HOLLYWOOD -- Robert Greenwald said the idea for making his new film, "Steal This Movie!," about the life of the 1960s radical-prankster Abbie Hoffman, began when he was talking to his daughters.
"They're in their 20s, college-educated young women who had great interest and excitement about the '60s," he said. "You know, the tie-dyed clothes, the music. They even heard rumors there were drugs back then. But they didn't know much more about it than that."
A short while later, while at a Los Angeles bookstore, he came across an old copy of "Letters From the Underground," the book of correspondence between Hoffman, who died in 1989, and his wife, Anita, during the years the radical was living incognito, on the run from the law. "It was a wonderful love story," Greenwald said. "A bell went off. This would make a wonderful movie."
If anything, he said, the sudden re-emergence of mass street protests -- at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last year, at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and, again this week, at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles -- has only made the story of Hoffman's emergence at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and his subsequent trial, flight and descent into manic-depression more relevant.
"Originally, when we finished the movie and delivered it to Lions Gate Films to be distributed, the thinking was that it would appeal mostly to people who were there back then, to baby boomers and others interested in the nostalgia factor," Greenwald said. "Then, after the WTO demonstrations, it was like an alarm clock went off. We started getting letters from youth groups all around the country who wanted to screen the film. You know, there's a scene in the film where the protesters are trying to get a permit, and they keep getting the runaround, and it's the same sort of thing that happened to the protesters in Philadelphia and Los Angeles this year. It's eerie, like history repeating itself."
After he read the book, he said, he tracked down Anita Hoffman in California and got to know her. "We played volleyball together in Venice, like all good radicals," he said. He told how he had discussed the '60s with his daughters, how he found her book and now wanted to make it into a movie. "She said, 'Absolutely not. It's Hollywood and they'll just screw it up."'
He said he promised to make the movie independent of any studio -- "there wasn't any studio that was going to make a movie on this subject, anyway" -- and promised to show her every draft of the screenplay. And he sent her some of the television movies he had made in the past, like "Forgotten Prisoners" in 1990 (about a crusading lawyer for Amnesty International) and "The Burning Bed" in 1984 (about spousal abuse), and finally Hoffman said he could go ahead.
That was three and a half years ago, Greenwald said. He commissioned a screenplay, began to interview people about Hoffman's life and started to think about casting and raising production money. "We got very lucky," he said. "There was something called a hedge fund. I'll never understand what it is, but they had the money and wanted to invest it." In the end, Vincent D'Onofrio was cast as Abbie and Janeane Garofalo as Anita, who died in late 1998.
Two pre-release screenings were set for this week in Los Angeles, for some of the people who were in town to protest at the convention. And the film's limited release begins Friday in New York and a few other cities.
Now, Greenwald said, he hopes his daughters will have at least a little better understanding of what the '60s were about.
"This movie is about that period of time," he said. "And Abbie is the tour guide."