The Art of Film Producing
By Marjorie Baumgarten
OCTOBER 6, 1997: Hollywood producer Lynda Obst is the author of Hello, He Lied: And Other Truths From the Hollywood Trenches, a non-fiction book published last year and now out in paperback with a new afterword added. The book is a witty and incisive survival manual that's chock full of observational advice and wisdom about navigating the power-dominated world of Hollywood moviemaking. This transplanted Texan, who lives in the surrounding Austin area, offers an anecdotal account of her experiences as a woman working in the industry as well as practical advice on such things as the art of pitching, styles of combat, types of business friendships, chains of command, and working with actors and directors. The book also humorously and knowledgeably delineates the distinctions between various Hollywood types: the Alpha and Beta male executives (the leaders and followers) and the Fuzzy and Crisp female executives (the artistic, talented "good daughters" and the smartly dressed, ruthless commandos). Before her move to Hollywood, Obst worked as an editor at The New York Times Magazine and edited/authored The Rolling Stone History of the Sixties. During her career in Hollywood she has been involved in the development of such films as Flashdance, Clue, Risky Business, After Hours, Lost in America, and Beetlejuice. A full-fledged producer since 1985, the Obst name anchors such films as Heartbreak Hotel (whose location shooting first introduced her to Central Texas); The Fisher King; Nora Ephron's first film, This Is My Life; Ephron's second, Sleepless in Seattle; Bad Girls; One Fine Day; this summer's Contact; and the recently wrapped Hope Floats, which stars Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick, Jr. and was shot in the surrounding area earlier this summer. A few of her many future projects include Holy War, to be directed by Ed Zwick later this fall; Ghetto Fabulous, an "action-musical written by supermodel Veronica Webb; Richard Preston's Crisis in the Hot Zone; journalist Sidney Blumenthal's This Town; and the Richard Jewell story.
Obst will participate in a panel discussion titled "The Art of Producing" to be held this Saturday, October 4, 1-3pm, at Borders Books. Joining Obst in this Austin Film Society and Austin Chronicle co-presentation will be four other distinguished local film producers: Dwight Adair (NBC's She Fought Alone), Elizabeth Avellán (El Mariachi, From Dusk Till Dawn, and Real Stories of the Donut Men), Paul Stekler (the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary Vote for Me: Politics in America), and moderator Richard Lewis (National Geographic's Snow Monkey Roundup). Admission to the event is free.
We spoke with Obst by phone in her Los Angeles office a few days before her return to Texas.
Austin Chronicle: You get the feeling from reading Hello, He Lied that there's so much left to tell.
Lynda Obst: It's very much blood, sweat, and tears and some laughs.
AC: Your book offers a fairly original feminist analysis of Hollywood. Yet it's also possible to apply the book's insights about the nature of power structures to almost any industry.
LO: That's what I've been told both by journalists and by people in business management. I've been told it's been given out in law firms, which makes me incredibly happy. But I think that as different as one business may be from another we're still, in general, in mixed genders in the trenches together for the first time in all these businesses. And so some things that occur are universal or just classic. And issues that women bring to work they bring in all fields; they don't just bring to the movie business. And issues that men bring about working with women, they don't just bring to the movie business. They bring to all workplaces. And also the whole notion of working with a strategy, recognizing that everyone around you has a strategy, so at least be aware of their strategies -- that seems to be quite universal as well.
AC: So there's a certain universality to hierarchies and power structures?
LO: One of the things we always forget in the trenches is that our immediate bosses have bosses. Because we so believe in the hierarchy that immediately surrounds us, we don't recognize that at the top of that hierarchy is someone enmeshed in the middle level or the lowest levels of yet another hierarchy. And even when you get to the tippy-top of that hierarchy that person's in an Alpha struggle with people at the top of a whole series of other hierarchies.
AC: Whether it's stockholders...
LO: Exactly, or hostile takeovers among corporations. Or whether it's Ted Turner competing with Rupert Murdoch. They both got to the top of their trees, and then what did it matter? They were fighting each other.
