Kathleen Kennedy puts blockbusters on movie screens

June 25, 1995|By Bob Strauss | Bob Strauss,Los Angeles Daily News

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

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