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This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When Kathleen Kennedy took the helm at Lucasfilm in 2012, she acknowledged that plunging into the Star Wars universe was “daunting.” That was an understatement considering the many moving parts involved in restarting one of the most iconic properties in industry history — from movies to television to games to merchandise to brand partnerships — while protecting an invaluable piece of IP that she describes as “fragile.”
But this unflappable producer’s decades of working with the industry’s most A-list talent may have made her the best possible candidate for the job. The list includes Clint Eastwood (The Bridges of Madison County), Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and, above all, Steven Spielberg — from 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to Lincoln.
Kennedy’s experience putting high-profile directors at ease has been put to good use at Lucasfilm. One of her first moves was to persuade an ambivalent J.J. Abrams to sign on as director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Now about to launch the seventh Star Wars flick while working on the first spinoff, Rogue One, and prepping Episode VIII, Kennedy is dealing with an ambivalent creator in George Lucas, who has publicly implied that he has reservations about the direction of the franchise. (“People don’t actually realize it’s actually a soap opera and it’s all about family problems — it’s not about spaceships,” he told CBS This Morning. “So they decided they didn’t want to use those stories, they decided they were going to do their own thing, so I decided, ‘Fine … I’ll go my way, and I let them go their way.’ “)
Kennedy, 62, is married to Frank Marshall, the busy producer of the Bourne movies as well as this year’s box-office champ — so far — Jurassic World. Their older daughter is at University of Kentucky studying equine science and wants to be a horse breeder, while the younger, 17, is a high school junior who has been attending an American school outside London while Force Awakens was in production. Kennedy, who says despite everything, the family managed to be together in London over the Thanksgiving holiday, tells THR how she is surviving the madness of relaunching Star Wars.
What is your life like these days?
My life is organized chaos. It’s very demanding but incredibly fun, and I’m having a blast. I said yes to doing this almost three years ago, and it’s been nonstop — literally nonstop — from that moment on.
How are you dividing your time in terms of movies, games, ILM?
I go from L.A. to San Francisco when I’m here [in the U.S.] and we’re in between movies. Then when the movies start, I head over to London because that’s where we’re basing all of our production, at Pinewood. Over the last almost five months now, I’ve been working on Rogue One, and then Episode VIII will start up at the end of January. This will be the only time that it’s really one right after the other because our whole slate got upended a little bit when J.J. and I needed to postpone [the release of] Episode VII from summer to Christmas.
From left: Marshall, Kennedy and Spielberg in 2007. They first worked together on 1981’s ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’
How do you spend your days while the movies are in production?
With the time difference, the good news and the bad news is I could work 24 hours a day if I wanted to, which I don’t do. What it does allow me to do is to focus on the movie in the morning until about 2:30 in the afternoon, when [the West Coast] wakes up, and then I’m talking to everyone in L.A. and San Francisco. I segue into a lot of business having to do with the release of Episode VII because we have all sorts of approvals of content and whatnot, and I talk to the franchise group and the story group going into the afternoon and early evening. Then when I wake up, at 5:30 to 6 in the morning, I have fresh emails and information from [L.A. and San Francisco] as they’re about to go to sleep. So it does allow me to deal with the business of running the company as well as producing the movies.
There has been so much Star Wars merchandise hitting the market — does Disney oversee that part of it?
We’re the creative entity. We have a franchise management team. We have Lucasfilm employees working within Disney consumer products. We spend a great deal of time sitting with the various divisions inside Disney talking everybody through our plans, showing them our artwork and, eventually, footage, helping them create the style guides, identifying what it is that the various companies that we’re in partnership with are going to execute. That’s a collaborative effort between Lucasfilm and Disney. … Probably the biggest contribution that Disney has made to the Lucasfilm franchise management was their international component. That was something Lucasfilm hadn’t made significant inroads with.
If Disney wants to put characters on a can of Coke, do you have input?
