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Lessons from a Movie Maverick

Producer Mike De Luca speaks at COM tonight

Mike De Luca earned his reputation as a risk-taking producer with edgy films such as 1998’s “Boogie Nights.” Image courtesy of Amazon.com

Being a film-school dropout, a comic book collector, and a self-professed nerd may not be a guarantee of Hollywood success — but in Mike De Luca’s case, it didn’t hurt. Armed with a little bit of luck and a whole lot of instinct, the Brooklyn native has become a producer known for taking risks, and among his credits are some of the edgiest films ever to become mainstream hits, including Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Seven, Wag the Dog, and The Mask. 

After three years at DreamWorks, De Luca is currently a producer at Columbia Pictures. He will give students an overview of his unorthodox career path — and offer tips for aspiring moviemakers — in a master class at the College of Communication tonight, March 22, along with his production partner, Dana Brunetti. The two have been in Boston for the past few weeks filming Bringing Down the House, a new movie starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth. The moviemakers have filmed several scenes on the BU campus.

De Luca got his start in the business at New York University’s film school at age 17, but there was no indication at the time that he was a major player in the making. “I had no idea what I wanted to do in the business,” he says. “But I was inspired by interviews that Spielberg and Lucas gave right after Jaws and Star Wars. Spielberg said he wished he’d gone to film school, and I was totally intrigued. The best part was discovering all the classics — French new wave, Italian neorealism, silent films — all the things that I wasn’t exposed to before.”

An internship at New Line Cinema gave him a foot in the door, and he worked his way up quickly, working first as a screenwriter on Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and executive producer of the television series Freddy’s Nightmares. Both were spin-offs of the successful horror franchise A Nightmare on Elm Street, and with his love for underground comics, De Luca felt right at home. “I’ve always been a comic book geek, I love escapist fantasy fare, and I like being scared,” he says. “That part of my taste hasn’t changed at all.”

By 1995, at age 29, he’d become a studio executive. “I’d like to claim some expertise, but it was more good timing,” he says. “Because of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchises, the studio grew and I was able to grow with it. We were always trying to do the new thing, working with the tastes and the budgets we had. And you can take more risks when the numbers are in your favor. We liked the idea of creating new stars, as opposed to waiting around for the top five writers and directors to become available.”

One of De Luca’s more daring films, American History X, looked at neo-Naziism and the skinhead culture. He got into political satire with Wag the Dog, a film whose jabs could easily apply to either political party. “To me, that film is a satire of spin,” he says. “I felt we were at the point where spin was valued more than substance, and the intersection of politics and Hollywood was getting interesting.”

With success came a bad-boy reputation that De Luca admits he lived up to. In 1998 he was thrown out of an Oscar party, hosted by no less than Arnold Rifkin, head of William Morris’ motion picture division, for public misbehavior. “I’m sure the kids today are a lot more mature than I was,” he says. “I had classic late-bloomer syndrome — I cut loose in my 20s and early 30s, instead of at 12, when you’re supposed to. I definitely grew out of it, but for a while I was the nerd from high school who made good. The kids should definitely not try this at home.”

What they should do, according to De Luca, is follow their creative instincts the way he did. “This may sound corny, but you’ve got to follow your own tastes and opinions,” he says. “This is not an industry where you need any formal training. You can come from any walk of life and know what a good story is and how to tell it. It just takes some tenacity.”

Mike De Luca and Dana Brunetti speak tonight in COM Room B-05 at 7 p.m. as part of COM’s Conversations Distinguished Lecture Series. The master class is free and open to all BU students.