In the event of a class-five hurricane, it would be a good thing to have Kathleen Kennedy producing your movie — so Steven Spielberg learned while making his dinosaur blockbuster “Jurassic Park.”
Just two days before shooting was to wrap on that film, a devastating hurricane hit Kauai, where “Jurassic Park” was lensing, wiping out all communication and leaving the filmmakers stranded in the storm. Not one to let 155 mph winds stand in her way, Kennedy ran (it was impossible to drive because the roads were blocked by fallen trees) to the local airport and talked a pilot into flying her to Honolulu, where she arranged to have another plane full of supplies sent back to the set. Within 48 hours, the cast and crew were loaded up and flown to safety.
More than a decade since Kennedy stepped down from running Amblin, Spielberg’s pre-DreamWorks production company, she is no less tenacious and solutions-oriented. Now, however, her energies go into making her own movies, which she produces with her husband and partner, Frank Marshall.
Kennedy may no longer be working directly for Spielberg, but she clearly learned a thing or two from her mentor. In the Spielberg tradition, the Kennedy/Marshall Co. is one of the most prolific and successful production shingles in Hollywood, to the point that it is virtually its own mini studio, saving room for such projects as “Persepolis” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which she also produced.
“Kathy is at the top of her game and has never been better as a producer of commercially and artistically audacious works,” says Spielberg from the set of their current collaboration, “Tintin.”
Something Kennedy learned from her Amblin days is how to work with 800-pound-gorilla filmmakers. Whether it’s Spielberg on “War of the Worlds,” M. Night Shyamalan on “The Sixth Sense” or David Fincher on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Kennedy is a director’s producer who sees it as her mission to, as she says, “try to understand the vision of the director” and get that vision onto the screen.
Never was this more true than with “Button,” a film whose $150 million budget and daunting storyline understandably had executives nervous. Through it all, Kennedy consistently had Fincher’s back.
“Of all the producers I’ve worked with, Kathy is the one who, when you call and say, ‘I need this,’ it’s never, ‘How is this going to make me look politically?'” Fincher says. “It’s just, ‘OK, well, then let’s go get it for you.'”
At the same time, Kennedy was mindful of the studio’s needs, using the same sort of diplomacy she has employed in the past between both sides.
Alli Shearmur, who was co-head of production at Paramount when “Benjamin Button” was greenlit, says Kennedy and Marshall “are so well researched that they present a plan that is always the most creatively compelling version, but not without smart, savvy financial aspects.”
In the case of “Benjamin Button,” this meant filming the movie in New Orleans in order to receive tax breaks — and continuing to shoot there even after Hurricane Katrina hit. (And thus Kennedy’s uncanny history with tropical storms continues.)
Kennedy notes that having to work out a film’s financial strategy is no longer an optional job for a producer, particularly in today’s trying economic times.
“Before it was simply, ‘Let’s develop this with a studio and try to get a greenlight.’ Now,” she says, “during any kind of creative discussion, there’s often a financial discussion going on at the same time.”
Her years of real, in-the-trenches experience date back to her job as John Milius’ assistant on “1941.” The position meant sharing an office with Spielberg, who was soon asking Kennedy to organize his special effects and then to be his assistant. It was on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that Kennedy met Marshall, and in 1983, in the wake of “E.T.” — her first producing credit — she, Spielberg and Marshall formed Amblin.
A decade’s worth of hit movies later (including “Back to the Future” and “Schindler’s List”), Kennedy left Amblin to join Marshall, who was embarking on a career as a producer and director. Their decision to become full-time producers instead of executives was motivated, in part, by lifestyle: Both wanted to have more flexibility so they could start a family, which they did (their two daughters are now 10 and 12).
Looking back, Kennedy says the duo’s careers as producers aren’t all that different from their work at Amblin. “We see ourselves as filmmakers, and always have been filmmakers,” she says.