbolic value. Geffen bought the mansion of one of the great movie moguls who he had read about as a kid and ended up Geffen starting a studio which was the first new studio in 65 years.

Cher had a love affair with Geffen. (Photo: WNET/American Masters)

Lacy thinks after watching the documentary viewers will learn something about a genuinely influential person which they had probably not realized their lives had been touched by in a lot of ways whether it was Crosby, Stills and Nash The Eagles or Nirvana or Dream Girls or Risky Business. Geffen has been part of a huge aspect of American pop culture, and Lacy said, "A lot of people don't realize the important of people behind the scenes are in making things happen, to have the vision to change the culture in someway. Often those are the people who are not well known. He is certainly not behind the scenes in the industry but to the general public he is not know." Lacy wants the documentary to show the full extent Geffen has had and thinks that even people in the industry don't know his full story, saying "They just know he is a very powerful guy. At one time for many years he was considered to be the most powerful guy in Hollywood, but because he is very reclusive not a lot of people know his story."

An element of the film which Lacy didn't realize until she was filming is what an inspiring story Geffen's rise to the top was. Lacy said, "As are many American artists who come from very humble beginnings, he was from Brooklyn, his mother had a corsetry shop, which she made for the ladies in the neighborhood. He grew up above the store, they were very poor and he was a first generation American, both his parents immigrated." Lacy thinks that one of the reasons he succeeded was he had an instinctual phase which she found incredibly inspiring. Another aspect of his life she also thought was inspiration was the fact he is gay and that he came out publicly, she said, "I think that is really an inspiration for a lot of young people today."

David Geffen during American Masters. (Photo: WNET/American Masters)

During the documentary Geffen is very forthright which Lacy made sure to show. She said about Geffen's portrayal, "I felt it was very important because he is a controversial guy, and has a reputation to be a powerful ruthless guy to be afraid of, I felt I needed to tell the whole story." Lacy thought it was important to show that their is a side to Geffen that is ruthless, which one of the chapters headings of the film showcases it best. The heading is titled "If your David's Geffen's friend he'll do anything for you. If you're his enemy you might as well kill yourself." For Lacy a quote from the film which is unforgettable and shows his sheer determination was from a friend about Geffen who said, "He'd rather die than fail."

Lacy was stunned by his brashness and arrogance as a young man. She thought, "How did this guy come out of the background he had and just walk into anybody's office and demand anything he wanted? Where did that come from?" It was a quality that she also kind of admired it because it is the opposite of her and many people. She felt like it was a component of his success and very important to show through print and other people's interviews.

Lacy also shows the vulnerable side of Geffen, stating, "He really wanted to make a lot of money, that was a bug huge goal in his life, however there is the side of David who really never left Brooklyn. " Geffen grew up not being the most popular in school, he thought he was stupid, he had conflicts and he didn't have anyone to talk to about being gay as a young man. One of the key statements for Lacy from Geffen was, "You know where you stand in your class, you know who the smart people are. Believe me, if you know you are not one of the smart ones, everybody else does too and I thought I was going to have a boring ordinary life." Lacy saw through the tough exterior his vulnerabilities and did think overall he was a very nice man. She said, "He will do anything for his friends, he likes to help people but I think there is still a little bit of an underlying insecurity there of a man who has had his feeling hurt a lot." Lacy continued, "I think it's an interesting portrait, I think you get the full picture and I tried really hard to do that. I thought nobody can relate to a billionaire but they can relate to someone who felt stupid during school or who has had their heart broken."

After watching the finished film Lacy said Geffen responded with, "Boy do I sound arrogant." She said he also noted, "I've never had a failed business and I never think I will." The ambition and his need to do anything necessary to succeed is what made David Geffen the mogul he has become.

"American Masters Inventing David Geffen," will premiere nationwide Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 8 p.m.on PBS and in the New York metro area on Thirteen.

For more information visit: pbs.org.

Nicole is the Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons.com where she focuses on lifestyle, nightlife, and mixology. She grew up in the Hamptons and currently resides in Water Mill. www.hamptons.com NicoleBarylski NicoleBarylski

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Guest (goodbye joe) from Los Angeles, CA says::
Laura had said at one point that she wanted to be bigger than Barbara Straisand. I think that this was the statement that lit David up, and he wanted to pursue this. Ultimately, she went back to her roots of artistry, but the years with Geffen made her a star to so many of us out here. Eli, NYT, Xmas
Dec 9, 2015 2:38 pm

Guest (Joe) from North Carolina says::
I was grateful for the footage they showed of Laura Nyro but disappointed they gave such a one-sided view of her breakup with David Geffen. There's definitely more to that story if you read her biography "Soul Picnic". She felt that HE had betrayed HER too! And there's even a quote by David Geffen at the end of a chapter where he says she didn't need to make amends to him because their lives did that. She never wanted to be a star, just an artist, as her father says in the book too. He wanted to be a commercial success and wanted her to but she didn't. He also kept 50% of what she made. It's a shame that this documentary will leave a lot of people who hadn't even heard of Laura Nyro with an impression of her as an ungrateful betrayer. That is unfair, unjust and a tragedy. I hope Ms. Lacy or someone else makes a documentary about HER, a TRUE American Master that sets the record straight or at least provides the other side of this situation. I AM very grateful to David Geffen for nuturing her, her talent and bringing her to world. And I can identify with his infatuation for her but she deserves better and she was better than this.
Dec 6, 2012 8:51 pm


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