The American Society of Cinematographers

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Kathleen Kennedy
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Interview with Kathleen Kennedy

A Q&A with Kathleen Kennedy, producer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and president of Lucasfilm.

Unit photography by David James, courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens producer Kathleen Kennedy joined Lucasfilm shortly before the company was acquired by Walt Disney, and assumed the role of Lucasfilm president soon after that. A longtime producing partner of Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall, she was first credited alongside George Lucas on Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kennedy went on to lend her talents to such touchstones as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Gremlins, The Goonies, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, and more recently to War Horse and Lincoln.

Kennedy spoke with AC from London about her experience on The Force Awakens and her time at Lucasfilm thus far.

American Cinematographer: How did your initial conversations with George Lucas inform the way you’re guiding the Star Wars franchise, and Lucasfilm as a whole?

Kathleen Kennedy: I’ve known George a long time and I’ve worked with him, so it’s not as though we were sitting down and having a conversation for the first time. Everything George has done with Star Wars, right from the beginning, has been very personal, and I could clearly see that what was really important to him — and certainly important to me — was story. It really required getting inside his head and talking a lot about it. And we are very fortunate to have a lot of incredibly great people still within [Lucasfilm] that have spent a lot of years working with George and have had these kinds of conversations over the years. They greatly respect the stories and respect the franchise, and they’re still extremely involved in the decisions we make creatively. That’s probably the best way to describe how we began; it was over a period of time and many conversations.

We used that as a stepping-stone to move into what would become new — new characters, new stories and new ideas. And the art department is very important alongside that, because our concept artists that work inside Lucasfilm work very closely with the Story Group, which is headed by Kiri Hart, our director of development. For instance, with Episode VII, Rick Carter was heading a group of concept artists that was creating artwork that we would put in the room while we discussed story. As they were developing things, they would come in with artwork that sometimes would correlate with what we were specifically discussing, or, in some cases, they might just ‘blue sky’ something and bring in artwork that inspired an idea, and sometimes that would take us in different directions as we were talking about this story. It was incredibly helpful to the screenwriters and to J.J. [Abrams]. This all developed because there’s nothing better than being able to have images emerge from these ideas that we’re putting up on a whiteboard. For the directors that we brought in, especially for the new Star Wars stories, this has become incredibly important to our process. And it’s something the directors really love, because it’s a great opportunity to be able to sit in a room with people who know this world and its history so well.

It’s also the way we put the executive team together. Every week we meet with our executive team, which represents all lines of business. So, for instance, if someone is directly involved in a game, they know what we’re doing with the story development and with movies moving into the next two, three or four years. They’re a part of those conversations, and it's the same with the people that are involved in licensing. We blur the lines between those divisions so that everybody is a part of the conversation moving forward. I’m a big believer in [the concept that] you never really know where ideas might come from. Somebody who could be working on a game that isn’t necessarily going to be developed for two or three years might have a fantastic idea that would be applicable to something that we’re working on in one of the movies or one of the stories that is a couple of years away. And there’s an opportunity for that to be heard and discussed. I think that also has been great for everybody inside Lucasfilm, because it creates a working environment that allows people to feel like they can be authentically and genuinely involved in everything the company is creating.

Can you discuss any specifics of your conversations with George?

Kennedy: First of all, it was a big decision on his part that he was ready to see sequels made; I think he’d really decided at that point that there weren’t going to be any more. Just making that decision was a big one, and we spent quite a bit of time talking about it. It was George who actually made the first inquiries to Carrie [Fisher], Mark [Hamill] and Harrison [Ford] about whether they would be interested, and, obviously, if any or all of them had said no, then it would have been a very different conversation creatively. But luckily, they all said yes, and that [prompted] some decisions about how far [in the future the story would be from the timeframe of Return of the Jedi], and what it might include. George also felt very strongly about this idea of creating other Star Wars stories inside the universe, and he had actually written up a few different ideas. Some are along the lines of exactly what we’re doing, and some that we’re doing are new. But it inspired a conversation that took place with our group, initially with him, and now it has segued into the Story Group. That’s probably what we spent the majority of the time discussing. Then there were a few other creative things that he was in the midst of working on with [the animated series] Clone Wars, which he was still doing, and he was working on an animated feature, so we were having those conversations as well. But the Star Wars conversations very much provided the foundation for where we are right now.

