Kathleen Kennedy: From Standing In Line For 'Star Wars' To Producing It Herself | KUOW News and Information

Kathleen Kennedy: From Standing In Line For 'Star Wars' To Producing It Herself

Dec 17, 2015
Originally published on December 17, 2015 10:24 am

Before the new Star Wars movie had its splashy Hollywood premiere, producer Kathleen Kennedy joined the cast onstage. "It's a real privilege to make movies," she said. "Everyone involved on The Force Awakens knows how lucky we've been to carry on this incredible legacy that George began over 40 years ago."

Kennedy is president of Lucasfilm, handpicked by George Lucas to take over his company and the franchise.

Like many fans, Kennedy remembers waiting to see the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977.

"I was actually in college, down in San Diego, and I, too, stood in line," she recalls. "That was part of the excitement. You'd be in line for hours, and you didn't care. It would turn into sort of a party atmosphere. We were secretly hoping we could re-create that with this."

A long time ago — 62 years, to be precise — in a galaxy known as Berkeley, Calif., Kennedy was born a twin, the daughter of a one-time theater actress and a judge. In college, she studied film, and worked at a local television station in San Diego.

"I started out as a camera operator," she says. "I was doing news and I was doing sports — baseball games and football games. And I was acutely aware of women not really being in those roles then."

She made her way to Los Angeles, and landed a job as a secretary for notorious screenwriter John Milius, who had written Apocalypse Now. At the time, Milius was executive producing Steven Spielberg's movie 1941. Spielberg had already done Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind at that point and, as Kennedy says, "he was on a trajectory that was pretty amazing for me to step in at that point." Spielberg says he was so impressed with Kennedy's organizing skills that he asked her to be his secretary.

"I remember Kathy came into the room with her steno pad and her pencil, and she was horrible at taking notes," Spielberg recalls. "She was terrible, and didn't know how to do it very well. But what she did know how to do was interrupt somebody in midsentence. We'd be pitching ideas back and forth, and Kathy — who was supposed to be writing these ideas down — suddenly put her pencil down and would say something like, 'And what if he didn't get the girl, but instead he got the dog?' "

As Kennedy continued to make creative contributions, Spielberg gave her more responsibilities and challenges. She remembers: "He put a script on my desk and said: 'This is my next movie. Read it, I want to know what you think. Don't tell anybody anything about it.' "

That movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg made Kennedy his associate — in charge of the storyboards for the 1981 Indiana Jones adventure movie. It was the first time she went overseas on a movie shoot, and that's where she met Frank Marshall, who later became her husband and producing partner. On location, she worked with Harrison Ford and George Lucas for the first time.

"I couldn't have possibly imagined that, 35 years ago, when I'm standing in the middle of the desert making Raiders of the Lost Ark with Steven and George, that I would later be running the company," she says.

Lawrence Kasdan wrote the script for Raiders and several Star Wars movies, including The Force Awakens.

"It's not easy being Steven's producer," Kasden says. "Kathy became a genius at handling people. So she went very rapidly from being his new assistant to being his producer."

Spielberg says that's because Kennedy was and remains devoted to the filmmaker's vision.

"Kathy was able to put out fires before they began that I didn't even know were sparking," he says. "She's a great peacemaker. She's not intimidated, and she was a natural and born leader. So in other words, Kathy came into my life like a gift from heaven."

After Raiders, Spielberg made Kennedy his co-producer — a partnership that lasted for decades, starting with his 1982 blockbuster E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial.

E.T. won four Oscars and a Golden Globe for best motion picture drama, which Kennedy accepted: "I think I'm the luckiest person in the world," she said that night.

With Spielberg and Frank Marshall, Kennedy formed a production company, Amblin Entertainment. Among their many films: Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Kennedy and her husband then formed their own company to produce such movies as The Bourne Identity and its sequels.

Along the way, Kennedy says, they worked with many children — including a 6-year-old Drew Barrymore and a 12-year-old Christian Bale. Haley Joel Osment was only 10 when he starred in The Sixth Sense.

Now in his late 20s, Osment is impressed by Kennedy's record. "She's made a significant film every year for the past 35 years. Looking at that filmography is pretty incredible," he says.

Osment also starred in the 2001 movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which Kennedy and Spielberg produced together. The actor says she helped make the set relaxed and fun. In one case, that warmth was literal: At a wintry Hollywood event Osment went to with Kennedy and Marshall, he remembers "standing at the valet and me and my sister were inside each of Frank and Kathy's jackets staying warm."

