Handshakes, blockbusters and popcorn: Hollywood agent reflects on career aimed at bringing uplifting stories to the screen

December 2019 Posted in Arts, Culture & History, People
Frank Wuliger with the writer/director of Harriet  Kasi Lemmons; Deborah Martin Chase, producer; and Daniela Taplan Lundberg, producer in Washington D.C. Submitted Photo Frank Wuliger with the writer/director of Harriet  Kasi Lemmons; Deborah Martin Chase, producer; and Daniela Taplan Lundberg, producer in Washington D.C. Submitted Photo

Frank Wuliger with the writer/director of Harriet Kasi Lemmons; Deborah Martin Chase, producer; and Daniela Taplan Lundberg, producer in Washington D.C. Submitted Photo

By Dixon Bledsoe

In many ways, Frank Wuliger’s career as a Hollywood agent is like an onion, with layers upon layers revealing complexities that can be so deep they become frighteningly simple.

In some ways, he is a throwback. Who in Hollywood conducts deals with a handshake as the basis of doing business?

Wuliger, a partner in The Gersh Agency and an agent for many writers, directors and producers of some of our favorite movies, recently purchased a small farm outside of Silverton. He travels back and forth between the glitz of Tinsel Town and the serenity of a seven-acre parcel in rural Oregon that is complete with ducks, geese, and a large fish who has a commanding presence in the tranquil pond.

He and his wife Cynthia are adjusting to the quiet, the area, and the chill. Having spent a good share of his life in Southern California’s warm sun, it can be difficult waking up to icicles, rain, and bone-chilling cold after having spent a week in Los Angeles.

That said, he adds, “I love the pace of Silverton.”

Con Air, the Nicolas Cage blockbuster, had Wuliger’s fingerprints on the credits, as did the John Travolta film, The General’s Daughter.

He works with the writers of the Despicable Me franchise, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, who wrote the critically acclaimed 2018 movie On the Basis of Sex, and is proud of the new movie, Harriet, in theaters now. The movie is the first made about Harriet Tubman, the iconic “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who escaped slavery herself and then time after time returned south to help other slaves escape to freedom in the North.

What is he most proud of? Like the onion, there are many overlays.

“When I visited the set of Harriet, I was visibly and emotionally moved when I saw the fields filled with toiling, wonderful young African American actors and white crew members working on the set between scenes. It was beautiful and touching. All these people had jobs because I did my work through representing the writer/director, Kasi Lemmons, known for her work on Eve’s Bayou, among other things. Working with Kasi, through my representation, I helped build this film.”

Wuliger is also fun and a bit like the kid in Jerry McGuire who informs the Tom Cruise character, “Did you know the human brain weighs over nine pounds?” He works into the conversation information about the highest profit margin in the movie industry:

“Popcorn. The sale of popcorn. There is about a 25-30 percent profit margin.”

Perhaps most intriguing, are his insights into the industry he serves, and why he does what he does.

“The business is run by the Movie Gods,” he said.

He shared a story about one of moviedoms most important and influential directors, Steven Spielberg. The director of blockbuster movies like Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List wanted to make, Memoirs of a Geisha.

Wuliger smiles and said, “The Movie Gods wanted Rob Marshall to direct it. It sat for some time until they got their way.

“And remember the movie, The Man Who Would Be King? John Huston wanted Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart to play the leads. Even Bogey and Clark couldn’t get it made. The Movie Gods made it a few decades later, starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery.

“All we can do is realize we have little control over movies. The Movie Gods do,” he added. “We can only work with the people involved, work our fannies off, do our best and the rest is out of our control.”

“If I go to my grave with three movies, it would be because of my ethos. I helped build Son of Rambow, Harriet and Eve’s Bayou (again with Kasi Lemmons).

“The 2006 movie Son of Rambow [is] about two 12-year-old boys in England who act out the movie, Rambo. I worked with writer/director Garth Jennings [who Wuliger also worked with on the animated musical, Sing] – I loved that movie. These movies I helped build would not have been made if I didn’t walk on the planet,” he recounted with satisfaction.

As for his favorites in general?

The Searchers, with John Wayne and John Ford. It had all the bones of Star Wars in it, way before that came out. Sullivan’s Travels, a 1941 movie about a Hollywood director who goes on the road as a hobo to learn about life and the downtrodden, was wonderful.

“I absolutely loved this year’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. It was an incredible movie that hit perfectly on the world we live in – dark times crushing good and light times, then coming back to the light times. Hollywood was fun, energetic, and dynamic. But then came Charles Manson and the murder of Sharon Tate. It cast a deep, broad, dark shadow over the good and fun, light times. Much like 9-11, the Kennedy and King assassinations. The beauty of the film is that it is, like a fairytale, putting a positive light onto a brutal period, with a different ending.”

Currently, Wuliger is working with actor Sidney Poitier and his family on a new project about the award-winning actor’s life.

He is also working on Sergio, a 2020 Sundance Film Festival entry from Netflix about Sergio Vierra De Mello, a U.N. human rights diplomat trapped in the rubble of a Baghdad hotel after a terrorist bomb. Another project is an upcoming Apple series from the creators of Despicable Me.

His favorites for this year’s big awards?

“I never predict award outcomes”, said the man who regularly attends the Cannes Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival, and the Sundance Film Festival.

“I thoroughly enjoyed Laundromat; [The] Farewell; Just Mercy; Two Popes; Parasite; Uncut Gems with Adam Sandler; Marriage Story, probably my second favorite; Bombshell; and The Report. But Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood moved me in so many ways. I cried.”

Why does this USC and Loyola Law School graduate do what he does and what does he enjoy most?

“I do this because I want to fight for the light, especially when things have been so dark. I want positive humanism to be the ultimate form of entertainment. Entertainment is a positive human value.

Joker [was] a very good movie, but was very nihilistic and just too much for my interests. I want films to inspire positive humanism.

“The basis of my beliefs started from my work with the George McGovern campaign and working on the 1976 Carter campaign. It is ironic because I started out as a young Republican but became an anti-war member of the Students for a Democratic Society after Nixon’s 1968 speech about not ending the war. It provoked me, so I made the shift.

“I chose to go into films to put a positive humanistic overlay through entertainment.”

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