Producer Steve Longi is used to scraping and scrapping to get quality projects made in Hollywood. Starting as a production assistant at Permut Presentations on the hit FACE/OFF, he went on to co-produce with David Permut movies like CHARLIE BARTLETT and YOUTH IN REVOLT as well as 2016 Oscar winner HACKSAW RIDGE, which took him a decade and a half to get made. We talked to Steve about fording a path in Hollywood, the struggle to adapt true-life stories and what kind of material he’s looking for.
by Jim Cirile
JIM CIRILE: Steve, thanks for taking a few minutes. Tell us a little about you. Where are you from, and what attracted you to the business?
STEVE LONGI: I grew up in New Jersey, outside of New York City. And New Jersey is the birthplace of the motion picture industry. It’s where Thomas Edison’s laboratory was, where the motion picture camera was invented. It was just something that I always felt was in my blood. My dad used to always take me to movies. I was bitten by the bug by watching and seeing those great films of the ’70s like Marathon Man and Dog Day Afternoon.
JC: For my money, the ’70s were some of the best movies ever made.
SL: Absolutely. Important films. Great films. Entertaining films. Great acting, great directing, great writing. And then of course, came Jaws and Star Wars. At 11 years old I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I begged my parents for a subscription to Variety, so I had weekly Variety delivered to my house in New Jersey. I would dream about all the TV shows and everything I’d watch. Many of them were filmed in Southern California. Shows like CHiPs or Beverly Hillbillies. You name it. There was a lot of Southern California on the TV back in the ’70s. You know, the beaches, the allure, was hard to resist. As soon as I became of age, I packed up all my stuff and headed west.
JC: What was your first gig in the industry?
SL: I got recruited to do a music video for Steve Perry. I was walking around in the mall and some guy came up to me and was like, “Oh my God that’s it! He’s perfect.” I was like, “What was going on?” And then he started taking pictures of me and everything. I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve literally been in Los Angeles four months and I’ve been discovered. This is crazy.” So the guy asked me, “Do you know who Steve Perry is?” “You mean that guy from Journey?” “Yeah, he’s got a solo album and we’re shooting a video, do you want to be in it?” Turns out the casting agent, all he sent them were all these people from Hollywood that had crosses engraved on their foreheads and tattoos and buzz cuts. I played an altar boy.
JC: Now I have to go find this. What’s the song?
SL: Steve Perry’s Oh Sherrie. You’ll see me. I’m right there. Then I worked at Cannon Films. I was there when they were making all the Chuck Norris films. And Over the Top with Stallone and Cobra and…God, back then they were developing Spider-Man and Captain America. They were way ahead of their time. They were two Israeli partners. That’s when video cassettes and home video were in fashion. That’s how they were getting movies made back then. They were protecting the downside of these films by selling the video titles.
JC: Yeah, there was a great documentary about Cannon called Electric Boogaloo. Crazy times.
SL: From Bret Ratner’s company, right. That was great.
JC: I met you when you were at Permut Presentations. How did you land that gig?
SL: I had been working for a while at a lower level management company and I decided well, let me (aim higher.) I was a big Howard Stern fan and I knew David (Permut) was producing Howard’s movie, The Adventures of Fart Man. I reasoned that anybody making a movie called The Adventures of Fart Man would not take himself too seriously, so that was probably a person I could work for and work with. So I just showed up at David’s company and said, “Hey I’m here, I’ll be an intern, I’ll do whatever.” At the time I was working in the restaurant business at night so I could support myself. And I just started interning at his company. Eventually I became his assistant and then ran the company and I was there for almost twenty years.
JC: A great run with a lot of great movies. Any highlights you want to mention?
SL: Charlie Bartlett is a phenomenal film with Anton Yelchin, who tragically passed away not long ago. He was truly an amazing actor and a major talent. So sad when that happened. Robert Downey Jr. is in that film too, and working with Robert Downey Jr. was one of the highlights of my career. He was an amazing guy. Just very gracious and very kind and just so enormously talented. I learned quite a bit just form watching him work. That was definitely a highlight. I’d also say my friendship with Rodney Dangerfield for ten years. I grew up on Rodney Dangerfield and his comedy as well, and he was one of the most fascinating individuals you could ever want to meet.
JC: That’s wild. How did you guys meet?
SL: Through David. David was trying to get Rodney to do a stand-up comedy film at the time and Rodney wouldn’t do it. He felt that if he did the film he wouldn’t be able to do his act anymore. Rodney had a certain perspective on things. He was a fascinating guy. A philosopher. Anyway, over the course of ten years I got to know him and yeah, an amazing individual.
