Harvey Weinstein loves a good story, especially when it stars Harvey Weinstein. This one begins 12 years ago, when the then-head of Miramax was pulling an all-nighter to care for his sick daughter. As she slept, he started to read Bernhard Schlink's "The Reader," a novel about a teenage boy in postwar Germany who falls for an older woman with a sinister past. By sunrise, Weinstein dispatched one of his lackeys to see Schlink in Munich. "If you don't get the rights," Weinstein said, "don't come home." Weinstein tells this tale before 1,100 people at the December premiere of "The Reader" in New York, and the line gets a huge laugh. What's even funnier, in a Hollywood-schadenfreude kind of way, is that Weinstein hasn't had much to laugh about lately. He's had a string of flops—"Grindhouse," "Hannibal Rising," "Bobby"—and his hit Bravo show, "Project Runway," is in legal purgatory after he tried to sell it to Lifetime. He's even had to weather rumors that his studio, the Weinstein Co., is shutting down. But tonight the old Weinstein is back, as if he's woken from a long nap. As Kate Winslet, the star of "The Reader," shuffles in the aisle waiting for the boss to introduce her, one thing is clear: Harvey Weinstein isn't about to cede the spotlight anymore.
As usual, Weinstein owes his return to his faithful partner. Not his brother, Bob. We mean the golden boy named Oscar. Weinstein invented the take-no-prisoners award campaign with "The Crying Game" and "Shakespeare in Love," but this year he outdid himself. "The Reader" fought mediocre reviews to score five nominations, including best picture. This despite losing one A-list leading lady, two producers (Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, who both died in mid-production) and several PR debacles, including Weinstein's public spat with coproducer Scott Rudin. Of course, no one thinks that "The Reader" can beat "Slumdog Millionaire." No one but Weinstein. Don't scoff: everyone expected Winslet to be nominated for "Revolutionary Road," but she ended up playing for Weinstein's team. The lesson: never bet against Harvey. With the Oscars on Feb. 22, he laid out his game plan with Ramin Setoodeh:
Setoodeh: You cried on the morning of the nominations?
Weinstein: I was expecting to get nominated, but the emotion. This sounds corny—I'm not using this, so to speak—but Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack were part of my life for 12 years. This was a passion project.
Do you think that sympathy over their deaths helped the film get nominated?
No. I think anecdotally people said when they saw the movie they were incredibly moved by it. It haunted Academy members, much like it haunts everybody.
Does "The Reader" really have a chance at best picture?
Yes. What happens is: there are some times when a front runner peaks. All of a sudden people say, "That movie is going to gross $100 million. It's fun, it's won a million prizes, but what else is there?" "Milk" has done a very good job on their campaign, and is also a very important movie, in my opinion. What could happen, "Slumdog" and "Reader" could split. "Slumdog" and "Milk" could split, and one of those could get through. With "The Reader," lots of Academy members still haven't seen it. I know, it's shocking.
What can you do about that?
I think to myself, "Can I come over to your house and show it to you?" I used to do that. I was like Santa Claus. I had all the DVDs, and I'd go to everybody's house, with cookies.
Is that how "Shakespeare in Love" beat "Saving Private Ryan"?
Yeah. The fact that it was a brilliant movie had nothing to do with its win.
People had counted you out.
Here's the irony. It's three years! I haven't had an Oscar contender in three years. I had 15 best-picture nominees out of 16 years. That's never been done before.
We've read so much about trouble with "The Reader." What happened after Nicole Kidman got pregnant and dropped out?
Before Kate came onboard, Anthony Minghella, myself and Scott Rudin had a conversation. I said, "Scott, she's got her husband's film 'Revolutionary Road.' I think we should have insurance." I had Marion Cotillard, the French actress, go to Germany and shoot a screen test. She was great. Then we contacted Naomi Watts. She's available. Then we redid the conversation and said these people are available. Stephen [Daldry, the director] wanted to work with Kate.
You and Scott Rudin battled about the film's release date.
There were just delays. All of a sudden—news flash!—the movie can't come out this year. After arguing back and forth, I accepted Stephen Daldry's decision. The movie wasn't going to come out this year.
