Movie Producer Lynda Obst

I first encountered Lynda Obst in 1996 at the Borders book store on La Cienega Blvd near the Beverly Center.

I’d read her memoir Hello, He Lied and she came in to give a reading.

As any regular reader of mine knows, I’m emotionally unstable. I swing back and forth from a desperate desire to connect with others to a withering contempt for them whenever I feel the slightest resistance.

During question time, I asked Lynda if she thought Hollywood did more good than harm to the wider society.

She said it did more good and explained why.

I don’t remember the details but Lynda stuck in my head.

I felt like she was too nice.

I thought of myself as deeper.

She and her book came to symbolize something to me about Hollywood and insular communities. I was disappointed that she didn’t reveal anything damaging in her book, not about herself and not about others.

It was too nice. It was too superficial. It was going to take a manly man like Luke Ford to pull back the curtain on Hollywood, just as I did to the porn industry.

During the summer of 1996, I started on my own book on producers. I interviewed about a dozen that summer but life put off the project on hold until the fall of 2001, when I threw myself full-time into the task of interviewing nearly 200 producers (mainly of movies, but some TV guys as well) that became this 2004 self-published book (I don’t play nicely with others, ergo almost all my good work is self-published, either online or in book form).

Somewhere in my process, I faxed off an interview request to Lynda Obst’s office. I don’t remember the exact details of the response but I think it was something like she was on location and not available then.

We never connected.

Intermittently through my project, producers such as Jeff Wald told me, "You really need to talk to Lynda Obst."

"She won’t give me an interview," I replied.

(Lynda gives interviews to almost everybody and she has no recollection of ever receiving an interview request from me.)

As the years rolled by, I got my revenge on Lynda. For some reason, I enjoyed stringing together anecdotes and reviews that made her look bad. I felt like I was being a heroic truth-teller (my dominant self-image, yeah, I know you may think I’m a shmuck, but I think I’m a hero).

My profile rose to the top of Google results for her name.

A few weeks ago, it was gently pointed out to me that my work had not been fair to Lynda.

I arranged to meet her in person at Starbucks on Robertson and Pico Blvds at 5:30 pm, Aug. 4, 2008.

After a little chitchat, I asked her to go through my profile of her and correct any mistakes.

After we spent about 45 minutes doing that (Lynda noted a lot of mistakes!), I asked her some questions.

Luke: “What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman in your position?”

Lynda: “The advantages are that we’re naturally nurturing and we’re naturally multi-tasking. We naturally oversee many things at the same time. Women are taught to cook and watch over their children and look out for their husband at the same time. Women can change tasks quickly. They can get out of a defensive posture quickly. They can take care of a whole crew.

“The disadvantages are less now than they used to be (more market-based than corporate think). The disadvantages are more for female studio heads. Female producers are appreciated. You can make your own time. You don’t have to make five meetings a day like a studio head does. You can fight for a picture. Women like to fight for things other than themselves. It’s not quite as corporate. Being a producer is more natural than being a female studio head.

“You can make the pictures you want to make, which you can’t do as a studio head.

“As a studio head, there’s always a fear that the woman is going to be softer in her choices than a man, that she’ll choose with her heart rather than her head. As a female producer, you’re allowed to make choices from your heart. You’re allowed to make passion pictures. You can say, ‘I love that actor!’ You can make a passion argument.

“The disadvantages? Women don’t play team sports, right? So they get knocked, they get hurt. They take it personally. They get sore. They don’t know how to come back after getting knocked off their feet.

“These are things men learn from being in the fray, from playing team sports like rugby, football… Women have to learn how to get up and smile. That wasn’t an enemy, it was another player on the field. It’s attrition that kills women. That’s not a feminine feel. Then you have to do that and look good on a date.”

Luke: “Is life harder on women?”

Lynda: “I think so. Yes.”

Luke: “How?”

Lynda: “It’s hard if you want it all, if you want a career, and a husband, and a family. It’s hard to find a husband who will share every aspect of parenthood with you. Women carry a great burden over motherhood.

