There are vestiges of his mogulness in his big, sleek white-pine-floored office in midtown Toronto, little hints that the old Robert Lantos, the self-made film honcho, is still in play. Over there, on the built-in, cherry-wood cabinet, a bottle of Tamnavulin scotch set on a small sterling silver tray. Beside it, a curvaceous bottle of Leopold aged-in-fruit gourmet cognac and a couple of cut-glass tumblers.
Strewn haphazardly across his desk are folders containing film scripts. On the walls hang photographs of abstract landscapes; personal photographs, of his two teenaged children, Ari and Sabrina, of his Muskoka cottage; and a few arty shots of women, one by American artist Sheila Metzner of a slim, naked woman draped over a black leather couch.
But otherwise, Lantos is a changed man.
Oh, he was his legendary combative self on some fronts. On the subject of what he thinks are spineless film critics: "Canadian critics don't have the courage to go up against their American counterparts. If The New York Times says a Canadian film is great, they will not take the risk of saying it's not."
And, of course, on the strength of the Canadian film industry: "Canadian films are viewed as way off-centre, and that's the place they belong. The centre is owned and dominated by the Hollywood studios. Anyone who aims to dislodge them is kidding himself or herself and is pretty well doomed to fail."
But mostly Lantos is mellow, philosophical and, believe it or not, spiritually meek.
I had never met him before. I had only heard about him. About the lavish poolside parties in Cannes. About his failed marriage to actress Jennifer Dale.
The ever-present Cuban cigars. The outspokenness that has landed him in hot water, not to mention libel cases. The Saturday-night charisma. The Lothario reputation.
The limos. The jet-set travel. There was always a whiff of the decadent about Lantos, at least there was in the stories I heard, decadence edging on seediness.
Which is why I was wholly unprepared for this: "This sounds very New Age," he says, leaning back on a couch, drawing voluptuously on a cigar. His brown bear eyes flick up at me, squint through the smoke of his exhalation, then out the curtainless windows over his teak-planked deck and its clay-potted topiaries. He sucks his cigar again. Exhales. Pronounces: "It's time for myself. To think and to feel." Another hesitation. A deep breath. "It's time for an internal voyage."
Huh? Lothario is on an "internal voyage?" The man who once thundered to a former employee, "When I talk, it's as if God is talking." This is the feature presentation of Robert Lantos: The Sequel.
Part One began in Montreal during the early seventies when Lantos, a Hungarian Jew, was in the soft-porn film business. From there, he and his long-time friend, Victor Loewy, co-founded Alliance Communications and developed the business into an enormous success.
His trajectory is that of the Canadian film business. "When he started, there was no film business in Canada," says Helga Stephenson, former chair of Viacom Canada who now consults for Lantos.
His accomplishments are not insignificant. He has been involved in all Canadian English-language feature films (plus one French-language film) selected in Cannes -- ever -- with the exception of a National Film Board movie in 1969.
Two years ago, Loewy and Lantos sold Alliance to Atlantis Communications in a reverse takeover, forming Alliance Atlantis, with revenues of $750-million at the time and a ranking among the top 12 film and television studios in North America. Loewy stayed on as chairman of Alliance Atlantis Motion Picture Distribution. Lantos cashed out with a reported $60-million and a deal, worth $100-million, to produce films exclusively for Alliance Atlantis over no less than three years. He had negotiated a golden parachute and a very cushy landing.
That was the beginning of the sequel -- his morphing from the cinematic figure of The Mogul in all his eighties-style excess to a more subtle, more sensitive persona of an independent movie producer, The Dreamer.
His company is called Serendipity Point Films. A receptionist answers the phone with a singsong voice, saying "Serendipity!" as though it was a beauty spa specializing in aromatherapy body wraps. The building, a slim greystone townhouse, is designed according to feng shui principles, and has the feel of an exclusive club. You have to ring a doorbell to be let in through the glass and iron front door.
At the centre of the onyx and limestone courtyard, a huge golden cappuccino maker, the size of a small motorcycle and with an eagle atop it, stands behind a bar, situated beneath an open stairwell, flooded with natural light from a three-storey wall of glass. Lantos won't divulge the cost of the property or how much he spent rebuilding it under the guidance of architect Andrew Volgyesi and interior designers Cecconi Simone. "It was not done for any practical or logical business reasons," he offers.
He is still a big spender. He is still single. (He passes politely on the subject of his personal life, although he admits he is no longer living with girlfriend Debra Thier, a photographer.) He still goes to the airport, as he will following our talk, in a limousine. But he looks different. His hair is long, bouncy, cut in the style of a choirboy. Not a grey hair on his 51-year-old head. He is thinner. The mustache has gone. He comes towards me, down the length of his long living room of an office, a shortish man with his beige linen shirttails untucked over black pants. He motions to the couches.