JC: Now you have your own shingle, Longitude Entertainment. Tell us how you found the material that became Hacksaw Ridge.
SL: Hacksaw Ridge came from being on the set of a film I made for Disney called Double Take. And just hanging out and getting to know the crew and knowing everyone’s name and treating the crew like they should be treated, like you’re a team. Our second unit director just said, “I heard a great story and I think you would love it.” I said, “Yes, fantastic. Bring it to me.” And that was the story of Desmond Doss, and the second I heard it I knew it was an amazing story and the type of film that I want to make — a very uplifting and inspiring story. A true story about an American hero. For the next fourteen years, David Permut, Bill Mechanic and I developed the material, developed the screenplay. We went through a number of directors and actors. Casey Affleck was attached to star in it at one time. So was Daniel Radcliffe. The film was set up and had fallen out at Walden Media, so it was a long road, but a very worthy one.
JC: We’re talking about decades worth of rejection before you get this movie made. At any point did you consider throwing in the towel?
SL: It was something I believed in more than anything. Let me just say about rejection, look, there aren’t many projects that will sustain themselves for that long. This happened to be one of them. It’s an anomaly for sure. I will say that rejection is the norm. You should embrace it. You only need to hear a handful of yeses in your career to really build an amazing career, honestly. Just embrace the rejection and then move on. It happens to the best of us every day, and if you’re not getting rejected every day then you’re doing something wrong. I’m more spurred on when people reject things sometimes because I want to prove them wrong. So that’s how my mind is wired. I do get down about it, don’t get me wrong, but by the end of the day I’m usually turning that around into “I’ll show them.”
JC: Hacksaw, case in point.
SL: Yeah, I’m very proud of the film. We won two Academy Awards. We were nominated for six. And won numerous other accolades, but I’m just really proud of the message of the film and that a number of people around the world have seen it, including in China where it was the number one film for a while. Yeah, I’m just very proud as a producer and a storytelling, and Hacksaw Ridge really is an amazing success story on all fronts.
JC: What kind of projects tend to tickle your fancy?
SL: I’m interested in a lot of different things. I’m listening to a lot of loglines. My process is to access through a logline first. The logline tells me a lot. Most things I’m going to reject because they just personally aren’t for me. So I’m trying to use the logline to get through lots and lots and lots of material or screenplays, which is what I’m primarily looking for. But to answer your question. It’s not necessarily one type of material, but it’s definitely material that can be put out onto the marketplace that is not too dark, too limiting. I do love Sundance films, but they tend to be small films that not a lot of people tend to go see.
JC: Hacksaw Ridge has a phenomenal logline — a conscientious objector who wants to serve his country yet refuses to pick up a gun, and winds up rescuing his almost entire regiment during a horrific WWII battle. I mean, it’s hard to get excited about another WWII movie, but this is coming at it from a point of view that I can relate to. Just based on the logline, it’s a winner.
SL: I totally agree, and again I think this is a great example of what I was just saying. I’m not necessarily into WWII, but that story in and of itself, for me, that was a way that I could access a WWII movie that got me excited. (I like) movies that are going to touch people on some emotional level, that are universal, that are appealing to a global audience, because that is where our business is now.
JC: You’ve always got your ear to the ground for great true stories.. Are those easier to peddle than an original piece of material these days?
SL: I am drawn to true stories. It’s just something I like personally. Those stories already have some built-in recognition or connection, and I think that’s important.
JC: In terms of getting the money, it’s got to be easier to tell somebody, “this really happened” compared to something a writer just made up.
SL: In terms of strategy… when you look at the Black List, you will notice that a lot of those scripts are based on historical events. American Hustle is based on a very obscure thing that happened. Argo, also based on a true obscure historical event. So I think that just starting out as a screenwriter, sometimes it’s better maybe to write something already rooted in something people may already know or something that gives people a touchstone.
JC: Steve, thanks so much for your time. Any parting words for our readers?
SL: When I get a script, a writer has to get me to is the right head space, or the right mood, to accept the script. That’s really tricky, but it’s important. One way to do that is to, in your logline or pitch, help focus my attention on what I should be paying attention to. For example, tell me right off the bat: is it film or TV? Help me understand it quickly, because it could be anything, and I’m trying to understand it. But I need certain posts in the ground to help nail down what frame of mind I need to be in to accept that this is a worthy story to tell and to hook me enough to want to read it.