Cary Brokaw: Angel of ‘Angels In America’

Mar 8, 2004  •  Post A Comment

“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” may have dominated year-end movie honors, but it was HBO’s 61/2-hour miniseries “Angels In America” that dominated the season’s TV honors.

At the Golden Globe Awards, “Angels” was named Best Mini-series, with acting honors for Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright and Mary-Louise Parker. It also won awards from the American Cinema Editors, the Art Directors Guild, the Broadcast Film Critics, the Cinema Audio Society, the Directors Guild, the GLAAD Awards, the National Board of Review and the Screen Actors Guild. And it is a surefire bet for honors at this years Emmy Awards.

“Angels” has something else in common with “Rings.” Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, on which “Angels” is based, also took many years and herculean effort to bring to the screen. While “Angels”’ success has many fathers, including director Mike Nichols, star Al Pacino and HBO’s Colin Callender, it was executive producer Cary Brokaw who fell in love with the material before it was even a play and stayed with it through a dozen years of broken promises and false starts as well as two years of production.

It is the crowning achievement in a career that has seen Mr. Brokaw, a 52-year-old Southern California native, associated with numerous quality projects-from “Drugstore Cowboy” to “The Player” to “Wit”-even as his efforts to build his company, Avenue Entertainment, have been buffeted by changes in the movie and TV industries. His career reflects the best of independent production and what can happen when corporate giants have a stranglehold on distribution.

Mr. Brokaw recently recalled when he first heard of “Angels.” He is currently in London producing the movie “Closer,” starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen and directed by Mr. Nichols, with whom Mr. Brokaw shared the Producers Guild of America Vision Award earlier this year.

It started when two friends called separately in 1990 to praise a new play being developed at the Mark Taper Theater in L.A. “If it had been one or the other, I might not have paid attention,” said Mr. Brokaw. “But the fact both said this, I made it my business to track down the play and read it. I was deeply knocked out. It was just astonishing.”

He contacted Mr. Kushner through his agent and finally set a meeting to discuss acquiring film rights. Mr. Kushner was cordial but wasn’t ready to consider a film. First, he explained, he wanted to write a second part to his play. The first part became “Millennium Approaches” and the second “Perestroika.”

They agreed to keep in touch. Mr. Brokaw later flew to San Francisco when it opened, and to London, where it was a critical hit, and finally to New York, where it was presented on Broadway in two parts over seven hours as “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” The story of how AIDS put three households in turmoil earned two Tonys, two Drama Desk Awards, the New York Critics Circle Award, the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award and other honors.

In late 1991 Mr. Kushner was ready to discuss a film version. Mr. Brokaw asked who he wanted to direct. Mr. Kushner named Robert Altman, with whom Mr. Brokaw was working at the time on “The Player.” “Bob loved it, as I did, and agreed to sign on,” said Mr. Brokaw.

It was set up at New Line Cinema, the same studio that produced “Lord of the Rings.” Mr. Pacino agreed to play the part of controversial lawyer Roy Cohn. “[Mr. Pacino] remained incredibly loyal over the following years,” Mr. Brokaw said. “He just wanted to be part of it.”

New Line eventually decided it was too risky as a movie, as did every other studio in Hollywood. Directors came and went but the project remained in development hell.

As the 21st century dawned, Mr. Brokaw was in London turning another play into an HBO movie with Mr. Nichols. Each day they rode in the same car to the set of “Wit,” about a woman with cancer. “One day he asked what I was working on and I mentioned `Angels,”’ Mr. Brokaw said. He gave Mr. Nichols a bound copy of both plays, figuring he would read it months later. The following Monday, Mr. Nichols got into the car with a smile on his face. “I asked what was going on,” said Mr. Brokaw. “He said, `I read “Angels.” I love it. It’s brilliant.’ I said, `Great, so you’ll do it next,’ thinking there was no way. And he said yes.”

They sold it to Colin Callender at HBO to be made in two parts to air in just over six hours, on a budget that ended up at $63 million. “I knew from the first time I read it this was something truly great,” said Mr. Brokaw. “That’s why I was so steadfast and determined over the years to find a way to get it made.”

As difficult as it was to bring “Angels” to the screen, building a company has been even tougher. Mr. Brokaw founded Avenue Entertainment in 1987 with attorney Michael Eliasberg, raising most of the capital from a fund associated with Harvard University. At the time independents were a hot ticket on Wall Street. Unfortunately, the market soon turned sour. Despite repeated efforts to get it on track, including acquisitions and capital injections, Avenue’s efforts to take the high road in terms of what it produced didn’t play well. “It’s difficult,” said Mr. Brokaw. “The marketplace is complicated. Capital sources are limited.”

Mr. Brokaw and Avenue have done a number of TV movies, including HBO’s “Normal” last year, and are developing series, such as “Witness X” at CBS. But in each case there has to be a deep-pocketed partner. “Budgets have increased,” said Mr. Brokaw. “License fees have not. What was once a really interesting, vibrant business is very different now.”

Coming up for Avenue are the thriller “Mindhunters,” which Disney’s Dimension will release in June, and a new theatrical version of “Merchant of Venice” with Mr. Pacino.

Mr. Brokaw is cautious about the projects he takes on. “It’s a business that when the stars align and you have a show or a pilot that is interesting, it’s worth the time,” he said. “But I’m very selective about what I put energy into in any arena. You have to believe in something. So I limit those shots because it’s very time-consuming.”

And it helps if you are on the side of the angels.