In an interview with American Cinematographer about Return of the Jedi, Richard Marquand said, 'I absolutely take the myth seriously. You don't approach this type of movie, or indeed any movie, with cynicism, because if you do, you're dead. You can see it on the screen; you can smell the cynical director.' What are your thoughts on that?

Kennedy: I think Richard was right. There is an aspect of that which is really important for directors who step into this kind of storytelling. You do want it to feel authentic and genuine, and that is very much the way that we’ve looked for directors — [though] I wouldn’t say it has to be 100-percent absence of cynicism. I think with someone like J.J., I also felt that his sense of humor is so great, and I think that’s a really important ingredient in Star Wars movies. They’ve always had a buoyancy and a lightness to them that makes them fun and purely entertaining. That was a very important characteristic and continues to be important with the directors we’re considering.

When it was proposed to shoot The Force Awakens on film, was there any pressure to shoot digitally instead?

Kennedy: No. I think the great thing was that we never got any pressure. Disney was always incredibly supportive of whatever format we chose, and shooting on film was something we decided right up front. It’s something J.J. wanted to do; it’s something Dan Mindel wanted to do; and we’re actually doing the same thing, almost identically, on Episode VIII. I don’t know if we’ll still be doing that by the time we get to IX, but that is the plan. On Rogue One, we’re shooting digitally. [Director of photography] Greig Fraser is using Alexa 65 [cameras] with Panavision lenses, and we’re doing some interesting things. In fact, we’re using [Ultra Panavision 70 lenses]. It’s the only lens package in the world like this right now. We’re actually kind of hoping that [filmmakers will] be incentivized to do more. I was just talking to Steven [Spielberg] and Janusz [Kaminski] about this, too, because what Greig is getting looks fantastic. He is shooting a lot in low light, and the blacks are really rich and beautiful; it’s giving the movie a great look.

We're very open to supporting a director’s vision. I think, for instance, that Chris Miller and Phil Lord [who will co-direct the currently untitled Han Solo film] are going to be approaching a very different genre. They've been doing some artwork, and we’ve been talking about looks and the feel of the movie. I think that’s the beauty of these Star Wars stories that sit outside the saga. They give us some really fun, interesting latitude in creating movies that can genuinely stand alone.

Star Wars has traditionally pushed the motion-picture medium to new heights. Would you say that is the case with The Force Awakens, and can you provide any examples?

Kennedy: Certainly that's true of the things that Industrial Light & Magic is doing. They’re the kinds of things that won’t necessarily be obvious to somebody unless you really know a lot about effects, but they are fairly significant breakthroughs. [There are] some real changes in terms of their simulation pipeline, so I think the imagery in the film is going to have an integration that you haven’t quite seen before. Some of the [character] motion-capture is quite spectacular; I would go so far as to say it’s [some] of the best I’ve ever seen. And they’ve also been working with some new rendering software for making things look more photo-real.

One of the things that was so important to J.J. was that everything feel real. Part of that is having grown up with something that you felt was so real, and then when you get to 2015, you look at it and go, ‘Oh, you can kind of tell that’s plywood.’ [Laughs] So we have to step back and ask, 'What does ‘real’ mean anymore?' And how do you recapture a feeling when the execution has to be updated? That was a very interesting challenge. Even to the extent of looking at the actual plans of the Millennium Falcon … there were certain things we had to take inspiration from and then do differently, but anyone who knew the Millennium Falcon would not question that when Han Solo walks back inside that ship, you are, in fact, in the Millennium Falcon. And when Harrison [Ford] walked into it, he looked around and said, ‘Oh, my God, it looks better than I remember!’ That was an interesting, constant conversation with everybody in the art department, and it also affected the way everything was photographed and lit. [Employing] all of that new technology, and yet finding that familiarity and authenticity again, ended up to be more challenging than we thought. 

