The Force Behind Lucasfilm-Kathleen Kennedy #StarWarsEvent
“Believe and set your sights on the fact that you can do it. It’s certainly a goal any woman can have, just like any man.” – Kathleen Kennedy
The first thing you notice about Kathleen Kennedy is her lighthearted, easygoing nature. Down to earth in every way that counts, she’s just like so many women of today- a full time working mom who puts her children and family first and who on weekends you’ll find cheering her kids on from the stands with one slight exception. While she is a wife and mother, and her children’s biggest cheerleader, she also just happens to be the co-founder of Amblin Entertainment, has had a hand in nearly all of Steven Spielberg’s films since Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, and In 2012 she became president of Lucasfilm, George Lucas’s production company, shortly before he sold it to Disney. Did I also mention that she’s also shepherding an ambitious new slate of Star Wars films, including Star Wars: The Force Awakens, from director and co-writer J.J. Abrams which opens in wide release on Friday as well as finally bringing a longtime dream of hers, Roald Dahl’s The BFG finally to the silver screen on July 1 of next year? Did I mention that she makes it all look and sound easy-just another day at the office? We sat down to talk to Kathy, as she’s known to those around her, about what it’s like to have been a part of the male dominated entertainment industry for the last thirty years, taking over the helm of Lucasfilm from close friend and mentor George Lucas and how she balances it all, always making sure that her family, especially her children come first,
As a mom and a film producer in Hollywood, do you have tips for moms that are trying to balance all of this work in life?
“Well, as you can imagine I get asked this all the time and what I end up saying is you just instinctually know how to make those choices, at least that’s what I’ve ended up doing. In the heat of the moment, I weigh what is the right thing to do. Obviously nine and a half out of the ten times it’s the family. And you figure out what that means and then you try to find a way to have a discussion about it. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that I have an amazing husband and we’ve both done the same thing. And for a long time, before we had kids, we worked together. Then when we had kids we started leap-frogging and it was this, sort of, unspoken agreement that depending on how things were shaping up we would shift responsibilities. For the most part we just supported one another in that as often as we could, and then we’d make it work. And some things you just sacrifice as a consequence but I think that that’s pretty normal in the course of trying to weigh how to handle a career in general and then kids just make it more complicated. But in the end, you’re still doing the same thing. I guess what I’m getting at is there’s no cookie cutter approach to here’s what you do to balance career and family. I think it’s so much the individual and where you’re values are and what’s important to you and the stage your kids are at. I always talk to moms who have babies and they’re like, “Oh, if I could just get past the infant stage.” I’m like, “Oh you have no idea.” Ultimately it’s a learning curve for us all.”
So what’s a regular day like in the life of Kathleen Kennedy?
“I have a very bifurcated life because I’m running Lucasfilm and producing the movie. So even when I’m here in Los Angeles, I would go up to San Francisco two days a week and then I would come back here. When I’m in London to work on movies, I set up a system where I can do video conferencing and meetings on a weekly basis so that I can maintain a connection to everybody on the executive team. So my day is never something that I could say that it operates in any kind of a routine way. But I usually try to stay focused on the movies in the morning and then as, as I said, as L.A. wakes up in the afternoon I’ll move into my office and begin to make those phone calls or do those video conference connections in order to get that work done. Then the car that I drive, well don’t actually drive in London because I’m terrified to drive on the other side of the road, but I have a driver, the car is set up with Wi-Fi so I sit in the back seat, open my laptop, put an earphone in my ear and start making phone calls and dealing with business. The hope is by the time I get home at around 8:30, 9:00 I can pretty much stop. Every now and then if there’s a complication somewhere I’ll be on the phone late. But I’ve gotten to the point where I can keep that pretty much under control. This last series of months since August I’ve been in London doing’ Rogue One’ which finishes shooting on December 18th. But this time my husband is doing a new Bourne series, so we brought our 16 year old kicking and screaming I might add, to go to school in London. She’s ended up having an absolutely fantastic time. It’s one of the best things we ever did. But that’s worked out actually quite well. That’s affected my routine because I’ve ended up where I’ve just sort had to lay down the law that when I get home we have dinner, when I get up in the morning I go in a little bit late. I’m not there at call time on the set so that I can be home when Megan is eating breakfast and get her on the bus. The great thing about this school she’s at is that the bus literally comes to the door and picks her up, which has been fantastic. It’s one of the reasons we chose the house that we’re staying in. But, you know, that’s, that’s kind of an example where things can change”
What is your Star Wars story? How did it start for you?
