Movie Producer Lynda Obst

I talk to Lynda Obst by phone Dec. 1, 2008.

Luke: "How did the election affect things around you? I assume most of your peers were happier the day after."

Lynda: "We’re all in a much better mood than we might have been, given how horrible the economy is. We’re all drastically affected by the economy and yet we’re such Obama-maniacs that we are more optimistic than we otherwise would’ve been. I think we would all have been in a gigantic crashing depression if Obama had not won.

"In a zeitgeist way, there’s a sense of what might be Obama-type material. Optimistic things. Things that are unifying as opposed to divisive. Less dark."

Luke: "How did the Bush years affect your job?"

Lynda: "The economy’s in the toilet bowl. All producers were affected because there’s no liquidity and no debt. We’re all having to look in the same strange recesses for cash. The studios are looking in the same places we are in many cases. The Bush years weren’t kind to the motion picture industry, but at the same time the box office is solid. The movie industry is a good depression business but there are no loans coming through and the movie business lives entirely on debt. Each movie is a debt-structured proposition. So it’s been harder to get movies made. At the same time, a good script gets made. I’ve got a bunch of good scripts and I believe one or two will get made."

Luke: "Did our president affect the types of stories that were told over the past eight years?"

Lynda: "A lot of people tried to make political movies and they didn’t work."

Luke: "All those anti-Iraq war movies were a bunch of duds."

Lynda: "Yeah. They didn’t work. I think a lot of people were too depressed over a period of time to even muster up a good protest. They just wanted to laugh. It was really good for television. It was good for cable news. It was good for Jon Stewart. I think there was just a tremendous need for escapism. It wasn’t good for political movies. I think a lot of people will be studying that and figuring out what it means. It was good for documentaries. Big box office required big escape.

"This whole industry became more tent-pole driven. I worked to keep the $30-$40 million movie alive. I can make tent-pole movies. I’m working on two right now (Interstellar and H.I.V.E.). Studios rarely make $40 million movies anymore. I had a Warner Brothers executive tell me he’d rather make a $200 million movie than a $50 million movie."

Luke: "And the reason was?"

Lynda: "They feel safer making huge movies. That’s more the ethos right now. They can book them all over the world. They don’t know how to make money on a movie that won’t be booked in 2500 theaters."

Luke: "Was it weird that we had eight anti-Iraq war films and zero pro-Iraq war films? Is that an accurate perception of what happened?"

Lynda: "I think that is an accurate perception. The guess was that if there was only a small audience for an anti-Iraq war film, there was an even smaller audience for a pro-Iraq war film. You also have a liberal bias here. Historically, that was probably the same thing in the Vietnam war too. Though you had pro-Vietnam movies, you had more anti-Vietnam movies. They did better though. The Green Berets did well. You’re always going to find a little bit of liberal bias in Hollywood. Maybe more than a little. It was hard to find a good pro-Iraq script. You could probably find a pro-let’s-go-find-Osama-Bin-Laden-In-Afghanistan script. You could probably get that made. That was a more unified opinion. I haven’t read a terrific pro-Iraq script. I don’t know that you couldn’t get it made if one existed. Once the anti-Iraq movies started flopping, the chances of a pro-one getting made were slim. It would be hard without special interest backing."

Luke: "How easy is it to get a message movie out?"

Lynda: "Really hard. People don’t really like political movies. You need a person who’s really dedicated to a point of view and then they need to get a backer who are equally committed to that point of view. A studio is going to want to water down that point of view. Then you get movies like State of Play (2009) that has no point of view and is just sort of an action piece.

"The most political movie I ever made was The Siege (written by Lawrence Wright, later author of the best seller The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11). It presaged 9/11. I don’t think that could’ve gotten made if Ed Zwick hadn’t slipped it to Denzel. Fox had had so much trouble with the terrorist movie that preceded it.

"The Siege was political but you couldn’t tell if it was right or left because it was both. The Left jumped on our bones. Everybody jumped on our bones. We were attacked for being Jews by the Anti-Arab-Discrimination league. We had to do reshoots under assumed names. The Times came down against us. It was a wild assortment of people who came down against us. It’s not pleasant for studios to get in the middle of a political fray. They prefer not to. They don’t like bomb threats. It tends to be more of an independent venture or a Lions Gate venture. A movie that gets picked up and needs reviews. It requires a dedicated set of filmmakers to get a movie made, like Che (2008), which is a full-on ideological love project.

"In this country, the movie audience is not really political. I’ve learned over time that movies are not ideological, they’re emotional. It’s hard to get ideas across in movies. That’s not the point of the American movie industry. This is not an auteur ideological industry. Battle of Algiers would not have come out of America. It’s like trying to get a ball rolled up a hill that wasn’t designed for it."

Luke: "When as a producer have you been glad for controversy around one of your projects?"

Lynda: "Never."

