While many can say they grew up watching the movies produced on the Warner Bros. lot, few can say that they literally grew up on the lot, but Cass Warner is one of them. The daughter of writer-producer Milton Sperling and granddaughter to Warner co-founder Harry Warner, Cass made the Burbank studio facility her second home, sitting on on story meetings with her father and growing up with the business all around her. Now she has her own production company dubbed Warner Sisters and her latest production is the documentary The Brothers Warner, which hits the shelves on DVD today, March 9. I recently had the chance to speak with Warner, who directed this new documentary, and here's what she had to say.
In the 90s, you wrote the book about your grandfather and their whole story. At what point did you realize that this story could become a film, a documentary?
Cass Warner: My background is filmmaking, at least growing up in it. That was always the first thing I saw, but the book seemed to be a stepping stone into, well, I was hoping a mini-series, but I'm actually glad I didn't go that route. When I finally did get someone interested in it, it was all about the dirt and scandal, which is not really what I'm interested in. I'm interested in the fact that these were four extraordinary immigrants who came from nothing and wouldn't quit until they reached their goal, using every incentive as a reason to do the next step. I think that's an extremely important life philosophy, so I'm much more interested in doing a factual, entertaining piece than a scandalous entertaining piece (Laughs).
The mini-series would have taken on a whole different tone then, I take it.
Cass Warner: Yeah. The only thing I am sorry about is that I'd have about four hours (Laughs).
I found it interesting that you had a lot of other people on here from the other major studios as well, like Roy Disney and (Paramount's) Sherry Lansing. Was that just as important to you, to get an outside perspective on the studio as well as an inside perspective?
Cass Warner: Well, Roy and I have in common that we were a generation after the folks who created it. He is a much more accomplished businessman than me, but I wanted that perspective.
You have quite a line-up of people you talked to in the film. Can you talk about the process of everyone that you talked to for the film?
Cass Warner: It was challenging because I was really looking for people who were still alive and were there or knew them. My mother, my aunt, Eddie Bockser, the employee for 55 years, Lois McGrew, my grandfather's secretary, they all knew them. I had compiled, from researching the book, audio interviews with them, thank God. I had audio recordings of my deceased cousin Jack Jr., Lena, Sam's wife, Jack Warner's secretary, and on and on. Luckily I have those audio interviews, and luckily I found my grandfather's voice, recorded on an album, giving these speeches which are gold to me. It wasn't easy, to find people who could talk about them as people. The other people that I chose, Sherry Lansing, Norman Lear, Michael Birdwell, the professors, were people who were familiar with them. They have a certain mindset and it was just like filling in the blanks with people now and then. Then there's the photos and the footage, it was great fun. It's like a collage.
Out of the people you had talked to, were there any particularly surprising revelations that you hadn't known about in your research?
Cass Warner: I mean, I'm like a family private investigator. I don't know what else to call me. Any bit of information or understanding of what's going on in that time period, they responded to certain things like my grandfather being the first one to pull out of Germany because of Hitler, taking his business out of Germany in 1934 before any other studios. If you don't know the significance of that, it wouldn't mean too much. It's very telling of his moral code and his integrity as a businessman, which I'm very proud of, obviously. Learning history from reading and these professors I spoke to, that was very telling. It helped me understand the brothers as people. The fact that they were the first socially-conscious company to take topics for stories, screenplays, out of the headlines of newspapers, is something I'm also very proud of. They addressed the man on the street and the topics of the day. There were also Dennis Hopper's anecdote's about Jack, which were quite telling (Laughs).
Since you essentially grew up on the lot, I was curious if you have a favorite memory of just being there and growing up on the lot?