Spielberg and Kennedy teamed up again for Lincoln, which was nominated for a best picture Oscar in 2013. After that, her old friend George Lucas came calling. Lucas told her he was thinking of retiring and wanted her to take over the company.

"I was completely shocked," Kennedy says. "I have to admit, he didn't have to do a lot of coercing. I couldn't think of anything more exciting to do. So here I am."

Kennedy calls Lucas her "Yoda." She notes that all of her mentors have been men. That's something she thinks about a lot.

"Part of my responsibility too is I need to bring other women along," she says. "I don't think we can just stand by and keep talking about it from the standpoint of victimizing ourselves or complaining about it. We've got to do something about it."

Women now make up nearly half of her executive staff at Lucasfilm. Four of the six people in her development team are women. And yet, she says, not a single woman called her about writing or directing Star Wars.

"Sometimes women don't take the initiative that they should," she says. "The phone didn't ring."

Kennedy hired former fanboy J.J. Abrams, who as a teenager had edited Spielberg's old Super 8 films. She says she had the best time during the making of The Force Awakens, watching John Williams direct the orchestra for his soundtrack.

"I just pinch myself, saying: This is so incredible," she says. "J.J. and I would just [be] constantly looking at each other amazed that we got to have this experience. That's the other thing I find, too, is that the most talented people I've had the good fortune of working with, they're also the most humble and the easiest to be around. There's no pretense because they're just about the work."

Kennedy says she's talking with her old friend Steven Spielberg about teaming up again for a new Indiana Jones movie.

"I will get her back someday," Spielberg vows, before bringing it full circle. "The entire trajectory of Kathy's career proves the force to exist in the cosmos."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Hard to remember a debate as fierce as the one raging in our newsroom. It's over whether we're covering a story enough or too much. It's the story of a certain movie - "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." It opens tonight, thanks in part to its producer Kathleen Kennedy, who was handpicked by George Lucas to take over his blockbuster franchise. NPR's Mandalit del Barco continues our coverage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAR WARS MAIN TITLE")

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The new "Star Wars" movie had its splashy Hollywood premiere earlier this week. Before the movie opened, Kathleen Kennedy joined the cast on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

KATHLEEN KENNEDY: It's a real privilege to make movies, and everyone involved in "The Force Awakens" knows how lucky we've been to carry forward this incredible legacy that George began over 40 years ago.

DEL BARCO: Last week, she stood with Harrison Ford at a press conference and revealed just a little bit about the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

KENNEDY: Jar Jar's definitely not in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KENNEDY: Ewoks are not in the movie.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Boo (ph).

KENNEDY: Sorry. That's because Harrison insisted upon it.

HARRISON FORD: In my contract.

KENNEDY: It was contract - yeah, contractual.

DEL BARCO: Kennedy told NPR that she and the entire crew want to keep other details a surprise for the fans. Like many of them, she remembers waiting to see the first "Star Wars" movie back in 1977.

KENNEDY: I was actually in college down in San Diego, and I, too, stood in line. I think that was part of the excitement. You'd be in line for hours, and you didn't care. And it would turn into sort of, like, a party atmosphere. We were sort of secretly hoping that we could re-create that with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS")

FORD: (As Han Solo) Chewie, we're home.

PETER MAYHEW: (As Chewbacca, vocalizing).

DEL BARCO: A long time ago - 62 years, to be precise - in a galaxy known as Berkeley, Calif., Kathleen Kennedy was born a twin, the daughter of a one- time theater actress and a judge. In college, she studied film and worked at a local television station.

(SOUNDBITE OF KCST-TV BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: KCST-TV, San Diego.

KENNEDY: I started out as a camera operator. I was doing news, and I was doing sports - baseball games and football games. And I was acutely aware of women not really being in those roles then.

DEL BARCO: She made her way to Los Angeles and landed a job as a secretary for notorious screenwriter John Milius, who had written "Apocalypse Now." At the time, Milius was executive producing Steven Spielberg's movie "1941." Spielberg says he was so impressed with her organizing skills that he asked her to be his secretary.

STEVEN SPIELBERG: I remember Kathy came in the room with her steno pad and her pencil. And she was horrible at taking notes, and she was terrible. And she didn't really know how to do it very well, but what she did know how to do was interrupt somebody in mid-sentence. We'd be pitching ideas back and forth. And Kathy was supposed to be writing these ideas down - suddenly, put her pencil down and would say something like - and what if he didn't get the girl, but instead, he got the dog?