AC: Why did you decide to include this new chapter about Michael Ovitz in the paperback edition?
LO: The reason that I wanted to do that was that when I had written the book Mike Ovitz was still at Disney and the full effect of the power quake hadn't filtered down to everyday Hollywood. The dominant hierarchy hadn't shaken out yet. So I felt that the book was dated in that respect because the velocity of change was so rapid, just in the wake of Mike Ovitz going to Disney and then leaving Disney, that there were continuing shock waves and it wasn't until the year passed that it seemed it could be looked at from any kind of long lens. So I just sort of wanted to update it.
AC: Yet, at some point, it stops being an analysis so much of that particular struggle between these two men...
LO: A struggle between men.
AC: You get into the stratification of Alphas and Betas [leaders and followers] in the male world and that seems to me the heart of what that chapter is about, what you're getting off your chest, so to speak.
LO: I was making a plea for Betas.
AC: However, there's a basic level at which biology becomes destiny in this paradigm. To what extent can we buck that if it is also true that this Alpha-Beta struggle is going to be perpetual?
LO: Well, there are Alpha females, right? And they're all over Hollywood -- females who have the right stuff to climb up the ladder, break through the glass ceiling, and take some measure of control of the reins, or at least be able to really move the reins, have their hands on the reins, and that of course was completely different 20 years ago. But that being said, Alpha females behave a little differently when they get to the top of the heap. And my experience is that once this whole generation of Alpha females (who began by mistrusting one another), once they've completed their climb, they've reached out to one another for consolation and support. And each and every one of them, separately and individually, have a number of things in common that all fall under the umbrella of "wanting a life."
Success for a woman is not the be-all and the end-all. It's very good. Right? It's an enormous part of autonomy. It's an enormous part of maturation we've never been allowed. But to have a hit picture isn't enough for a woman. To have a big job isn't enough for a woman. A woman also wants a life. That's been my experience. And in wanting a life, each one of these women have a secret escape clause. They all know in five years what they're going to be doing that's different than what they're doing now. Once they get there, they're not imagining higher trees to climb. That tree is big enough, thank you very much. Where are the vacations; where's the husband; where are the children; where are the walks; where are the hikes, you know? Where's the fun? Where's the beef? And so I think we have discovered when we get to the top that we still have needs that our biology reflects, that are part of our biology. But those needs don't vitiate our ability to get to the top.
You see a big successful male producer with two hit pictures in a row and he's just dating and has no steady girlfriend, he feels on top of the world. You put that exact same situation with a woman, with two hit pictures and a couple of guys she's dating, and she still feels like there's something hugely missing in her life.
AC: Or, as you comment in the book, women are always struggling with guilt. Even if success is enough, there's always this guilt complex.
LO: And moreover, we don't feel good having all the cookies in the cookie jar. Because for women to have all the cookies in the cookie jar means that someone's starving. Someone's not getting a cookie.
AC: And Weight Watchers looms in the future.
LO: And you feel guilty. You know you're going to get fat. Something bad's going to come of it. Because women also haven't been given permission to be champions. So when we get all the cookies in the cookie jar we want to share. I like that about us, by the way.
AC: Do you feel like you've been seeing changes over the last few years? There really are a significant number of women...
LO: ...in really powerful positions. Yeah, absolutely. And I just don't think it's a big deal now when a woman produces a picture. It's less a big deal when a woman directs a picture. When a president of a production slot opens, it's nice when a woman gets a job but it's almost as likely as a man getting a job. I would say it's 40% as likely, 45% as likely. And it used to be, say, 5% as likely. And that's a lot in 10 years. That is really rapid. And it has to do with the success of the particular women who broke through the glass ceiling in the first generation. They were really credible and got movies made. They functioned. They didn't fail.
AC: Do you feel, and this may be a question you may not want to answer, are there differences in studios? Are some more female-friendly than others?
LO: Yeah, definitely. There are still some boys' clubs left. You can look around and see what they are.
AC: How is Hope Floats coming along? When will it be released?