“If you don’t marry young, the good guys tend to be gone. The pickings are thin afterwards, but not for men. The world really celebrates the successful man, the unmarried man, but it doesn’t celebrate successful women who are not married.

“Men are acculturated both for marriage and for success. So there are no hard choices for men to make, I mean there are hard choices, but there are no Sophie choices for men.

“The life of a woman carrying the man’s burdens without a man is not impossible, it can be done, but it’s a hard one. They have no reinforcement for it, from their families, from the culture. But there are rewards for it. It is rewarding for the culture to tell you what they find interesting. That meeting was fun. A lot of men don’t get that back.”

Luke: “Were you able to have it all?”

Lynda: “Not without great sacrifice.”

Luke: “What have you sacrificed?”

Lynda: “A great portion of my love life.”

Luke: “Have you had to sacrifice work to be a good mother?”

Lynda: “Yes, of course, but people understand. You know exactly when that is and there’s no hesitation. I’ll tell my assistant, ‘I’m leaving right now and I’m going home and I’ll be back and you can tell everybody this is when you can expect me.’”

Luke: “Were their repercussions?”

Lynda: “Only in the beginning of my career before all these great mothers and great fathers [in the movie industry]. I was a young mother. When I went to PTA meetings at the Center for Early Education, I’d sneak out of my office to go there. I could’ve gotten in trouble then with my office. They didn’t approve of it at all, whereas now you can take a whole day off. It’s nothing. You can take your kids to the office. None of that existed when I was first raising Oly. I had to sneak around. I had no reinforcement. The moms at school were not nice to me because all the dads at school were friends of mine from work. That’s something I’d like to do a television show about.”

Luke: “Did Oly pay a price for your work?”

Lynda: “The proof is in the pudding in that Oly and I are best friends, but clearly the marriage suffered and that had consequences on Oly. He would tell you that I wasn’t there for his T-ball games. We’ve had many debates about this because he does not remember 850 zillion things that I did with him every single Saturday and Sunday. There were certainly things that a full-time mother could do that I couldn’t do. That’s what I mean, you have to sacrifice.

“I didn’t go out. I gave up a good portion of my social life in my thirties so I could be home during the week with Oly for dinner. I didn’t introduce him to any of my boyfriends. I got engaged once. That was the only person he met.

“I did the best I could. You figure it out as you go.”

Luke: “What have been your high points and low points as a producer?”

Lynda: “The high point that I always refer to is the Venice Film Festival for Fisher King. We won the People’s Choice Awards. It was one of my happiest moments. We were all in love with the film. We walked all together. It was the way the movie got a standing ovation and we were all so happy to be there. It was the culmination of an incredibly happy movie experience. It was the prototype of what I was trying to explain, the thing I had always hoped to do, to make a great movie within the studio system while protecting the director and the writer so they got every word they wanted, every shot they wanted, the performances they wanted. It felt like the apex of the point of the philosophy of our production company. Debra [Hill] and I were so happy together. We were holding on to each other. We bought each other rings. It was just glorious.

“I felt like I understood the direction of my future career.”

“The low point? I hit a low point every month. That’s the movie business. I could give you five low points, but…”

Luke: “More high points.”

Lynda laughs. “Going to the Golden Globes with Nora for Sleepless In Seattle because she was my best friend. Location scouting and and discovering local restaurants with her."

“Every movie high point is the first day of production. I love shooting. I’m not about the deal. I’m about rolling. I love laying out my clothes the night before the first day of production. I love the first shot. I love he first time you go out on scout and you imagine the scene and you imagine the locations for the movie you’re creating. The first time Sandy [Bullock] and I went out on Hope Floats and found a town that laid out exactly the way the script was written on Hope Floats. The hospital was around the corner from the cul de sac. Sandy and I got out and went, ‘Ohmigod, the rehabilitation center is right around the corner from the elementary school.’