“I was actually in film school when I saw Star Wars for the first time. So as you can imagine, it was just jaw dropping, mind-blowing. Everybody in film school was talking about it. You realize that there was so much possible beyond anything you could imagine once we all saw that movie. So it was sort of perfectly timed. I suppose you were either seven or eight or you’re in film school. Those would be the touchstones.”
What is it about J.J. Abrams that makes him the perfect director for this movie?
“You know, I think there are very few directors that have the bandwidth, if you will, that somebody like J.J. has. I think Steven’s an example. George is an example. There’s certain filmmakers where just who they are as a person, the exuberance, the childlike quality, the sense of humor. They just have the understanding of what it is to just be delighted by entertaining stories and movies. J.J.’s very definitely one of those filmmakers. He just accesses every beat of the storytelling process in a way that you feel that he’s always connected to the audience, whether they’re seven or 700. He just has that unique ability. He made it such a fun experience. He’s meticulous about story and he’s meticulous about the technical aspect of making the movie. But he makes it a totally inclusive, really fun experience on the set. I remember all the years I worked with Steven, he used to always say that that kind of energy in the creative process gets translated to the screen. And I think that that’s very much what J.J. does as well.”
Can you tell us a little bit about George Lucas and his connection to the process? Did you meet him in the early stages and did he offer any advice?
“George was invaluable. The interesting thing is early in the process I said to him, ‘You know there’s a lot to absorb here George. How do we go about doing that? Are things written down?’ His reply was ‘No! It’s in my head!’ And so realizing that so much of it was in his head meant that there had to be a lot of discussion and that’s what we all started doing right from the beginning. We created this kind of brain trust with certain people within Lucasfilm who had been there for a long, long time with George and had worked with him day in and day out in the storytelling process or inside of I.L.M. with the creative visuals and production design and artwork and what not. So we started pulling all of those people together and then added into that some new people and tried to get as much out of his head as we possibly could for as long as we could before he retired”
So we’ve heard that Bob Iger was very involved in the process, which he usually is not. How often did you meet with him to go over the original script and storyline?
“Bob was involved with absolutely everything. And the fantastic thing was oftentimes when I would be in London, which is where we shot the film; you always look at the clock when you’re working in London because you have a period of time where you’re sort of at ease because you can just focus on getting the movie made. And then you realize L.A. is about to wake up and your whole day is going to start over again. So at about 2:30 in the afternoon if my phone rang early, it was often Bob. He would have looked at dailies and he just wanted to check in. He was excited about something and he was absolutely involved. He’s been involved in every aspect of marketing. He’s had an absolute blast doing this with us. I think he’s really, really enjoyed it because I think to myself how often do CEOs of a company really get to touch what’s going on? They see bits and pieces but they sit at 30,000 feet most of the time and I think this has been a really wonderful experience for him and for us, by the way. He’s had lots of contributions that have been great.”
What do you think the directors, including J.J. Abrams, of the new series of Star Wars’ films connecting to the films on a personal level and what do these films mean to you personally?
“Well, I think that what has always been very obvious to me is that George created this from a very strong personal point of view. When he made this movie ‘New Hope; in 1977, obviously he was a young man coming out of film school and he had something to say. He didn’t step into ‘New Hope’ and decide that he was going to make some huge blockbuster movie that we would be sitting here 40 years later with us all talking about it. I think that that’s what I’ve always recognized with any of the filmmakers I work with is the really, really good ones, they want to find something of themselves as a reason to tell the story. They’re looking for something that they want to infuse into the characters and the storytelling and the emotion of the piece. J.J. did the same thing with this movie. As a producer, I love recognizing that in somebody and then helping them to find the resources to nurture that and guide that. It’s when somebody can’t find that, then I get a little concerned because if somebody’s just going to go through the motions of making a movie without having that personal connection, then usually they’re not going be able to excavate what’s emotionally powerful in ‘Star Wars’, or in any movie for that matter.”
