Geller: the Rain King

Originally published on October 14, 1985 | New York Magazine | written by Eric Pooley

Even with Hurricane Gloria howling outside the Ukrainian Institute, on Fifth Avenue, the atmosphere inside, on the set of Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, is hushed: Between takes, Robin Williams sits in a high-back chair, wipes tears from his eyes, and generally acts not at all the way one expects Robin Williams to act. He's just poured out his most wrenching scene, and it shows.

Hidden somewhere behind the gaffers and grips is an unimposing man -- faded jeans and blue work shirt, silver hair and mustache -- who's been watching the weather, and Williams, with more concern than most. Gloria could kill this project, and right now it looks as if the project might kill Williams, and this is the man responsible for both.

"I thought he was a writer," says Williams of executive producer Bob Geller. "He's different from other producers I've seen."

For one thing, Geller doesn't use money to attract talent. ("What we're making doesn't pay for our cigarettes," says director Fielder Cook, who doesn't smoke.) Geller, 53, is a former high-school English teacher who heads a nonprofit film-production company called Learning in Focus. Along with vice-president Brian Benlifer, he's spent the past twelve years hustling federal grants, recruiting first-rate talent, and bringing to the screen award-winning adaptations of serious American novels and short stories, like Updike's Too Far to Go -- the kind that scare studios off. In the process, Geller has learned how to glide between the worlds of literature and film. "I love the way Updike talks about 'the unfulfilled Puritan ethic,'" he says, "but you'd better not mention that when you're making a movie deal."

Now Geller is overseeing the first Bellow novel ever to find its way onto film (it'll play on PBS in 1987). It's the story of bighearted Luftmensch Tommy Wilhelm -- out of work, out of favor with his father, and almost out of time on the worst day of his life -- and filming it is a dream that was planted in the early sixties, when Geller was a "budding young writer" studying with Bellow at the University of Chicago. But he's had so much trouble raising money that Bellow's first film could be Learning in Focus's last. "We can't continue to fund ourselves," says Geller, who may switch to commercial productions. "I'm not Mother Teresa."

Geller raised most of the movie's $1.6-million budget -- a tenth the cost of an average studio project -- with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It's a budget without padding, and the slightest crisis could scotch the project ("Wing and a Prayer Productions," says Williams). So while most of the city shuts down for Hurricane Gloria, Seize the Day does not -- because that could cost $40,000 that Geller can't spare.

By evening, with Gloria calm, Geller sits with a copy of Bellow on his lap, looking over script changes. "The way he guards the script -- like it was the Koran or something," says Williams.

Then shooting resumes, and Williams kneels beside Joseph Wiseman to bring forth Tommy Wilhelm's failed plea for his father's love. Geller leans forward and watches intently, eyes bright and a trace of smile on his lips -- clearly different from other producers.

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