It’s refreshing when you learn of a woman powerhouse in Hollywood. I mean, it’s no secret, men have ruled the roost in entertainment industry. Kathleen Kennedy is one of those women that can throw names around like “Steven” (Spielberg) and “George” (Lucas) in her circle of friends. She is the one who chose J.J. Abrams to be the director for Star Wars: The Force Awakens as well as the one calling the shots on any upcoming Star Wars projects. As the president of Lucasfilm, she has earned her way to the top. With her first credit in the business being an associate to Steven Spielberg in 1981 during Raiders of the Lost Ark, then quickly becoming a producer to hundreds of projects with Amblin Entertainment, which she co-founded with Spielberg and husband, producer Frank Marshall, she is not new to making movies. And to add to her role in life, she is also mother of two, yet somehow, she seems to have figured out how to balance it all. I am in awe of her and am grateful for the time she gave us for this interview sharing how she makes it all work.
The Woman Force Behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Hopefully I can make sense because we went to San Francisco last night to make a toast at the Lucasfilm Christmas party. I didn’t get home until 1:30, 2:00. But I’m kind of a bit coherent.
So, I have a nine year old daughter who loves Star Wars. For this movie, with Rey being a prominent character, she’s so excited. Did that decision, to have a female lead, come early in the writing?
Yeah, it was right from the beginning. It’s something that J.J. and I started talking about day one. It was really important to us. We both have daughters, so, very important.
Regarding kids and being such a big film producer in Hollywood, do you have tips for moms that are trying to balance all of this work in life?
Well, as you can imagine I get asked this all the time. I think, instinctually I know how to make those choices, at least that’s what I’ve ended up doing in the heat of the moment, I weigh what is the right thing to do. Obviously nine and a half out of the ten times it’s the family. And you figure out what that means and then you try to find a way to have a discussion about it. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that I have an amazing husband and we’ve both done the same thing. And for a long time, before we had kids, we worked together. Then when we had kids we started leap-frogging and it was this, sort of, you know, unspoken agreement that depending on how things were shaping up we would shift responsibilities.
And for the most part we just supported one another in that as often as we could, and then we’d make it work. And some things you just sacrifice as a consequence. But I think that that’s pretty normal in the course of trying to weigh how to handle a career in general and kids just make it more complicated. But you’re still doing the same thing. So I guess what I’m getting at is there’s no cookie cutter approach to here’s what you do to balance career and family. I think it’s so much the individual and where you’re values are and what’s important to you and the stage your kids are at. You know, I always talk to moms who have babies and they’re like, “Oh, if I could just get past the infant stage.” I’m like, “Oh.” (Laughing) So. Anyway. A learning curve.
Can you share what does Star Wars personally means to you?
To me. Well, I think that what has always been very obvious to me is that George (Lucas) created this from a very strong personal point of view. When he made this movie New Hope in 1977, obviously he was a young man coming out of film school and he had something to say.
He didn’t step into New Hope and decide that he was gonna make some huge blockbuster movie that we would be sitting here 40 years later talking about. So I think that that’s what I’ve always recognized with any of the filmmakers I work with is the, really good ones, they wanna find something of themselves as a reason to tell the story. So they’re looking for something that they wanna infuse into the characters and the storytelling and the emotion of the piece. J.J. did the same thing with this movie.
And as a producer, I love recognizing that in somebody and then helping to find the resources to nurture that and guide that. And when somebody can’t find that, then I get a little concerned because if somebody’s just gonna go through the motions of making a movie without having that personal connection, then usually they’re not gonna be able to excavate what’s emotionally powerful in Star Wars, or in any movie for that matter.
Bob Iger was pretty involved.
He’s really involved.
Which he usually is not.
I know. I’ve been told this over and over again. (Laughing)
So how involved did he get in the day to day of shooting?
Oh yeah. Everything. No, absolutely everything. And the fantastic thing was oftentimes when I would be in London, which is where we shot the film. You always look at the clock when you’re working in London because you have a period of time where you’re sort of at ease ’cause you just focus on getting the movie made. And then you realize L.A. is about to wake up and your whole day is gonna start over again.
So at about 2:30 in the afternoon if my phone rang early, it was often Bob. He’d looked at dailies. He just wanted to check in. He was excited about something. He was absolutely involved. He’s been involved in every aspect of marketing. He’s had an absolute blast doing this with us. I think he’s really, really enjoyed it ’cause I think how often do CEOs of a company really get to touch what’s going on, you know? They see bits and pieces but they sit at 30,000 feet most of the time and I think this has been a really wonderful experience for him. And for us, by the way. He’s had lots of contributions that have been great.
Can you give us a little of what a day in the life of Kathleen Kennedy is like?
Oh God. I have a very bifurcated life because, I’m running the company and producing the movie. So even when I’m here in L.A. I would go, before we went to London – I would go up to San Francisco two days a week and then I would come back here. And then when I got to London I set up a system where I would do video conferencing and I set up the meetings on a weekly basis so that I can maintain a connection to everybody on the executive team.
So my day is never…I can’t sit and say that it operates in any kind of a routine way. But I usually try to stay focused on the movies in the morning and then as I said, as L.A. wakes up in the afternoon I’ll move into my office and begin to make those phone calls or do those video conference connections in order to get that work done. Then the car that I drive, I don’t drive in London. I’m terrified to drive on the other side of the road, but I have a driver. As we make our way into London, the car is set up with Wi-Fi so I sit in the back seat, open my laptop, put an earphone in my ear and start making phone calls and dealing with business. And then the hope is by the time I get home at around 8:30, 9:00 I can pretty much stop. Every now and then if there’s a complication somewhere I’ll be on the phone late. But I’ve gotten to the point where I can keep that pretty much under control. And this last series of months since August really, I’ve been in London doing Rogue One, ’cause Rogue One finishes shooting on December 18th. But this time my husband is doing Bourne, a new Bourne series, so we brought our 16 year old kicking and screaming I might add to go to school in London.
