Sunday, 15 December 2013

An Audience with Kathleen Kennedy

Kathy Kennedy is arguably the world's biggest film producer. Her IMDB page boasts a filmography of over 60 titles - including huge family blockbusters such as Jurassic Park, heart-wrenching emotional stories like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and award-winning masterpiece Schindler's List.

I was lucky enough to see this amazing filmmaker in the flesh and sit amongst an audience to hear her tell her own story. It is an inspiring tale of determination and true talent and I'm excited to share it with you.  

Believe it or not, Kennedy originally planned to be a nurse - until she saw Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the film industry became her goal.
Whilst she studied at San Diego State University, Kennedy volunteered at a local TV station and eventually heard that filmmaker John Milius was looking for an assistant. Whilst working for Milius, Spielberg noticed Kennedy's potential when she impressed him with her organisational skills and he hired her to work as his secretary on his next film Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark ... as you do!

Just a year later, Spielberg asked Kennedy to produce a low-budget feature for him - nothing too big, just to get her started... a little film called E.T the Extra Terrestrial. Kennedy admits to constant nausea and anxiety at the weekends as she began what would be the biggest jumpstart to a career you could hope for. 

As we all know, E.T was a massive success and Kennedy went on to form Amblin Entertainment with Spielberg and Frank Marshall. Together they made many more films and still work together to this day. Now, taking the lead on what can only be described as the biggest movie franchise ever, Kennedy has taken on the challenge of a lifetime to produce the next three Star Wars films. 

Most unfortunately, Kennedy could not tell us anything about the up and coming Star Wars films, but no matter: the room was completely enthralled by her. This blog post is about why Kathy is such an inspiration and how I want to emulate her in my own career, as a reminder for my future self. Because if there's one thing I know, becoming a successful film producer is going to be really, really, really hard, and at some point, I'm going to need some extra motivation.

I've heard a lot of people remark - in what I can only assume is jealousy - that Kennedy wouldn't have the acclaim she enjoys without the likes of Spielberg and George Lucas, that it was by pure luck that she got her break in the industry, and that she has no discernible talent of her own. Are you kidding me? 60 major films and you'd think someone would have called BS by now if that was the case, right? 

One can't deny that landing your first film job beside Spielberg isn't extremely lucky, but that is all. Luck will only take you so far - it was Kennedy's keen organisation, her bravery and her brilliant ideas for production that took her the rest of the way.

I think one reason people have this point of view is that Kennedy is very, even overly, modest. As she spoke to us on that stage she seemed a little nervous, seemingly unaware of how much awe she was producing in the wide-eyed audience below. Working besides the likes of Spielberg and Lucas, often in their shadow, Kennedy must now get used to receiving a lot more direct attention. I'm so excited many more people will now know her name and give her the recognition she deserves for the films she dedicated her life to, as she flies the Star Wars ship to new heights. 

Anyone you ever hear speaking of Kathy has only good words to say. Tom Cruise confesses a "feeling of security" when he sees her on set. Clint Eastwood calls her a "terrific filmmaker" and David Fincher describes her as a "director's producer" focussed on creativity and not solely on profits and studio politics. She remains Spielberg's right-hand man, the one he counts on and trusts to be honest. Their professional relationship is described as extremely efficient, almost to the point where you'd think telepathy was involved. 

You see the role of the producer is not to imagine up funky new camera angles, it's not to be loud and have your ego stroked, or even to step into the limelight and promote the film. The producer gets all elements - the madness, the people and the creativity - together in one place and gives them the security and the means to make the best film possible. 

What I admire most about Kathy Kennedy is her love of filmmaking. The question she struggled most to answer was what she would be doing if it weren't producing (the answer, if you're wondering, was philanthropy - she has a heart of pure gold). It has never been about money or awards for her; surprisingly, she is yet to win an Oscar for Best Picture. 

What Kathy spoke to us about was her search for great characters, her championing of creativity and storytelling, and the inevitable disappointments everyone must overcome at some point. She and Spielberg discussed Schindler's List for 10 years before they had the chance to make it, and one of Kennedy's personal favourites, Empire of the Sun, was not the success she had hoped it would be. Her influence is spread across animation and technology also, as she has had a hand in developing some of the most impressive advances in visual effects we've ever seen (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Artificial Intelligence, and Tintin to name but a few).  

The person I saw on stage was a woman at the height of an illustrious career with no thoughts of stopping. I've been lucky enough to work for some fantastic and hugely talented filmmakers in my short career and they have been so inspiring. But Kathy Kennedy, I think you're swell and you are officially my number one role-model.