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Growing up in Little Rock, Brad Simpson had a passion for movies. Sitting in darkened theaters across the city or watching videos at home, he immersed himself in everything from fun flicks to classics while also engaging in the thriving children’s theater scene at the Arkansas Arts Center.
Some might think a guy like Simpson was living in a fantasy world. But he’s made the most of those films and plays by parlaying his creative interests into a career working with some of the most respected people in the film industry — including his new job as the producing partner of one of the biggest stars on the planet, Leonardo DiCaprio.
Now, as DiCaprio’s acclaimed new film “The Aviator” takes flight across America’s movie screens accompanied by multiple Oscar nominations, Simpson finds himself in his most challenging position yet. He’s director of production for the actor’s personal production company, Appian Way Productions. But the enthusiastic 31-year-old — who was clad in sneakers, black-rimmed glasses, a blazer and three-day beard when we met him — still looks back with pride on the lessons he learned in Little Rock.
“I was really involved in the Arts Center theater programs there, and that was my one big creative outlet. It’s a great thing to have there because really creative kids can come together and have an outlet and do important work there,” Simpson recalls. “It was my dream to somehow be involved in movies. You don’t know when you’re 10, 11 or 12 what that means, how you can do it, so to be where I am now is amazing.
“Writers and directors are like rock stars to me. I get to sit with somebody like Michael Mann [Oscar-nominated director of “Collateral” and “The Insider”] or go see a screening of a Scorsese film before it comes out, and that’s really living my dream.”
That dream was birthed in a time he fondly recalls as “David Pryor’s and Bill Clinton’s Arkansas,” at a time when in his eyes Arkansas was “a progressive, solid, Democratic state.” In fact, his mom, Peggy Simpson, worked for Pryor during his governorship and throughout his congressional career while his dad, Dhale, built a career at what was then known as Systematics.
They were part of the wave of young professionals who moved into downtown neighborhoods like the Quapaw Quarter in the 1970s, seeking to revitalize the area while landing great housing deals. Brad remembers a childhood surrounded by home restorations and dinner parties, with a babysitting co-op to look out for the children. He proudly notes that the extensive social interactions resulted in “a lot of kids who have gone on to do great creative things around the country.”
Looking back, Dhale Simpson recalls he and Peggy “always knew he’d be successful in anything he did” and therefore supported his creative interests as much as possible, whether encouraging Brad in his early interest in political cartooning or later enabling him to take acting and voice lessons in New York during a two-year stretch in which Systematics transferred the family up north. Dhale also credited Brad’s “total recall” of whatever environment he was in and of the people he met as an early sign that he could stand out in any career field or social situation.
“There was no doubt it was going to work out for him. Everything he was doing was preparing him for this. Early on, he did the acting route, and then we bought a big bulky VHS camera and he morphed from actor to director,” Dhale Simpson says. “He was dictatorial around the neighborhood kids but they loved doing his movies. If you have a creative, driven kid who knows what he wants to do, then you just stay out of the way and just fuel the fire or at least find the fire to the extent that we could.”
In addition to the support of his close-knit family and friends, Brad Simpson also sees his Southern upbringing as an advantage.
“Being from the South gave me an appreciation for storytelling, the art of telling a yarn, and being able to take that perspective around the country with me,” he explains. “And it certainly helped me a little bit whenever I meet an agent. They don’t meet that many people from LR so they’re surprised and it’s so alien, but it makes a conversation starter.”
Simpson’s own creative journey from Little Rock to Hollywood began with his graduation from Brown University’s film arts program in 1994. He moved straight to New York City, but entered the film industry from the grunt-work side as a production assistant.
“I was making coffee, lugging things around and networking, but then there’d be these little moments of magic when they say ‘let’s roll,’ ” says Simpson. “I started working on a movie for a company called Killer Films, met [its founder] Christine Vachon, and said I’d like to work with her. I had to work for free for a couple of months, wound up becoming her assistant, and the next thing I knew I was being flown to London to work on ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ a big movie set with people wearing costumes with feathers, plus big songs and huge cranes.”
That was just the beginning of a heady 10-year run, in which the Killer staff’s small size but impeccable taste gave Simpson hands-on experience producing such recent successes as “One Hour Photo,” “Happiness,” the Oscar-nominated “Far From Heaven,” and “Boys Don’t Cry.” “Boys” landed two Oscar nominations for its stars Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny, with Swank winning the Best Actress prize. The work was fast and furious, but the rewards for a boy from a small Southern city were enormous. He was quickly promoted to become Killer’s head of development.
“The great thing about Christine [Vachon] is that she throws you in there. I’d do everything from find material, bring it to writers and directors, and help get the financing,” he explains. “Then I’d be there every day on set, cut the bagels, fight the studio on the movies’ length and ratings, and fight for the film when it came out and either bask in the glory or be depressed in defeat. But there’s nothing like going to the Academy Awards, sitting in the third row surrounded by the actors and directors who were my idols.”
For her part, Vachon recalls Simpson’s greatest strength was his ability to deal with the volatile needs of directors and acting talent of all levels.
“He was very persistent and learned very quickly how to deal with the directors and talent, which is real talent. Dealing with our directors and our own needs, which can be quirky, and dealing with them so they can be their creative best shows a great deal of skill,” says Vachon. “The demands of some of these films were extraordinary — partly the subject matter, and partly the inexperience of a lot of people involved. There are some kinds of movies that require a lot of handholding creatively that is above and beyond, and where you have to guide the director through the process while making certain the health of the project isn’t damaged. He really excelled at that.”
