Frank Marshall began his movie career assisting director Peter Bogdanovich with his late-1960s to mid-’70s run of films — “Targets,” “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Paper Moon.” Marshall had nothing to do with the development of those projects but everything to do with the fact that they were made and made well.
Crunching the numbers, solving problems and providing filmmakers with options to realize their ideas has characterized Marshall’s producing style for the more than 30 years. It’s also what he likes best about the job.
“Producing is much more of a group effort these days, and I don’t think that’s a good thing,” Marshall says. “Having a singular vision supporting the director’s vision is what I enjoy. It makes the movies better.”
A firm believer in entertainment for the masses, Marshall found a perfect partner in Steven Spielberg. The two first met at Safa-Palatino Studio in Rome in 1973, when Marshall was working with Bogdanovich on “Daisy Miller” and Spielberg was doing publicity for “Duel.”
“We were introduced by (the editor) Verna Fields, who later told me Spielberg said, ‘That’s the kind of guy I need, someone who is more interested in the next shot than lunch,'” Marshall remembers. “Five years later, on the infamous beach in Hawaii, when George Lucas asked him, ‘Who do you want to produce “Raiders”?,’ Steven said, ‘Let’s see if we can find that guy Frank Marshall.'”
After making “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.” and “Poltergeist,” Marshall, Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy founded Amblin Entertainment.
Marshall and Kennedy ultimately partnered personally (they married in 1987) and professionally, forming the Kennedy/Marshall Co. in 1991. The culture of the company has remained true to Marshall’s filmmaker-centered roots, with Kennedy focusing on the development and Marshall zeroing in on the budgetary and below-the-line aspects of making movies.
Their latest project, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” illustrates their division of labor. Marshall and Kennedy nurtured the movie while they were at Amblin, with Kennedy finding the material and helping shape it through multiple screenwriters and directors. Marshall focused on the practical aspects: How do you film a story that spans nearly a century? How do you handle Button’s reverse aging?
“For a long time, it was trying to figure out the acting handoff,” Marshall says. “Is it going to be Clint Eastwood going back to Matt Damon? Nobody could solve that problem until David Fincher said, ‘I can do this.’ Some movies, you keep pushing forward and their time finally comes.”
Or sometimes the movies come to you, as was the case with the “Bourne” franchise. In 2002, Universal contacted Marshall to rescue the series’ first entry, “The Bourne Identity,” from a troubled shoot. “Three months in Paris turned into seven years,” he says, “and now we’re doing a fourth one.”
The duo also follow their own impulses, leading to solo producing gigs or the occasional directing job for Marshall. Marshall directed his first movie, 1990’s “Arachnophobia,” at the behest of Jeffrey Katzenberg, then with Disney. Marshall had done several stints in the second unit chair for Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis — a great way to learn filmmaking, he says, because he had to imitate their shooting style.
But while Marshall likes directing, producing remains his first love.
“Directing is a lot harder for me,” he says. “It’s a singular focus. It’s 24-7. The producer asks the questions, the director has to answer them.”
But Bogdanovich says it’s Marshall’s ability to answer a director’s questions that makes him such a valuable producer.
“Nothing was impossible for Frank,” Bogdanovich says. “You’d say, ‘I need a couch.’ And the next thing I’d know, I’d have a couch. Of course, he took it from his parents’ living room.”
There was one problem, Marshall says, that he couldn’t solve: adapting C.S. Lewis’ fantasy series “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Kennedy/Marshall had the property at Paramount from 1993-99, but in the pre-CG age, they couldn’t create the imaginary worlds.
“The centaurs were going to be animatronics, but they didn’t really look great,” Marshall says. “And people were nervous about the story being too Christian-based. The option lapsed, and then the technology hit.”
There will be no letting go, Marshall insists, when it comes to “The B.F.G.,” the Roald Dahl children’s story about a big, friendly giant they’ve been trying to adapt since 1991. It’s one of many projects the producing team has in various states of development, a slate that also includes Wayne Kramer’s “Crossing Over” and the next “Bourne” movie.