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Living Well Is The Best Revenge: Armed With An Iconic Title and A Hot Director, Veteran Producer Roger Birnbaum Breathes New Life Into "Death Wish"

Posted By Michael Ventre, Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Vengeance-minded movie buffs have always had one title that consistently pulls their trigger. That would be Death Wish, the 1974 thriller in which a man’s wife is murdered and his daughter brutalized into madness by a cadre of urban scum, so he takes a gun given to him by a colleague and sets out to pay it forward. Charles Bronson, known primarily before it for brooding character work in ensemble pieces like The even and The Dirty Dozen, became a star as a result of that polarizing tale of vigilante justice that many interpreted at the time as a right-wing exploitation fantasy.

Veteran Hollywood producer Roger Birnbaum has dusted off the Death Wish title, substituted Bruce Willis for Bronson as vigilante Paul Kersey and set the film in Chicago instead of New York. Those may seem like cosmetic changes, but they’re part of what Birnbaum considers more of a reimagination of the source material, rather than a standard reboot. The essential theme of the ’74 release and the one scheduled to hit theaters on March 2 is roughly the same— retribution—but the main character’s mission is of a different caliber entirely.

“This is not the kind of movie where a man goes and just wipes people out,” Birnbaum opines. “This is about a man looking for justice.”

The distinction isn’t just run-of-the-mill Hollywood spin. Those who remember the original will recall that while the unassuming Kersey stalks the dark and gritty avenues of New York and fills with lead anyone he deems a threat to mankind, he never really gets the people who send him on this shooting spree in the first place. In the new version, Willis specifically hunts the villains who attacked his daughter.

“In our story, a similar tragedy occurs,” Birnbaum says. “But in fact, when the system frustrates him due to the kinds of economic woes and understaffing that afflict many cities, where the police can’t help, he decides to go after the people who actually did this. So it begs the question: ‘What would you do if this happened to you?’”

Birnbaum is no stranger to the reanimation of old celluloid. Most recently he produced the 2011 reboot of Footloose, the 2014 version of RoboCop and the 2016 edition of The Magnificent Seven. At Thanksgiving, he could probably turn leftovers into something that would make Bobby Flay envious.

Yet the career of this Teaneck, New Jersey native is lengthy and impressive, going back to the early 1980s and including Rush Hour, Bruce Almighty, Seabiscuit, Memoirs of a Geisha and many other critical and commercial hits. In 1998, he and business partner Gary Barber co-founded Spyglass Entertainment. In 2010, Barber became CEO of MGM, and he and Birnbaum assessed their new movie-making toy.

“At the time we took over, the cupboards were rather bare with current product,” Birnbaum recalls. “We thought the fastest way to get material into development is to look at the library and see what titles would be important today. We came across Death Wish.

“Of course the Death Wish of the early ‘70s could not and should not be told today,” he adds. “So we wanted to roll up our sleeves and tell a story that would be relevant today. We worked hard to make something that was not exploitative.”

The script for the 2017 Death Wish went through several writers; Joe Carnahan eventually received credit, with a nod to novelist Brian Garfield and also screenwriter Wendell Mayes, who wrote the 1974 version. Then there was the little matter of a director. When discussing a film that examines a man’s reaction to unspeakable horrors, who better than Eli Roth, who made his bones (cough, cough) helming chillers like Cabin Fever and the Hostel films?

“The idea for Eli came from MGM,” Birnbaum explains. “I was part of those meetings. He’s very bright about material and was clear about what he wanted to do. We thought with my experience and his budding talent, we could help each other; I could help guide him to play in a bigger sandbox than he’s ever played in before.”

To hear Roth tell it, the collaboration was a hit from the very start, and it had almost nothing to do with Death Wish.

“I had heard about the legendary Roger Birnbaum for many years,” Roth smiles. “But I didn’t know him until our first meeting with MGM. We hit it off instantly. It’s hard to find somebody else who has that identical kind of Jewish/Catskills/ Borscht Belt sense of humor. In the first two minutes, we were trading ‘2000 Year Old Man’ and Blazing Saddles references.”

Of course, the movie they were talking about making had a much less funny version of “Excuse me while I whip this out!” The new filmmaking team had to find just the right lead actor to brandish a weapon and aim it at cretinous goons. It didn’t take long before Bruce Willis’ name came up.

“Bruce was willing from the get-go,” Birnbaum says. “I think he was intrigued by the title and told us he was interested. When the script came in, he embraced it. And when Eli came aboard they met in New York City, liked each other a lot and agreed on the point of view of the script. It all came together very, very easily.”

Says Roth of the Willis meeting: “Roger was great at coaching me. He knew Bruce well ... knew what to say and what to hold back on. He’s just someone who knows and understands people, movie stars, movie executives. Everybody loves Roger. He goes back to Unbreakable with Bruce.”

The production of Death Wish was unremarkable in the sense that it went that smoothly. A few days of shooting took place in Chicago—one day with Willis, the rest second-unit photography—before moving to Montreal for the bulk of the schedule. The shoot wrapped on time and within budget. And despite the city of Chicago’s recent difficulties with gun violence, not only was there no resistance to having the new Death Wish set there, city officials welcomed them, according to Birnbaum.

The film’s title—its name recognition and its visceral impact—is gold. But the story itself needed burnishing. The team set out to make a film that would lure audiences with an iconic name on one-sheets but would keep them riveted in their seats with something novel and more relevant to 2018.

“We wanted to make a smart, elevated genre movie,” Roth explains. “We didn’t want this to be pretentious or preachy. We wanted it to be fun. We were looking at films like Man On Fire, Eastern Promises, Sicario, Unforgiven, Taken. These movies touched a nerve because they have great characters who are seeking revenge.

“I love the original Death Wish,” he continues, “but there’s no point in replicating what they did. We wanted to make it about today, which involves looking head-on at the fact that we live in a gun culture and what happens with that. We wanted to look at it like what would happen if this story really broke today. Oddly this is the perfect time for this film.” (In a grim irony, Roth provided this quote only days before gunman Stephen Paddock massacred dozens in Las Vegas.)

Although the picture may be finished, the collaboration is just beginning. Birnbaum and Roth plan to continue doing schtick together in meetings and on set when not preparing for their next project, and they’re already batting around ideas, including hopes for the expansion of Death Wish (like its predecessor) into a franchise.

“Once in a while, you make a movie and you meet some talent that you just know you want to keep working with,” Birnbaum says. “Eli is a friend of mine for life now. We’re talking about other things.”

On location in Montreal, from left: producer Roger Birnbaum, cast member Bruce Willis, director Eli Roth

“It’s rare to click creatively the way I do with Roger,” Roth explains. “We both have the same work ethic as well as the same sense of humor. He knows when I’m on a project I’m possessed, in a good way, as he is. He’s so successful doing it because he loves it.”

Birnbaum recently was in London overseeing the production of Nasty Women, a reworking of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that stars Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. Roth, meanwhile, served as producer on two forthcoming edge-of-your-seat suspense pics, Haunt and Lake Mead. Yet their creative partnership will always be linked to that title first unfurled in 1974.

“It’s a terrific title,” Birnbaum reflects. “It’s a title a lot of people know. In this day and age, you have to try to get people’s attention as quickly as possible. Several generations never saw this. They don’t bring anything to the experience other than the advertising they’ve seen.

“But I’m very happy with this film,” he continues, “and I know audiences will love it. Watching the audience reactions in previews has been very gratifying. They’re really embracing the work Eli did with support from the rest of the team.”

Turns out, the best revenge of all might be ... success.


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