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Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall on How to Win in Hollywood Today

Three legendary longtime colleagues open up about the director's role in getting J.J. Abrams to helm 'Episode VII,' the mistake that would have cost 'Jurassic World' director Colin Trevorrow his job and how to find young helmers (who don't suck).

Kathleen Kennedy is late. Few people keep Steven Spielberg waiting, but this isn’t a first. “I always like to say, ‘The late Kathy Kennedy,’ ” says Spielberg, 69, as we sit in late April in an anonymous office on the Sony lot, where he is working on scoring The BFG.

As head of Lucasfilm, Kennedy, 63, has a few Star Wars sequels and spinoffs to deal with. She and her husband, 69-year-old producer Frank Marshall — also here waiting for her to arrive — have collaborated with Spielberg for decades. The three first worked together in 1981, when Spielberg directed Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kennedy was his assistant and Marshall was the producer. Since then, they have worked in various combinations on many other Spielberg-produced and -directed movies, from 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to War Horse in 2011. (Kennedy also produced the 2012 film Lincoln with Spielberg, but Marshall was not involved.) All three have producer credits on The BFG (in theaters July 1) but when that film started shooting, Kennedy’s duties at Lucasfilm kept her away much of the time. “I wasn’t there a lot but enough to see what was going on,” she says. Marshall was there every day, even while Jurassic World, also produced by him and Spielberg, was about to be released.

These days, it’s a logistical nightmare to get all three, occupied with myriad projects, together for an interview: Kennedy’s Lucasfilm duties often keep her in London, while Marshall is at work on Paul Greengrass‘ latest Bourne movie (opening July 29) and Clint Eastwood’s Sully with Tom Hanks (coming in September). The three gathered to talk about BFG, Star Wars, the mistake that would have cost Colin Trevorrow his Jurassic directing gig and more.

Were you expecting Jurassic World to be as big as it was?

STEVEN SPIELBERG We were on our last day of shooting on BFG, and I knew that Jurassic World was being released that day. I said to Frank, “I don’t want to hear grosses until they’re in.” Because sometimes when you hear projections, the grosses come in much lower. You’re disappointed — even though a movie could do $80 million, they projected it at $100 million, so people go home depressed. I could tell it wasn’t a disaster ’cause as Frank was working hard not to tell me anything, his face kept cracking into a smile, which he could not repress. So I knew we were going to be OK, I just didn’t know how OK until [Comcast chairman] Brian Roberts sent me an email Saturday morning, “WOW!!!!”

How involved were you in Jurassic World?

SPIELBERG I was very involved in breaking the story, working on the script with [director Colin Trevorrow] and [writer Derek Connolly]. I was not on the set, but I watched dailies every day. If I felt something about the dailies, I would send a note to Colin directly. But Colin was doing a great job; you could tell by the rushes. I didn’t even find Colin, Frank did.


SPIELBERG Oh — Kathy. Sorry. Anyway, Kathy told Frank, and Frank told me.

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KENNEDY I saw [Trevorrow’s debut movie] Safety Not Guaranteed when I was looking for who was going to direct [Star Wars:] Episode 7. Then when Frank and Steven were looking for a director, and I had already decided on J.J. [Abrams], I said, “Hey, I know this is going to be off the wall and you’re not going to immediately think this young director could do this movie, but I’ve come to the realization he is the real deal, and he could handle it.”

FRANK MARSHALL Then I cold-called him. I looked at his movie and thought he definitely knew what he was doing.

SPIELBERG I looked at his movie and thought it was really good, but I wasn’t convinced until the last scene ’cause that film could have gone two ways. When this [character] who I thought was certifiably insane actually invented something that could travel through time, that crystallized the choice that it had to be Colin to do Jurassic World.

I saw an earlier version of that film in which the time machine didn’t work.

MARSHALL Well [for that version], he didn’t have the money to do the effect.

SPIELBERG Had that machine not worked, Colin would not have directed Jurassic World. Colin was a fan of all the Jurassic movies. And he spoke so much like a moviemaker, not like an essayist. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about movies in very analytical ways, and some of that is impressive and some of that is just analytical. But Colin spoke about the audience and what it felt like to be in the movie theater watching the Jurassic movies. And then he took the other approach of talking about structure and how he would tell the story. And he basically sold himself to me in the room.

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MARSHALL We spent a lot of time with Colin. We’re doing that on [the next] Jurassic, too, with Juan Antonio [Bayona]. Kathy and I have spent a lot of time with Juan Antonio over the years. We had talked about him doing Jurassic World, but he has a long process for production.