Cass Warner: Oh God, it was magical. I mean, it really was better than going to the circus because there was always something new. I would go over to the soundstage when they were shooting - as long as that red light wasn't on - and just stand there and watch the magic of this god-like creation. They're creating life for these characters and it was hard not to be bit by the bug. My father, being an Oscar-nominated writer/producer, would include me in his story meetings, even before I could read. He would hand me a script and I would sit there and watch this fun of creating a story and how much fun he had. He just loved what he did. That was thrilling to me and watching my grandfather treat everyone on the lot the same. In fact, he preferred speaking to the janitors than to the stars. He really was a down-to-earth guy. He had one of those jobs at one point, whether he was shining shoes or fixing shoes with his father when he began. He had a respect for hard-working people and knew everything about everyone on the lot and you could see how interested he was in his extended family. That was how he thought of everybody.
It was announced that a fictional film based on this is in the works, with Nicholas Pileggi writing the script. Are there any updates on that you can give us? How is that moving along?
Cass Warner: It's moving along fine. Nick is at the tail end of the first draft, which is very exciting. I'm honored to work with Alain Goldman, who did La Vie en Rose, one of my favorite movies. It took a French producer to tell the beginning of Hollywood story. My one-liner for it, which he loves, is Cain and Abel go to Hollywood: A Camelot told Jewish-Godfather style (Laughs).
Cass Warner: (Laughs) It's quite exciting. When I was writing the book, I saw it as a screenplay, I saw it on the screen. It's been almost 30 years where I've been the only one going, 'This is a great story!' So to have an agreement with this caliber of artists, it's quite something.
Do you have anyone in mind for the cast yet?
Cass Warner: It's too early to say, but we've got some A-list people showing interest, which is great, and big-time directors wanting to see it, so that's all very good.
Are there any names you can mention to us?
Cass Warner: I can't, sorry. It's against the rules, you know.
There are some other projects you're developing right now. Is there anything you can say about A Shade of Grey or Dog Stories?
Cass Warner: Oh, thank you for asking. Warner Sisters is alive and well and A Shade of Grey is out to one of my favorite actors and directors. Again, I can't say who, but I call it my To Kill a Mockingbird, because it looks at the lives of two children, one is white and one is African-American. It's about their friendship and the indoctrination of our prejudiced world and how their friendship survives. It's set in 1943 in Oklahoma, when the common enemy was Hitler, so blacks and whites fought together. These kids were from a very poor part of Oklahoma, so people were trying to survive no matter what their color was. It was just one of those stories that I heard on a walk many years ago and I convinced the writer to do it as a novel, it's based on a true story. He wrote the script to go with the book and I helped him with that, which was great fun. I've been trying to get it made since, being a persistent Warner, I continue looking for the money. I actually have some great talent, and some letters of intent, but I have a particular director who also could help me improve the script from a perspective I don't have. Dog Stories is a coming of age, fun film for young people to showcase themselves, which I love. The projects which I'm really proud to have on my slate are Howard Koch, the writer of Casablanca, became like a surrogate grandfather to me. I was interviewing him for my book and he gave me the honor of taking all of his unproduced screenplays and novels to get made into films. I've been very respectful of his work being what it is. I mean, he's the writer of the most-watched movie on the planet, Casablanca, so people have offered to bring it up to date, and I just can't do it. It would be blasphemous, I think, to do that, so I have one of his novels called The Coldest War out to someone. Again, I can't say who, who I respect greatly. It's sort of an environmental China Syndrome sort of story and I'm working on that as well.
Finally, what would you like to say to fans of the studio about why they should pick up The Brothers Warner on DVD?
Cass Warner: Because it's universal. It should strike and inspire those who watch it, that's my intention. We are in hard times and they went through the most incredible barriers to reach their goals and dreams. What I love about them is they would just not quit. If someone said they couldn't do something, they used that as an incentive to do the next thing. 'No' or 'Can't' just didn't exist in their universe, and I think that's extremely important in this time, to remind people to be active and not give up.
Great. That's all I have for you, Cass. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck with your upcoming projects
Cass Warner: Well, thank you.
You can pick up Cass Warner's brand new documentary The Brothers Warner on DVD shelves everywhere starting today, March 9