LO: In April. It looks greats. I'm going to see a cut next week. The movie's a travelogue for Smithville.
AC: How do you go about choosing films and projects? Is there something you look for, that speaks to you?
LO: There are two things that I look for. One, basically, is visceral pieces that move me. They make me laugh, they make me cry, they somehow express what we're going through next. Either it moves me emotionally, it moves me philosophically, or it moves me culturally, right? It just sort of has to knock my socks off in that way. And I use my internal gut. And then there's the occasional premise I buy because I believe it's an incredibly cool premise, right? It feels like a movie-movie premise. And I'm also very attracted to things that reflect that I love news, things that reflect American culture. That I love the Richard Jewell story and Hot Zone, which I think is quite millennial. And I love "science faction," which I also feel is millennial. Like we've got to know what's going on, we can't keep our heads in the sand. We're not keeping apace culturally with what the breakthroughs going on in science are. But once again, those ideas do affect me viscerally. They scare me or they alarm me or they intrigue me or they puzzle me or propel me in some way. So I'm sort of a gut girl, "fuzzy" thing that I am. [Obst outlines the characteristics of fuzzy and crisp types in Hello, He Lied.]
You know I love Texas, of course. It moves me. First of all, it's my home, so I think Texas works both metaphorically as home and then emotionally for me it works as home. The visuals are so beautiful. We have a genuine culture. There's a there there. So as I always say, God is in the details. Well, we in Texas can be very specific about the details of our place. They tell. So the more specific you make the piece, somehow the more classic, The Last Picture Show being the key example.
AC: Do you plan on making more movies in Texas?
LO: Every movie I can move I do move to Texas.
AC: You're planning on directing in the future?
LO: I am. Hopefully in Texas. You develop pieces long enough and then turn them over to their maker long enough, you just finally want to be making your own mistakes with your material on set. It's easy to turn the movie over to Nora [Ephron] or Michael Hoffman or certain people from whom I can learn so much. But at a certain point, if I've lived with material for years and years and I love it to the bones, I can't live with myself if I continue to defer my own instincts. And I've been around long enough to know that the only real form of fascism exists on movie sets.
AC: Do you have a lot of trouble with deferring?
LO: Well, no. I might have in my personality but haven't been able to because it's my job. So I've very naturally and organically turned into a waitress.
AC: Do you feel differently about "deferring" or relinquishing control to the director on projects like Contact that you developed from scratch versus projects like Sleepless in Seattle that you were hired on to produce?
LO: Not all of them are my kinds of movies to direct. I never would have directed Contact. That's a joke, right. That's a piece that would have been much too hard for me to direct and it's not my instinct so my job would be to produce that. But on certain kinds of other movies on my kinds of themes (and I do so many women's movies, on Texas women's movies), more specifically as you get to my themes, the more painful it is for me to relinquish. Contact is my themes but it's not a genre I need to direct.
AC: What are your themes?
LO: Well, I'm really interested in big philosophical themes. What really compelled me about Contact is that it was a movie whose plot was about reason and skepticism, the belief in skepticism. A movie like Breaking the Waves blew my mind because it was ultimately about free will and destiny. So if you can find a movie that does big philosophical themes, I'm there. Okay? In terms of big American themes, the way Richard Jewell represents what happens to the common man when we indict before evidence. And in terms of themes of female coming of age, I guess my philosophy is I came of age as a female and had remarkably unique experiences because it's such an interesting time to be a woman, and our stories haven't been told. I've seen every coming-of-age story I can imagine from a boy. But there are so many of our stories that are untold.
"The Art of Producing" panel with Lynda Obst, Dwight Adair, Elizabeth Avellán, Paul Stekler, and Richard Lewis takes place Saturday, October 4, 1-3pm, at Borders Books (10225 Research). The event is co-sponsored by the Austin Film Society and The Austin Chronicle. Admission is free and if you bring a copy of the event ad in this issue of the Chronicle, 10% of your book purchases that day will directly benefit the Film Society.
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