Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall
Photo by Emma McIntyre

Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall: “The stakes have changed”

Short Profile

Name: Kathleen Kennedy
DOB: 5 June 1953
Place of birth: Berkeley, California, United States
Occupation: Film producer

Name: Frank Wilton Marshall
DOB: 13 September 1946
Place of birth: Glendale, California, United States
Occupation: Film producer

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is in theaters now.

Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Marshall, as film producers, has it gotten easier to tell a good story these days?

Kathleen Kennedy: Absolutely not, it's a constant challenge. Easier is not the operative word. Movies are never easy. The struggle to find the story, to feel that it's something you’re personally invested in, and something you also want to bring people along with, that's really difficult. Finding the talent to step in and be a part of that process is a constant challenge. So it doesn't get easier! You learn and you gain experience, but it doesn't get easier.

The film producer Christine Vachon says that producers have to get used to hearing no a lot of the time; that you have to be tireless in order to get a film made.

Frank Marshall: We’ve been fortunate enough to have our careers mostly in the studio system, whereas Christine has to fight for every movie she's trying to make.

KK: Exactly, Christine is a rebel! There is no one who fights harder to get her movies made. But we're operating in a different environment with big studio movies. There's a demand for these kinds of movies, there's an expectation. So it's just operating on a different set of principles. Our fight is a creative fight. Film is a collaboration; whether it's with studio executives or the actual filmmakers that you're working with, you're trying to arrive at a common vision and I think maintaining that vision and storytelling is one of the biggest challenges in making great movies. Because everybody has an opinion!

What about when you’re working on a franchise or a series, like Star Wars, Back to the Future, or Jurassic Park, and the story is already well established?

KK: Well, when movies get bigger, there's more people that have opinions. And so preserving that creative vision across multiple films is the most important thing. You don't want to just make something to make it. You want to make something because there's a real interest, a real demand and the story can warrant it. I think that probably the biggest challenge today is to really try to find a very significant way to justify why you're doing another movie. The demand of the audience is what prompts the decision to do a sequel. It's talked about much more in branding and marketing terms as franchises, but we didn't really talk about it like that in the beginning. It was just the result of telling a successful story.

FM: Plus, with films like Indiana Jones and with Star Wars, you don't have anything to go from, but with Jurassic Park or something like the Jason Bourne series, those were books first, right? So in terms of story, those situations are handled differently.

KK: As well, with the Bourne series, those are very much standalone movies, whereas something like Back to the Future is a kind of continual story; Star Wars was a continual story. So with that, it changes the structure that the audience is stepping into. We have to ask more questions, like, is it a character they're following? Or is it a story they’re following, a plot they’re following?

How does an audience’s feelings about, or stakes in, a story change your approach?

FM: I think it’s important that the film feels familiar to the characters that everybody has fallen in love with all these years, and has gone on these adventures with. So you have to have a little bit of old, but also something fresh in the story.

KK: Social media also informs a lot of marketing today, things are happening in real time, and there's far more people involved in the conversation. I think can be great, but it’s also a significant shift in the way things used to be done. We used to travel all over the world and there was a huge amount of time spent going from market to market to market. And I kind of miss that! It was nice to be able to get to know not only the journalists that were in different countries, but also the different markets in different countries and learning how different cultures impact the way you market something. That was important.

It must also be special for you to work on films that have become such an integral part of film history.

KK: With Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, for example, not only does this series span film history as you said, it also is something really personal to us, because we've been involved in all of these movies, going back to the late seventies. Frank and I met on Raiders of the Lost Ark and then eventually got married. So that gives it an added dimension. It’s something that embodies our entire career, and in many respects it holds a lot of emotional value for us, too.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is apparently the 13th most expensive film ever made. Does that add on some extra pressure or responsibility for you as producers?

KK: I think the stakes involved in expensive movies are huge. You're really operating almost like a CEO; you create a small company to tell these stories, and there's that expectation from the audience that you mentioned in terms of spectacle and size and scope. So it carries with it a huge amount of responsibility.

FM: With a big budget, the audience expects a big movie, they want to see it on a big screen. These kinds of big action sequences that we have are what really raise the budget.

KK: Right, you are event-ising something that plays to a wide range of demographics and can play all over the world. And that just carries with it many other challenges than a smaller movie.

Can you still make an amazing movie with a smaller budget?

KK: Oh, sure. I've made movies for $6 million! But those movies don't attract the size audience that these big movies do. Those movies can certainly break out and do unusually large business — but it's rare, unfortunately. Back when we first started out in the 1970s, those were the days where we were the Christine Vachons, so we were making certainly smaller movies. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was the first movie I produced and it was $10 million. And people watched it! It was just a very different environment. A lot of the movies Frank did, like The Last Picture Show or Paper Moon… Those movies were a million.

FM: Steven Spielberg evolved very much in that way, he made very small films at first until eventually, he and George Lucas created the blockbuster movie. It is an evolutionary process. The stakes have definitely changed.