She laughs. "Never. We love buzz, we don’t like controversy. Maybe if you have a documentary, you like controversy. Maybe if you’re Borat, you like controversy. It’s something I talk to Ricky Gervais about because he likes controversy. He’s our next release. We don’t like controversy, we like buzz."

Luke: "Would that be true for 99% of your peers?"

Lynda: "Yes. Unless they’re nuts."

Luke: "Where do you think The Siege succeeded and where do you think it did not succeed?"

Lynda: "It succeeded in the first two-thirds. And greatly. It succeeded in being able to show the atmosphere in New York between the two World Trade Center bombings. It was an astonishing time, a period of time that allowed for 9/11 to occur when Sheik Raman had cells in Brooklyn of Arab terrorists and we were so oblivious. I remember one of my Orthodox friends called me on 9/11 and said, ‘Wake up, Lynda. Your movie is on but it’s worse.’

"I think it didn’t succeed in its exaggeration of the Bruce Willis character, which we needed to inflate dramatically for narrative purposes.

"But it gave a lot of complexity to the blowback issue of Afghanistan, which we’re still living with. That we had armed the Mujahideen and left them there. We forgot and they didn’t. I loved the Tony Shalhoub character, the FBI agent who was Arab and stuck between two worlds."

Luke: "There was a part in The Siege where they were discussing the morality of torturing people."

Lynda: "That was a bit ahead of its time."

Luke: "Was it too on the nose?"

Lynda: "I loved that speech [by Denzel Washington’s character]. We’re still forming that argument in the same terms. If you use their methods, then they win. I don’t know a better way to phrase that argument. I have this designation I make in screenplays, ‘OTN’ meaning too On The Nose, which I use liberally. The difference for me in something ringing On The Nose and something not ringing On The Nose is if it is narratively earned. If it is not narratively earned, then it glares at you more. It’s more bald. That scene was so narratively earned… I found it eloquent. It’s hard to be oblique about torture."

Luke: "How is mothering like producing and vice versa?"

Lynda laughs. "I always talk about that. You’re taking care of everyone. You’re the chief nurse and cook. I can’t cook but I’m very much in charge of menus. The caterer is one of the first and most important decisions I make because the crew knows how you care about them by the quality of the food they’re getting. You always have to make sure there’s a hospital and a medic. You nurture and take care of your cast and crew. You are responsible for people’s well-being and if things go awry, it’s your fault. You have to know where the weak links are and anticipate them. You need to know a company’s strengths and weaknesses."

Luke: "How is what you’re doing different from 20 years ago?"

Lynda: "It’s the same but it’s harder. There are less movies being made. There are more people trying to do it. There are fewer chances being taken. The idea that there are no good weekends to open a movie. All of them are crowded with too many big movies. There used to be slots that were more open when people still went to the movies, now the only weekends like that are really dead ones, like July 4 (which is crowded anyway as the kids are out) or early Jan, etc. All April is crowded, Feb 14, etc all October through December.

"The new random crazy rules in the mystery of the board game. I don’t think it was driven entirely by 13 year old boys when I started."

Luke: "Is the moviegoer any different today from 20 years ago?"

Lynda: "People believe it is driven by 13 year old boys and to a certain extent it is. The comic book craze seems to not be dying. That’s part of the 13 year old fanaticism. It’s harder to get a drama made than ever before. Some of my best movies would be very hard to make today (The Fisher King)."

Luke: "How many movies have you made that are not to your taste?"

Lynda: "None. Maybe Heartbreak Hotel, but I loved making it. I discovered Austin through Heartbreak Hotel. I probably would not have made a movie about kidnapping Elvis if it had been pitched to me. On the other hand, if Chris Columbus pitched me anything, I would do it."

"It takes so long to make a movie that the ones you tend not to love so much tend to fall out."

Luke: "How do your projects surprise you?"

Lynda: "I had no idea that Kate [Hudson] and Matthew [McConaughey] would have the chemistry they did in How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. Matthew was a last minute choice. Kate was attached to the material all along. I kept trying to talk her into actors she didn’t want to play against. Matthew just happened in a meeting where the movie almost fell apart in Sherry Lansing’s office. The agent had pitched Matthew to me at the last minute before I went to the office. As the movie fell apart before my eyes in the meeting, I said, ‘What about Matthew [McConaughey]?’ I had no idea anybody would say yes. Kate said yes. Sherry said yes. We had to go out and make a deal with him. He had a lot of leverage at that point.

"It wasn’t until I saw the monitor on the first couple of days that I realized that they were so much fun together. They looked so great together. I didn’t know that Matthew could play urban and do that kind of verbose dialogue."

Luke: "What does it mean ‘to play urban’?"

Lynda: "He’s so Southern. He’s so Texas. And he was playing a New York Madison Avenue advertising executive.

