The scary Joel Silver -- Hollywood's most frightening producer talks about his reputation, lessons he's learned, and "Demon Knights"

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
Updated January 20, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s not that Joel Silver doesn’t want to be charming. He just doesn’t have time.

For one thing, he’s too busy pacing. Or fidgeting. Or producing another rock-’em-sock-’em-blow-’em-up movie: There have been 20 in the last 12 years, films like Predator, or the Lethal Weapon trilogy, Die Hards 1 and 2, or — his latest — Demon Knight), the first of three planned big-screen spin-offs of the HBO series Tales From the Crypt. Such projects have earned him a reputation-budget breaker, schlockmeister, the personification of Hollywood’s excesses. They’ve also earned the studios with which he’s worked more than $1 billion. That figure has given Joel Silver the kind of clout that only reinforces the industry’s collective terror that the 42-year-old producer is even more explosive than his movies.

”You know that wonderful story about him?” laughs Richard Donner, who directed all the Lethal Weapons and is one of Silver’s partners in the Crypt venture. ”There was this agent giving him a terrible time, and Joel said to him, ‘Say ”loafer or slipper.”’ The guy says, ‘What are you talking about?’ and Joel insists, ‘Just say it.’ The guy says, ‘Why?’ Joel says, ‘Because in two minutes, you’re going to be a shoe salesman.’ That’s typical Joel.

Sylvester Stallone, who worked with Silver on Demolition Man and is teaming with him again for next fall’s Assassins, adds fondly, ”I’ve seen (his screaming) recede someone’s hairline.”

So it’s a bit surprising, while waiting in his office at Silver Pictures on the Warner lot, to see just how downright comfy the place is. There’s a fireplace. A copy of Having Fun With Jewish Stencils lies on his desk. The coffee-table books Newport Houses and The Vanderbilts are prominent. It’s almost enough to make one comfortable — even while sitting under a 17th-century wall hanging of a woman about to be beheaded. But when one notices that his collection of pastel pottery is glued to every available surface, one doesn’t think of earthquakes, but of Stallone, saying: ”When he blows, he makes Mount Saint Helens look like an anthill.”

A quiet anthill, judging from the eruption taking place in the office’s antechamber. ”Why do these things happen? It makes me want to tell the studio to flush it down the toilet!” The scream-whisper comes rasping through the door, in a tone that could incite incontinence. The receiver slams down, the door opens, and in comes Silver, smiling. He’s a good 50 pounds overweight, dressed in matching brown silk shirt and trousers with work boots. But he’s extremely graceful, gliding across the floor and apologizing for his lateness in a deep, growly voice. He’s been in a ”bulls— session,” discussing plans for Lethal Weapon 4 with Warner execs, writers, and director Donner. ”(Lethal Weapon 3) was on TV last night and it (rivaled) Scarlett in the ratings. So that kind of pushed us to meet faster when we saw, my God, the audience really loved that movie.”

Silver’s movies may be popular, but the producer makes no such promises about himself. Raised in South Orange, N.J. (his father was a public relations executive, his mother a writer), Silver attended New York University film school until 1974, then went west, where he became one of Universal’s youngest production executives and worked on the ill-fated Xanadu (1980). He left to produce on his own in 1980, having established a reputation for unrivaled persistence (one of his now-famous Silverisms: ”I want this film so badly I’d stab myself in the back to get it”).

”Do I have to be tough to make a picture?” he asks rhetorically, skipping a handshake to sit in a wing chair, nervously twitching his legs up and down. ”Yeah!” he says, pouncing forward and pacing the room. ”I have to keep costs down, I have to try to make good deals. Whenever my name is bandied about, prices seem to go up everywhere. You have to be a smart businessman. A famous New York real estate mogul said, ‘There are three rules for real estate in Manhattan — location, location, location.’ I say my three rules are casting, casting, casting.” Not that it’s quite so simple. ”Obviously, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Louis Pasteur — well, I don’t think anybody would care. If the milk is clear, I don’t give a s— who he was. You have to make the right decisions.”

Silver has seldom made the wrong ones: The pictures that have fared badly, like Hudson Hawk, or The Hudsucker Proxy, have been ones in which he claims he hasn’t taken an active part, perhaps because they’ve been a departure from his usual oeuvre. ”After Die Hard, Bruce said to me, ‘Would you please produce this film for me?”’ Silver says of the spoofy, action-lite flop Hudson Hawk. ”I read the script — it was problematical. But he felt very strongly about it. So I said to him, ‘Fine, but make Die Hard 2 first.”’ What did he learn from the experience? ”I’ve never learned a lot of what to do. You learn what not to do,” he reflects. ”I have a notion about something called a feathered fish. What was it? Was it an action movie? Was it a breath mint? You have to stick with your genre.”

It’s a genre he unabashedly describes as ”high testosterone….I only try to make movies that I believe can make $100 million not like a love story or a little comedy or period drama. You’re dealing with buildings falling down, cop cars, and explosions, and gunshots.” As Mel Gibson says, ”To him, the Mona Lisa and an explosion on screen are the same.”