It was while working at Killer that Simpson met his fiancee, Carolyn Hayes. They currently maintain a bicoastal relationship. She still works for Killer in New York, but Hayes is used to encountering in a world different from her own.
“Everyone likes him,” Hayes said, “because he’s an unlikely combination of a good listener and a really good talker. He can talk with anyone about anything on any level, and that makes him great with writers and directors.
“It’s a different way of communicating in Arkansas, an openness that comes from there and is definitely not a show. Plus, he introduced me to purple hull peas, which I never even heard of before I went to Arkansas but can’t imagine spending New Year’s Eve without now.”
But after being involved with 30 films in eight years, Simpson felt the call to other adventures in the film world. The clearest call came from DiCaprio, who was eager to launch his own production company. The young superstar had established Appian Way with funding from foreign-film sales wizard Graham King, and now he wanted Simpson to be the president of production and oversee his Beverly Hills office on a daily basis.
Simpson’s job is to take Appian Way’s projects “to the next level creatively” once King and others line up the financing. While he came aboard just last month and wasn’t involved in the making of “The Aviator,” Simpson is excited to note two upcoming projects with director Mann about the founding of the FBI, and others with Oscar-winning screenwriter John Logan (“Gladiator”).
“We want to develop good stuff, great stuff that can go with or without Leonardo. We want to have a group of writers and directors that we produce for, when they work with Leo or not, and make a home for writers and directors as well,” says Simpson. “There are fewer production companies and studios out there right now, and it’s harder to be a producer because everyone’s scrambling for the same piece of the pie. We’re looking for projects in the $15 million and above range, at two levels: for Leonardo at a larger budget, but also for other actors, the $15 [million] to $45 million feature range that is under-serviced by studios in the age of movies like ‘Spider Man.’ ”
Simpson names actor-producer-director Danny DeVito’s production company Jersey Films as the ideal company he and DiCaprio would like to emulate. While producing many of DeVito’s films over the years, the company has also developed a wide range of innovative fare for others, such as “Out of Sight,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Pulp Fiction.”
Such ambitious goals underscore the drive of DiCaprio, a 30-year-old actor working with the industry’s top directors on a regular basis. Since DiCaprio won massive popularity with his starring role in “Titanic,” the most financially successful film of all time, Simpson’s new boss has taken on challenge after challenge.
“He’s a smart dedicated guy who wants to work with great filmmakers. He could have done anything after ‘Titanic,’ but chose to continue working with Boyle, Scorsese and Mann,” says Simpson. “He’s truly a lover of film — old Italian cinema especially, and it shows in the projects he attracts and the foreign movie posters in the office.”
Simpson believes that the very title of producer has been devalued in the film industry as more and more people tend to latch onto the title “without exactly doing much other than signing a check.”
“To me, a producer’s main job is supposed to be as an advocate for a film, someone who comes in early on and has an idea or part of an idea, helps the filmmaker develop an idea, pulls the financing and talent together along with the creative elements, and supervises it all the way through to the ad campaign,” says Simpson. “Now it’s a lawyer who helped raise a few grand. Whether it’s a gigantic popcorn epic, or a low-budget guerrilla film shoot, the producer is constantly there helping it be realized. We only want to do movies that we know in our guts we love.”
But before a producer can get to the exciting battlefields of production, he or she must slog through reading scores of scripts — “bad and mediocre ones to brilliant” — and searching through books and articles for adaptation subjects, or looking at old films for ones worth remaking. And while the rewards of producing a film can be immense, producers like Simpson also have to live with uncertainty between projects as the truly great compensation usually kicks in only with a film’s production start date.
“People don’t realize how complicated it is to put together a film, especially now,” says Simpson. “Matching talent with films and trying to make them speak to people around the world because it’s a global marketplace is a challenge that people don’t realize. But this is a place for people who want to chase dreams, and there are a lot of people who are chasing them all the way from Arkansas.”
Facing the recent holidays as he sat happily in Appian Way’s Beverly Hills offices, surrounded by walls covered with foreign-theater versions of posters of American classics, such as the Polish film poster for “Raging Bull,” Simpson could look back with genuine satisfaction at a career that has already accomplished much but has much more in store.
He lives in the Hollywood Hills, in an area named Beachwood Canyon that was Charlie Chaplin’s first beachhead in the Los Angeles area, so he feels “like I’m in old-time Hollywood.” He goes to revival movie houses to watch classics — a hobby DiCaprio also shares — and explores the odder corners of historic Los Angeles. And while he hates the beach, his fiancee Hayes is adept at getting him out to the ocean.
His folks have moved out of the Quapaw Quarter and into the Heights, but Simpson still visits his hometown two or three times a year. He drops by Doe’s Eat Place and barbecue joints so that he can rest assured it’s still done right, and these days he brings Hayes home with him.
Thinking back to those childhood days and nights when he watched film after film, he recalls how the “video revolution” brought the obscure, strange and glamorous world of art films into his life long before the Market Street Cinema opened to please a new generation of film buffs. He retains his warmth toward his hometown and its attributes.
“I totally experienced the cool factor from Clinton and people just loved him in New York, and the more we get away from his presidency the more people appreciate his presidency,” he says. “Tons of people I know were coming down to Little Rock for the opening of the Clinton library because it’s a great opportunity for the city to show itself off. With the great riverfront market place, more cosmopolitan food and great theater, it’s a great place to be.”