In his 2-month-old position as CEO of Bloomberg’s multimedia group, Andrew Lack is plotting the future of the financial news empire’s expanding television, interactive and radio operations.
Mr. Lack, a veteran media executive whose resume includes a turn as president of NBC and NBC News, isn’t ready to detail his plans, but TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi last week asked him to look back and talk about “Cadillac Records,” his big-screen love song to the soundtrack of his youth.
The film, his swan song as chairman of the board at Sony BMG Music Entertainment, is a tribute to the blues musicians who recorded for Chicago’s Chess Records in the 1950s.
The conversation included why “Cadillac Records”—so titled because impresario Leonard Chess (played by Adrien Brody) gave his hitmakers Cadillacs rather than royalties—was the “No. 1 project” after Sony started a film division to make small movies that showcased the company’s music archives and stars.
He talked about how Beyonce Knowles, always envisioned to play troubled vocal legend Etta James, also was named executive producer of the movie.
“Records” has been warmly received as a must-hear (and see) movie that has earned a Golden Globe nomination for “Once in a Lifetime,” an original song Ms. Knowles sings in the film—and for which she shares music and lyrics credits.
Mr. Lack came across as equal parts producer and fan of his production and on-screen ensembles. Along with Ms. Knowles and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, the crew and cast include TV veterans writer-director Darnell Martin (“Law & Order”) and scene-stealers Eamonn Walker (“Oz”) as Howlin’ Wolf, Mos Def (“Something the Lord Made”), and Emmanuelle Chriqui (“Entourage”) as Mrs. Chess.
Mr. Lack talked about how his background as an award-winning CBS News producer, before he became NBC News president and later network president, applied to “Cadillac” and how he is not going to try to repeat a once-in-a-lifetime experience as a filmmaker. He called the creation of “Cadillac Records” “one of the most enjoyable and satisfying experiences ever.”
TelevisionWeek: How hard has it been to focus on settling into your new role at Bloomberg while there are the premieres and all the this-and-that attendant to your role as producer of “Cadillac Records”?
Andrew Lack: It was a bit of a distraction. I’m enjoying my new life at Bloomberg immensely, and to have the success that “Cadillac Records” is having cascading in the same period, my first month at Bloomberg, is–I would have liked to have spread it out a little bit.
But that said, that’s not the way life works. I’m grateful in any case.
Norm Perlstine and all my new colleagues have been really terrific in giving me a moment here and there to really appreciate how “Cadillac” has been so well received.
TVWeek: What did your role as producer entail?
Mr. Lack: Well, the story was mine. I’ve been wanting to tell this story most of my adult life. … My granddad was born in Mississippi. My great-grandfather was the mayor of Greenville, Miss. All my life I’ve been wandering back to Mississippi and tracing the roots of a lot of, in my case, Southern Jews. If your family’s from the Delta, the story of Muddy Waters and the other great blues musicians who migrated north … and if you’re a child of the ’50s, which I am, and came of age in New York and sneaking up to the Apollo Theater to hear Chuck Berry …
TVWeek: When did you do that?
Mr. Lack: Oh, gosh, starting from the time I was 8 or 9. I think the first rock ’n’ roll song I remember in my life was “Maybelline.”
As people so often say, those songs imprint you. The musical, cultural track of your youth becomes in many ways the musical track of your life. That stays with you forever.
So when I found myself fortunate to be at Sony and at Sony Music, I was over the moon. … Chess Records is not at Sony. But Robert Johnson, for example, his original recordings that are on old, I think, virtually on brass or copper plates that the Smithsonian, that Alan Lomax and others recorded—for me to be able to go into the Sony archives and listen to that music, I just thought, “Oh, gosh, I’ve got to make this story. I’ve got to find a way to tell this story.”
The song “I’m a Man,” which really was a Bo Diddley standard that Muddy covered, that was an anthem for me growing up.
I get to Sony and two or three years later I’m looking around for new revenue streams for Sony Music and our artists are saying, “Gee, weren’t you in TV movie stuff? Don’t you like that stuff?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “Well, we want to do that kind of stuff.” Many of our Sony artists were given these scripts. So we opened this little movie division, Sony Music Films, and this was story No. 1, project No. 1 for me.
Then after three years and 13 drafts of various scripts with writers, I got an executive who was also a producer for me on the film, Sofia Sondervan.
TVWeek: How did you connect with her?
Mr. Lack: She sent me an e-mail out of the blue when she saw in Variety that I was opening this film division for Sony Music and asked if she could come talk to me. She was working in New York for a producer I knew, a very well known independent producer, Ed Pressman, who produced “Wall Street.” She had very strong credentials. She knew how to make small-budget films, which is what was my interest, I wasn’t going do “Spider-Man” III or IV, Sony already had that covered pretty good.