SPIELBERG We had been very impressed with his Naomi Watts movie about the tsunami [The Impossible]. You’ve got to pick the right directors, and that’s what Kathy has done so brilliantly on the Star Wars series. Rian Johnson and Colin are the two best directors who could be doing Episode 8 and 9. And that’s the whole key. I think Harry Potter had a huge infusion of a second life when Alfonso Cuaron did No. 3. He changed the paradigm of Harry Potter and gave it another six years just based on the art he brought to the third movie.

KENNEDY It’s also the idea that inside these franchises you can take artistic license and creative risks. If all you’re doing is playing it safe — trying to make the same movie over and over again — that’s when the audiences say, “Oh, this is just a moneymaking machine.” But if it’s genuinely in service to the art form, then the franchise concept is being used in a way that’s exciting.

So when you have Jurassic World, I assume you feel pretty possessive?

SPIELBERG No, I don’t. I honestly don’t feel possessive at all. I think Colin feels possessive now — and he should. I passed the torch to Colin.

You really feel that way?

SPIELBERG I absolutely do. He’s the guy who has to feel possessive. 

KENNEDY Don’t you feel that? I mean, I think it’s all about the joy that comes from the ability to keep it going and keep audiences entertained.

MARSHALL It’s what you did with Star Wars now. 

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in a scene from the Trevorrow-directed hit Jurassic World.

KENNEDY Yeah, there is nothing more thrilling than that — to introduce a new generation to something that the previous generation loved so much, and yet there is a way to modernize it and move it into a more contemporary environment and keep it going. Because you know, audiences love these movies.

SPIELBERG That’s true, yeah.

Kathy, did you think of Steven to direct Star Wars: Episode 7

KENNEDY No. Steven and I had many conversations about J.J.

SPIELBERG I brought J.J.’s name up. I thought J.J. would be the best person to direct Episode 7 and I called J.J. and said ‘Would you do it if it was offered to you?’ He said, ‘I would but my wife won’t let me ’cause she doesn’t want me to restart any more franchises.’ But I went to Kathy and asked if I could get J.J. to say yes to this would you consider it? Kathy said ‘Are you kidding? Of course I would. But why would J.J. do Star Wars; he’s already done Mission Impossible and Star Trek.’ So I take Katie Abrams and J.J. to dinner that night to Giorgio with my wife, Kate, and right in front of Katie Abrams I popped the question. I said to Katie, ‘I think there’s a chance that J.J. could direct Star Wars. What do you think of that?’ And Katie turned to J.J. and said, ‘That would be amazing. Really?’ And I went outside the restaurant, picked up my phone, called Kathy and said, “When can we meet with J.J.?” And that’s how the whole thing began.

So when you look at young directors, how do you know you’re not hiring another Josh Trank [who directed the Fox bomb Fantastic Four]?

SPIELBERG Who is that?

KENNEDY It’s all instinctual. One of the things I’ve come to realize since I’ve been in this position of keeping Star Wars going is that in addition to looking for somebody who can creatively have an impact, you’re really looking for leadership skills. No one steps into these big movies without being able to genuinely lead the charge with hundreds of people and [handle] the relationship with the studio. That’s a very difficult thing to do, and you don’t know [a person can do] that until you get to spend time and watch somebody operate. It’s a strange time in our lives where we’re hiring many filmmakers who have been influenced by the movies that we’ve made over the years.

SPIELBERG Well, it’s like a passing of the torch. I know what it feels like to my generation looking back at the filmmakers who influenced us. And yet we’re not them, we’re ourselves, and we have to figure out what kind of a voice we have. You’ve got to be able to have heroes you aspire to be like, but you can’t imitate them. You have to figure out what you have to contribute to the art form.

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KENNEDY And I think the interesting thing is a lot of people keep asking me, “Well, what did you guys do when you formed Amblin, and what was the business model, and what were you …”

SPIELBERG Business model? Come on.

KENNEDY I’m like, what?! We didn’t do any of that. We were just making what we felt we wanted to see. It’s interesting ’cause nowadays it feels that people approach these things in a much more calculated way because there is so much at stake, frankly. There is so much more money being spent. But when we were doing it, it was completely instinctual.

SPIELBERG If you’re creating a story, if you’re a writer or a producer, you’re unconscious of stuff that’s written every day in the trades. You’re unconscious that there are trade magazines.

MARSHALL No offense.

This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.