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Magical Realist:

"A CONVERSATION WITH..."


 LAUREN
SHULER DONNER

 


 

By Liisa Kyle


 


It's not enough that Lauren Shuler Donner is one of the most successful producers in Hollywood, her films span a dizzying range of genres, including comic book blockbusters (X-Men, X2, Constantine), comedies (You've Got Mail, Three Fugitives, Mr. Mom), political gems (Dave, Bulworth), sports flicks (Any Given Sunday), family films (Free Willy 1-3) magical fantasies (Ladyhawke) and teen classics (St. Elmo's Fire, Pretty in Pink).

And guess where she’s going next: television!

It was my pleasure to learn more about Ms. Shuler Donner's astonishing career and her insightful perspectives on the business.


HGEN:   Looking at your career and all the things you've accomplished, what do you see as your greatest triumph so far?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   My marriage….It's very important for one to keep priorities straight. My priority is my husband. An accomplishment also, from my work, is that I’m comfortable in making a movie in any genre.

HGEN:   What do you think it is that gives you the flexibility to handle all these different genres?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   I don't know. My preference is comedy and romantic comedy but when it came to filming X-Men, I had tackled some visual effects in Free Willy and so I felt that I wanted to make an action movie with effects. And once I tried it, I really liked it.

I think it's a matter of understanding what components make each of these genres work. It's understanding that you need to make a family movie, not a parent punisher. You have to make it so that adults like it too, and that means making the movie a little bit edgy, a little bit more grown-up than a lot of these other movies do.

When it comes to making an action film, I think it's understanding that it’s all about character. So that, it's not just 'bang bang blow 'em up' but it's got personal space – that you care about the characters. That way, for one thing, you'll cross over and get a female audience, from a business sense.

HGEN:   I understand you get very involved in story development. I wonder if you could talk a little about the creative process that you go through in taking a story from conception to film.

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   Again, it’s all about character. It’s about creating in-depth characters that the audience knows from the inside and out. Understanding what is at stake. For me, all movies are about what the main character wants. In other words, will Dorothy get home? Will Bogart get Berman? It’s basically what keeps you in your seat. What is Rosebud? I try to work with that to make sure there’s a conflict, make sure that the stakes are constantly being escalated, that there’s a satisfactory resolution and twists and turns that you don’t expect, subplots that lead us to the main plot. My process is just to go into the script in depth.

Usually, I’ll meet with a writer, we’ll flesh out the story, and then the writer will go back and flesh it out even more, come back and pitch it to me and when satisfied, we take it to the studio.

Then with the director, we’re incorporating their vision, hopefully, with my vision because it’s always hard to give up your baby. That’s the hardest part about developing a script is that the director comes on and you have to turn it over at a certain point.

HGEN:   The curse of the collaborative medium.

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   Yeah! Not really. You must be careful to hire someone who shares your vision.

HGEN:   What is it about the producer role that’s always been an attraction for you?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   It’s more and more creative. It used to be that I would line produce my own movies. Now because I do multiple movies, I have a line producer on each movie and then I can to focus on the creative aspects, within obvious certain parameters… I find that part of me has a good business mind and part of me is creative. Being a producer satisfies both those areas.

HGEN:   You haven’t been tempted to write or to direct?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   Well, I sometimes write with my writers. I get satisfied that way. It depends on who they are and what the project is, but I have become very involved in written pages.

As for directing, you know, I always say one day if I find a nice, small movie, I’ll do a movie on HBO. I don’t know that I physically have the stamina …I think I could direct a good movie but I don’t think I have the stamina to direct a feature film. It’s extremely demanding.

HGEN:   Well, while we’re there, why don’t we talk a little bit about your view on HBO and Showtime and this recent blossoming of feature length projects on cable. Do you have any thoughts on that?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   No, I think it’s great. Particularly HBO. They are astounding. They cast well. They sell well. And their films are always of the highest quality. My hat is off to them. I think they’re amazing.

And I believe that Showtime is trying, also. I believe that they are looking for the same kind of product and I’m sure they will…I think it’s great. I think all the cable programming is great – FX, SciFi, USA. Monk is a great show. Battlestar Gallactica [too]. They’re doing a good job.

HGEN:   As someone who started in TV, what trends have you seen, especially over the last few years. What trends do you expect going forward, in that medium?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   Well I think network’s going to get killed. Because of [their] programming…Whenever there’s an original program that does well from All in the Family to now, Lost, and yet the networks always want the same old thing. And that never fails to surprise me... But I think it’s more exciting now in cable and I would like to venture into television myself. In fact I’m going to.

HGEN:   Can you talk a little bit about that?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   I can’t, actually. It’s a project with a great director who I am delighted to be in business with and I can’t talk about it yet.

HGEN:   Okay, well, when it is time to talk about it, we’d love to hear more about it. We’ll save you the surprise for an appropriate time.

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   Okay, Great.