“When little movie magic moments like that happen… On Fisher King, when we had a magic moment shooting the dumpling scene when the grips were able to jerry-rig the dolly on bungee cords. It was the last day and we’d had rain and we couldn’t go any place else and suddenly there was a way of shooting the scene… It was the most magical shot I’d ever seen.

“For me, it’s not the jangly moments of opening a movie like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days for $26.5 million… I love the exhilarating movie-making moments. When something is laid out the way you wrote it and you can shoot the whole movie in one town and you never have to move.

“Or you’re shooting The Fisher King, and you’re shooting a series of lights and you think it is going to be a disaster but it turns out better than you could’ve imagined. There were so many magical moments on The Fisher King. When Terry [Gilliam] looked down on the scene at the wall and said, ‘What if all these people started dancing at once?’ It had been a singing scene. And then all of a sudden we realized, we can’t afford it but we have to afford it. And Debra figured it out.

“Power highs, the high of $30 million openings, can’t compete with that. Those highs come with schadenfreude, unless you’re Chuck Roven this week. Those highs come with this weird twist. They leave you incredibly jingly. Laura Ziskin and I were talking about this after she got the Spiderman record. After you come to the top of the mountain, there’s going to be a bigger mountain.

“It’s not calm happiness. It’s a jangly high. Everybody is being nice to you, even though you know they don’t like you. Just what I wrote in my book, don’t get addicted to the high numbers, don’t get addicted to the low numbers. Just move on.
“But those things that happen on set, they’re like the highs you get from love. They don’t have the jangly effect.”

Luke: “What’s your typical role on a movie?”

Lynda: “I do everything (sometimes). I make up the idea, often. I get the script to a director. I package it. I make the actor deals with the legal department. I get a feel for what the budget allows. I help the director crew-up. I help find the locations. I produce the movie on set and then go all the way through to marketing. I’m worst at post-production because of the calendar and computers…”

Luke: “Which of your movies were passion projects?”

Lynda: “They were all passion projects. They all take a long time to get made. I made up a whole bunch of them such as One Fine Day when I started thinking I’ll never meet a man unless I crash into one on my way to dropping Oly at school. I guess Bad Girls was just an assignment from a studio. Certainly Fisher King and Contact were the most profound passion projects. I loved This Is My Life, Nora’s directing debut. Adventures in Babysitting I adored. I loved How To Lose A Guy and Hope Floats. The Siege was my father’s favorite movie. I loved making a movie my father liked and presaged 9/11 and the whole Orthodox community could relate to. I pulled that out of the New York Times after the first Trade Center bombing in 1993 when we saw there were terror cells in Brooklyn.

“I work on my movies for an average of ten years. I don’t write any of them off.”

Luke: “Which of your movies were you there for the origin of the idea?”

Lynda: “I worked on the ideas for The Sixties, The Siege, Hope Floats, Contact, One Fine Day, This is My Life, Flashdance, Interstellar (I wrote the story), How To Lose It All. Fisher King, I found the book. Someone Like You, I found the book. This is my Life, I got the book. Contact, I developed the novel with Carl Sagan and his wife, and then I developed the script.”

Luke: “Would you like to direct?”

Lynda: “I would but first I’d have to get myself out of all the material I’m in right now. I don’t have an auteur’s burning desire to direct.”

Luke: “Do producers get typecast too? Do you get tagged as the chick flick girl?”

Lynda: “A lot of people forget The Siege and Contact and the other movies I’ve made. There’s a market for romantic comedies and those movies can be made for a reasonable amount of money ($30 million) and there are two quadrants that like to go to them (young women and old women) and I make them uncynically while a lot of people churn them out, stick Mark Ruffalo in them, and say, ‘Oh look, the last three worked. Why not do it?’

“Mine take a long time. I don’t condescend to the genre. When the genre’s done right, the actors will come.

“If you can get three quadrants, you can have a hit. If you just think formula, nobody wants to see them and nobody wants to be in them. To me that’s something in the zeitgeist. I remain a journalist in that way.”

Luke: “Which of your movies would you call a creative success?”

