Monday, April 1, 2019
Mary-Kate, Ashley and Me
Everything is online, where it can easily be found. But because of the endless mass of information, some tidbits hide in plain sight. Google my name—go ahead, plug "Neil Steinberg" into the search engine. You'll see, on the left, a listing, my Wikipedia page and this blog and such. On the right, a little box, with the fly-on-the-ceiling column bug perspective the paper took years ago, and some of the books that nobody but me thinks about anymore.
And movies. I don't talk about the movies much, for reasons that will become clear. But in this Me Too moment, I suppose I should get ahead of the curve and spill the beans myself.
"Getting There," "Our Lips are Sealed" "Passport to Paris" —what are those? They are the direct-to-video movies made by the Olsen Twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. I was the producer of the movies. If you are unfamiliar with Hollywood, the producer puts up the money and makes profit—or, as it often turns out, takes the loss.
How did that happen? The Olsen Twins were fairly big stars at the time. They debuted as infants on "Full House" and had a variety of cameos while developing themselves as pre-teen fashion icons.
It was a different era. The late 1990s, I took several protracted leaves, supposedly to raise our newborns with my wife. But I had time on my hands—they napped a lot. I got bored, money was tight—these were unpaid leaves—and I took a variety of freelance assignments. Rolling Stone asked me to profile this pair of 12-year-olds, the Olsen Twins, who were introducing their own line of glitter that was popular among music fans. They came to Chicago as part of their promotional tour—FaceFantasy the stuff was called—and I went down to the Ambassador East and met them and their manager.
Journalists know how difficult it is to interview children, even one-on-one. Now make it two kids, two girls, two 12-year-old twins who have been famous literally their whole lives. They never took their eyes off the big television in their suite, but laid on their stomachs, watching. When their manager snapped it off and asked them to look at the nice man and answer his questions, they shot me a single glance of searing annoyance and contempt that is burnt into my retinas to this day, let out a howl of laughter and began gibbering to each other in their own private language, twaddling their fingers together in some kind of private twins code.
Not an auspicious start. The manager—April Fowler, I can't forget that name—and I repair to the bar where, many martinis later, I had learned of her woes, how difficult the twins were to work with, what a fortune could be made for the person who would snap the whip and get them in front of a camera.
I woke up the next morning with the worst hangover of my life, notes scribbled on a bunch of bar napkins, and a contract to produce the next three direct-to-video Olsen Twins movies. My wife thought I was insane, but she was bearing the brunt of a newborn and a toddler. I had money from a book. Next thing I knew I was paying for gaffers and best boys and set designers while flying around the country, trying to find bigger fools and convince them to kick in even more money into our movie.
Given the Olsen Twins history of successful ruinous litigation against anything critical written about them, I suppose the less I say now, the better. Let's just leave it that the movies had a way of departing radically from my initial concept as producer. For instance, what I proposed as "Nursed by a Wolf," casting the twins as female versions of Castor and Pollux and retelling the founding of Rome as a madcap adventure turned into "Passport to Paris" a romp through that exceedingly expensive city. "Our Lips Are Sealed" began as a meditation on duality in Western culture, yet ended up a chase movie set in even-more-expensive Australia.
Economics and my own demands at home left me little time to visit them on set or exert the control I probably should have as producer. I remember the last check I wrote—$1,234 worth of long-distance phone calls between Sydney and some boy in Montclair, New Jersey. Then I was depleted and nudged aside by investors with deeper pockets, retaining producer credit and what little of my pride remained.
Anyway, enough of this. I'm kind of sorry I brought it up. The Olsen Twins actually deal with my stint as their money man in a somewhat kind fashion in their recent biography, "Our Struggle" (Knopf: $26.99). You can read their description here.