What I wanted to do is make a few pictures a year if possible, if we got it ramped up, that showcased Sony artists. That was our mission statement. Or showcased our back catalog, or showcased new music we were going to do. I saw, needless to say, as a child of this period, when “Ray” and “Walk the Line”—Johnny Cash is in Sony’s catalog—when I saw the success they enjoyed, I thought, “Gosh, we’ve got to do something like that. We’ve got to do ‘Cadillac Records.’”
Darnell Martin, who is the writer-director, who I knew from my NBC days as a “Law & Order” director, she’s an outstanding young director—Sofia brought her to me. I knew from her credentials that she would be great on this assignment, which she was.
Sofie, she and I worked through all those 13 drafts together. We had Beyonce pretty much in mind from the beginning for Etta James and other Sony artists. I originally wanted Usher for Chuck Berry.
The rest is now musical and movie history.
TVWeek: I enjoy Usher, but I loved watching Mos Def.
Mr. Lack: He’s spectacular.
TVWeek: My only serious complaint about the movie was that it wasn’t long enough. I wanted more stories.
Mr. Lack: Well, there were more stories, certainly, to tell. The Bo Diddley story, for example, is not in the movie and that was a real frustration for me, because I wanted to tell Bo’s story. He died, of course, recently. His manager is quoted as saying she was disappointed that Bo wasn’t in the movie and was shocked and couldn’t understand it. She forgot that Bo said he didn’t want to be in the movie. He hated Chess Records and for very good reason—which the movie pretty well makes clear why he might have. He felt the royalties were stolen from him and all that sort of stuff.
What we ran into, I think, for the general commercial audience we decided that there were so many stories that it got too anecdotal, too many characters, too diffuse. I thought, and I was so relieved when I read that New York Times review, I thought we were going to be vulnerable on the “I wanted more Chuck,” “I wanted more Etta,” “I wanted more Muddy,” and the reason there wasn’t more was because we were trying to accommodate the stories we did have: Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and, of course, Leonard Chess.
Gosh knows, there’s a “Cadillac Records: Part 2.”
The other issue, quite candidly, is that I didn’t have the money to make a bigger picture. Nobody would have made this picture except Sony Music, because to do a period film and an ethnic film—there just isn’t a lot of interest in Hollywood and no track record, to be fair. In an environment in which you could say, “Yeah, they’ve been done.” Those are as good as it gets and those movies, by the way, cost $50 million to $100 million.
Beyonce did “Dreamgirls” and Jennifer Hudson had her moment with “Dreamgirls.”
This was the little picture that was a labor of love inside Sony Music that because of Jeffrey Wright’s performance and Adrien Brody’s and Beyonce—essentially Beyonce is the linchpin for me and for Sony.
She shot that movie in five days. People are stunned when they learn that. Now, she really prepared for it.
Five days of shooting doesn’t mean that she didn’t do five weeks of real prep and immersing herself in the character. When she walked onto that set, she was ready and she knocked us out.
TVWeek: She was the last talent announcement that you guys made.
Mr. Lack: Yes. Fair to say she was the first in terms of the long discussions about how do we do this. I won’t name them because they wouldn’t want me to and it would be inappropriate, but we ultimately would have gone ahead with someone else in that role. Other Sony artists, a lot of artists, actually, had raised their hands for the part because she was such a well-known figure.
That said, like with Mos Def, you kind of just can’t imagine anybody else in those roles. And then talk about Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, just knockout. And Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf, who a lot of people feel almost steals the picture. There are some small, relatively speaking to the other characters, but equally talented and well-known actresses: Gabrielle Union, who plays Muddy’s wife, and Emmanuelle Chriqui, who plays Leonard’s wife, who’s in “Entourage.” It was that kind of a cast that everybody got a kick out of. It just all came together.
Whether it’s a television or a movie or a record, just sometimes it all falls into place. And a week before it all comes together, nothing’s together. You don’t know how close to the edge of the cliff you are.
TVWeek: How much less hair did you have by the time you actually had everything on film?
Mr. Lack: The little that I had just got a lot whiter.
But from the first day of shooting and living with those dailies every night, I knew we were OK. I knew this wasn’t Lack’s Folly and that Beyonce wouldn’t be embarrassed or ultimately come to rue the day she agreed to do it.
It was Beyonce’s mom, Tina, who really, at the end of day said to her daughter, “You should do this. You will be great at this.”
TVWeek: At what point did she get the title of executive producer?
Mr. Lack: That was part of the negotiation. I said to her and to her father, who is her manager, “Look, I don’t want her to think this is not her movie. She’s the biggest artist Sony Music has. If I make a movie that she is unhappy with, I’ve created a real problem for Sony Music and a real problem for all the executives there.” I wanted her to buy into knowing that there wasn’t anything I would keep from her. She was a partner, not a player, not just a player. I think that was important to her. Her production company is named at the top of the credits.
