Kathleen Kennedy interview: War Horse, Lincoln, Studio Ghibli, Jurassic Park 4 & more

As War Horse arrives in UK cinemas, we caught up with producer Kathleen Kennedy to talk about Spielberg sequels, Hollywood and much more...

It’s not every day that you get to talk to one of the most successful producers in Hollywood history. So when we sat down with Kathleen Kennedy, who has collaborated with Steven Spielberg on the majority of his films from the last 30 years, we tackled the big question: what, exactly, does a producer do?

With reference to everything from Spielberg’s latest films, War Horse and The Adventures Of Tintin, to the future projects of Lincoln and Jurassic Park 4, Kennedy gives us a detailed break-down of what it’s like behind the scenes of a blockbuster.

One of the questions I always ask producers is what they actually do. Because its one of those ambiguous titles, especially if you throw an executive in front of it. Sometimes the role is more creative, sometimes its more financial and sometimes its more a case of keeping the ship sailing smoothly…

I think you’re right, i think it is all of those things, and I think people tend to get confused, because certain people have a producing credit, but in fact they do a very specific kind of thing. I guess I’m lucky in the sense that I’m a throwback to what producers all used to do.

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I do a bit of everything. So, because of my long term collaboration with Steven, and the fact that I met him when I was 26 years old, my role is as a true collaborator with him from beginning to end, whether it’s actually finding the material, hiring the crew, developing the script, or being involved in all the casting. So I get the opportunity to be a partner in the creative aspect, and then, at the same time, I need to be fiscally responsible.

I always feel that the best kind of producing – and frankly, it has to do with what I like to do – is you’re the big picture person. Where all the department heads have their own particular focus, and the director and the team around the camera department and the editing room, the producer should be the one constantly stepping back, keeping the big picture in mind, looking ahead, anticipating… I always say it’s like going on vacation with 200 relatives, and they’re all looking at you to be told what they get to do, how they’re going to get from A to B. So you’re organising everything, you’re making sure they’re happy, you’re making sure they’re productive.

All of those things need to be constantly organised, so you have to be a very organised person. You have to be very comfortable with communication. I find it really interesting in the early stages of making a movie, where I try to understand what the vision is that Steven has or whatever director I’m working with – the intent behind how they’re going to interpret the script – and finding ways in which you’re communicating that to the individual people who are going to execute the movie.

It’s always amazing to me, that you start with these discussions with a few people in a room, and with one or two script writers, and then after a long process – which can go on sometimes years – the end result bears any resemblance to what you started out with. I think that’s fascinating, and that’s a testament to good communication and constant discussion and creative thought – and I think that should be a part of producing.

How does that work when you’ve got to keep your eye on two big pictures at the same time, for example with War Horse and The Adventures Of Tintin?

You know, they’re so different.

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Tintin in many respects was more of a technical exercise, and once we got to the point where we had the story that we wanted, then that was a very, very different process from what you go through making a live action movie. I think it would have been much more difficult if Tintin were a live action movie, and War Horse had come along. Then we really would have needed clear division of time between the two.

But we could overlap those two, because by the time War Horse came along, we were in the phase of Tintin where the execution of animation was being done. So we were more in a reactive mode. We would go into the cutting room at nine o’clock at night after shooting on War Horse.

Steven and I did this probably for three or four days a week, and we would have a tie line to WETA, which we had done the whole time we had been making the movie, even when we were developing the script and doing the concept designs. And in would walk everybody in New Zealand with their cup of coffee, because it was their morning, and they would sit down, and we would start to run the images that they were working on, and Steven would react.

The interesting thing is, he would react in the same way that he does on a live action set. He would be talking about the lighting, he’d be talking about the performance, he’d be talking about the set design, all of those points that you move through on a live action movie he would be doing, but it would be in a virtual connection. So we were just in a phase where we were starting to look at rendered shots, so it was much more reactive, and time consuming, but it didn’t overlap into the work we were doing with War Horse.

Part of the magic of Spielberg films is that he can make these huge productions, and make them seem so easy. But I’m sure behind the scenes there must be some difficult stages.

Oh, it’s tense! From a producing standpoint, I think prep is everything. Movies can feel as though they’re easy, whatever that means! But, to the outsider they can appear to be easy, if they’re well prepared. And that means everybody who shows up knows what they’re doing, and they know what they’re expected to do. And the reason that Steven can shoot quickly is because all of those departments are prepared, and the only way they can be prepared is by clear, concise decision making, and I think that’s what Steven does very effectively. He doesn’t waffle. When you ask him something, and you want to understand what’s expected, he’s very clear about what he wants, and lays it out very succinctly.

