Harvey Weinstein Promises His 'War And Peace' Miniseries Isn't Homework

Jan 25, 2016
Originally published on January 27, 2016 3:39 pm

Oscar-winning film producer Harvey Weinstein may be best-known for producing movies like Pulp Fiction, The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love. But the indie film mogul has also been busy producing TV. His latest project is a version of War and Peace, a co-production with the BBC and Lifetime.

The miniseries — which airs simultaneously on A+E, Lifetime and History — is an updated retelling of Leo Tolstoy's classic Russian novel. And it's a passion project for Weinstein.

"Sometimes audiences are intimidated by War and Peace and think, 'Oh God, what am I going to be doing ... homework?' This is the least homework assignment you've had in your life," Weinstein promises. "It's sexy; there's nudity. It's unbelievable. These battle sequences are spectacular."

Weinstein is well-versed in the cinematic history of War and Peace. There was the 1956 film with Audrey Hepburn and the 1960s Russian version by Sergei Bondarchuk that won an Oscar.

"It's like the most spectacular stuff you've ever seen," says Weinstein. "That was the quintessential War and Peace."

The Russian version was eight hours long. It cost $100 million to make — in the 1960s — and it featured the Red Army, which re-created Napoleon's battle scenes. Weinstein says shooting a new version on location in Russia was a challenge.

"We picked up the hints like: Hey you guys are never going to make it as good as we did in 1960, why are you bothering? ... It took a fair amount of diplomacy," he says. "We actually got both governments involved; we used ambassadors to help us."

Weinstein says he has been passionate about Tolstoy's epic novel ever since he was a boy. A librarian neighbor gave him a copy to read.

"Even I, at 12, knew that that was a mountain to climb — but actually it wasn't," he says. "It was 1,200 pages; it's got honest-to-God great action, great sex, great love story. You can read it at 12; it just takes a while. I always loved it — it's always been my favorite book."

In an interview at a ski resort in Park City, Utah, Weinstein spoke about great literature and the state of independent film. Days earlier, Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford talked to reporters about the state of independent film.

"You've got streaming, you've got online, you've got all kinds of new distribution. You've got Netflix, HBO. You've got all these other areas out there that didn't exist way back," Redford said. "So as a result, it kind of bleeds away from film. Film is not in a good place."

Weinstein agrees, saying that these days, Hollywood studios are more interested in producing big budget blockbusters than the kinds of films for which his company — and Sundance — are known. Recently, his company had some layoffs and announced it was focusing more on television. Changes like this, though, created opportunities for TV executives like Rob Sharenow, the executive vice president of A+E and Liftetime.

"I think you'll see much more depth, much more unique storytelling, better characters on television," Sharenow says.

He says television and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon are enjoying a renaissance.

"It's the truly extraordinary, excellent works that are really being acknowledged, and praised and standing out," he says. "Something like War and Peace comes along, one of the greatest novels ever written, Harvey, BBC, this amazing package — we jumped on it. I do think that's what audiences expect from television and frankly they're not getting at the multiplex."

When he talks about War and Peace Weinstein lights up. He says he has finally answered that librarian who gave him a copy of the novel all those years ago.

"I'm really proud of this ..." he says. "It's emotional to me. Some things stand out in your life, in your career, and you go full circle."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The TV miniseries "War And Peace" is a passion project for Harvey Weinstein. It continues tonight, airing simultaneously on three channels - A&E, Lifetime and History. NPR's Mandalit Del Barco talked to the Oscar-winning producer about it at the Sundance Film Festival.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Harvey Weinstein may be best known for producing movies like "Pulp Fiction," "The English Patient" and "Shakespeare In Love," but the indie film mogul has also been busy producing TV. His latest project is this version of "War And Peace," a co-production with the BBC and Lifetime.

HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Sometimes audiences are intimidate by, you know, "War And Peace." I'm like, God, you know, what am I doing, homework? This is the least homework assignment you've ever had in your life. It's sexy. There's nudity. It's unbelievable. These battle sequences are spectacular.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WAR AND PEACE")

DEL BARCO: Weinstein is well-versed in the cinematic history of "War And Peace," including the 1956 film with Audrey Hepburn and the 1960s Russian version that won an Oscar.

WEINSTEIN: It's like the most spectacular stuff you've ever seen. That is the quintessential "War And Peace."

DEL BARCO: The Russian version was eight hours long and cost $100 million to make in the 1960s, and it featured the Red Army, which recreated Napolean's battle scenes. Weinstein says shooting a new version on location in Russia was a challenge.

WEINSTEIN: We picked up the hints like, hey, you guys are never going to make it as good as we did in 1960; why are you bothering? You know, whatever, you saw how good it was. It won the Academy Award. Like, what, are you still trying? It took a fair amount of diplomacy, and you know, we actually got, at one point, both governments involved. You know, we had - we used ambassadors, you know, to help us.

DEL BARCO: Weinstein says he's been passionate about Tolstoy's epic novel ever since he was a boy. A librarian neighbor gave him a copy to read.

WEINSTEIN: Even I at 12 knew that that was a mountain to climb. But actually, it wasn't. It was 1,200 pages. It's got, honest to God, great action, great sex, great love story. You know, and you can read it at 12. It's just takes a while. And I always loved it. It's always been my favorite book.

DEL BARCO: In an interview at a ski resort in Park City, Utah, Weinstein waxed about great literature and the state of independent film. Days earlier, Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford talked to reporters about the state of independent film.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT REDFORD: You've got streaming. You've got online. You've got all kinds of new distribution. You've got Netflix, and you've got HBO. You got all these other areas out there that didn't exist way back, and so as a result, it kind of - it kind of bleeds away from film. Film is not in a good place.

DEL BARCO: Harvey Weinstein agrees, saying that these days, Hollywood studios are more interested in producing big-budget blockbusters than the kinds of films for which his company and Sundance are known. Recently, his company had some layoffs and announced it was focusing more on television. Changes like this, though, created opportunities for TV executives like Rob Sharenow.

ROB SHARENOW: I think you'll see much more depth, much more unique storytelling, better characters on television.

DEL BARCO: Sharenow is the executive vice president of A&E and Lifetime. He says television and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon are enjoying a renaissance.

SHARENOW: And it's the truly extraordinary excellent works that are really being acknowledged and praised and standing out. So something like "War And Peace" comes along, you're like, wow, greatest story - you know, one of the greatest novels ever written, Harvey, BBC, this amazing package. We jumped on it. I do think that's what audiences expect from television and, frankly, they're not getting at the multiplex.

DEL BARCO: Weinstein lights up as he reflects on "War And Peace."

WEINSTEIN: I'm really proud of this, and I feel like I've answered the librarian when I was a 12-year-old kid. No, seriously, it's emotional to me. Some things stand out, you know, in your life, in your career, you know, and you go full circle.

DEL BARCO: That's not to say he hasn't stopped offering audiences a cinematic experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SING STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) 'Cause the boot's on the other foot now. Buckley up, we're taking you down. See the curtain's falling, so take your bow.

DEL BARCO: Last night at Sundance, the Weinstein Company premiered "Sing Street," a musical set in Dublin in the 1980s. After a standing ovation, the young stars took to the stage to sing, a live performance that wouldn't be the same on a TV screen or a monitor. Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SING STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) You try to shut me up. I turn the volume up and drown you out. Don't you know the bigger that day are the harder they fall because the boot's... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.