Kathleen Kennedy puts blockbusters on movie screens


If Indiana Jones were a movie producer, he'd probably be Kathleen Kennedy.

Not only did Ms. Kennedy -- a co-founder of Amblin Entertainment with Steven Spielberg and her husband, Frank Marshall -- have a hand in producing the three Indy adventures, she has overseen most of Mr. Spielberg's greatest hits, including "Jurassic Park," "E.T." and "Schindler's List."

Now, with Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Marshall's own new company hitting it big with "Congo" and Ms. Kennedy's Amblin production The Bridges of Madison County" earning respectable reviews, the producer who long ago established herself at the top of her profession has hit yet another career peak.

"Kathleen is exemplary," said Harriet Silverman, executive director of the professional organization Women in Film. "She is a very strong role model and is at the forefront of producers. Certainly, the size and scope of her projects has been awesome. She exemplifies a woman who has great expertise in what she does."

This is a field in which women have made impressive inroads -- at least in comparison with other high-profile, behind-the-scenes movie roles -- yet they still number just 68 out of the 400-member Producers Guild of America.

But, as Ms. Silverman noted, few producers of either gender regularly pull off the heroic acts of expertise Ms. Kennedy does. Among other miracles, she got "Jurassic" quickly back on track after a hurricane hit its Hawaiian location, then helped set up a sophisticated satellite system that enabled Mr. Spielberg to do post-production work on the dinosaur epic while he was filming "Schindler's" in Poland.

This summer's stunts are among the boldest of Ms. Kennedy's career. Both "Bridges" and "Congo's" success came despite drawbacks associated with each film.

Though based on Robert James Waller's phenomenally best-selling book, the romantic "Bridges" was directed by and starred Clint Eastwood, a tough guy never before known for his facility with love stories.

Meanwhile, "Congo," though adapted from a novel by blockbuster-friendly Michael Crichton ("Jurassic," "Disclosure") was, in both critical and industry opinion, a stinker. Nevertheless, "Congo" enjoyed the best opening weekend of 1995, $24.6 million, before "Batman Forever" swooped in to take the title and lop a whopping 57 percent off "Congo's" second-weekend audience.

Ms. Kennedy, who grew up in the Northern California towns of Weaverville and Redding, credits these and her many other achievements to a combination of good luck and commercial instincts.

"It's a little scary," said Ms. Kennedy, an unassuming brunette who clearly takes herself less seriously than she does her job. "I guess I've just been extremely fortunate to work with wonderful people. And everyone I've worked with has also been involved with extremely interesting, unusual and somewhat mass-appeal movies. That's because they, like myself, love movies and tend to be attracted to things that other people like to see.

"We're motivated by what we like personally, and that seems to be in sync with a lot of other people, which is nice."

Her well-tuned taste led Ms. Kennedy to buy the film rights to "Bridges" for Amblin three years ago, before the book was published. The simple story of a frustrated Iowa farmer's wife's brief, life-changing affair with a worldly photographer struck something in Ms. Kennedy that she knew would resonate with women throughout the country.

"I thought it tapped into something very interesting," Ms. Kennedy said of the hugely popular, critically derided book. "I'm not going to get into what I liked or disliked, but the core of it spoke to something that I thought a lot of women think about, which is how women have a complicated, societal responsibility to family and children."

It took some time to get a movie deal for "Bridges" set up. Amblin's base studio, Universal, passed on the project, and only persistent lobbying on Ms. Kennedy's part got Warner Bros. to go for it.

"It was a very challenging book to adapt because it was so internal, and we didn't want to make a movie where the whole thing was voice-over," Ms. Kennedy said. As for the unexpected participation of Mr. Eastwood, it was his interest in the material that helped clarify how it should be brought to the screen.

"Very early on, Clint came to us and said, 'I love this book; I know what it is,' and he absolutely, passionately connected to the book and wanted to commit. Needless to say, when somebody of that stature comes to you with that degree of passion, you pay attention. Even though there's been a fair amount of publicity about certain directors that have come and gone, and everybody, whether they were in the movie business or not, was trying to cast this book and had ideas of who should be in it, Clint's feeling was right from the beginning."

Logistics of 'Congo'

"Congo" required less aesthetic care but a lot more logistical decision-making. Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Marshall (who directed) originally planned to shoot the biggest production of their

fledgling company near the Virunga volcano range in central Africa, where such ape movies as "Gorillas in the Mist" were filmed. But the genocidal tribal conflicts that broke out in Burundi last year put an end to those plans. When Ugandan sites on the other side of the Virungas proved less than volcanic-looking, a worldwide search for a substitute location commenced.

Acceptable active volcanoes finally were found in Costa Rica. The company set up in jungly national parks in the Central American nation during last winter's dry season. Then it rained every day.

"We kept laughing and saying: 'Well, what do you expect? It's a rain forest,' " Ms. Kennedy joked. "But if that was the dry season, I'd hate to think what the wet season's like."

Although mud and mist plagued the production, at least one thing went smoothly. Mr. Marshall, who, like Ms. Kennedy, worked solely in producing capacities before 1990, was much easier to get along with on this shoot than on his first directing effort, "Arachnophobia."

"It's easier to say, 'No, we can't do that,' to Steven Spielberg than it is to say it to Frank," Ms. Kennedy noted with a laugh. "I think everybody can imagine, on some level, that you go through a certain adjustment when you're producing for your husband. The first time I did this, I have to say, for about a month it was a complete and total nightmare.

"I was very used to standing on the set, coming up with ideas and saying, 'Hey, you know what would be great?' Frank, at first, was like, 'Don't do that to me!' You have to realize that movies are made up of a lot of guys, not a lot of women, and these guys are thinking: 'Oh, great. His wife's telling him what to do.' This was dodgy.

"At first, I took it completely personally until I realized the dynamic going on. Then we talked a lot about it, and we sort of found our way. We got beyond that; it was a good growing experience. But I used to always say: 'Look, I do this with Steven.What's your problem?' "

Now that he's grown more confident of his directing skills, Mr. Marshall says there's no problem at all. In fact, like most smart filmmakers, Mr. Marshall values any input Ms. Kennedy has to offer.

"I use her as my sounding board for ideas," Mr. Marshall said. "When I'm unsure about things, I really trust her judgment. She's very good with the script and story side of things."

Avoiding 'the tunnel'

Ms. Kennedy hardly has time to think about the one goal that obsesses so many others in the film industry.

And when she does, it seems to be the only time anything resembling fear strikes her.

"I've occasionally toyed with the idea of directing, but I don't know if I could go into the tunnel," she said. "I call it the tunnel because everything is focused on this one thing, and it's very difficult to stay involved in outside projects, let alone friends and family. It's a very intense process and an enormous commitment of time and energy."

And producing isn't? But the difference is that producing already fulfills her creative needs.

"I love it," she said. "I find my avenue for self-expression in producing. I enjoy organizing and motivating people; the social aspect of it is interesting to me.

"I like the chaos, I guess. It's lots of different things happening at once."

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