USA Today made a great interview with Kathleen Kennedy discussing her career, her on set embarrassment, why she wants to see more women at work and what she thinks is the future of movies….
Here are some excerpts from the article:
“When I decided to take the job, I went and found this,” Kennedy, 60, says of the photo, which shows one of her now-teenage daughters as a toddler dressed in full Princess Leia regalia, standing knee-high to a stubby intergalactic creature. “It’s funny where life can take you.”
In more than three decades spent as a producer alongside Steven Spielberg and her husband, Frank Marshall, Kennedy has had a hand in more than 60 feature films that collectively garnered more than 100 Oscar nominations and totaled $11 billion in box-office receipts.
Her first producing credit, at age 29, was a little film called E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982. Her most recent was the lauded Lincoln, which resulted in a shoutout from Daniel Day-Lewis when he accepted his best-actor Oscar in February. And in between, there’s been everything from the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park franchises to fare that’s proven to be both challenging (1993’s Schindler’s List) and bold (2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).
With Kennedy now in command of the Star Wars juggernaut, which soon will fire up filming for J.J. Abrams’ much-anticipated Episode VII, it would not stretch credulity to call her the most successful woman ever to make movies. Though that just brings another laugh.
“Success is always a matter of some luck and timing,” Kennedy says in an exclusive interview, while sitting in her elegant, Mission-style offices on the top floor of Industrial Light & Magic, the fabled special-effects house that was part of Disney’s $4 billion Lucas purchase last October. “Just like this new job.”
Kennedy says she never anticipated taking over for her philanthropically focused friend, “but it felt like George was giving me this phenomenal opportunity to step into something that had all the making of what I’d done throughout my career, plus this wonderful new array of opportunities.
“The movie business is changing at an amazing rate. So to have an intellectual property like Star Wars and now be inside a company like Disney, I get to have a seat at the table where we talk about the globalization of the business, new markets, new audiences and new platforms. I’m just incredibly curious about it all.”
“Kathy could have had any number of career options. It’s just fortunate for me she chose this one,” Spielberg says of his longtime partner, with whom he started his production company Amblin Entertainment in 1981, along with Marshall. (Kennedy married Marshall in 1987, and in 1992, the couple founded The Kennedy/Marshall Co.)
The director says there’s no secret to Kennedy’s success.
“She always gets things done with modesty and confidence, so she’s flown beneath the radar for many decades,” he says. “Her satisfaction all this time has always simply been her checklist of daily things to do (on a movie). Checking that box, that’s Kathy’s reward.”
Spielberg adds that while his old friend is the perfect person to take the helm at Lucasfilm, he wonders if she won’t “miss getting her hands dirty, being on location in that rainstorm or up to her knees in mud.”
Kennedy throws her head back and smiles when she hears Spielberg’s concern.
“I think about it, but you know what? I’m still going to do that,” she says. “I don’t know how to make movies without getting my hands dirty.”
Her hands may be about the only things she’s sullied during her long career, says David Cohen, who writes about the visual-effects business for Variety.
“Kathy is generally liked in a business where not everyone is,” he says. “Her rise as a producer was meteoric, which showcased an unusual degree of competence and maturity at a young age. That’s translated into a track record filled with movies of ambition and popularity that often pushed the envelope in one way or the other.”
Take this stance on minorities in Hollywood: “The demographics within our business don’t reflect society, and they certainly don’t reflect the audience. There should be many, many more faces of color, many more women, many more gay people — you could go down the list. I will tell you that most of my meetings are in rooms with white males.”
Kennedy says that because she’s a woman, she “makes a conscious effort to diversify the people I’m hiring. And it needs to come from a place of authenticity, as opposed to putting token people in place.”
There is some irony to that statement. And she knows it.
Kennedy grew up in rural Redding, Calif., one of three daughters born to a lawyer and onetime actress. She adored sports, particularly skiing and water skiing, and decided to attend San Diego State University, partly so she could log hours doing the latter. During her spare time, she worked as a camera operator for a local TV station and quickly fell in love with production.
“I’ll tell you a story,” she says. “I would like to say I was hired solely due to behavior that showed passion and commitment. But then I went to a party a few years ago …”
At this Vermont gathering at the home of another producer, a female attorney rushed over to greet her. The story she told made Kennedy’s eyes pop. The woman explained that she had represented clients in a suit brought against the owners of Kennedy’s college-job TV station on the grounds that not enough women were in technical positions.
“So I was part of a quota system there, which I didn’t even know existed,” Kennedy says, shaking her head. “And these lawyers watched me, to see what the impact (of her hiring) had been. So this woman was beside herself that her experiment was standing there at this party. It was an amazing thing. There’s no question I’m indebted to people who were looking out for women.”
When Spielberg hired her away from writer John Milius to be his secretary, the first script he had her work on was 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. And when E.T. was gathering steam, the director asked Kennedy about screenwriters. She mentioned the first person she could think of, Melissa Mathison, whom she had befriended when Mathison tagged along on the set of Raiders with her then-boyfriend (and later husband), Harrison Ford.
“Steven went, ‘Great!’ So we had lunch with Melissa and hired her,” Kennedy says. Mathison went on to garner an Oscar nomination for her E.T. screenplay. “It seems like, ‘Well, yeah, of course.’ But it was like one of those predestined moments.”
Kennedy brims with such movie memories and revels in their retelling. Like the time she and Spielberg huddled over an initial and rather dark stab at E.T. called Night Skies — pages turned in by indie-film icon John Sayles — whose final flourish suddenly gave the duo their starting point.
“The last image he had was of a little alien standing on this grassy knoll staring into the night sky as his spaceship took off without him,” she says. “Steven said, ‘That’s the movie I want to make.’ We knew that’s where the story started.”
Many of the movies made by Spielberg and Lucas, and by extension Kennedy and Marshall, have found ready critics who lament their rosy resolutions. But Kennedy happily defends such family-friendly fare and, in fact, hopes to keep that tradition going with a new generation of directors, best exemplified by Abrams.
“J.J. has, in his own way, some of the same qualities that I always saw in Steven and George,” says Kennedy, sitting a few paces in front of an E.T. poster that reads, “Kathy — ‘I’ll be right here …’ And you were. Love, Steven.”
“What all of these men have is the ability to combine a real seriousness about what they do with a sense of humor,” she says. “So there’s a buoyancy, a lightness, a feeling of aspiration to their storytelling. Of hope.
“I find that a lot of directors are attracted to the dark side,” she continues. “That’s not Steven or George or J.J. They all can explore darkness, but they’re not nihilistic.”
Kennedy is equally sunny about the future of her industry. While she concedes that all the rules are being rewritten, largely because of technological leaps, the foundation of the entertainment business remains its great storytelling.
“That will never change, even though the platforms are, and that’s not a bad thing,” she says. “The theater is still a valid experience, but give people a choice. And what is a movie in the future? I keep posing that question to the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). In 10 years, is a movie only a two-hour theatrical experience? Probably not.”
While she may come from the world of blockbuster popcorn fare, Kennedy says she’s a prime example of the 21st-century consumer whose screen diet rotates between the theater, living room and handheld tablet.
“The way people are changing the way they view television content is really a discussion about the form (of entertainment),” she says. “So now, if a narrative needs five hours, why not give it five hours, but provide people with the opportunity to watch it anytime they want in 30-minute segments? It’s like reading a novel. You don’t sit down and think, ‘My God, I need to read this all at once.’ It’s incremental. Why can’t a movie experience be like that?”