Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg, And What It Takes To Pursue Ambition In Hollywood

The breaking news in the Hollywood Reporter’s profile of Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy is how she talked J.J. Abrams, who was reluctant to take on the work, into directing Star Wars Episode VII. But to me, the really fascinating part of Kim Masters’ reporting is the portrait it paints of the ways Kennedy’s balanced her work and her family—and the work Kennedy’s done over the years to make sure Steven Spielberg has everything he’s needed to make his movies. As much as there are structural barriers to women getting opportunities in Hollywood, I also think a major challenge is that it’s not easy for a lot of women to pick up and leave their families for three months at a time:

In her new position, she will split her time between the Lucasfilm offices at Disney and the company’s headquarters in the Presidio of San Francisco. Usually Kennedy flies to the Bay Area on a Tuesday and returns to Los Angeles on a Thursday evening — a schedule she says allows her to spend more time with her family than she could during long film shoots. On the heels of War Horse, which had her living in England for three months, Kennedy spent another three months away from home in Richmond, Va., for Lincoln.

It’s easier to make sacrifices when you have people accommodating your needs and making you feel comfortable and supported, something Kennedy’s done for other people for a long time. When she went to work for Apocalypse Now writer John Milius:

Kennedy’s first task was cataloging Milius’ gun collection. “I consequently know the difference between a Colt .45 and a Colt .45 Gold Cup,” she says. “I know what a Winchester Over Under is. Things that I have no desire to know, I know because of John Milius.” Milius is one of Hollywood’s larger-than-life characters, and Kennedy acknowledges, “There was a fair amount of insane things going on. I tried to ignore the things that I didn’t find particularly appropriate and carried on,” she says. “I did have thoughts every now and then of, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’ But I knew I wanted to make movies, and I knew it was somewhat of a means to an end.”

And it’s clear that, in a more respectful, less exploitative way, Spielberg’s leaned heavily on Kennedy over the years, too:

Given that, it’s hardly surprising that Spielberg seems to feel some sense of grievance that his old friend Lucas has taken Kennedy away. Lucas called to raise the issue during a dubbing session on Lincoln. “He actually asked for her hand in business,” says Spielberg. “I wasn’t going to stand in her way.”…She and Spielberg say their parting is not permanent. One project that could reunite them would be a fifth Indiana Jones, but Spielberg is clear: “I will not make another Indiana Jones film unless it’s based on George’s story.” Lucas intends for that to happen, says Spielberg, though the timetable is unclear — the gap between the previous two movies was 19 years. “Kathy and I will figure out some way to work together again,” he says, before adding, as if counting the days, “She has a five-year contract.”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with visionaries—or even folks who aren’t visionaries, but mostly really solid, middlebrow directors—needing help. You don’t transform ideas on the page into convincing flesh-and-blood realities without producers. That’s a role some people are suited to spend their whole careers fulfilling. But that doesn’t mean that women who have bigger plans should get stuck supporting other people’s careers, rather than pursuing their own, just because they’re good at that. It means that we need to think about not just what it takes to get women in Hollywood the opportunities to chase those dreams, but the conditions they need to chase them, given that the choices they face about work and family may be influenced by difference forces than those choices are for men. I have my doubts about Star Wars Episode VII. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not rooting for Kennedy to succeed to the utmost.