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He, in some cases – although we just finished Lincoln and he did no storyboarding and no pre-vis, none – but on most of the movies that we’ve done recently, we’ve done storyboarding and we’ve done pre-vis, and that can become a real guide. A lot of directors will do a certain amount of storyboarding and pre-vis, and yet when they get on the set, everything starts to change, and they have new ideas.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but oftentimes, everything that came before gets thrown out of the window, and you’re essentially starting from scratch again. With Steven, that doesn’t happen. When you’re in the prep phase, there is a lot of what you’re preparing and discussing which is exactly what is going to be shot on the day.

Lincoln’s an interesting example because, as you said, sometimes the process can be long. That’s a film that has been talked about for years.

Yes, it’s been a decade, and this particular script Tony Kushner’s been working on for six years.

So, as a producer, do you have to roll with that?

Yeah, I never know. I think that’s what’s interesting, I know that there’s a lot of people that have brought up the fact that Steven’s done a lot of movies this year, and his company has produced a lot of things, and they’re saying ‘why is he doing that?’ And my response is ‘it’s a coincidence’. I mean, that is the nature of the business. You lose control at a certain point, which is why I’m not sure a lot of people feel comfortable in this business, because you have to be willing to accept the fact that you relinquish control for a certain period of time, and then you pull it back in.

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And, really, until you have a script, you don’t know if you have a movie. So, oftentimes you’re in this holding pattern, until a screenwriter can hand you a script. And then, sometimes, like with Jurassic Park, when we had Michael Crichton’s book, and Steven had started storyboarding, and we’d started some of the early prep, we didn’t have a script yet from David Koepp. But we knew enough about the action sequences that Steven wanted to do that we could move into a certain amount of prep based on those ideas.

With a movie like Lincoln, it’s so performance-driven, there’s no way you could do that until you have a script – and then casting becomes the most important element in that movie. And you can’t cast until you have a script. So it’s always a bit of a catch-22.

And it seems like you’re in a similar situation now with Jurassic Park 4…

Well we haven’t started the script yet.

That’s another one that’s been knocked around for ten years or more.

It’s been knocked around, but I always think there’s a big difference between just talk and actual work. So we haven’t had a screenwriter on Jurassic, and we haven’t been working on a script. So until we do that, which is probably going to start up now… We really, really hoped, and Steven really, really tried, to bring somebody on before we started Lincoln, so that a script could be written by the time we finished Lincoln. That’s how we usually like to work, but we just didn’t get to a point where we had a story that we thought was really right, so we’re not going to be really starting on that until… now.

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I guess that’s the over-reported state of the movie industry, where somebody says something and it’s blown up into a story, and people start throwing around terms like ‘production hell’, for projects which aren’t that hellish behind the scenes.

It’s the same thing even with Tintin. There’s a tendency to think that we were slaving away on the script for 28 years… No! [laughs] We were doing other things!

What’s it like now having films you worked on celebrate their 20th, 25th, even 30th anniversaries?

Sobering, I have to say! Because I don’t think of it that way. We work and operate in much the same way as we always have. I think the really nice thing is that, with any kind of relationship that’s stood the test of time, there’s an element of trust that is really nice. And there’s a group of us that have all worked together for a long, long time. I think we have respect and trust for one another, and we can say what we really feel, and I think in the creative process, where you can feel very vulnerable with your ideas and your thoughts, it’s really nice to have that.

We’ve mainly been talking about your production work with Spielberg, but the Kennedy-Marshall company have worked on some very good smaller projects, like the American releases for the Studio Ghibli films Ponyo and Arrietty. That must be a very different process to working with Spielberg.

It’s been a really interesting, constant discussion. They came to us because, for a wide variety of reasons, they wanted to understand why Miyazaki’s movies were so popular in Japan, and didn’t necessarily translate to an American audience. And I can’t say that, by any means, we’ve come up with the answer, but I think that each time – and we’re going onto the third collaboration with them – we learn something. And that’s really been what the process has been, we’ve been trying to help them bridge the gap with the people that are doing the marketing and distribution of their movies in the United States.

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We’ve been working directly with some of Miyazaki’s creative partners, to not go in and change the movie, but to very carefully oversee how the translation is being handled, to make sure that there’s nothing lost in translation, to talk about the mix and the dub and the subtitling. We just want more than anything for those movies to be successful. He is truly the most extraordinary animation talent in the world.

He is, in a sense, the Steven Spielberg of animation. And my children used to watch his movies when they were young, in Japanese. And much like Steven’s movies, where you can turn the sound off because the imagery is so powerful, Miyazaki’s storytelling is very much like that. That’s really been our motivation, to try to help them do that.

Kathleen Kennedy, thank you very much!

War Horse is out in the UK now.