American veteran film producer and current president of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy is the recipient of this year’s Maureen O’Hara Award. The prestigious accolade, designed by the Kerry International Film Festival (14-17 October 2021) to celebrate women succeeding in the film industry, honored Kennedy’s legendary work as a producer and executive producer in over 70 features, including five of the fifty highest-grossing movies in motion picture history. Throughout the years, her productions collected 120 Academy Awards nominations and 25 wins. Among her credits are classics such as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, “Jurassic Park”, “The Sixth Sense”, the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “Gremlins, The Goonies”, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, “Schindler’s List” and “The Color Purple”, to name a few. A long-time collaborator of Steven Spielberg, she co-founded Amblin Entertainment in 1981. Over the last few years, she has been working on the Star Wars saga and its series “The Mandalorian”, among other projects.
On October 11, the festival organized a one-hour conversation with Kennedy, hosted by Rebecca Flanagan. To start, the Irish producer asked Kennedy how she reacted upon hearing the news. “I’m very proud of my Irish heritage. Hearing that you were going to honor me with something of that kind meant a great deal to me. I’ve only recently got into Ireland to really start looking around and take in some of my past. And, another thing that struck me. There was a moment in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, which is the first movie I produced, where Steven and I were talking quite a bit about what clip to use to motivate Elliott’s action to free the frogs in his classroom. We came upon John Ford’s classic “The Quiet Man”. It’s ironic that Maureen O’Hara is the star of that movie. Both of us felt so strongly that she just embodies one of the most important actresses of our century. Hearing that this was the Maureen O’Hara Award meant a lot of me,” said Kennedy.
Speaking about her childhood and youth, she disclosed that one of her biggest influences on her work has been growing up in a very small town in northern California, near the Oregon border: “Until I was in my mid-teens we literally lived on the edge of a forest. It’s a great opportunity to use your imagination. These are very much the same roots of Ireland and that’s why so many great storytellers have come out of this country. I remember having many friends in the neighborhood. We always came up with very elaborate stories and ideas. Creatures living in the woods, fairy tales, and all those influences laid huge foundations in the storytelling I eventually went on to do. Never in a million years, I would have imagined to enter the film business. We had one movie theater and it showed one movie a month. Most of the time, it was used as a meeting place for a lot of different community events. It wasn’t until I got to college that I really discovered the movies. […] And, my mother was very influential in having us read. She used to say: go outside or get a book!”
During her first year of college, she was fortunate enough to get a job at the university’s PBS radio station, and later went on to work for a local television station, where she covered different production roles. These first experiences “had a dramatic influence on her career.” After about three, four years from graduation, she headed up to Los Angeles, where she met John Milius, Robert Zemeckis, George Lucas, Frank Marshall and Steven Spielberg. The rest is history.
Later, Kennedy suggested aspiring filmmakers to experience many different roles and to catch any opportunity that comes their way. In the early stages of one’s career, this approach may help in finding the right professional path. However, an important part of this type of work requires a high degree of “comfortable” flexibility: “It doesn’t mean I don’t get stressed out or anxious about things, but I always feel there’s a solution somewhere. […] I actually like the risk-taking, to some extent. I think there’s something exhilarating about that.”
Next, she touched upon the massive industry changes she has been witnessing over the last decades. Kennedy misses the times of blockbusters attracting huge crowds on Saturday night and screening in theaters for over a year. She can recall huge cakes being served by the exhibitors on the occasion of a movie’s first birthday, something that today is literally unthinkable. Another aspect that has changed is the producers’ approach to franchises: “At the time, we were simply trying to tell stories. If the movies were successful, sometimes we would make a sequel or multiple sequels. Indiana Jones was the only franchise or “series” planned as multiple movies. “Back to the Future” and “Jurassic Park”, for instance, were never planned as multiple movies.” After Star Wars, the business saw an increasing importance of consumer products: “It was a slow build. Amblin didn’t necessarily have a brand as we would imagine it today,” Kennedy explained, “Amblin was just the product of what the three of us [Kennedy, Spielberg and Marshall] wanted to see. We never sat around thinking that we don’t want to make a movie because it hasn’t the potential to become a brand.”
In the last part of the conversation, Kennedy spoke about her own experience as a woman working in the industry for over 40 years: “I felt my gender was an issue, to some extent, my entire life. […] I’ve many little stories but these were challenges, I never saw them as a huge deterrent. […] I had an incredibly progressive mom who said right from the beginning: do what you want to do! Your dad and I are gonna make sure you girls are supported in any way you need. […] I do in retrospect see areas that were certainly – I suppose – representative of the glass ceiling. But I was as incredibly fortunate to have amazing men around me.” Finally, her take on the current state of things is generally positive: “Now you don’t want to be invisible. I do think that’s changing, I see it every day. Certainly, when I joined Lucasfilm one of the first thing I did was to bring in new employees. Now, we’ve more than 50% women in our executive roles. It’s a very egalitarian environment, with inclusive writers room. [There are] people from many different ethnicities, men, women and LGBTQ. We want all the voices possible in the room to represent the audience we’re serving. It’s all about values and emotions. What’s important for you from a storytelling standpoint? The answer must come from everybody.”