Charles Wessler never graduated from high school.
He moved to Israel – alone – at sixteen and lived on a series of kibbutzim.
Four years later, he went back to the United States and got his first jobs in the business movies via persistence and chutzpah.
He went on to produce nineteen movies, including hits like There’s Something About Mary, that have earned more than $1.5 billion worldwide.
This February, he stood on the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and received his first Oscar, for Green Book. He dedicated it to the late Carrie Fisher – his close friend since childhood.
In short, he’s had quite a journey.
The Slums of Beverly Hills
Wessler grew up in Encino, California, in London, and in what he calls “the slums” of Beverly Hills, where he shared a small two-bedroom apartment with his mother and three sisters.
He attended Beverly Hills High School, where his classmates included the children of movie stars and studio moguls.
He met Carrie Fisher when they were both 14. Her mother, the singer and actress Debbie Reynolds, would take the two teenagers along when she performed in Las Vegas.
Wessler and Fisher wrote to each other every week while he was in Israel, and also sent each other cassette tapes.
“Carrie would write letters from the set of Star Wars and say that she was working with walls of blue and animals called “wookies” and a bad guy named Darth Vader. AND she was told not to wear a bra. I thought, ‘OH shit, Carrie is screwed. She will never recover from this nightmare.’ I had NO IDEA.”
That correspondence, sadly, has been lost.
When he got back to the States, Wessler spent a year “screwing around,” as he puts it, then tried to get a job in the movie business. He would walk on to studio lots like he belonged there and knock on doors saying he was a PA (production assistant) – even though he had no actual experience.
He knocked on hundreds of doors before he finally got his chance. His first movie job, in 1977, was as a PA on a cheap sex comedy sequel called Can I Do It... 'Til I Need Glasses? His task was to “wet down the lesbian skin-divers.”
The film is best known for providing Robin Williams with his first movie role. His part initially ended up on the cutting room floor, but was restored after the Mork and Mindy TV show made him a star.
The producer of that movie opened a comedy club and hired Wessler to work there. Before Williams got his start in TV, he did standup at the club for $600 per week.
The Empire Strikes Back
Wessler had his eye on bigger and better movies – specifically, Star Wars.
The movie had come out in 1977 – around the time when Wessler was sponging down movie lesbians. Carrie Fisher, of course, played the iconic Princess Leia.
The Empire Strikes Back was already in development by November 1977, and Wessler desperately wanted to work on it. But he didn’t think it was right to trade on his relationship with Carrie Fisher – he thought that would be cheating.
So he wrote to Gary Kurtz, the producer. When he didn’t hear back, he wrote again – 30 letters in all.
Finally, he simply showed up at Kurtz’s office in London, acting like he already had a job.
Miraculously, he got one.
He also worked as a production assistant on the third Star Wars movie, The Return of the Jedi (1983), and on Blade Runner (1982).
Wessler eventually decided he was more interested in the business end of movie-making than in physical production.
In 1983, he became a manager – even though (again) he had no relevant experience.
As he wrote in Vanity Fair, one of his first clients was Penny Marshall, who was just finishing her eighth and final season staring in the TV series Laverne & Shirley. She even let him use her office at Paramount.
Marshall had directed some episodes of the show, so Wessler put the word out that she was interested in more directing gigs.
While Wessler was fly fishing with Harrison Ford in Wyoming, Ford handed him a script called Big and asked him what he thought of it. Wessler said he thought it was great – but not right for Ford. He got the directing gig for Marshall, and Tom Hanks starred in the 1988 hit movie.
The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship
In 1987, Wessler began to focus more on producing. He convinced the head of HBO to do a show that was half movie and half stand-up comedy special. Then he needed to hire a writer.
He called his agents at CAA and asked them to send him funny scripts. A script by Peter Farrelly and his writing partner Bennett Yellin made him laugh a lot, so he hired them.
It was the beginning of an unusually long and fruitful partnership -- but their first hit was still years away.
In the meantime, there was It’s Pat.
It’s Pat: The Movie
Pat, perhaps too far ahead of its time, was a character of indeterminate gender played by Julia Sweeney on Saturday Night Live.
Wessler produced It’s Pat: The Movie in 1994. He said the initial script, by Sweeney, wasn’t good. She had worked with Quentin Tarantino and suggested bringing him in for a rewrite. The studio head thought this was a great idea.
Tarantino turned in a script written in longhand in a spiral binder.
“It was like working with Mozart,” says Wessler. “Nothing was crossed out.”
However, the end result still wasn’t good. Wessler’s sister, who typed up the script, reported that, among other things, Tarantino spelled “cat” with a “k.”
Wessler convinced Peter Farrelly and his brother Bobby Farrelly to do yet another rewrite at the same time, then handed in both versions to the studio without saying which was which. The studio loved the Farrelly version and disliked the Tarantino one.
It’s Pat was not a success, earning only $60,000 on a budget of $8 million. But Wessler and the writers ended up with a three-picture deal at Fox Studios.
Dumb and Dumber
Their next project was Dumb and Dumber – described as “the cross-country adventures of two good-hearted but incredibly stupid friends.”
Wessler notes that the lead role in Dumb and Dumber was turned down by almost every actor in Hollywood.