Lynda: “How to Lose a Guy, The Siege, Hope Floats, Contact, One Fine Day, Sleepless in Seattle, Fisher King, Adventures in Babysitting, Flashdance. The Sixties, but that was TV.”

Luke: “What does it take for you to fall in love with a script?”

Lynda: “To be moved by it, to laugh or cry. I’m not dark. I’m not consumed by dark things. I would not have recognized The Usual Suspects or True Romance. I love Batman but I’m not going to make dark movies. I’m not a vampire girl. I’m not going to make horror movies. I could recognize a good thriller. I’m not going to recognize The Matrix. I have to recognize something in my wheelhouse. It has to be hilarious. It has to have pathos. It has to be something I know I can cast. It has to be fresh. I have to be riveted, galvanized, moved. I have to be taken by the gut. I so rarely find that, so that’s why I find ideas in the culture and hire great writers to write that, or find books. I remember reading The Fisher King and bursting into tears at the staircase scene. I have the most spectacular script about autism right now. I’m going to try to get it made.”

Luke: “Good luck.”

Lynda: “Exactly. It’s like Rainman. It’s a buddy comedy. That’s what I said about The Fisher King. Don’t worry. It’s a buddy comedy.”

Luke: “You have so much energy right now. How much are you like this?”

Lynda: “Until I pass out. That’s probably why I get migraines too.”

Luke: “How did you feel when Buzz magazine named you one of the top ten bullies in Hollywood?”

Lynda: “Terrible. Amazed. It made me aware that I must’ve yelled at too many assistans and it made me aware not to be tough on any employee. I certainly didn’t think it defined me and I was sad I was on the list. But it made me conscious and anything that makes me conscious is ultimately good.”

I relate to Lynda a quote I got about her from a fellow producer: “She makes Attilla the Hun look humane. I can’t think of a more despised female producer by those who work with her. Mention Lynda’s name and you get a chorus of boos at Paramount.”

Lynda: “There are reasons why blind quotes are frowned upon in journalism. This thing about Paramount is insane. You can’t work at a studio for eight years for five administrations, from my best friend Sherry Lansing and my best friend Donald Deline and have this insane quote… I have a Steven Spielberg Interstellar project there that he’s directing.

“It’s just the most hostile thing I’ve heard. It’s absurd and it discredits most of the page, and to allow it under your byline,  you’re better than that. Few producers stayed as long as I did at Paramount. Every studio I’ve worked for I’ve stayed eight years. I left there with great relations with Brad Westin and Brad Grey and all the newest execs. When you’ve survived as long as I have, you get jealous people willing to say anything blind.”

“I was never Celia Brady [the non deplume of a notorious Hollywood gossip columnist for Spy magazine]. On my granddaughter’s life. I know a lot of people thought that. I had no reason to be. I started writing at that time under my own name. I would never have had time to write under my own name and then for some arbitrary reason to start (under an assumed name) revealing friends of mine doing naughty things. I never wrote under an assumed name. Whenever I write, I write under my name. That’s how I developed this way of writing to not indict people I liked while describing practices I despised. There was nobody I disliked enough in this town to reveal as Celia Brady. I was working too hard to learn my job at that time to have this sideline while I was raising a four year old. I don’t have that kind of angst. I don’t have that kind of edge. I never did. I don’t believe it was a Hollywood person. I believe it was a journalist. I had to come to LA from The Times as a journalist and so few people here knew any journalists.

“When I do journalism, I do journalism. I write for HuffPo. I’ve written for Harpers. I had a column in New York magazine. I wrote a book. I have a book contract with Simon & Schuster. I had no reason to do that kind of alt-journalism. I came from the New York Times. The first thing I did here was to write for Harold Hayes and New West magazine. He taught me how to write. He taught me how to be a journalist. Why I would go from that to be Celia Brady and diss my friends? That kind of schadenfreude that I inspired when I came to town as a person who was learning her job and a former journalist and a kind of sociologist. A sociologist is not a secret gossip. I’ve never been a secret gossip. When I gossip, it’s with a small group of friends. I really care about the people I care about.”

