Fear and Loathing in LA Bugging Scandal Reveals Hollywood's Paranoia

A court handed down a one-year prison sentence to Hollywood director John McTiernan for having his producer's phone tapped and then lying about it to the FBI. This bizarre criminal case highlights the mistrust in the film industry.

By and John Goetz


A blizzard is blowing through Wyoming, and visibility is down to less than 10 yards. Even so, John McTiernan races his white Ford Ranger pickup along the unpaved road. He knows the way so well he could almost drive it with his eyes closed.

McTiernan lives on a ranch near Dayton, a town with only a few hundred inhabitants. The Canadian border is about 400 miles away. There's not much else around except snow and isolation. McTiernan is talking about a new film project, spitting out the words as quickly as he drives, enthusing about an epic tale from the Indian wars that were fought in the area, and about Civil War General Oliver O. Howard.

A pious Union general who headed the Freedman's Bureau after the Civil War, Howard founded Howard University but was later forced to participate in the war against the Nez Perce Indians.

Not so long ago, McTiernan was one of Hollywood's most celebrated film directors. He shot action classics such as "Die Hard," "The Hunt for Red October," and "The Last Action Hero," working with stars like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sean Connery. His movies grossed more than $1 billion at the box office. While McTiernan has always rejected a life in Hollywood, his life on the ranch in Wyoming feels like a kind of self-imposed exile.

McTiernan parks the pickup next to the Crazy Woman Saloon, and pushes the door open. The place is packed, fuller than normal. Men in cowboy hats jostle for space by the bar. The last quarter of the Super Bowl is on TV.

"General Howard was an enormously moral and decent man who was forced to participate in something about which he was privately appalled," McTiernan says, as he sips from a glass of Chardonnay. Despite the 150 year gap in time, McTiernan feels he has something in common with Howard. Each experienced forces beyond their control marking their lives, their careers and their legacies.

McTiernan looks around. He turned 60 last month, and doesn't look a day younger. The deep lines on his face look like erosion fissures carved by Wyoming storms. As the topic moves to the role played by Washington, DC in his criminal prosecution, he says that he would prefer not to discuss it in the bar, because the conversation could be overheard.

As if anybody cared in the Crazy Woman saloon, with the Super Bowl on TV and beer bottles on the counter. Dayton, Wyoming is not the kind of place that instills mistrust. McTiernan brought that with him from Los Angeles -- from Hollywood. The world in which his heroes fought was governed by mistrust and paranoia, and the city in which they were invented all the more so.

Last October, McTiernan was handed down a one-year prison sentence for first hiring a private investigator to tap the phone of a producer with whom McTiernan had worked on a film project, and then lying about it. McTiernan is appealing.

A Celebrity Detective for Hollywood's Elite

The case could well have remained a mere footnote in Hollywood's scandal-ridden history: A director has a producer's phone tapped because he suspected people were plotting behind his back. Unfortunately for McTiernan, the man he hired was Anthony Pellicano; private detective to Hollywood's elite. Pellicano's clientele has included Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and Chris Rock. He didn't know it at the time, but McTiernan became involved in one of the biggest wiretapping affairs in US history.

Pellicano was the person celebrities called if they were in trouble; if a divorce loomed, if a one-night stand led to a paternity suit or business partners argued over a jointly held company. Pellicano was a fixer, a troubleshooter, a universal problem-solver. His clients didn't care how he resolved them, either.

"There are some very despicable people and there's a whole lot of unhappy millionaires," says John Nazarian, a colleague of Pellicano's who has been a detective in Hollywood for the past 17 years. "Their behavior, their sense of entitlement is despicable. They don't pay me the money they pay me -- $400 per hour -- to play fair. What do I need? Little or no morals."

Fifty-nine-year-old Nazarian is bald, trims his beard to a point and wears a Rolex and a diamond-studded platinum ring. "The best part is feeling it," he says. "I always wear it on the left-hand side. That way I will not be hitting anybody with it," he says with a smile. "McTiernan is a crybaby. He just doesn't want to accept that he has to go to jail."

The McTiernan case began in the summer of 2000 while he was directing a remake of the 1970s classic "Rollerball" in Montreal. The movie was a $70 million science-fiction epic about futuristic sporting gladiators playing a brutal mixture of American football, ice hockey and six-day racing set in various former Soviet republics.

But the production became embroiled in a row between producer Charles Roven ("12 Monkeys" and "City of Angels") and McTiernan. The director wanted to make a kind of modern "Spartacus," in which a slave rebels against an inhumane system. But Roven insisted the movie be an "action adventure."

Shortly after shooting began, part of the set was destroyed by fire, and the movie went completely off the rails. "There is no place where the paranoia is greater than on the set of a film that has spun out of control," says a film agent. "Anyone could be the next to get kicked out. The only person that cannot be fired is the person who is paying for the movie."

The film's main producer was the MGM studio, but McTiernan was worried Roven wanted to take control by buying up the studios with the help of Japanese and German investors. He also suspected the fire had been started deliberately to lower the price. He probably also feared that Roven wanted to get rid of him.

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