Asked how he finds the adjustment from honcho to independent producer, he stretches out in his seat, and props his feet, shod in black slip-on sandals, on the glass coffee table. "I have to correct you," he says in his rumbling accented voice. "I was not a honcho. I was a slave."
He doesn't miss the buzz of running a big company? Serendipity employs 12 people. Alliance, at the time of the sale, had close to 500. "If there was any chance of me missing it, I wouldn't have done it," he says, adding that he had become keenly aware of how precious time is. "I wanted to be able to control my time and allocate it and invest it along with my energy where I saw fit."
But this may be a comment from his own carefully crafted script for The Sequel.
Stephenson says there are times "when he misses the heft of a big company behind him." Loewy acknowledges that "for sure, he [Lantos]misses the rush you get every day from running a big organization, the sense of adventure." But neither one thinks that his mourning of what was is significant. They are both quick to point out that the sensitive, dreamy side of Lantos, so much in evidence during this interview, is a part of him that was always there, just buried and longing to get out.
"What is it in your character that makes you want to opt for serenity?" I ask him. He pauses, puffs on his cigar. "There's another way of asking that question," he responds. "Why did I do the other for as long as I did if in fact this stage is compatible with who I really am?" His wide craggy face cracks into a smile. "I did the other as a means to an end."
It's not really you? The Mogul character?
"I never called myself a mogul. I think because this country has never had one, someone was drafted for the job." He gets up to retrieve his lighter, then sits down again, leaning forward, silent for a moment, as he touches a flame delicately to the tip of his cigar. "I discovered a long time ago that whether I like it or not, I stand out from a crowd. For a long time when I was a kid I thought that was a drawback. I was different for the very simple reason of geographic dislocation.
"Born in Hungary. Raised in Uruguay. Moved to Montreal. I tried to blend in but it didn't quite work, and eventually, I discovered that being different was actually something I could use, I could build upon. It often won me more foes than friends, but it worked for me."
You created the persona?
"I'm not sure I entirely created it or if it was simply painted upon me and I wore it and I wore it with relish. I was a CEO of a large publicly traded company that was the industry leader for many years. Sensitivity was not front and centre when it came to inspiring confidence in financial markets."
He is suddenly a fascinating portrait of a man who pushed himself to sublimate an aspect of his personality that he can now unearth and wave in the faces of all those too afraid to live their dreams. Oh yes, there is power in his choice, the power of disengagement. The ability to play the game, win it, then quit, diminishes those left playing. It's just a game, after all, and if you can't win it, if you can't figure out the rules, then you're not a player, but a pawn.
"It would have been very seductive to keep going," Lantos says. "But there are various layers of dreams, and when some of them were realized, I disciplined myself to move on to the next."
His dream for Serendipity is to produce films at his own pace and of consistent quality. "I have no desire to make formula [films]but I wouldn't entirely pigeonhole the films I make as 'auteur.' Some will be pure entertainment, fun."
So far, Lantos has released three movies: David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, Istvan Szabo's Sunshine and Denys Arcand's Stardom, which will open the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall. He has 11 films in the works. "My development slate is eclectic. From Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion to Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version to a film noir by Bruce MacDonald to a comedy that [actor]Paul Gross wrote and will star in."
There are no first-look deals with some of the directors, such as Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, with whom he has had long working relationships. But Cronenberg is writing a script for him, and Lantos will produce Egoyan's next film, due out next year.
For all his New Agey talk about life and his love of film's storytelling power, it's hard to figure out what Lantos wants. He admits he no longer has anything to prove. He says that his greatest validation for Sunshine, a romantic epic about three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family through the turmoil of the war and the Holocaust, was not the Genie award for the best Canadian movie, but on the night of its premiere when his children turned to him and said, "Now we understand where our grandmother came from."
Is making money not important any more? He shakes his head -- no. What then is the "internal voyage" about? Again, a pause. A puff on the cigar. The gravelly voice from behind a screen of smoke: "I have known intuitively that happiness is not the same as success. They are easily confused but they are entirely different."
You're looking for happiness then? "I'm looking to allow time for it," he says slowly.
Half an hour later, back in my office, Lantos calls from his limousine on the way to the airport. There's just one thing he wants to add.
"The other validation for Sunshine that means a lot is that it is the most successful independent film in the American marketplace this summer." Was this The Mogul rearing his head again? Perhaps. Or maybe The Dreamer was worried that he had come across as though he wasn't interested in playing the game -- at least a little bit and on his own terms.