"The chemistry was so good that Sherry arrived in the first week. You know that when the studio head arrives the first week just to hang out with the actors on the set that there’s surprising chemistry. Usually if you get a studio executive in the first six weeks it’s bad news. And it won’t be the chairman; they don’t give bad news.

"Usually other surprises are bad. Usually your job as a producer is to not get surprised, to prep the movie so well that there aren’t any surprises. Other surprises is that the director takes 75,000 more takes than you thought he would. Your cinematographer is slower than you knew."

Luke: "Do you feel that you have less creative freedom today than 25 years ago because of PC considerations?"

Lynda: "No. Well, yes, in some ways. We had much more creative freedom with Adventures in Babysitting (1987) to go into the city and run rampart in the city because parents weren’t as prickly then as they are now. Parents are like police now. They watch their kids so carefully and they’re all perfect and they all have 17 car seats and 900 devices that monitor them with GPSs wherever they go. They’d never let their kids alone in the city and if they did, the kids could never be in genuine danger where in the old Adventures in Babysitting the kids were in real danger chased by bad guys. The new Adventures in Babysitting will have to be tamer so the parents weren’t horrified. The old Adventures in Babysitting could be Touchstone while this one is Disney.

"Eighties movies were much more rad. You look at the John Hughes movies and you can’t make movies like that now where kids are smoking and wild and use language which we can’t use in PG13 movies. The eighties were the Grand Old Period, the GOP as it were, of teen movies and they were the greatest movies for that reason. As far as freedom to make movies, there was definitely more freedom that way."

Luke: "What about the theme that these are white kids going into a black area and they are scared to death because it is a black area?"

Lynda: "We were very careful about all that. They’re being chased by white people. Also, a black person was their best friend taking care of them. We over-balanced all that out. I was nothing if not an early civil rights advocate. We were very aware of all that. The chop shop was run by white people."

Luke: "It seems a little incongruous. This was a black area of town and you felt their visceral fear, these white kids being in a black area."

Lynda: "We wanted them to be afraid of the city and then discover that the city was friendly because that was my experience as a suburban Westchester kid. I ran away to the city all the time from Westchester. At my earliest opportunity, I was running to the city. I was 14 to go find Bob Dylan. The city was a great mystery and lure to me. I was careful not to make it a place of scary black people. I think it’s a place of the blues where there are spectacular black people who have a lot to teach you and spectacular white people and people in the hospital who will help you. The point of Adventures in Babysitting was that it seems scary but the people who seem scary turn out to be friendly and the people who are friendly turn out to be scary. Everything is the opposite of what it seems."

Luke: "You mention how you were reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War and that it seemed everyone was reading it at the time."

Lynda: "I think most Asian and Eastern philosophies have something to teach us, whether it is war or peace. I found brilliant things in the I-Ching (The Chinese Book of Changes). I’ve been reading that since college."

Luke: "Have you noticed any of your peers reacting to Joe Eszterhas finding God?"

Lynda: "I found it hilarious, but I feel that he’ll do anything for publicity. I feel that most everybody else doesn’t know who he is anymore. The degree to which this town moves quickly on to the next person, the next phenomenon, the next generation, is astonishing. Kids are twelve now and they don’t know who he is. The New York Times does as he’s copy, or wherever we read that article, but I haven’t heard a person talk about it. Jim Wiatt and I are about to have lunch. We’ll have a laugh about it. Maybe."

Luke: "It’s such a shocker."

Lynda: "From cigarette maniac to sex maniac to God maniac. He’s a crazy person. Whatever extreme will get him copy. Did you ever read the review I wrote of his Clinton book? The degree to which he identified himself with [Bill] Clinton was astonishing. He thought that he and Clinton were the same guy. His self-awareness level needs to be studied. I’m sure God loves him."

Luke: "Do you ever fantasize about doing a Julia Phillips?"

Lynda: "No. I’m not angry. She was very angry."

Luke: "What’s the difference between telling it all and being angry? I’m sure a part of you would like to tell it all?"

Lynda: "No. I have a book contract to do a book on where the business has gone the past eight years and why. That’s the sort of stuff I do. I have no desire to tell all about anyone. I’m not that interested in people except really good friends. I’m not that interested in anecdotes about other people. I’m too involved in my own work. Second, I don’t have any axes to grind. I’m more interested in the metaphysics of it and then figuring out how it survives without any money. That’s the only kind of book that I and the book industry want me to write."

Luke: "Some look at Julia Phillips’s book as brave. Some view it as trashy."

Lynda: "She didn’t have any other perspective but to strike out at the people who had let her down. She really let herself down. She was an incredibly talented person who ultimately was a drug addict. So what else was there for her to do?"

Luke: "There’s nothing like her book."

Lynda: "That’s for a specific reason. She was on [drugs]. And she was brilliant on crack. That gives you a specific book."

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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