“It was mind-crushing how much people hated the script.”
New Line told him that the script could get greenlit only if he could get one of 10 actors – including Jim Carrey. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (Carrey’s first hit) hadn’t come out yet, but the studio knew from the dailies that it would be good.
Carrey initially agreed to do Dumb and Dumber but then dropped out. (In a movie, this is what’s known as the “all is lost” moment.)
But Wessler wasn’t about to give up.
Embellishing a rumor that was circulating, Wessler told New Line that another producer had offered Carrey $5 million to do a film -- and they’d have to beat that price.
Hollywood runs on FOMO, so New Line offered Carrey $7 million to come back on board.
It turned out to be a wise investment. Dumb and Dumber, with Peter Farrelly as a first-time director, made $247 million worldwide on a budget of $17 million and spawned two sequels.
The team’s next project would be even more successful.
There’s Something About Mary
The Farrelly brothers often traded feedback with other screenwriters. One team had written a script with a good premise, but, says Wessler, the writing was not very good.
So Wessler and the brothers sat down to do a rewrite.
The movie – There’s Something About Mary -- was greenlit two days after they handed the script in to the studio. It became their biggest hit to date, earning $370 million worldwide in 1998 dollars on a budget of $23 million.
Green Book seemed like a major change of pace for the Wessler-Farrelly team. Rather than a broad penis-joke comedy about idiots, it was a gently comic drama based on the true story of black pianist Dr. Donald Shirley and the white driver who accompanied him on a concert tour in 1962.
However, like many of the team’s other films, it was also a road movie and a bromance with heart.
Green Book, made for a modest $23 million, grossed $321 million worldwide and was a major hit in Israel.
Why was it so successful?
“I think we look at it and it gives us hope that we can be friends. People really feel good about the hope aspect of the film,” Wessler says.
Steven Spielberg, whose company Amblin invested in the film and who was instrumental in getting it a wide release, called it the best buddy comedy he’d seen since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Director Spike Lee, among others, criticized Green Book for what some called its “white savior” narrative.
Wessler rejects that interpretation of the film.
“It’s about a black guy who saves a white man’s soul and teaches him to be a better human being,” he says.
“Dr. Shirley wanted to hire a white driver to give the finger to the racists in the South. He was incredibly brave to have a white guy drive him while he sat in the back seat of a Cadillac.”
Wessler was shocked when Julia Roberts announced that Green Book had won the Best Picture Oscar.
“I thought for a second that she’d said Roma and I’d heard Green Book,” he remembers.
What does it feel like to win an Oscar?
“I can only describe it as pure joy,” says Wessler.
“It’s sort of an out-of-body experience. You’re walking up to the stage and you’re thinking ‘this can’t be real.’ And it’s not like I’ve done three movies in the past that almost got nominated. I’ve never even been close to getting nominated.”
“That night, walking around with that thing… You’re kind of a hero. Everyone loves you. I felt like I could do no wrong.”
But he doesn’t keep the Oscar at home.
“I don’t feel comfortable looking at it right now. I kept thinking, ‘what am I going to do next?’ I had to get rid of the visual. So I asked my sister Debbie if I could drop it off at her house for a year or so until I get over it. And now it’s sitting on her piano.”
How does having an Oscar change things if you’re already a successful producer?
“It opens my horizons to more possibilities,” says Wessler. “People just take you more seriously and they listen better. That’s about it.”
“People in LA/Hollywood really are out to be successful. And the only way they can be successful is if I bring them something that will make them successful. They have more trust in me now.”
“But they’re not going to go for a story about a dog that eats dead birds. You still have to come up with an amazing project.”
Wessler’s day-to-day workload depends on where he is in the filmmaking process. Early on, he spends a lot of time developing scripts with writers.
“We sit down and talk about the script for days at a time in a room. It’s fun. I love it. I’m an idea guy. I come up with a lot of ideas. Are they all good? Absolutely not. But if I come up with one good idea in five, that’s a good track record.”
When the script is ready to go, he reaches out to movie studios to get the project greenlit. Once that happens, he scouts locations to save time for the director.
During production, he acts as a liaison and diplomat – trying to keep the studio happy while at the same time protecting the director.
“I’m a little bit of a control freak,” he says. “I have to know what everybody’s doing or I get nervous.”
After more than 30 years of working with the Farrelly brothers, including a grueling three-month award circuit with Peter, Wessler is ready to branch out on his own for a while.
He recently became involved with a project to build a Warsaw Ghetto Museum at the site of a Jewish Children’s Hospital where Janusz Korczak once practiced. He made a video seeking donations of artifacts.
He’s prepping a $7 million indie movie called Palmer, to be directed by Fisher Stevens, who won a documentary Oscar for The Cove.
He’s also producing his first animated children’s movie, based on a Swedish book called Handbook for Superheroes.
He knows that the movie business is changing, with the rise of streaming platforms like Netflix. He notes that in China 85% of people watch movies on their phones.
“It’s just the way things are. But I prefer sitting in a theater with people and feeling the rumbling and stirring of humans in an exciting moment. I’m worried that kids won’t know that feeling.”
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Lauri Donahue is an award-winning American-Israeli screenwriter and playwright.