You agreed? Because in an e-mail from Daldry that was leaked in August he was pleading with you for a 2009 release date, which is what Rudin also wanted.
That was later. What happened is, we're shooting the sex scenes. Stephen writes an extra eight days, which is like $1.3 million. I say, "We don't need this," but the dialogue opens up. "What if Harvey gave you the money and you give him the means to release the movie this year?" The bargain was, we'll test the movie. If the movie tests over 70 [on a 100 scale], I'll release it this year. The movie tested a 77.
One blog did say that you inflated the numbers.
There's a thing on the blog that says all sorts of nonsense. We kept all 234 names, so that Scott or any independent person could go through the list. I wanted it to be that airtight.
Why did you put Winslet in the supporting-actress category?
My understanding was that was so it wouldn't get in the way of her husband's film. But the Academy clearly said, "You guys are completely full of s––t. It's an insult to all the girls in supporting." This is why I always love the Academy. They're so just at the end.
Why did Rudin take his name off the film?
I think he had to be loyal to "Doubt" and he had to be loyal to "Revolutionary Road" [both of which Rudin also produced]. It became an overwhelming situation for him.
Will you work together again?
Every time we do a movie, Scott and I promise that we'll never work together—for the good of the industry. We had a battle over "The Hours." Then the movie won the Golden Globe, and it just amazes me that Scott failed to mention Miramax, which cofinanced the movie.
Did you think "The Dark Knight" had a shot at best picture?
Yeah. I thought the movie was great. The problem is, I don't think "The Reader" knocked out "The Dark Knight." "The Reader" has a fanatical audience. The people who love "The Reader" love it. What you win on, in the first round of nominations, is passion, the people who vote No. 1 for your film. I think "Frost/Nixon" knocked out "Batman." But it's much sexier to say Harvey knocked out "Batman." Now my kids are mad at me. They're like, "Dad, how could you do that?" I'm like, "Guys, I didn't! It was 'Frost/ Nixon'." They're like, "Who's Nixon?" I go, "He's with the Jonas Brothers. He's the older one."
What's going on with "Project Runway"? Bravo sued after you sold the show to Lifetime.
We're still shooting it. Obviously, there's an unfortunate legal case, but I'm sure it will be resolved one way or another.
I'm not 100 percent sure. I think the fans are getting pissed off right now. I think we're starting to see the backlash, where the fans say, "You guys need to sit down and resolve this and do it soon."
When you started the Weinstein Co. in 2005, you said you'd be profitable by 2008.
We weren't. I think something about this economy has to do with it. I speak to people who say if you just stay in business you're doing well.
But didn't you use frequent-flier miles to buy one of screenwriter David Hare's plane tickets?
Can I tell you something? We do that all the time. The budget of "The Reader" went out of control. Of course we're going to use frequent-flier miles. We'll do anything that we can to bring the budgets down.
What's the biggest mistake you made in the last three years?
I took myself out of production. I needed a break. I didn't want to go through the Oscar races; I didn't care anymore. I was fascinated with the idea of cable television, fashion, building an Internet company. It was a personal odyssey. But this idea of loving movies again is something you'll see with [Rob Marshall's new musical] "Nine." We should give you the picture of Judi Dench with the HARVEY necklace.
She has a necklace with your name on it?
Judi Dench did six movies in a row with me and got five Academy Award nominations. She took me to the Four Seasons restaurant, with Mike Nichols, Carly Simon, Nora Ephron, a bunch of really famous, fun people. It was the day she got her fifth nomination. She said, "I have a present for you." She pulled down her pants and she had a tattoo.
A tattoo where?
On her butt.
A real tattoo?
It's a tattoo you could wash off. JUDI LOVES HARVEY, right on the rim of her butt. Everybody at the table is completely shocked. I think she chose it on purpose because she wanted to embarrass me, and she did. Then, on "Nine," she has this necklace in this dining sequence. Rob goes, "What do you think about her necklace?" And I say, "The one thing I don't want to get involved with is jewelry." Daniel Day-Lewis says, "Check out the necklace." And there it is, HARVEY written in spikes.
Is this necklace in the film?
I hope they cut it out. If they don't, I'm going to sneak into the editing room and cut it myself.