One hugely welcome member of the upgrade club is 1973’s The Sting, starring Butch and Sundance (Paul Newman & Robert Redford), directed once again by George Roy Hill. I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Michael Phillips, who along with his then wife Julia was presented with the Best Film Oscar that year for producing this peerless con film, which was especially enjoyable given his noticeable absence from the raft of special features being rolled out with the newly spruced up Blu-ray. Since it was only his second film as producer (after Steelyard Blues), I started by asking him how he became involved in the project.
Michael Phillips: It was a very opportune time. This was the time of the first very serious crop of film students – no-one was paying them any attention and they were getting frustrated. Tony Bill [co-producer on The Sting and Steelyard Blues] had a vision, which was that if we could find the money to greenlight these scripts, there was gold in them thar hills. Tony came across a UCLA film school writer [David S. Ward] who was doing a script about con men. He taped his pitch and we listened. We were totally smitten with the freshness of the script and David’s approach as a raconteur – he wanted it to be a con on the audience as well. We got very excited and so the next question was, can he write?
He gave us Steelyard Blues, which was his University thesis and so we pooled $3500 to give to David to write The Sting and get an option for four months on Steelyard Blues. Ordinarily that would be no time to do anything, but miracle of miracles we were able to get that set up with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. David delivered the script for The Sting in 1972 and it remains the best script I’ve read, to this day. It was a hot property and there was a lot of competition for it. Universal had George Roy Hill and he loved it. Through him we then landed Robert Redford, who had flirted with the project but confirmed once George did. At that point, Paul Newman was on no-one’s radar. We had Peter Boyle in mind for that role, but George sent Paul Newman the script and he called up and said he wanted to play Henry Gondorff. We then had to re-do our conception of that character from someone who was a bit of slob into someone a little more refined.
One key question we struggled with, was whether anyone would believe that Robert Redford would betray Paul Newman after Butch & Sundance. It was a crucial issue and George Roy Hill said he could make it work. Another fortuitous surprise was that Richard Boone was to play Lonergan, but he stopped returning our calls and although that gave us a last minute crisis, it worked in our favour. Robert Shaw wound up in the part and he tore a tendon in his leg a week before we started filming, which actually added to his menace and made him more dangerous. We started filming in January 1973 with a sixty-day shooting schedule, mostly on the Universal backlot – it was a good atmosphere, no drama, very smooth.
HeyUGuys: You went on to produce two of the best regarded American films of the 1970’s, with Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Did The Sting’s success open those doors for you?
When we won the Oscar [Michael Phillips won the Oscar with his then wife Julia], everyone wanted to hear from us, but when we came through the door with Taxi Driver, no-one bit as they were hoping for more of the same.
How do you find it putting a film together now, compared to the 1970’s?
They really are completely different times. I was very lucky to have worked then. Now, films are released very differently – then it was word of mouth, now with global advertising campaigns studios can’t take risks, they need brand awareness and safe bets. The films I want to make, where story is king and marketing serves the films are really now within the independent sector.
The Sting is released on Limited Edition Digibook Blu-ray on 11 June to celebrate Universal Pictures’ 100th anniversary.
You can read our review here.