We screened the movie in my office for her, and her mom, and her dad and Darnell and Sofia, just the six of us. It was in that moment that she knew not just as an actress and as a Sony star but that she was also the executive producer of the movie and she could bloody well say whatever she wanted.
TVWeek: How many tears were there during the screening?
Mr. Lack: She was crying. And her mom was crying.
Gosh, I sound like a movie producer and you know how that is, but I think she will always have “Cadillac Records.” She will be able to show that movie to her children and her grandchildren and people will discover that movie every year.
TVWeek: You were known at CBS News for raising the level of production values and adding a little theatrical sensibility. How different was that from what you were doing with “Cadillac Records”?
Mr. Lack: In terms of the basic storytelling elements of the movie, which has, some people have pointed out, almost a documentary feel to it. Particularly the inclusion of the Rosa Parks footage and the lynching footage and all the ’50s black-and-white footage, which was a stylistic choice, that is the journalist in me who wanted people to remember this really is a true story. Yes, it has its theatrical components—this is not a documentary, it’s a movie. Darnell Martin deserves [credit for] the theatrical touches that I think elevate the style of this movie. She, in her camerawork and as a television director, moved through scenes with—she walked this beautiful line between what a ’50s tableau would look like—I’ll give you an example: Chuck Berry sitting outside …
TVWeek: Eating a sandwich.
Mr. Lack: Exactly. That was pure ’50s tableau, with his red convertible Cadillac and the pan up to the “Whites Only” sign. That’s all Darnell.
For me as the Sony Music guy and as the old CBS News guy, the music had to be a star of the movie. I made sure the music was as big a star as any of the other stars in the movie, or else I didn’t think the movie would work. I wanted to protect the reason we were making this movie at Sony Music, and then I knew as a child of the ’50s, and as a guy who came of age as a news guy, that’s what made this movie special.
TVWeek: The first major national awards coming up is the Golden Globes ceremony. How many tables will you have and who’s going to buy them?
Mr. Lack: I think that’s to be negotiated. I’m not in the house anymore, so my leverage in those discussions has been marginalized a little bit.
TVWeek: Do you have any back end of this movie?
Mr. Lack: Not personally, no. No, no, no. I was a hired gun. As a producer, it was a dream come true for me.
TVWeek: Do you have any memorabilia from the movie?
Mr. Lack: I do. I have a lot of memorabilia from the movie, including something that was just given to me by Gibson Guitars, which made a special guitar for “Cadillac Records.” It’s a work of art. I’ve got to go get Beyonce to sign it.
TVWeek: But she didn’t play the guitar.
Mr. Lack: I want her name on it. I’ve got to get the whole cast to sign it.
All of us wanted to buy the Cadillacs that are in the movie. Talk about high-priced memorabilia.
We have a plan, still, and I have to check where we are with it—we were waiting for the movie to come out before we did this. We were going to auction off one of the Cadillacs on eBay, and I’m going to be an active bidder. That may be my oeuvre memorabilia.
TVWeek: Is there a particularly interesting story behind that last Cadillac we saw Little Walter in with no doors?
Mr. Lack: No, other than it killed me to watch the doors come off. We took the doors off.
TVWeek: Did you save them? Could they go back on?
Mr. Lack: I think they’re going back on. That may be the Cadillac we’re going to auction off on eBay. I’m not sure, because each of the Cadillacs in the movie has its own story, because they’re all collectible cars. I think the proceeds were going to go to Beyonce’s charity.
TVWeek: In Googling you, I found another movie that has you listed as producer, “Twist of Fate,” described as in development.
Mr. Lack: There are a couple. “Twist of Fate” is one. I think the one that’s next out of that Sony unit is going to be “Hairstyles of the Damned.” It’s based on kind of a cult book from the early ’90s. The director of “Gossip Girl” is, I think, going to do it.
I’m not going to do it. If you’re thinking along the lines of–my movie days are over. I’m happily proud to say I think I’m going to rest on my laurels, such as they are. I can’t imagine getting that lucky again with a movie. I don’t want to screw it up.
A couple of friends and colleagues here have asked, “Well, are you going to another movie?” The answer is a capital NO.
Whatever I’ve got as a producer and as a media executive, I want to devote to the news business. I’m genuinely so happy to be with Bloomberg in this moment of time and have a news organization that’s got more reporters than the Times and the Journal combined and to have this opportunity.
As much as I loved my Sony experience, and you know I did some television movies and all that sort of stuff, I’ve always crossed that line, which sometimes gave my news colleagues some pause, understandably so. I’m happy to be walking into editorial meetings and having the privilege of talking about the world we live in right now and all of its complexity as opposed to the fiction world and all of its complexity.