How 'Batman Returns' Producer Transitioned to the Director's Chair

Courtesy of Karen Ballard
Director Denise Di Novi and Geoff Stults on the set of Warner Bros.' 'Unforgettable.'

Denise Di Novi, who makes her directing debut with Warner Bros.' thriller 'Unforgettable,' talks about Katherine Heigl's ‘fearless’ honesty, Winona Ryder's comeback and the merits of Hollywood's bad-boy era.

Though few have parlayed a successful producing career into a shot behind the camera (Irwin Winkler and James Schamus are among the mostly male exceptions), Denise Di Novi has managed the feat with Warner Bros.' thriller Unforgettable (April 21).

The film nearly fell apart when director Amma Asante dropped out to make A United Kingdom, but Warners' chairman Kevin Tsujihara and the studio's then-production head Greg Silverman urged Di Novi, 61, to transition from producer to helmer on the project. With more than 30 films to her credit — including Batman ReturnsCrazy, Stupid, Love, and the Winona Ryder trifecta of Heathers, Edward Scissorhands and Little Women — she didn't hesitate.

The Laguna Beach native, practicing Buddhist and divorced mother of two isn't the only one pivoting for the $12 million project. Katherine Heigl plays against type as the ex from hell in the ode to Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Fatal Attraction. "Katy did all the rom-coms, and that’s why I really wanted her to do this,” Di Novi says. “When you see her in the movie, she's going to blow your mind."

Di Novi next will helm Highway One from Amblin, set to begin production this summer — forcing her to bow out of producing The Flash. Her priority now is directing, especially since studio producing has become more tame. "It's good that people aren’t doing cocaine in story meetings anymore," she says with laugh. "It's not as great that people are taking less risks on talent and less creative risk.

Di Novi invited THR to her Santa Monica office, where a Buddha statue gifted by Sharon Stone sits behind her desk, to talk about her leading lady's reputation for being unfiltered, the prospect of working with Ryder again, and what she misses about Hollywood's bad-boy days of the ’80s and ’90s.

What made you take this directing plunge at this stage of your career?

It came out of the blue. Greg Silverman and Kevin Tsujihara said I should direct it. It was on the phone, and I just had a split second. I said, “You know what? I should direct it.” This is an opportunity that I want to take. It felt right to me. It was a very natural transition for me. I did do my director’s draft once I was on as director. It was an easy transition.

Heigl is playing against type. Did you have to convince her to do the movie?

I didn’t have to twist her arm. She wanted to do something different. She was fearless in the role. I asked her to jump off a cliff with this character, and she did. She really went for it.

Describe Heigl in three words?

Gifted, fearless and honest. I think that’s where she has gotten into trouble. She's very honest. She has learned to filter, but she speaks her mind.

What do you say to the critics who say the psycho woman protagonist sets women back?

We have thankfully come to a point in time where enough female-driven movies are working at the box office that we can expand upon the stories that we’re telling. I think illuminating as many different aspects of the female experience is really going to be the future. There were so many decades where we saw only certain types of female roles over and over again. Occasionally, there would be some surprising role like Monster. I hope that we can see women play every kind of role.

What was the craziest thing you’ve witnessed on set?

I'm boring because I don't have those stories like [fellow Batman Returns producer] Jon Peters. I had to deal with a lot of stuff with actors with drug problems, emotional or mental health issues. That has always been the case and always will be. But I wasn’t enmeshed in the social scene of Hollywood. I don't have those crazy stories. My movies I tend to run pretty carefully. I don't let things get too crazy. When you're Jon Peters, drama is attracted to drama.

Do you miss the bad behavior of the old days in any way?

When the studios were family businesses and privately run, they were very personality driven. There was a lot more risk-taking and emotional decisions. People would make movies just because they loved them. When the studios became global and more corporate, it became a lot more businesslike. It is less fun. It's a lot harder to get movies made. The whole process is harder.

Any plans to work with Winona?

I don't have a role for her, but I would work with her in a second. I'm so happy for her success right now. I just tear up anytime I talk about it. I love her. She was 15 on Heathers. I have always believed in her. I have always felt she is one of the most gifted actresses of her generation. She's such a gentle, special being.

What do you think of her SAG moment that went viral?

Winona is just a unique, special being. She wears her heart and her emotions on her sleeve. She was clearly just so overcome with emotion. She is who she is.

Your father did music for the TV shows of Danny Thomas and Dick Van Dyke. How did your childhood influence your career?

My dad is going to be 89 in May. He is still an active jazz musician. Aside from doing all the TV work, he was a musical conductor for Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Dina Shore and Ann-Margret. He was in the Benny Goodman Band. He has an incredible career. Growing up with a jazz musician really prepared me for being a producer in that I was very comfortable with an artist’s mind and mentality. Working with Tim Burton felt very familiar to me. Working with actors feels like home to me because that kind of sensitivity, vulnerability and living in your vision of your work and art is what I grew up with. My mother was a dancer. I was very well trained to support, understand and facilitate for those people. I really don't know what other business I could have gone into. I was fired from every job I ever had until I got into the movie business.

You were brought on to produce The Flash. Was that a move to make it a tentpole that could also resonate with female audiences?

I don't think so. It was because I have made some big movies, and the director [Rick Famuyiwa] was more from the indie world, so they felt I was an experienced producer. Also, I like to work as a creative partner to directors. I'm not a dictatorial producer. But then I came on to direct Highway One. They're continuing to develop The Flash, but I have nothing to do with it now.

Would you do a superhero movie again?

Yes. What's exciting is that these movies are getting really good. I would love to do one and bring my sensibility to it. Obviously, I love the female-driven stuff. I would love to do a female superhero movie and make it real and relatable to men and women. That would be exciting. There's a few of them and I think the female characters need a lot of expansion. Wonder Woman looks great.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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