LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles -- MARK CARLINER -- Gilman, class of '56, Princeton, class of '60 -- sees his next project as completing a circle.
"I majored in Russian history at Princeton so this is like filming my senior thesis," he said of the three-hour movie on Joseph Stalin he's producing for HBO.
In an interesting bit of casting, Robert Duvall, an actor known for his very American roles, will be Stalin.
"He heard about it, got the script through his agent, and called me up," Carliner said at a party thrown here by HBO.
"He really wanted to do it and obviously I was glad to get him. I think he's equally attracted to and terrified of the role. That should lead to an interesting performance."
Duvall, also at the party, agreed that Stalin was about as far as you can get from his last work for television, the portrayal of cowboy philosopher Augustus McRae in the acclaimed CBS miniseries "Lonesome Dove."
"Stalin is different, so different from Augustus McRae. That's one reason I wanted to do it, because it is so different," Duvall said. "I could have retired after Augustus McRae. The English have Hamlet and King Lear. I have Augustus McRae.
"But I see Stalin as very Shakespearean," Duvall added. "If Shakespeare were alive today, I think he'd be writing about Stalin."
The movie will be filmed in the Soviet Union starting in October. Carliner has been granted unprecedented access to the Kremlin, he said, and will be filming in places where cameras have never been allowed for anything other than documentaries.
"We'll be in the actual courtrooms where the trials took place, in meeting rooms, apartments and prisons," Carliner said.
This cooperation came about because a group of Soviet officials happened to be visiting the United States when ABC aired "Disaster at Silo Seven," a movie Carliner produced that has an anti-nuclear theme.
The Soviets arranged to have the film shown in their country and invited Carliner to come travel around the country giving seminars and lectures. He said the reception he received was extraordinary.
"They ran the movie on a Sunday night on the only channel available. It was a producer's dream. You got a 100 rating and 100 share. I would be giving a lecture and ask how many people had seen the film and every hand in the room would go up," Carliner said.
He began making inquiries about the possibility of producing a Stalin movie and, with glasnost in full swing, received encouraging responses.
"I took the idea to ABC and they told me, 'If you could get the Air Force to cooperate in making an anti-nuclear movie, then you tTC can probably get the Russians to cooperate in making a movie about their worst villain,' " Carliner said.
Eventually, the project did not get a go-ahead at ABC. HBO, whose chairman Michael Fuchs has been interested in making a Stalin movie for years, picked it up.
Carliner said that researching and writing the script has been full-time work for the past two years. He's had help from a number of top Soviet officials who have studied the Stalin era and have allowed Carliner access to archives and records.
"I just think it's so exciting to be going to Russia at this time in [the country's] history, with all that's going on, to be making a movie about this man who is responsible for so much of it," Carliner said.
"I really see it as a gangster movie, a Russian gangster movie. You can't depict the tens of millions of people he killed, but you can show what he did to his family and the other people around him," he added.
"One official, a top aide to Boris Yeltsin,
told me that only an American could make this movie. For one thing, like so much of the world, they are very interested in everything American, in what America thinks. They want to know what we think about a man like Stalin.
"But they also realize that they are too close to Stalin, that even all these years later, passions run too high for them to get enough distance to make an objective film.
"Of course, one reason I want to make this film is because I am of Russian heritage."
Carliner got his start in entertainment putting on puppet shows for his Mount Washington neighbors. After graduating from Gilman and attending Princeton, he earned a master's degree at Harvard Business School and went to work for CBS. He gave Connie Selleca her first major job when he produced the series "Flying High" and produced a number of theatrical films including "Crossroads," which was about blues guitar players.
"But I've disappeared for the last couple of years while I've been working on Stalin," he said.