She’s ended up having an absolutely fantastic time. It’s one of the best things we ever did. But that’s worked out actually quite well. And that’s affected my routine ’cause I’ve ended up where I’ve just had to lay down the law that when I get home we have dinner, when I get up in the morning I go in a little bit late. I’m not there at call so I can be home when Megan is eating breakfast and get her on the bus. The great thing about this school is the bus literally comes to the door and picks her up, which has been fantastic. It’s one of the reasons we chose the house that we’re staying in.
What is your Star Wars story? How did it start for you?
I was actually in film school when I saw Star Wars for the first time. So as you can imagine, it was just jaw-dropping, mind-blowing. Everybody in film school was talking about it. You realize that there was so much possible beyond anything you could imagine once, once we all saw that movie. So it was sort of perfectly timed. I suppose you were either seven or eight or you’re in film school. Those would be touchstones.
Force For Change has done so much to give back and has had a meaningful impact for fans as well. Can you talk a little bit about your involvement?
Yeah, that was really important to us when we started out the process of making the movie. And I might add for J.J. and Bad Robot, Disney, all of us sat down and said, “Okay, we’re lucky enough to be involved in a franchise that’s gonna generate tremendous goodwill. What can we do to give back as a part of this phenomenon?” So we sat down very early to start to talk about where that might go.
The idea for calling it Force For Change, I think, was a pretty brilliant one. It came about very early. We’ve spent a bit of time kind of getting our head around what that means and how broad it can be. I sat down with Carol Stern at Unicef. She is brilliant. It was funny, you know how you sit down with somebody and you don’t know why you click right away. And with Carol, she and I just clicked immediately in recognizing that what they were doing with their initiative called Kid Power fit perfectly with some of the objectives that Disney and Lucasfilm had with some of the philanthropy that we were starting to look at. So that was a partnership that we formed almost immediately. And by the time we went to celebration, that’s when we announced it. And then we started the Amaze programs. And now under the umbrella of Force For Change we’ve gone to each of the cast members. We’ve let them identify what it is they’d like to pull under the umbrella of Force For Change. And it really does feel like it’s an initiative that can take on, a lot of flexibility in how we acknowledge what the philanthropy is that we’re looking at. But it’s primarily looking at how do you recognize empowering people around the world who are making a contribution? And that gives us a lot of empowerment ourselves.
With Rogue One wrapping up and you have B.F.G. coming out next year. So what’s it like shifting gears from this to that?
Well, you know, the B.F.G. is something that I had spent years off and on developing. Yeah. Many, many years. And I must say many, many conversations with Steven who I kept saying, “This is really right for you.” And then, of course, within I would say a month after I decided to take over Lucasfilm he called me up and he goes, “You know, I read the script again and I really wanna make the movie.” And I was, like, ready to go through the phone and strangle him.
But, not only having Steven involved in this but the fact that technology that has caught up with making the film is really quite spectacular. What he’s doing with this is gonna be pretty mind-blowing. And very emotional. And sadly we had Melissa Mathison pass away recently. She wrote the script and she did E.T. and so I think people are gonna be incredibly pleased with how this movie turns out.
What is it about J.J. Abrams that makes him the perfect director for this movie?
I think there’s very few directors that have the bandwidth, if you will, that somebody like J.J. has. I think Steven’s an example. George is an example. There’s certain filmmakers where just who they are as a person, the exuberance, the childlike quality, the sense of humor. That just the understanding of what it is to just be delighted by entertaining stories and movies. And I think J.J.’s very definitely one of those filmmakers. He just accesses every beat of the storytelling process in a way that you feel that he’s always connected to the audience, whether they’re seven or 700. He just has that unique ability. He made it such a fun experience. He’s meticulous about story. He’s meticulous about the technical aspect of making the movie. But he makes it a totally inclusive, really fun experience on the set. And I remember all the years I worked with Steven, he used to always say that that kind of energy in the creative process gets translated to the screen. And I think that that’s very much what J.J. does as well.
Tell us a little bit about George Lucas and his involvement in Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
Oh yeah. The interesting thing is early in the process I said to him, “You know, so there’s a lot to absorb here, George. how do we go about doing that? Are things written down? Is, is there…?” He said, “No! It’s in my head!” And so realizing that so much of it was in his head meant that there had to be a lot of discussion and that’s what we all started doing right from the beginning.
And we created this kind of brain trust where certain people within Lucasfilm who had been there for a long, long time with George and had worked with him day in and day out in the storytelling process or say inside of I.L.M. with creative visuals and production design and artwork and what not. So we started pulling all of those people together and then added into that some new people and tried to get as much out of his head as we possibly could for as long as we could before he retired.
So, as a female powerhouse and there’s a great female lead in the movie, having daughters myself, what takeaway do you think you could give us for girls?
Without ruining the movie I’m gonna tell you that your daughters are gonna be so excited. This character of Rey is, I think, one of the most wonderful heroines to come along in movie history. I mean, she is great. So I think they’re gonna be very happy. They’re gonna have their own Luke Skywalker now. Let’s put it that way.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS arrives in theaters everywhere on December 18th!