From their starts as lowly showbiz assistants, this year’s Irving G. Thalberg recipients Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall have helped bring an impressive array of films to life. Together and separately, they have worked on movies from “The Last Picture Show” (Marshall) and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (both) to the upcoming “Star Wars: Episode IX” (Kennedy), with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford and George Lucas.
Their films have raked in billions, earning the pair 13 Oscar noms between them.
But what’s it like to work for Kennedy and Marshall, married since 1987? Ask some of their famous collaborators — Ford, Matt Damon, Laura Dern and Lucas included — and a theme emerges.
They say the producers have come to the rescue of their productions almost as often as the heroes in their movies for Amblin Entertainment, founded with Spielberg in 1981, the Kennedy/Marshall Co. a decade later, and mostly separately since Kennedy became chairman of Lucasfilm in 2012. (Kennedy has also produced films Marshall has directed.)
Much like Indiana Jones, Ford pulls no punches when talking about his longtime friends. “There’s a lot in this business that doesn’t make sense. Kathy and Frank are one of the things that do,” says Ford, who also had a deleted cameo in “E.T.,” Kennedy’s first producer credit. “They work hard, they’re good people with good ideas, they have a real understanding of how the movie business works and they know how to get shit done.”
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Ford is now working with Kennedy — the first female Thalberg honoree — to develop Spielberg’s long-gestating fifth Indiana Jones film, which they hope to begin shooting “at least a year-and-a-half before my death,” he quips.
“Their job is to deal with the impossible every day,” says Lucas, long-time exec producer on the franchise. “One of the most challenging situations was when Harrison hurt his back on ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.’ I had to be the one to say he had to go back to California and have an operation. Steven, with the help of Frank and Kathy, worked things out to where [they’d only lose] one out of the nine weeks Harrison was gone. They made sure the production didn’t shut down for nine weeks, which would have cost a fortune.”
Damon credits Marshall with saving the day on “The Bourne Identity.” “Frank was a replacement, because our producer had a family emergency,” he says of the fraught production. “There was a big rewrite, so there was this whole process of trying to get a lot of what Tony Gilroy had written back into it, including the big third-act piece on this farm. When the movie was testing at a 75 and was a year delayed in coming out, I’m sure the studio just wanted to release the thing.
“Frank laid out this surgical plan for what he wanted to do and got us $3 million for a reshoot, telling [then Universal chairman] Stacey Snider, ‘I can’t say this is going to make you more money, but I guarantee you it will make the movie better.’ Had it not been for Frank, we never would have had a franchise. It would have been just one and done. Instead, it became a 15-year project for all of us,” he says.
Impressive, yes. But has he saved any star’s lives? “Kathy has gotten me out of a hurricane,” Laura Dern says. “There was a tragic one on the island of Kauai, where we were filming ‘Jurassic Park’ and she was supporting the people on the island, protecting her crew, getting everyone to safety. And when I was working at 1 a.m. [on ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’], the president of Lucasfilm was there making me matcha tea. I’ve listened to Steven tell me so many stories about them, down to Kathy choosing the eyes of ‘E.T.’”
And Dern has been hearing about Marshall even longer than that.
“Frank in his beginning years had worked on films alongside my dad and other friends of my parents, so I kind of know how they grew up,” she says. “They were the people who were willing to do the grunt work because they loved movies. And I also know who Kathy was to Steven on ‘Jurassic Park’ — how unbelievably hard of a worker she is and what an incredible eye she has.”
Bryce Dallas Howard, who has also known the pair (via dad Ron Howard) since childhood, backs this up. “The thing that makes Kathy and Frank exceptional is that they really understand [all] aspects of filmmaking and storytelling, and use their skills in a really responsible and strategic manner,” says Howard, who is making her TV directing debut with “The Mandalorian,” exec-produced by Kennedy.
Collaborators frequently invoke Kennedy and Marshall’s willingness to dive into productions and get the job done, and Marshall himself acknowledges that this approach led to a key break in his career.
“Frank has this incredible story of how he became the producer of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ Damon says by way of explanation. “Spielberg visited the set of this Peter Bogdanovich movie he was doing, and it was Frank’s custom not to sit for lunch because there was just too much to do, so he’d grab a plate of spaghetti and run from table to table and check in with people. Spielberg got introduced to Frank in a hurry, Frank shook his hand, then ignored him and started rattling questions at Peter about what they needed to shoot.
“When Spielberg started to talk about ‘Raiders,’ he said to George Lucas, ‘We need a guy like Frank Marshall to produce it,’ and George says, ‘Who the hell is Frank Marshall?’ And he says, ‘I don’t know, but I watched that guy and he doesn’t even sit down to eat. He doesn’t stop.’”
Bogdanovich met Marshall in 1966, at a party for John Ford’s daughter. Marshall, whose father Jack was a composer, had just graduated from UCLA film school, while Bogdanovich was about to make his first movie for Roger Corman. “Frank and I were just about the youngest people there, so we gravitated toward each other,” Bogdanovich recalls.
“He started out mimeographing scripts and also played a part in the movie, a ticket taker in the drive-in,” Bogdanovich says. “He has a scene with me, and I kept cutting to him because he was better than I was! Then he worked with me on seven pictures and played roles in ‘The Last Picture Show’ and ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ — in the chase [sequence], he played a workman who throws his shovel away after all the cars drive through [his plastering] and got a laugh.
“Frank is a brilliant producer and a good director, by the way. There’s a plane crash sequence in that movie he made, ‘Alive,’ that’s one of the best action sequences I’ve ever seen.”
Bodganovich served as an exec producer on Marshall’s latest and longest-gestating project, Orson Welles’ final film “The Other Side of the Wind,” and he credits the producer for helping get it made: “Without Frank, ‘The Other Side of the Wind wouldn’t have happened — and he was making it between my pictures.”
Howard, who considers Kennedy and Marshall her favorite couple, has a theory about how they could jointly produce so many features while maintaining a 31-year marriage.
“I think it’s because they have so many shared interests and respect one another, but they’re also opposites,” Howard says. “The best way to describe it is: if there is a monitor on a set, Kathy is there. And if there’s a party, Frank is DJ’ing it.”
Ford seconds this: “Dr. Fantasy is a great party host, and a master of several complicated high dives into large cakes.”
He credits both with having been really important to his career, even if he didn’t always know what exactly they were doing on productions. “Kathy and Frank function efficiently, sometimes somewhat below the observable universe,” he says, helping to pull films together. “Of course they’ve been great friends of mine for years and years, and they were great friends of my late wife Melissa,” he says, invoking “E.T.” screenwriter Melissa Mathison.
“I have enormous respect for them as professionals and as people, people I would honestly trust with [both] my professional and personal life.”
But more important, given Marshall’s penchant for hijinks, did either he or Kennedy have anything to do with Barbra Streisand coming onto the set of “Raiders” in a dominatrix outfit and whipping a tied-up Ford? “Well, I hope so. I hope it wasn’t Barbra’s idea,” Ford says of that legendary prank. “I forgot about that … now I know why they’re getting the Thalberg Award.”