DEL BARCO: As Kennedy continued to make creative contributions, Spielberg gave her more responsibilities and challenges.

KENNEDY: He put a script on my desk and said, this is my next movie. Read it. I want to know what you think. Don't tell anybody anything about it. And it was "Raiders Of The Lost Ark."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK")

KENNEDY: (Laughter) That was a good beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK")

DEL BARCO: Spielberg made Kennedy his associate for the 1981 adventure movie. She says it was the first time she went overseas on a movie shoot. It's where she met Frank Marshall, who later became her husband and producing partner. And on that shoot, she also worked with Harrison Ford and George Lucas for the first time.

KENNEDY: I couldn't have possibly imagined that 35 years ago, when I'm standing in the middle of the desert making "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" with Steven and George, that I would later be running the company.

DEL BARCO: Lawrence Kasdan wrote the script for "Raiders" and several "Star Wars" movies, including "The Force Awakens."

LAWRENCE KASDAN: It's not easy being Steven's producer. Kathy became a genius at handling people, so she went very rapidly from being his new assistant to being his producer.

DEL BARCO: Spielberg says that's because Kennedy was and remains devoted to the filmmaker's vision.

SPIELBERG: Kathy was able to put out fires before they began that I didn't even know were sparking. You know, she's a great peacemaker. She's not intimidated, and she was a natural and born leader. So in other words, Kathy came into my life like a gift from heaven.

DEL BARCO: After "Raiders," Spielberg made Kennedy his co-producer, a partnership that lasted for decades, starting with the 1982 blockbuster "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL")

PAT WELSH: (As E.T.) E.T. phone home.

DEL BARCO: E.T. one four Oscars and a Golden Globe for best motion picture drama, which Kennedy accepted.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDEN GLOBE ACCEPTANCE SPEECH)

KENNEDY: I think I'm the luckiest person in the world (laughter).

DEL BARCO: With Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall, Kennedy formed a production company, Amblin Entertainment. Among their many films, "Back To The Future," "Jurassic Park," "The Color Purple," and "Empire Of The Sun." Kennedy and her husband then formed their own company to produce such movies as "Bourne Identity" and its sequels. Spielberg and Kennedy teamed up again for "Lincoln," which was nominated for a best picture Oscar in 2013. After that, her old friend George Lucas came calling, as he told starwars.com.

SPIELBERG: I just said, hey, let's go have lunch, and I popped the question.

KENNEDY: I thought we were just want to have a social lunch and catch up about family. I've known George since we all did "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" together.

DEL BARCO: Lucas told her he was thinking of retiring and wanted her to take over the company.

KENNEDY: I was completely shocked. I have to admit he didn't have to do a lot of coercing. I couldn't think of anything more exciting to do, so here I am (laughter).

DEL BARCO: Kennedy calls Lucas her Yoda. She notes that all of her mentors have been men. That's something she thinks about a lot.

KENNEDY: Part of my responsibility, too, is I need to bring other women along. I don't think that we can just stand by and keep talking about it from the standpoint of victimizing ourselves or complaining about it. We've got to do something about it.

DEL BARCO: Women now make up nearly half of her executive staff at Lucasfilm. Four of the six people on her development team are women. And yet, she says not a single woman called her about writing or directing "Star Wars."

KENNEDY: Sometimes women don't take the initiative that they should. The phone didn't ring.

DEL BARCO: Kennedy hired former fanboy J.J. Abrams, who as a teenager had edited Spielberg's old Super 8 films. She says she had the best time during the making of "The Force Awakens" watching John Williams direct the orchestra for his soundtrack.

KENNEDY: I'd just pinch myself, saying this is so incredible. I mean, it was just - J.J. and I were just constantly looking at each other, amazed. That's the other thing I find, too, is that the most talented people I've had the good fortune of working with - they're also the most humble, the easiest to be around. There's no pretense because they're just about the work.

DEL BARCO: Kennedy says she's talking with her old friend Steven Spielberg about teaming up again for a new "Indiana Jones" movie.

SPIELBERG: She's still in my life, and I will find a way to get her back someday.

DEL BARCO: Spielberg brings it full circle.

SPIELBERG: The entire trajectory of Kathy's career proves the force to exist in the cosmos.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.