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Mary Parent is, at her core, a storyteller. But the producer and vice chairman of worldwide production at Legendary Entertainment, whose work on Warner Bros.’ Dune has earned her a second Oscar nomination for best picture (after 2015’s The Revenant), admits that she never expected a career in filmmaking to be her calling. “I’ve always loved movies, and was an avid reader growing up,” Parent tells THR, “but I never envisioned that there could be a place for me in Hollywood.”
It turns out her place would be near the top, with roles including chairperson of MGM’s Worldwide Motion Pictures Group and president of production at Universal Studios. Ahead of receiving the David O. Selznick Achievement Award, which recognizes a producer’s body of work while they’re working in the film industry, at the PGA Awards on March 19, Parent reflects on her Hollywood journey.
What was your way into the industry?
I started as an assistant at ICM, answering phones and filling water pitchers. I think agency experience is amazing, especially as a young person coming in, because you’re able to interact with talent, with artists. You’re hearing from studios, you’re hearing producers, you’re seeing how things come together from the inside. Pretty quickly, though, I knew [that] I needed to do something more creative. There were a few opportunities for young executive roles, and I got good advice, which was to go to New Line Cinema. It was an upstart company where I could get my hands dirty and not be stuck in a room doing notes. It was a ragtag group where we had to hunt and fish — we weren’t people’s first choice, we had to go look hard for projects. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of us still working today in this business started there. It was an incredible training ground because you had to be proactive, have a vision for the kinds of stories you wanted to tell.
I’ve been an assistant, creative executive, director of development, vice president, senior vice president, executive vice president, president of production, vice chairman, chairman … I did not skip a rung. It’s important to earn your way and level up when you’re ready. I don’t believe there are any shortcuts, and I think that they backfire on you if you take them.
What did you learn in that position that you’ve carried with you throughout your career?
Filmmaking is such a collaboration. First of all, you have to make sure you have the right people — that’s key. Once you have the right people, it’s figuring out how to support them to do their best work. I always approached my job in a more predictable fashion and was never reactive. I didn’t really wait for things to happen, I’d try to make things happen and always tried to figure out, regardless of how big or small [the project], how to make the process better. It was the quickest way to touch so many things — all of a sudden, [I had the] ability to learn from the best of the best filmmakers [and work on] so many different kinds of films. It helped me build a skill set that I wouldn’t have had at a smaller company. Even though I wasn’t getting to be on the ground floor as much as I loved, it was like a master class of learning those things you call on as you go forward [in a career].
But you’ve transitioned, again, back to being a hands-on producer.
I had access to so many people and built relationships, and I knew in my heart I wanted to go back and really get closer to them. That’s what I’m passionate about, and that was part of my reason for coming to Legendary. It’s a hybrid job, and I still get to produce things. Dune is one example — my fellow producer Cale Boyter and I actually sold Dune to Legendary in 2013 before we came here. That gives you a sense of how long it took to clear the rights. When I got here three or four years later, it was still that complicated to put it together. But I get to still produce things and work with great producers. I think having that shorthand of knowing how best to produce them allows me to create an environment where I can focus on the stuff I’m producing and then support the producers that are working at Legendary. It’s a dream situation and combines all of my experience.
How does your personal film taste dictate what you work on? How do you balance what you’re passionate about with what an audience may be passionate about?
I have really broad taste, which has helped me in my career. I’ve been fortunate to have been involved with some incredible films and filmmakers. I like to be a part of storytelling that entertains people — right now, especially, I think we need to be entertained and inspired. For me, it’s about: “Is there a reason for this? How are we trying to be distinctive, why should this story be told, what is the nerve, what is underneath it?” Nobody has a crystal ball, and at the end of the day you have to be more right than wrong. You’re not always going to be right, and hopefully, with the things that don’t connect as much, it’s still something you can be very proud of.
We can’t forget that we’re all audience members. Part of the challenge, when you’re deciding to spend years of your life advocating for a story, is that you have to get out of your head and get in your heart and really understand why you would want to see it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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