Force For Change has done so much to give back and has had a meaningful impact for fans as well. Can you talk a little bit about your involvement and how the connection first started?
“It was really important to us when we started out the process of making the movie to have a way to be able to give back to the community. And I might add for J.J. and Bad Robot, Disney, all of us sat down and said, ‘Okay we’re lucky enough to be involved in a franchise that’s going to generate tremendous goodwill. What can we do to give back as a part of this phenomenon?’ So we sat down very early on to start to talk about where that might go. The idea for calling it ‘Force For Change’ I think was a pretty brilliant one and it came about very early on in the process. We spent a bit of time kind of getting our head around what that means and how broad it can be. I sat down with Carol Stern at UNICEF and she is brilliant. It was funny, you know how you sit down with somebody and you don’t know why you click right away. With Carol she and I just clicked immediately. I recognized that what they were doing with their initiative called Kid Power fit perfectly with some of the objectives that Disney and Lucasfilm had with some of the philanthropy that we were starting to look at. So that was a partnership that we formed almost immediately. By the time we went to the Star Wars Celebration, we were ready to announce it. And then we started the Omaze programs and now under the umbrella of Force For Change we’ve gone to each of the cast members and we’ve let them identify what it is they’d like to pull under the umbrella of Force For Change. It really does feel like it’s an initiative that can take on a lot of flexibility in how we acknowledge what the philanthropy is that we’re looking at. But it’s, primarily looking at how do you recognize empowering people around the world who are making a contribution and that gives us, a lot of empowerment ourselves.”
With Rogue One wrapping up you have ‘BFG’ coming down the road next year. What’s it like shifting gears from this to that?
“The ‘BFG’ is something that I had spent years off and on developing- many, many years. And I must say that over the years I’ve had many, many conversations with Steven who I kept saying, ‘This is really right for you.’ And then within I would say a month after I decided to take over Lucasfilm, he called me up and he goes, ‘You know, I read the script again and I really want to make the movie.’ And I was, like, ready to go through the phone and strangle him. But, not only having Steven involved in this but also the fact that technology has caught up with making the film is really quite spectacular. What he’s doing with this is going be pretty mind-blowing and very emotional. Sadly we had Melissa Mathison pass away recently. She wrote the script and she did ‘E.T’. I think people are going be incredibly pleased with how this movie turns out.”
As a female powerhouse, there’s a great female lead in the movie. What takeaway do you think this movie will give us for the girls of this generation and with Rey being such a prominent character? Did that decision to have a female lead come early in or was that later in the planning process?
“The decision to have a prominent female lead was decided upon right from the beginning. It’s something that J.J. and I started talking about from day one. It was really important to us because we both have daughters. The character of Rey is, I think, one of the most wonderful heroines to come along in movie history. I mean, she is great. I think girls are going to be very happy. They’re going to have their own Luke Skywalker now. Let’s put it that way.”
Kathleen Kennedy is just your ordinary working wife and mother, who happens to be the head of one of the biggest studios, movie producer and one of the biggest Hollywood powerhouse of our times. But to her, she’s just a hard working woman who never doubted herself for a moment, showing how it’s possible with determination and perseverance to accomplish extraordinary things. And in doing so, she’s the best role model her children could ever have. When Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens on Friday, people will be introduced to the prominent female character for our time but the real strength is the woman behind the movie-Kathleen Kennedy.
What secrets did Harrison Ford reveal? Find out that and much more in our exclusive interview with him.
What’s it like to have your very first movie role happen to be in the the biggest movie ever? Find out what Daisy Ridley had to say about being Rey and more in our interview with her.
Why was John Boyega laughing? Find out here
Want to know what it was like to be a part of the top secret Star War Global Press Day? Read all about the experience here.
Next up at the interview table tomorrow, the mysterious Lupita Nyong’o and the dashing pilot Oscar Isaac
There’s Been An Awakening…
When a ruthless prince rises to power and threatens galactic peace, a runaway soldier, an uncongenial scavenger, and a hotshot pilot find their fates intertwined as they embark on a journey to find the most powerful warrior in the galaxy.
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Star Wars: The Force Awakens Opens everywhere on Friday!
Disclosure: I have been invited by Disney to cover this media event. All material and expenses for this event have been provided courtesy of Walt Disney Studios but all opinions my own.