Harvard Man Premiers Tonight at Brattle

A basketball player concentrating in philosophy who sleeps with his professor and takes acid cooked up by a chemistry-major pal. His cheerleader girlfriend, the daughter of a mafioso, who convinces him to throw a game. His ultimate downfall into a vicious world of drugs, sex and gambling.

It’s all coming to Harvard.

Harvard Man, the latest film from director and screenwriter James Toback ’66, makes its Cambridge debut at the Brattle Theater tonight.

Starring Adrian Grenier, Sarah Michelle Geller and Joey Lawrence Adams, the movie has finally made its way to the big screen after eight years of casting troubles, studio bankruptcy and failed distribution deals.

Filmed in Toronto and on location in Harvard Square, Harvard Man is loosely based on Toback’s own Harvard experiences in the 1960s. A resident of Leverett House and a prose editor for the Advocate, the former English concentrator says the film’s texture represents “what Harvard means to me” as he looks back on a highly “experimental” and “transitional” time in his life.

“When I was a sophomore, LSD was just coming into its own as the drug of choice for the philosophically and intellectually inclined—it had a patent of respectability and was different from just getting high,” he says. “I was eager to try it because I was intellectually adventurous and saw it as an opportunity to blow me into a new place, a state of non-existence.”

He says he was brought “back to reality” by a prominent psychiatrist named Max Rinkel—and he stopped taking drugs. He calls the end of his drug use “a turning point in my life—I finally had this sense of self, and the experience helped me forge my identity as artist.”

Following stints as a teacher and a critic, Toback says he finally chose to get his life “back on track” at the age of 27 by writing a screenplay. The Gambler, a semi-autobiographical tale, was eventually made into a movie by director Karel Reisz in 1974. Following Reisz around the set, Toback absorbed filmmaking techniques, and by the end of production, he felt ready to direct his own film.

Toback, who has since directed seven films, won an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay for his writing of the 1991 drama Bugsy.

The production of Harvard Man, his latest work, was fraught with troubles at every step of the way.

Written in 1994, the film was originally a vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, who had not yet achieved fame for Titanic. But a lack of funding and various studios’ reluctance to cast a pre-stardom DiCaprio put the film in limbo.

With Harvard Man on hold, Toback filled the time with two offbeat films, Two Girls and a Guy and Black and White—both “smooth, quick and happy experiences,” he says.

Funding finally came through, courtesy of the production company Kushner-Locke, but later Kushner-Locke went bankrupt during post-production, and the film’s rights were defaulted to the company’s bank. The bank passed over a distribution offer from Sony Classics, which would have put the film in theaters, in favor of an offer from Blockbuster/UPN, which had a higher up-front guarantee but would only release the film on DVD and television.

This move placed Toback in a difficult position, because no distribution company would want to release a movie in theaters without DVD and video rights.

But Toback convinced Blockbuster to delay the video release to October 2002. Then he went on what he calls a “guerilla distribution tour.”

Contacting theater distributors directly, he managed to debut the film at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco last month, where it opened to positive reviews.