Producer-writer Dan Goldberg and his friend and business partner Ivan Reitman made their first feature together in 1969 while attending McMaster University. That movie, an “art film” called The Columbus of Sex, landed the pair a $300 fine and a year’s probation for indecency. Forty years later, Goldberg produced The Hangover, rolling that gift for indecency into roughly half a billion dollars.
In between those two landmarks, Goldberg produced Reitman’s 1973 movie Cannibal Girls (starring his roommate Eugene Levy), and the duo hit pay dirt in 1981 with Stripes. Before that, they helped to get David Cronenberg’s career rolling with his classic debut, Shivers, which Reitman produced.
Goldberg also wrote a couple of the segments in Heavy Metal (1981), while more recently he helped turn Will Ferrell into a movie star with Old School.The producer-writer took a few minutes to chat with the Straight from Toronto, where he’s hosting a special screening of The Hangover II at the Canadian Film Centre Comedy Lab.
What can you tell me about your early film The Columbus of Sex?
We were in college. We’d had a screening at McMaster to try to raise money to finish it. It was an art film, there were naked bodies in it, but it wasn’t a sexy movie. But someone thought we used university funds and they were offended, so they called the police. And then it became this huge trial
I read that it was inspired by Wilhelm Reich. Is that right?
You mean the orgone box thing? I don’t think so. It was basically a book from the 16th or 17th century that we used, and we got Robert Fothergill to read from the book with a very serious British accent. It was the time of I Am Curious (Yellow), and things which were just so far beyond what we were doing. If only it was a sexier movie. We had people like Pierre Berton on our side, who came, and testified, and said, “This is not a pornographic movie.” But unfortunately we were in Hamilton.
Are you saying Hamilton isn’t sexy?
No, I’m from Hamilton, and I’m certainly a sexy guy. But it was a small town. It wasn’t as worldly as Toronto, say.
Seven years later, you and Ivan both worked with David Cronenberg on Shivers. Were you aware of how original his vision was at the time?
Oh my God, he’d been shopping this a long time, and that’s what we gravitated towards, his vision. With any director, that’s what you’re looking for, for someone who has a vision, and then you want to protect that, and encourage it, and put a bubble around him so he can do his best work. That’s what you want to do as a producer, and it trained me well. I love David. I love his work.
Do you think you've ever worked with anybody quite as unique as Cronenberg?
Do you mean as sick as David? (Hangover director) Todd Phillips. Way sicker than David Cronenberg. The thing that struck me with David is that he’s really, really, really smart and looks into things, and is very surgical and specific about his vision. And in any good director, that’s what you want. You don’t want some guy who’s just wallowing around. Todd is like that. Todd has a very dark sense of humour, and basically that’s what attracts me to working with people – that they have something I don’t have.
People don’t talk about Warren Oates enough.
No, they don’t.
When did he enter the picture with Stripes?
I forget who mentioned his name, but I certainly knew of him because of the Peckinpah movies, and I think our reaction was, "Do you think he would do it? Are you kidding me? We can get someone like Warren Oates for this movie?" But he was just, like, this cowboy guy. We didn’t know the skills he had. And he was a really serious actor. And in fact, there’s a scene in the movie where he does show it. It’s a scene we made up on the spot. Warren takes Bill (Murray) into the back bathroom, and he punches him in the stomach. And it’s an amazing scene, and it’s really powerful, and Warren is really tough, but he’s also teaching Bill how to be a man. And that blew me away. As we watched the shooting of that, it was just, "Wow, we’re getting into this area?" And he really pushed Bill, and Bill turned into a really good actor, so he could do that kind of scene. It’s certainly not a funny scene. Warren died shortly thereafter, really young. It was very sad. I don’t know if he drank a lot, abused himself, whatever. He was certainly in that era, but I don’t know.
Well, he was running with Peckinpah.
Yes, the quart of vodka a day, or whatever they used to say about Peckinpah.
What was he like?
Totally cool guy. Totally friendly. Confident as an actor, but serious.
Was Bill Murray intimidated by him?
No. Respectful, but not intimidated. Bill does not get intimidated. You cannot intimidate Bill. Even before he became a star, that whole group, Belushi, Bill, they all were so confident, even when they were broke. I used to go down to the National Lampoon in New York, and these guys would hang out there, and they knew they were superstars even when they were nothing. They just had this confidence, and they really understood what comedy should do.
How does it make you feel when a Will Ferrell or Zach Galifiniakis comes along? Relieved?
Yeah. But everyone doesn’t recognize it off the bat. Not trying to take credit for anything, but when we hired Will for Old School, the studio didn’t care about Will, and they didn’t care about Vince (Vaughn). They actually cared about Luke Wilson. And I’m not putting Luke down at all, but they had no confidence because neither Will or Vince had had a movie on their shoulders. And it was really Todd who found how to deliver those characters to the big audience. He sort of opened the gate, and wrote stuff for them, and discussed things with them on the set that allowed them to portray those characters. Same thing with Zack. Zack has been around for a long time, his fans are so loyal, and he’s so genius, but when you look at the movies he’s done, he’s just some stupid, fat friend who says one line. It’s embarrassing”¦ Now we know how to use him. But boy, you know, nobody cared about any of the three guys in The Hangover. The studio said to Todd, "If you wanna make this movie, okay," but we were certainly under the radar. We would be on the streets of Las Vegas cracking ourselves up with the scenes we were doing, but we were really all looking at each other and going, "Do you think anyone’s gonna want to see this?"