Absolutely. Lucasfilm looks out for Star Wars. What are the values inherent in Star Wars that we want to protect? It’s fragile to a certain extent in that it’s a single IP. … They’re depending on us to keep the franchise alive in a way that isn’t a cookie-cutter approach. They want to have a dialogue about how we want to handle consumer products: “At what point could we reach saturation in a way that could have a negative backlash?”
Have you said “We don’t think so” to any ideas?
I would say it has more to do with the amount of things that people may want to do. I don’t want to name any outside companies that we didn’t go forward with. [But] on Disney XD, when we were doing the development on [the animated series] Star Wars Rebels, there was a real emphasis on wanting to do something far more comedic than what we were prepared to do. So we sat down with the story team inside Disney XD, and we spent a lot of time taking everybody through why we thought the show we wanted to develop was a better way to go. The same thing inside the theme park, with the discussion of what that expansion was going to be and to what extent they would involve classic characters, where we would go with new characters, how closely it would tie to the movies. All those discussions have been nothing but collaborative.
The promotion has been pretty constant. How do you know when enough is enough?
I think it’s an instinctual thing. It’s something we talk a lot about. Even with Episode VII, we sat down a year and a half ago and everyone agreed with a less-is-more approach. We were very, very careful to recognize the events that we knew we needed to participate in. You walk a fine line of wanting to execute things well, not oversaturate, and at the same time not come off in a way that suggests that you don’t feel you need to do something, taking on a somewhat arrogant approach. We knew we had the Star Wars Celebration [convention] coming, we knew Comic-Con was going to be a huge event for Star Wars. … We knew D23 was going to be important. We even went into a period of time after we released the first teaser [last November] where we very consciously didn’t do anything for three or four months. We knew every little thing we do becomes a big thing.
George Lucas has been pretty public with his skepticism about what’s being done to his baby. How often do you talk to him?
I talk to George all the time. George has gone through his own personal process of trying to find his own way of letting go of something that has a huge amount to do with his entire adult life. It’s really impossible for him to only get involved a little bit. He either feels he needs to get involved 100 percent and really be running everything or not at all. He had to make that choice for himself, to step away. When I first came into this company, I had about five months where it was back and forth in his mind as to whether he was going to sell, when he was going to sell. At the same time, we were talking about making new movies. He was the one who initially approached Harrison and Mark and Carrie. All of that he initiated, and I think realizing what it meant to stay involved with its execution was what he had to reconcile. And it’s been tough, watching this go on without his direct involvement, but at the same time, I think he really wanted to step away, knowing that it was in good hands. That’s why he always, always wanted to sell to Disney. There was no debate around that.
Wouldn’t it be better if he didn’t talk about the new movie?
I don’t want to second-guess what George feels he needs to say or do. It’s up to him. If there’s one thing I’ve always known about George, he’s never held back on his opinions. Of course I want him to be happy with what we’re doing. But having him 100 percent on board is up to him. He’s said in his own words, he can’t do that unless he’s the one running everything. [But] he’s seen the movie, and he really liked it.
Where are you with Indiana Jones 5?
We’re all trying to figure out when the right time is to step back in. Harrison really wants to do it; Steven really wants to do it. We’ve kicked around a couple of story ideas, but beyond that, I don’t know yet. I think there will be one, we’ll certainly move forward with Indy. But right now, everybody’s just focused on Star Wars.
How far are you into Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII?
We’ve thought this all through. The story group has put together a very carefully thought-through strategic plan for how we’re developing the stories and what those stories are and targeting filmmakers. We’ve looked at it up through, I would say, 2019, Episode IX.
You and Frank will likely have the Nos. 1 and 2 movies of the year. Do you taunt him?
It’s kind of wild, isn’t it? Jurassic World was really a surprise. It was hilarious — over the weekend when that movie opened, about every two hours I would hear Frank shrieking by his computer because no one saw that coming at quite the level that it did. It is fun that that’s become the movie that everybody in marketing is comparing us to.
Read more from THR’s Star Wars issue:
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