By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO - Kathleen Kennedy smiles readily and laughs easily, and the framed photograph in her hand triggers waves of both.
As images go, this one does double duty, serving as a flashback as
well as an eerie harbinger of her current job as president of Lucasfilm,
the Star Wars-built empire ceded to her last fall by friend and mentor George Lucas.
"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."
Life has taken Kennedy on a Hollywood ride so unreal it makes Indiana Jones' adventures seem like believable larks.
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."
That inquisitive attitude combined with a fierce
checklist mentality are the fuel for this Kennedy rocket. If Spielberg
has any complaints, it's only that her next launch won't be with him.
"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
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."
During an hour-long
conversation, Kennedy's casual air belies a fierce focus. Her responses
to questions are spontaneous, but they almost seem scripted in their
eloquence and completeness. She doesn't hem, haw or look out the window.
Nor does she shy away from strong opinions.
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.
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."
Serendipity has a crush on Kennedy. Many of her stories star such fateful moments.
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
"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?"
Kennedy has earned the
right at this point in her career to phone it in. Or perhaps to not
even pick up the phone. But it's clear from the passion in her voice
that she's still very much engaged in her business and the vexing and
transformative hurdles it faces.
The only problem is that she's
more likely to be pressed for time, between commuting from her family's
Los Angeles home to the Bay Area each week and making time for both
"the best husband ever" as well as her two daughters' various school and
athletic events. Which leaves little room for skiing, though by all
accounts she remains accomplished at it on both water and snow.
"If I'd had more time, I would have loved to have gotten really good,
you know, where you go snow skiing with friends and you just hit a jump
and do a little flip and rejoin them," she says, laughing once again. "I
would love to be a nonchalant athlete."
That might be her
fantasy. But Kennedy's reality is that she is her industry's consummate
nonchalant moviemaker, hitting those jumps, doing those flips and
sticking those landings, only to do it all over again.