Bill Horberg admired the daring and ambition of his older sister, Marguerite, when they were growing up on the north side. "She was always a trailblazer," he says. "She was listening to jazz when everybody else was listening to the Jackson 5."
Last week the 40-year-old Horberg returned home from Los Angeles for a screening of a film he produced, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. It was a benefit for HotHouse, the nightclub his sister has run since 1990.
You could call it payback. "When we were kids, she would drag me to these Amvets meetings and flea markets searching for old records and books, and it was there I found an old paperback copy of Patricia Highsmith's book," he says.
His first passion was also music: he played the flute, and after graduating from the Latin School in 1977, he ended up at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Instead of practicing, he spent a lot of time going to the movies. He was often joined by his best friend from Latin, Albert Berger, who ran the film society at Tufts University.
Horberg dropped out of Berklee in his second year and returned to Chicago. In May 1979 he and Berger secured a lease on the shuttered Sandburg Theatre--formerly known as the Playboy--at Division and Dearborn, intending to open a repertory house. "I was 19; Albert was 21," Horberg says. "The theater had fallen into a state of disrepair. Despite that, it was a thrilling business experience. The theater was very successful for what it was. It was a single screen, so it was hard to make it a profitable venture. We got locked into the economics. But we showed a Hitchcock festival, Ophuls's films. We premiered Fassbinder movies and showed everything from The Thin Man and The Searchers to the revival premiere of Peeping Tom."
Horberg says the theater had a strong core audience, but it couldn't compete with VCRs. After two years he and Berger sold their lease to Larry Edwards, then the owner of the Biograph. Edwards ran the theater for just a year. "There was a fire across the street," Horberg says, "and the landlord canceled all of the leases." The theater was torn down and a Walgreens was put up in its place. "In a fitting irony, Cary Grant was somehow a friend of the Walgreens, and he came to the ribbon-cutting ceremony to dedicate that store on the ashes of our revival theater."
Berger went to Los Angeles to pursue a screenwriting career. Horberg formed a company with a young artist, former Reader cartoonist Peter Hannan, who had been the manager of the Sandburg. They distributed short films on cable, traveled to Las Vegas to make a documentary on the World Series of Poker, and made an early Cheap Trick video that aired on MTV. They specialized in performance documentaries on prominent Chicago blues artists--Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Mighty Joe Young. But Horberg was eager to make the transition into feature films. Through perseverance and some luck, he secured the rights to a few literary properties: a couple of Mickey Spillane novellas, the Chester Himes novel A Rage in Harlem, and Nelson Algren's short story collection The Neon Wilderness. "There was a lot of hustling, knocking on doors, meeting people, and starting to forge relationships," he recalls.
In 1986 he moved to LA to be closer to the industry. The Algren film was never made, but A Rage in Harlem, with a script by Chicago actor John Toles-Bey, was released in 1991, with Horberg credited as an executive producer. The Spillane project didn't take off either, though the principals involved with it, actor Fred Ward and filmmakers Jonathan Demme and George Armitage, later collaborated on an adaptation of Charles Willeford's Miami Blues. Horberg was hired as an associate producer on that movie.
By then he was working at Paramount, but in 1992 he followed a colleague to Sydney Pollack's Mirage Enterprises. There the Spillane idea spawned Fallen Angels, a Showtime series adapting noirs and pulp novels. He also produced Sliding Doors, the highly regarded Searching for Bobby Fischer, and a film for HBO, Poodle Springs, based on the Raymond Chandler novel.
The Talented Mr. Ripley ends a seven-year struggle to secure the rights to the book, complicated by Highsmith's death in 1995 and her apparent dissatisfaction with Rene Clement's French adaptation from 1960, Purple Noon. The project was further delayed when Anthony Minghella, initially involved as a writer, decided he wanted to direct the film himself after he finished The English Patient. Horberg says their mutual interest in music, especially jazz, was indispensable in shaping the material. The movie opens this week.
These days Horberg is collaborating with his old friend Albert Berger on an adaptation of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain; Minghella is set to direct. Other projects include a Chicago-based story, set at the turn of the century, about the Pinkerton detective agency.
"Producing is about rejection, frustration, and humiliation," Horberg says. But he wouldn't want to do anything else: "I love the editorial process, of being involved with writers and directors in helping them protect their ideas and ambitions from the vagaries of the system."
--Patrick Z. McGavin
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Davis Barber.