Michael Phillips

Michael Phillips

The Sting was one of the greatest movie of the seventies and enjoyed huge success with fans, critics and the Academy when it was released back in 1973.

Next year sees the Paul Newman and Robert Redford movie celebrate it's fortieth anniversary but this week sees it released on Blu-Ray for the first time.

I caught up with producer Michael Phillips to talk about getting the movie off the ground as well as working with two of Hollywood's greatest stars.

- The Sting is about to be released on Limited Edition Digibook Blu-ray so for anyone who is coming to this movie for the first time with this release can you tell me a little bit about the movie?

Well it was, in my opinion, the best script that I ever read because it is a wonderful audience - that is what the writer David Ward set out to do originally.

For those of you who don't know it was released in 1973 and was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture which we won; we won seven.

I am very proud of it and very happy to have been one of the producers but I only wish it had come later in my career so I could have appreciated it a bit more.

I think it plays beautifully, it is a period film but I recently screened it for a class that I teach to bunch of young people who had never seen it and it is not out of date.

It is a great piece of entertainment I think and I can't wait for people to discover it or re-discover it.

- You served as producer on the movie so how did you get involved in the project? And what drew you to it?

We had a fledgling partnership, we being myself, my ex wife and Tony Bill, and we were looking for projects by new writers who were coming out of films schools but couldn't get a foot in the door.

So we hung up a shingle 'Bill/Phillips Productions' and said 'we will read your scripts'. Anyway Tony met a young writer who was just finishing school at UCLA called David Ward.

And David came in to talk to him about a movie he wanted to write about confidence men and Tony got so excited, Tony was living in Los Angeles while Julia and I were in New York, he made an audio tape of the story as David was telling it and sent it to us - David told the whole story but left out the ending as he wanted it to be a surprise for us.

We got the audio tape and got very excited and we were like 'can he write?' So David sent us his film school theses which was a script called Steelyard Blues, we really liked that as well.

So we pulled our family fortunes, the Phillips' have $2,500 and the Bill family had $1,000, and we gave him the whole $3,500 to write the script and we got him to throw in a very short term option to try and set up his Steelyard Blues script.

We got incredibly lucky when that came together in record short time. It was David's idea from the beginning and he went off and wrote and we got involved because we were shooting his film Steelyard Blues, which starred James Fond and Donald Sutherland.

We made out deal with him at the beginning of 1971 but he got distracted for a year with Steelyard Blues but finally he delivered The Sting in 1972.

It was such a strong script that it not only attracted competitive financiers but the top talent in Hollywood at the time; that being George Roy Hill the director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Robert Redford and Paul Newman who were the biggest stars around.

Redford and Hill were involved and having worked together on Butch Cassidy, Hill sent Paul Newman a copy of the script The Sting because they were friends and shared their work.

Newman was in England at the time shooting another movie and he called George Hill and was like 'I love this script and I want to be in it' and Hill said 'well you can't because I have already cast Redford' and he said 'no no I want to play Henry "Shaw" Gondorff'.

Now Henry Gondorff, it's hard to imagine this, but he was written as a fat slob over the hill guy and not the brilliant character that Paul Newman played and he is only in half the film - he doesn't appear until twenty minutes into the movie.

But when Paul said he wanted to be in the film we were actually... and it looks stupid now but we weren't sure that it would be a good idea because for the film to work you really have to believe that Robert Redford will betray Paul Newman and, after Butch Cassidy, that was a real question because they were paired as buddies.

But Hill said 'we have to take this opportunity and I can make it work' and so we went ahead and thank god because Paul's performance was indelible and it really is a classic Hollywood performance.

Redford was the one who got the Academy Award nomination but Newman did not, I don't know why, but his was the more memorable performance as he had the better written character.

- Next year The Sting celebrates it's 40th anniversary so what do you thing makes this movie so enduring?

Well I think it is just a classic feel good film. It has a lot of style in the directing from George Roy Hill as well as the classic costumes and two great looking leading men.

Ultimately there's a feeling when you watch the film that you know where it's going, when we watch a movie we all look ahead and try to guess how it's going to turn out, but you get conned and it's fair and square.

When you watch the movie you get delightfully surprised with the ending but then you can go back and look and see if there was any cheating, since it will be on your nice new Blu-Ray, and you can see how you were fooled and it's very fair and square.

We went to great pains to examine and look for holes in the hope... you never can catch them all but I think we played pretty level with the audience. So it's a good experience where you come away feeling like you had your monies worth and you were entertained and surprised.

- You have mentioned Paul Newman and Robert Redford already and they had had huge success with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid so how did you find working with them?

It was really great, except I never got over being star-struck by Paul Newman as I had grown up watching Hud and Cool Hand Luke.

I knew Redford so I was a little less intimidated. I was in my twenties and the first day on the set Paul came up and introduced himself and says 'you have a great script I hope I don't screw it up for you' and I was just babbling as I didn't know what to say.

He was a gem on the set as he was very good humoured and he would make popcorn for the crew and was always joking, he would never take himself seriously. He would sit and watch dailies and he would see his performance and go 'oh Newman how could you do that?'.

The two of them were just great and in the hands of George Roy Hill, who had worked with them and knew exactly what he was doing. It was really an unusual movie making experience as it was more like a 9-5 job; we shot almost all of it on a Universal lot and we always got exactly the day's work as scheduled, there was no drama and the tone was very much set by the stars and the director.

It was really a great experience and George Roy Hill was very much a mentor to me and I really learnt so much working with him and he made it a great experience with a happy ending. It was great that the fans and the critics really loved it and then winning an Oscar at the end was like a dream.

- The movie was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning seven; including Best Picture, so what do you remember of your Oscar night?

We were pitted against The Exorcist, which also had ten nominations, and in my mind it was good vs evil (laughs).

So as the evening started we were looking at the early wins to see if there was a direction or a sentiment and to see how the audience was applauding, in the room you can get a sense of where the Academy members sympathies lie.

As we started winning a lot of the early and critical indicators, especially when we won director and screenplay, I knew that we were going to win when it came to us.

I had some prepared remarks but I just was too nervous and babbled. But it was an unreal feeling, we got the Academy Award from Elizabeth Taylor, it was just a very exciting and gratifying evening.

The Sting is released on Blu-ray as part of a Limited Edition digibook range on 11 June from Universal Pictures UK (Ltd)

FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw


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