Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy on 'Star Wars,' 'Lincoln' and Secret J.J. Abrams Meetings (Exclusive)
In her first in-depth profile, Kennedy reveals how she landed Abrams to direct "Episode VII" as THR talks to Steven Spielberg, David Fincher and producer husband Frank Marshall, who remembers meeting her: "There was no way I was going to screw this up by hitting on Steven's assistant."
Kennedy not only is a superbly competent producer, but she has been an exemplary citizen of Hollywood. As president of the Producers Guild of America from 2002 to 2006, she took on the thorny question of which producers actually are entitled to credits, saving the industry from the spectacle of Harvey Weinstein-led herds stampeding the stage at awards ceremonies.
Among her most remarkable achievements is the fact that Kennedy has managed to remain grounded and widely liked. She not only receives praise from giants like Eastwood, who calls her "a terrific filmmaker," but far smaller players as well. Marjane Satrapi, the Iran-born creator of the graphic novel Persepolis, met Kennedy when she became a producer of the 2007 animated version of Satrapi's book. The author remembers Kennedy drinking cheap wine out of a plastic cup at a party during production in Paris. "Our studio of animation was no Disney or Pixar," says Satrapi. "And she was telling me, 'This is one of the greatest places I've ever been.' She can really enjoy things as if she was 21."
Not to say that Kennedy is too nice to crack the whip, even with A-list talent. Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplays for Munich and Lincoln, says Kennedy is "reasonable and funny and smart" but also can be blunt. "I got really upset on the set of Lincoln about something that was kind of minor, but I overreacted," says Kushner. "She said: 'Come on! Stop it!' She sort of barked at me. It was very effective." Koepp reports a similar experience. "The two times I got into an argument with her, she completely trounced me," he says. "In fact, I was convinced I was the problem."
But when the going gets tough, Kennedy tends to side with the filmmaker. Perhaps the most unusual homage to Kennedy comes from Fincher, who went through some battles with Warner Bros. and Paramount during the making of Benjamin Button. Asked to describe his working relationship with Kennedy, he writes in an e-mail to THR:
"Kathy Kennedy is a DIRECTORS producer … She is never interested in the 'Lay of the land' … Studio politics are a tangential distraction. She is all about the importance of DECISIVE MOMENTUM.
"When you, as a director -- call Kathy and say 'I need this …' she can actually remember the meeting where you explained why something was LINCHPIN to an effect you were trying to create -- or helped support an idea that you felt was essential to the story you are telling, and SHE CAN ACT ON IT.
"If 'Coffee is for Closers' … Kathy is WELL CAFFEINATED."
Kennedy says she is fully cognizant of the significance of Lucas' decision to entrust his legacy to her. Star Wars "defined his life creatively in a way that he never anticipated," she says. "It's something I think about all the time. It took a lot for him to step away. And the fact that he turned it over to me -- I think, 'Oh my God, I have a huge responsibility to him.' He did say, 'You just do what you do.' I said, 'OK. I'll figure out what that is.' "
Lucas still will be in the picture, but his role is expected to be limited as Kennedy begins to exploit the Lucasfilm assets. "I call him my Yoda," says Kennedy. "He'll be a consultant. But he recognizes he's stepping away."
Asked whether he believes Lucas can really keep his distance, Spielberg doesn't hesitate. "I completely know he can do that," he says. "He's ready to start living without the burden and weight and responsibility of this huge corporate asset."
Kennedy now reports to Disney's Horn, with whom she acknowledges some tension during the making of Benjamin Button, when Horn was president of co-financier Warners. "We went through kind of a bumpy road," she admits. "But he's an adult."
Says Horn: "A movie of that size and scale is always challenging. She puts herself on the side of what she thinks will be in the best interest of the project artistically. Any studio has an obligation to find that elusive balance between art and commerce. We found it." Now they must find it going forward on Star Wars.
But first comes the Oscars. Perhaps Kennedy will not end with the win that would have wrapped up this chapter of her career with a bow. But she and Spielberg say their parting is not permanent. One project that could reunite them would be a fifth Indiana Jones, but Spielberg is clear: "I will not make another Indiana Jones film unless it's based on George's story." Lucas intends for that to happen, says Spielberg, though the timetable is unclear -- the gap between the previous two movies was 19 years. "Kathy and I will figure out some way to work together again," he says, before adding, as if counting the days, "She has a five-year contract."