Veteran producer not afraid to take a stand

It’s an election year, and producer Lauren Shuler Donner is feeling particularly candid.

“The country is a mess. George Bush’s policies have been disastrous for the environment, Sarah Palin is awful, …” she ticks off like someone who comes up for air about once every 18 months.

In fact, after shooting four consecutive films — “The Secret Life of Bees,” “Hotel for Dogs,” “Cirque du Freak” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” — without a break, Shuler Donner might actually be taking her first breath in that period of time.

Though much of the industry might skirt the opportunity to voice a polarizing political opinion lest they alienate any potential theatergoers, Shuler Donner is no shrinking violet. She didn’t ascend to her current perch as one of Hollywood’s top producers — male or female — by being timid.

After graduating from Boston U. with a major in film, the Cleveland native headed out West and began “knocking on doors” typically reserved for male applicants. She quickly landed a job cutting negatives for a firm that produced medical films, which led to her first big break: nabbing a position at NBC Studios in Burbank, where she learned how to operate a camera and began shooting gameshows and talkshows.

“There were three women and 300 men,” she recalls, pointing to an on-the-job photo from the ’70s on the wall of her Beverly Hills office. “People would ask for my autograph because they had never seen a woman behind the camera before.”

It’s only fitting that Shuler Donner’s first film-producing credit came with “Mr. Mom,” a 1983 comedy that subtly pushed boundaries by challenging the preconceived notions about the role of men and women in the home.

The now-veteran producer, who over the years has lent her clout to such nonprofits as Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles and the Natural Resources Defense Council, doesn’t just carry political convictions, she weaves them into her films. She followed up “Mr. Mom” with a number of popcorn movies that doubled as societal parables, including “Free Willy,” “Dave” and “X-Men.”

“I’ve really tried to use the power of film to effect change,” the Barack Obama supporter says. “The accomplishment that I am most proud of is that ‘Free Willy’ and ‘Dave’ got a political message out, which isn’t easy to do within the constraints of studio moviemaking.”

In the case of “Free Willy,” a crowdpleasing family pic that reinforced the ideas that man needs to be a good steward of Earth and that animals shouldn’t be exploited, Shuler Donner and the filmmakers won a hard-fought battle to have the once-captive giant orca featured in the film returned to the wild.

As she nears the finish line on Fox tentpole “Wolverine,” Shuler Donner is looking to return to the wild herself. In her case, that means leaving behind the grueling 17-hour days on set or in the editing booth and heading to Washington state to the Orcas Island home she shares with her husband of 22 years and frequent collaborator, director Richard Donner.

“In the past, I’ve been a workaholic,” says Shuler Donner, a breast cancer survivor. “I’m trying not to be anymore. (Surviving cancer) changes your priorities. Now, I come home and I tune out Hollywood. (Richard) is a great influence on me. He keeps me more chill. He tells me, ‘Don’t stress.’ “

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