The year 2007 seemed to represent a sea change for Kathleen Kennedy. The producer best known for her epic collaborations with Steven Spielberg seemed to have suddenly gone the way of the arthouse, having developed and produced, with Jon Kilik, Julian Schnabel’s Cannes Film Fest triumph, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” and the year’s most serious animated feature, the Oscar-nominated “Persepolis.”
She not only snapped up the rights to Jean-Dominique Bauby’s “Diving Bell” memoir, a literary sensation in France and a cult fave in certain New York art loft circles, but she commissioned Ronald Harwood to adapt the book, suggested Mathieu Amalric (who had an electrifying cameo in Spielberg’s best pic nominee “Munich”) to play Bauby, and provided the bridge between Schnabel and Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.
“It was clear to me when we started to talk about making this movie, it was probably the definition of an art film,” Kennedy recalls about the film’s genesis, when Johnny Depp was being considered for the lead. “So the opportunity to have somebody like Julian interpret that from the standpoint of a real artist is what gave it enormous visual style.”
The film’s combination of directorial flair, poignant performances and life-affirming compassion resulted in Schnabel getting top director honors at Cannes and the Golden Globes (where it also won best foreign-language pic), DGA and Oscar nominations, and best film kudos from at least a dozen critics groups. Kaminski, Harwood and editor Juliette Welfing also received Oscar recognition.
Kennedy, with five of her own Oscar nominations, has acted as primary producer on films that have generated 22 Oscar nominations since 2001. Her upcoming “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a man who ages backwards, surely has created some of the biggest career challenges for its star, Brad Pitt, and director David Fincher. But, clearly, Kennedy is not one to back down from any challenge, no matter how daunting.