OSCARS Q&A: Kathleen Kennedy

Christy Grosz is Editor of AwardsLine.

Kathleen Kennedy has worked with Steven Spielberg for more than 30 years, producing box office successes and critical hits in equal measure. But she says that in all that time, one biographical topic came up consistently in their development discussions: “The subject of Lincoln was something that always fascinated both of us,” she says, noting that their current release took 13 years and multiple iterations to make it to theaters. “We were both really surprised that there hadn’t been more done in cinema (on Lincoln) over the years.” With a script from Tony Kushner, their complex—and occasionally humorous—portrayal of the 16th president’s efforts to pass the 13th amendment in the months before his assassination has already hit $100 million domestically and earned seven Golden Globe nominations. Kennedy recently spoke with AwardsLine about Lincoln’s languid path to production and her new role as president of LucasFilm.

AwardsLine: Every film has its own set of rules, but what consistently surprises you or keeps you interested when you’re starting a new project?
Kathleen Kennedy: My tastes tend to be eclectic, so if I’m working on something that’s a small budget where the challenge is in all the nuances of trying to literally get it made, that presents its own set of challenges; if I’m making a big effects-driven studio picture, then it’s really more of managing all the moving parts. For something like Lincoln, we knew that this was going to be a difficult movie to get made, even if Steven Spielberg was directing it. And as you can see on the screen, we had many different partners just in trying to get the movie financed.

Related: OSCARS: The Directors

AwardsLine: Can you explain how that all came together?
Kennedy: In this day and age, you say that you’re doing a movie about Abraham Lincoln, and nobody necessarily sees the opportunity for making lots of money—it’s not like doing Jurassic Park. So that’s something we knew going in, and we began to explore the options of who might step in and share the risk of making the film. It ended up taking almost a year before we put together the necessary partners. Stacey Snider was very involved at DreamWorks in really pulling most of that together while we were making War Horse. And when we came back, we went immediately into prepping Lincoln. I had already had many conversations with everybody in Virginia about being able to use the government buildings in Richmond while they were out of session. That, I knew early on, was going to dictate our shooting schedule. That gave us a goal in terms of knowing when we had to have the financial partners in place.

Related: Mike Fleming’s Q&A With Steven Spielberg

AwardsLine: Was there ever any other actor during this 13-year process of getting Lincoln made that you considered for the title role?
Kennedy: It’s been in the press that we had conversations with Liam Neeson—this is after Daniel (Day-Lewis) had turned the movie down the first time. And once Tony (Kushner) wrote the script, and Daniel had a chance to read that draft, that’s when he turned around and committed to the project. But the only serious conversation we had with any other actor was with Liam.

Related: OSCARS Q&A: Tony Kushner

AwardsLine: A lot has been written about Steven’s almost Method approach to working with the actors on set. Can you talk a little bit about that aspect?
Kennedy: What was really going on was that Steven recognized very early that this was going to be a movie where it was all about what was going on in front of the camera. It was a movie that was focused predominantly on performances. He didn’t want an environment where there was a lot of chit-chat and conversations going on about what was happening behind the camera or just the kind of socializing that tends to go on when you’ve got a lot of down time. And this was a movie where there was virtually no downtime. There was always focused discussion on what was going on within the scene and within the performances, and conversations with the actors because we have in excess of 149 speaking parts (with) fairly complicated wardrobe and hair and makeup. Steven wanted to know as soon as the actors were ready and on the set, (so) he would be ready to start shooting and take full advantage of the time he had. What’s really interesting about any movie I’ve done with Steven (is) we usually adopt a kind of attitude depending on what the movie is. The closest experience I’ve had was working with Clint Eastwood. I’ve made a couple of movies with Clint, and he runs a set in a similar way. In large part, that comes from the fact that he is an actor, and it’s always the most important thing to Clint that when the actor arrives on the set, things are immediately quiet, and the focus turns to those performances. And that’s exactly what Steven did on this set.

Related: OSCARS Q&A: Directors Of Photography

AwardsLine: You’re stepping into the role of president of LucasFilm at a time when it’s being acquired by Disney. How will that affect your producing duties? You have a lot of work on your plate.
Kennedy: (Laughs.) Yeah, it’s a lot on my plate, but it’s been fantastic. I consider it such an honor that George (Lucas) came to me after all these years and asked me if I would take over the company and ensure that his legacy continued. There’s going to be a lot that looks really fun and interesting, and it will still utilize many of the skills that I use as a producer. I don’t envision that a lot will change that dramatically. Many of the movies that I did with Steven over the years involved carrying through a lot of other areas of the business of making movies, and that’s something that I’ll probably end up doing more of. But I’m finding out what the job is right now. We haven’t finalized the sale—that won’t happen until January, and then I’ll get more into the day-to-day.

  1. Lincoln has one of the best final lines (“I’m afraid I have to go.”) and final shots (the White House butler watches Lincoln depart down the White House hall to his tragic fate, and into history) that I saw in a movie this year — but Spielberg couldn’t help himself, and just had to keep going, giving us a few more extraneous minutes of melodrama that add nothing to the film, and only undermine the power, elegance and poetry of that beautiful cinematic moment. So frustrating. A near-great film.

    1. I basically agree, but I think the assassination had to be in for historical purposes.Throughout this beautiful and poetic film, I was on tenterhooks waiting for Spielberg to give into schmaltz, but his sat on his hands and delivered a great film. Maybe they could have opened with the assassination and gone to “four months before,” or something to show how much he accomplished in that condensed period of time. There are people who may not know he was killed, or when.

      Anyway, I’ve seen everything this season, and I hope Lincoln wins everything.

  2. I have had the honer of working with Kathleen and every nano second of it was profoundly rewarding. She is an amazing filmmaker. The most supportive producer I had worked with up to that time and could hope to work with in the future. I hope Lincoln cleans up this awards season. It deserves it and so does Kathleen.

  3. I disagree – everyone and their dog knows Lincoln was assassinated, and how. It was hackneyed and wholly unnecessary to tack that on. Ending instead simply on that elegant, poetic allusion to it would have been powerful, profound and magical.

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