HGEN:   Back to what you were talking about – when an original show takes off but the networks want the same old same old. Do you not see an analogous thing happening with the studios?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   I think with the addition of the smaller studios –- the Focus Films and Searchlight -- that if studios are not being more adventurous then their smaller companies are.

It’s harder to get an unusual movie made. Yes and no. I mean, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was an unusual movie. And yet…if you can find an element –- if you can find a great actor or a great director that wants to make your movie, you can get it made. I suppose it’s the same in television. I don’t know it well enough.

HGEN:   Let’s talk a little bit about film and what trends you’ve seen over the years. Looking back over your career, what kinds of changes have you noticed in filmmaking?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   I think the teen movie has changed. When I made St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty in Pink, we treated teens like adults. I think a lot of the teen movies today aren’t thought provoking enough. We have one, actually, that we’re going to make, hopefully at Warner Brothers but [most teen movies today] don’t have enough depth. Breakfast Club had great depth. I’d love to see more of those. There’s nothing wrong with American Pie, which I really liked, but I’d also like to see other teen movies with more depth.

HGEN:   Other trends you’ve noticed over time?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   Well certainly, the comic book movie. You know, it’s another way. I think Action movies they’re tired of that kind of ‘blow ‘em up] kind of movies and comic book movies gave us a new way to have action movies and, what I’m happy about is also that there are women who are in those comic book movies that are very capable also. And that certainly has changed since the [films] of the past.

HGEN:   Are you referring to women as characters or behind the scenes?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   As characters. Behind the scenes, too. I mean, most of us producers of comic book movies are women.

HGEN:   Why do you think that is?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   I have no idea. Because we’re better producers, I s’ppose. Ha! No, I really don’t know. I think it just sort of happened.

HGEN:   Other trends, either in the past or going forward? What do you expect to see over the next five or ten years?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   I think there will always be the family film because there is a need for that. Comedies will always be a value. Always. People want to laugh. The world gets tougher and tougher and we want to laugh even more.

I don’t see the sci-fi area breaking out…but maybe with War of the Worlds, Spielberg will be able to put those movies back on the map. I’d love to see that. They’re so wonderful and imaginative! They’re very hard to do and do well. [Films like] Bladerunner -- good sci-fi – they’re very hard to do well.

You know, what? There’s going to be a lot of family movies, a lot of animal movies coming up. George Bush in America has a certain influence. You’re going to see movies that appeal to a more religious body. You’re going to see more “P.C.” movies, I believe. I think the studios, unfortunately, are paying attention to our last election. Unfortunately, but it’s true. You want to sell tickets -- it’s a business.

HGEN:   Coming back full circle to your career, what have been your greatest challenges over the years, professionally?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   I guess every time I try a new genre, it’s a big challenge. And you know what the challenge is? The challenge is to stay artistic. A lot of times, the studio will say “well, we’ll make this movie with X director” or “we’ll make it with X actor” and you know that’s the wrong person. But that’s the only way to get the movie made. And then, the challenge is: alright, do I just get the movie made? Wrong. Or do I say no and never get the movie made? And it’s really an artistic question versus commerce and I find that that’s the hardest. And I find the studios more and more would rather we didn’t stand up and have an opinion but obviously, a lot of us have been very successful, doing what we do.

HGEN:   Is challenge pushing back or is the challenge staying artistic within the constraints in which you’re finding yourself? Or both?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   Both. One can be artistic within the constraints, but it just depends what those constraints are. And yes, you push back but to a point and then you lose and the studio’s not going to support your movie. So, there’s always a balance.

HGEN:   You’ve made so many, for lack of a better word, special films. Such a special quality – if you look at Ladyhawke or Dave, there’s such a special, almost magical quality in them. Where do you think that comes from?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   Oh, I don’t know. I just like to put a lot of heart in our movies, so maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s just being conscious of putting in heart and liking those magical qualities myself. It’s what makes any good book stand out and every good movie stand out.

HGEN:   Do you think it’s intrinsic to the story or do you think it emerges from the collaboration so it’s not just the story, it’s the people involved in the telling of that story cinematically.

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   I’d say it’s probably both.

HGEN:   If you could change one thing in Hollywood, what would you change in the film business?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   I suppose I would change their age-istic point of view. It’s a very age-istic society and that’s a shame. There’s a lot of older talent that is shunned and not used.

HGEN:   Both in front and behind the camera?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   Right.

HGEN:   What about your future projects – Secret Life of Bees, etc?

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   Yes! Secret Life of Bees will be filming this summer and David Gordon Green is directing it. X-Men 3 will be filming this summer and hopefully we’ll also be shooting, at the moment it’s called Dude Looks Like a Lady – it’s actually Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night set in high school.

HGEN:   Well Secret Life of Bees was another magical story.

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   I like magical. I really like magical realism.

HGEN:   Thank you so much for taking this time to talk to us. Congratulations on all your success and best wishes – you don’t need this, but best wishes on these projects that so many people are looking forward to.

LAUREN SHULER DONNER:   Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.


 
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