“So every single aspect of what was written up to this point was written with so much unbelievable contempt that it shocked me.”

“The kind of behavior you describe isn’t tolerated. The town is too small. The work is too hard, the job is too hard, there are too many people to collaborate with. There are too many personalities. So if what you describe were true, I couldn’t have survived this long. I couldn’t have been at Paramount that long [eight years]. I couldn’t have been at Fox for six years. I couldn’t have made movies with so many different personalities. My job is to blend those personalities and come up with a compromise that works for the filmmakers and the studios.”

In my initial profile of Lynda, I wrote that she was a doctoral candidate in Psychology.

Lynda: “It was Philosophy. I know absolutely nothing about psychology, particularly male psychology. I know a lot about female psychology, which is why I’ve done so many chick flicks, but I’m really lousy with male psychology except when I’m helping my girlfriends but I’m terrible with my own.

“I studied the Philosophy of Science at Columbia and that’s the streak that you see in the science pictures I do.”

“I did have the time of my life at The [New York] Times. The only not great story I was ever involved with is the one that you remarked upon [the Feb. 28, 1978 "Hollywood’s Wall Street Connection” by unreliable freelancer Lucian K. Truscott IV]. I also won magazine awards. I did a bunch of philosophy covers. I did Carl Sagan on the cover. I did Tim Ferris on the cover. Many of the roots of the movies that I did were on the covers of those magazines, the roots of Contact and Interstellar. I did do the first females in Hollywood cover and I did do the first mogul story. I did not put Mike Medavoy on the cover because of [the publicity firm] Rogers & Cowan as is commonly said. The Photo Editor of the New York Times chose Mike Medavoy to be on the cover because the picture came out the best because he was in front of a Rolls Royce. It bled out the best. I had no choice whatsoever in the cover. Magazine editors never have the choice of the cover of an article, that’s another myth. I was way too far down the totem pole to pick the cover. That’s a decision between the Editor and the Photo Editor.

“That’s the kind of nonsense that’s trailed me for years, that I would at the New York Times take a call from Warren Cowan. Honestly.

“There were things about that story that were great. There were things about that story by Lucian Truscott that I wish he would’ve checked out much better. That came from me being green (the story was finished by the editor, Ed Klein). That was not the story in the Times that I was most proud of, but I was one of 15 cover stories I had in two years. If I had my druthers, I probably would’ve…but I got pregnant. It turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me. My husband decided I had to move.

“The saddest thing about the David McClintick book is that it says that [the David Begelman story by Lucian Truscott] that’s was why I left the paper. That’s not why I left the paper. I took a pregnancy leave. I came back when the [newspaper] strike was over. It was great that my maternity leave coincided with the strike.

“David got a job with Simon & Schuster [in Los Angeles] and I either had to move with David or stay. I had a baby. I moved.

“Peter Guber offered me a job. I ended up developing stories that became Flashdance, Clue, Contact, and taking care of my baby.

“David [McClintick] was lovely. He later wrote a wonderful review of my book. We later became friends.”

Luke: “Why did you not mention the [David Begelman] episode in your book?”

Lynda: “It was a Hollywood memoir. It really began when I came out to Hollywood. I wasn’t that personal about my private life. I got married, I got divorced. Few details. It was a memoir about surviving in Hollywood with some degree of integrity in tact.”

I ask Lynda if she’s ever fallen in love with one of her directors. She says no.

Luke: What was your role with “Contact”?

Lynda: “I developed the novel with Carl (and his wife Ann Druyan) when he moved out here. I told him to start writing a novel because I would make it into a movie. We all developed the novel. We did the treatment together. He sold it to Simon & Schuster.

“Warner Brothers had me develop the script for Contact. I work-shopped it with director George Miller and Carl and with various scientists and theologians. We did hours of workshops over three years. George Miller left the project and (director) Robert Zemeckis made a movie close to that script.”

“Carl and I knew each other [since around 1975]. He met his wife Annie on the same night as I met him and Nora Ephron at a dinner party at our mutual friend.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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