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Kathleen Kennedy: From Standing In Line For 'Star Wars' To Producing It Herself

Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy is aware that all of her film mentors have been men. "Part of my responsibility is I need to bring other women along," she says.
Vincent Sandoval
Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy is aware that all of her film mentors have been men. "Part of my responsibility is I need to bring other women along," she says.

Before the new Star Wars movie had its splashy Hollywood premiere, producer Kathleen Kennedy joined the cast onstage. "It's a real privilege to make movies," she said. "Everyone involved on The Force Awakens knows how lucky we've been to carry on this incredible legacy that George began over 40 years ago."

Kennedy is president of Lucasfilm, handpicked by George Lucas to take over his company and the franchise.

Like many fans, Kennedy remembers waiting to see the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977.

"I was actually in college, down in San Diego, and I, too, stood in line," she recalls. "That was part of the excitement. You'd be in line for hours, and you didn't care. It would turn into sort of a party atmosphere. We were secretly hoping we could re-create that with this."

A long time ago — 62 years, to be precise — in a galaxy known as Berkeley, Calif., Kennedy was born a twin, the daughter of a one-time theater actress and a judge. In college, she studied film, and worked at a local television station in San Diego.

"I started out as a camera operator," she says. "I was doing news and I was doing sports — baseball games and football games. And I was acutely aware of women not really being in those roles then."

She made her way to Los Angeles, and landed a job as a secretary for notorious screenwriter John Milius, who had written Apocalypse Now. At the time, Milius was executive producing Steven Spielberg's movie 1941. Spielberg had already done Jawsand Close Encounters of the Third Kind at that point and, as Kennedy says, "he was on a trajectory that was pretty amazing for me to step in at that point." Spielberg says he was so impressed with Kennedy's organizing skills that he asked her to be hissecretary.

"I remember Kathy came into the room with her steno pad and her pencil, and she was horrible at taking notes," Spielberg recalls. "She was terrible, and didn't know how to do it very well. But what she did know how to do was interrupt somebody in midsentence. We'd be pitching ideas back and forth, and Kathy — who was supposed to be writing these ideas down — suddenly put her pencil down and would say something like, 'And what if he didn't get the girl, but instead he got the dog?' "

As Kennedy continued to make creative contributions, Spielberg gave her more responsibilities and challenges. She remembers: "He put a script on my desk and said: 'This is my next movie. Read it, I want to know what you think. Don't tell anybody anything about it.' "

That movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg made Kennedy his associate — in charge of the storyboards for the 1981 Indiana Jones adventure movie. It was the first time she went overseas on a movie shoot, and that's where she met Frank Marshall, who later became her husband and producing partner. On location, she worked with Harrison Ford and George Lucas for the first time.

"I couldn't have possibly imagined that, 35 years ago, when I'm standing in the middle of the desert making Raiders of the Lost Ark with Steven and George, that I would later be running the company," she says.

Lawrence Kasdan wrote the script for Raiders and several Star Wars movies, including The Force Awakens.

"It's not easy being Steven's producer," Kasden says. "Kathy became a genius at handling people. So she went very rapidly from being his new assistant to being his producer."

Kathy was able to put out fires before they began that I didn't even know were sparking. ... Kathy came into my life like a gift from heaven.

Spielberg says that's because Kennedy was and remains devoted to the filmmaker's vision.

"Kathy was able to put out fires before they began that I didn't even know were sparking," he says. "She's a great peacemaker. She's not intimidated, and she was a natural and born leader. So in other words, Kathy came into my life like a gift from heaven."

After Raiders, Spielberg made Kennedy his co-producer — a partnership that lasted for decades, starting with his 1982 blockbuster E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial.

E.T. won four Oscars and a Golden Globe for best motion picture drama, which Kennedy accepted: "I think I'm the luckiest person in the world," she said that night.

With Spielberg and Frank Marshall, Kennedy formed a production company, Amblin Entertainment. Among their many films: Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Kennedy and her husband then formed their own company to produce such movies as The Bourne Identity and its sequels.

Along the way, Kennedy says, they worked with many children — including a 6-year-old Drew Barrymore and a 12-year-old Christian Bale. Haley Joel Osment was only 10 when he starred in The Sixth Sense.

Now in his late 20s, Osment is impressed by Kennedy's record. "She's made a significant film every year for the past 35 years. Looking at that filmography is pretty incredible," he says.

Osment also starred in the 2001 movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which Kennedy and Spielberg produced together. The actor says she helped make the set relaxed and fun. In one case, that warmth was literal: At a wintry Hollywood event Osment went to with Kennedy and Marshall, he remembers "standing at the valet and me and my sister were inside each of Frank and Kathy's jackets staying warm."

Spielberg and Kennedy teamed up again for Lincoln, which was nominated for a best picture Oscar in 2013. After that, her old friend George Lucas came calling. Lucas told her he was thinking of retiring and wanted her to take over the company.

I was completely shocked. I have to admit, he didn't have to do a lot of coercing. I couldn't think of anything more exciting to do. So here I am.

"I was completely shocked," Kennedy says. "I have to admit, he didn't have to do a lot of coercing. I couldn't think of anything more exciting to do. So here I am."

Kennedy calls Lucas her "Yoda." She notes that all of her mentors have been men. That's something she thinks about a lot.

"Part of my responsibility too is I need to bring other women along," she says. "I don't think we can just stand by and keep talking about it from the standpoint of victimizing ourselves or complaining about it. We've got to do something about it."

Women now make up nearly half of her executive staff at Lucasfilm. Four of the six people in her development team are women. And yet, she says, not a single woman called her about writing or directing Star Wars.

"Sometimes women don't take the initiative that they should," she says. "The phone didn't ring."

Kennedy hired former fanboy J.J. Abrams, who as a teenager had edited Spielberg's old Super 8 films. She says she had the best time during the making of The Force Awakens, watching John Williams direct the orchestra for his soundtrack.

"I just pinch myself, saying: This is so incredible," she says. "J.J. and I would just [be] constantly looking at each other amazed that we got to have this experience. That's the other thing I find, too, is that the most talented people I've had the good fortune of working with, they're also the most humble and the easiest to be around. There's no pretense because they're just about the work."

Kennedy says she's talking with her old friend Steven Spielberg about teaming up again for a new Indiana Jones movie.

"I will get her back someday," Spielberg vows, before bringing it full circle. "The entire trajectory of Kathy's career proves the force to exist in the cosmos."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
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