What are your thoughts on the importance of strong women in the Star Wars universe?

Kennedy: For the characters we’re creating, my hope is that over a relatively short amount of time, we’re going to stop talking about whether there are women in these roles or not. They are just going to be really great characters that populate these Star Wars stories — and the same thing with regard to diversity. I hope we won’t keep isolating this as something unusual, and it will become the norm. I think you’ll see that right away with the character Rey [Daisy Ridley]. She’s absolutely fantastic, strong and empowered, and she holds the screen equally with any of her male counterparts. And that’s the ideal.

What was it like to gather the cast for the first read-through?

Kennedy: That was pretty amazing. We didn’t quite realize until we all sat down to start the read-through that many of the legacy cast had not seen each other in years. There was that element, and there were all the new cast members. Then everybody got settled down, got their scripts out and stopped taking pictures of one another. [Laughs] Mark Hamill had agreed to read the entire script out loud for everybody, and about five minutes into it, J.J. had to actually stop the read-through to say, ‘Does everybody realize what’s happening here?’ It was just kind of incredible. It was one of those moments where you realize it’s a little slice of history happening in real time.

What was your most satisfying creative experience working on this film?

Kennedy: It’s so hard to answer that. I always experience movies in so many different stages, and I’ve loved so many different aspects of this one. But I have to admit that stepping onto the scoring stage for the first day, when John [Williams] lifted the baton and the Star Wars theme started, was quite a profound moment. And, frankly, it continued. I was just there last Saturday, where he was doing the end-title credits theme, and it was spectacular. Even John said, 'I wish this wasn’t going to end.' It’s very bittersweet; he really had a great time. So, as much as I’ve loved all the story meetings and I’ve loved all the shooting, I have to say that being on that scoring stage and hearing John with the orchestra was a real high point.

What has it been like working with a creative team comprised of people who were all inspired by and love Star Wars?

Kennedy: Star Wars is a kind of touchstone for many people because it has defined so much of their excitement about going to movies in general. And then you have filmmakers that were really inspired by it for lots of different reasons. Everybody doesn’t come into this as a core fan, necessarily. It was really interesting watching J.J. and [co-screenwriter] Larry [Kasdan] when they started to really break down the storytelling [of] the first Star Wars and realized just how simple and great it was — and how difficult that is to do. I think people come at the franchise with lots of different points of view as to why it means something to them. It all usually has something to do with filmmaking, storytelling and the fact that George always tried to push technology. A lot of things that we take for granted today were created over the years inside of Star Wars.

Do you feel a certain weight of responsibility in being charged with expanding a canon that’s so fundamental to the cultural consciousness?

Kennedy: I feel a huge responsibility to that. I think about it all the time. In fact, looking at The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars — [J.R.R.] Tolkien and George Lucas — that kind of defines modern mythology for our generation. What George has created is a meaningful mythology, a history to draw from. I have often said that there’s a fragility to it, too. We have to take everything we do seriously; we put a great deal of effort into what it is we’re creating. You sort of feel, as you talk about it, that Yoda is sitting on your shoulder!

Do you picture that sometimes?

Kennedy: [Laughs] I don’t really picture it, but the idea of it. It is funny how you end up saying things and then think, ‘That kind of sounds like the Force.’ It continually reminds you that what George was creating was something that does have meaning. It comes back in different ways — in the way people establish their values and their idea of how to lead a good life. That's inherent in Star Wars. And that is, I think, what we always have in mind. Yes, we’re exploring drama and telling a story about good and evil, and yes, it takes place in outer space, but it’s grounded in human values and compassion and generosity, and those are the ideas that were so important to George. And I think that has a lot to do with why it’s lasted.

I also think people get excited about seeing The Force Awakens because of the idea that you can go with your family, and everybody is going to enjoy it and share it and talk about it. We don’t have a lot of entertainment that consistently does that anymore. And with the proliferation of so many different platforms for consuming content, it’s difficult to find those environments where you really share things like that. Star Wars reminds people of what they liked 35 years ago and still like today. That’s pretty remarkable.


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