Hollywood director says Wiesenthal Center nixed film

LOS ANGELES — Henry Bean can barely contain his anger when he talks about the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

He blames the Nazi-hunting center — and particularly its associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper — for spoiling a possible deal with Paramount Classics to distribute his prize-winning film "The Believer."

The film is based on the true story of a young Jew who becomes the leader of a virulently anti-Semitic neo-Nazi gang, and kills himself when his background is revealed.

Cooper denies Bean's charges. Paramount Classics, for its part, says its decision to pass on the movie was not related to the Wiesenthal Center's opinion.

In any case, the spat over "The Believer" illustrates the increasingly intense pressure on Hollywood studios to kill controversial projects that may anger special interest groups.

Bean — whose screenwriting credits include "Mulholland Falls" and "Enemy of the State" — won the prestigious grand jury prize for "The Believer" at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

In the early part of February, the Wiesenthal Center was contacted by an intermediary and asked to watch the film.

Cooper, who is used to such requests from directors whose films deal with Nazis or the Holocaust, gathered a group of eight or nine people. Bean spoke to the group for 10 minutes about the making of "The Believer," then left before the film was screened.

From this point on, the stories diverge.

Cooper said his group felt the film just didn't work.

"It's not a good script, and we don't learn the motivation of the protagonist," he said.

Cooper was particularly put off by one "problematic and disturbing" scene in a synagogue, during which skinheads rip a Torah scroll into shreds.

"That scene alone could be a primer for anti-Semitism," he said.

The following day, Paramount asked Cooper for his opinion. He explained his reservations, illustrating them by contrasting "The Believer" with the 1999 film "American History X," which also dealt with American neo-Nazis.

Bean, who has gone through his own Jewish evolution from agnostic to maintaining a kosher home, disagrees with Cooper's assessment.

Reached at his home in New York, he described "The Believer" as "philo-Semitic" and "really a sabotage of bigotry."

Bean sees the reaction of the Cooper group as a form of "Jewish paranoia." He was particularly agitated by criticism of the Torah-ripping scene.

"This scene was crucial because it triggers a change in the main character," he said.

Bean said he was approached by a Paramount representative at Sundance, and thought he was "on the verge of a deal" to distribute the film. Cooper's criticism scared off the decision-makers at Paramount, he said, or at least gave them an excuse to back off from a controversial project.

"You know how frightened people in the entertainment industry are of any opposition," Bean said. "In one of my previous scripts, I mentioned gays — not in a derogatory way — but after protests, the producer took them out."

In retrospect, Bean thinks it was a mistake to show the film at the Wiesenthal Center.

"I wish I had never heard of Rabbi Cooper," he said. "These people can't help a film, but they can hurt it."

The Anti-Defamation League also reviewed "The Believer" — and praised it.

"'The Believer' is a provocative film on a subject that has special resonance for the Jewish community," the ADL's statement read. "The film is gripping and raises troubling issues. While some may find it objectionable, the filmmaker succeeds in his portrayal of this disturbing subject, without legitimizing or glamorizing the hate-filled protagonist, anti-Semitism, or the lifestyle of skinheads."

The third party in the controversy is Paramount Classics, a Paramount subsidiary that specializes in distributing pictures that are outside the Hollywood mainstream.

"'The Believer' is a very good film, but we pick only six to seven films a year, and our slate was full," said David Dinerstein, the co-president of Paramount Classics. "We talked to Bean at Sundance, but we never had a deal on the table."

One strike against "The Believer" was Paramount Classics' perception that promoting the controversial film would be too "labor-intensive" for its small staff.

Dinerstein acknowledged that the studio, when deciding which films to distribute, may take into account whether a given film is likely to offend powerful pressure groups.

"But in the case of 'The Believer,' that didn't play a part," he said.

Nevertheless, the extent to which special interest groups — be they Jewish, Arab-American, gay or animal lovers — affect the content and distribution of movies and television programs remains a valid question in Hollywood.

Recently, for example, the producer of the upcoming thriller "Sum of All Fears" changed Arab terrorists into neo-Nazis after protests from Arab American groups.

"Pressure by outside groups has always been a factor, but it's becoming more intense," veteran television director and screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd said.

"The real pressure comes after a film is completed, to keep it from being shown. Particularly in TV, protesters have found the soft underbelly of the industry by organizing market boycotts," Chetwynd said. "With all major studios owned by large corporations with diversified products, people who don't like, say, a film by Columbia, which is owned by Sony, can threaten not to buy any Sony TV sets."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent