Kathleen Kennedy

Kathleen Kennedy

“I’m always very attracted to new technology and new ways of doing things because I think that one of the wonderful things about this business is that there is constant change.”

Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm Ltd.; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, March 28, 2019. Edited for clarity by the National Museum of American History.

Stereo photograph of Chinese mine workers
This stereoview is from a series in which Eadweard Muybridge depicted the work of a Chinese miner panning for gold in 1849.

Early years

I was born in Berkeley and my father had graduated from law school. We moved up to Northern California when I was about three or four years old to a little town called Weaverville. And I lived in Weaverville until I was 12 or 13. My dad worked in the DA’s office, and he also represented almost all of the existing Indian tribes in the area. He was also a mining expert because it was well into the forties, fifties, and early sixties that a lot of those mining rights were being sorted out on the gold mines that existed in Northern California during the Gold Rush. So, as a kid I used to go with my dad a lot when he was doing work on the Indian reservations. I have an identical twin, and my twin sister and I used to pan for gold. We would be digging for things because we knew that there had been thousands of Chinese that had lived in the area at the time of the gold rush and eventually contributed to building the railroad. So, we would find pieces of plates from China and artifacts and whatnot. I’ve always thought that that experience in my childhood of being exposed to nature and to the things that I was exposed to because of the work my dad was doing, really left a kind of fertile imagination about stories and things.

Both my parents were only children. So, the fact that I had a twin and I had a sister 15 months younger—the three of us were quite a handful for parents who had never experienced siblings. Mom was a classic ‘50s housewife—three kids by the time she was 22—but highly educated and I think kind of shocked that she ended up in this little tiny town called Weaverville. She had been born in Buffalo [New York], raised in Chicago, then went to school at Berkeley. Her father sadly passed away when she was 15. And she did a lot of theater. I think for a while—I only realized this later in life—there were a lot of things she was interested in doing, but just never really had the opportunity. So, I think my mom was very influential with the three of us in constantly encouraging us to do what we wanted to do; to be who we wanted to be; to study what we wanted to study.

“The teamwork involved in playing sports has a lot to do with why I’ve always felt so comfortable on movie sets.”

We played every sport. And there were no real, sort of “girl sports.” I could always throw. I can still throw. If you’re a girl and you were born able to throw, it was kind of a useless thing, I guess, at one point. But I was at a point in my life where I guess the team figured out that I could throw better than most of the guys on the team. So, I ended up as the quarterback for two years. We had a couple of situations where the opposing teams walked off the field and refused to play. We also played with the Little League team, but they had a strict rule that we couldn’t play the games. So, my sister Connie and I would sit on the bench but participated in all the practices. I just always loved sports and enjoyed playing and I think the teamwork involved in playing sports has a lot to do with why I’ve always felt so comfortable on movie sets and working with crews and having people collaborate. I think the idea that you work toward something with a group of people and you don’t necessarily have to be best friends with everybody you’re working with, you’re just driving toward a common goal—I think my comfort with that definitely came from sports.

Nancy comic strip
This 1966 comic strip, Nancy¸ shows a character's excited response to the announcement of a coming drive-in movie. Unfortunately, he'll only get to see the movie, because he would need a car-window speaker to hear it!

“I want to know how those people got their jobs.”

When I was in high school, I used to go to a drive-in theater, and I watched Dr. Zhivago probably 30 times. I was just a huge David Lean fan. I also remember climbing out a window with my sister and going to see The Graduate because my parents told us we couldn’t, but we did. As soon as I realized I wanted to head into film, all I remember was I was watching movies endlessly. Anything I could see, but mostly I was a classic 70s cinephile. I was seeing everything of Antonioni, Truffaut, anything new that David Lane was doing. I was seeing Fellini, Ingmar Bergman. I saw anything Marty Scorsese was doing. I remember I practically lived in a movie theater; just endlessly watching movies. I don’t remember having any kind of strategic perspective around what I was doing. I still had no idea what I would do in this space. I was literally just educating myself.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was right around the time I was getting ready to graduate. And I had met my mom up in LA and taken her to see the movie. And I remember sitting in the theater saying—as the credits were rolling—"I want to know how those people got their jobs.” And that was the first time I was really zeroing in on wanting to work in the movie business.

The pull was constantly on the creative side, so I saw a movie like Close Encounters and maybe it was something about Steven’s creativity that was somewhat synonymous to the way I felt with these other huge filmmakers. And I knew he was young, and he was there in Hollywood and I just was infatuated with what he was doing. It’s funny because I hadn’t seen Jaws and I didn’t really want to see Jaws. I told Steven this. I thought Jaws was too commercial. So, I wasn’t particularly interested in that. But when I saw what he did with Close Encounters that got me really interested in what he was doing.

“I was taking on a lot of the technical jobs, not actually thinking that any of this was particularly unusual except I didn’t see a lot of women.”

I got into filmmaking because there happened to be this PBS station on my college campus. Soon after getting a job there, I had gone with a friend of mine who was working at a television station called KCST-TV in San Diego. And I was hanging out there a lot just watching what they were doing. And they called me up one day after I had helped with the election returns as a volunteer. And they said, “Would you be interested in possibly taking a job here?” So, I sat down and worked my school schedule around a part-time job at this television station. Eventually, as I got more and more of my schooling done, I took on more and more at the station. So, I was working the newsroom. I became a camera operator. I was working the remote trucks. I was working handheld camera. I was taking on a lot of the technical jobs, not actually thinking that any of this was particularly unusual except I didn’t see a lot of women.

Fifteen years later, right about the time I was already working with Steven Spielberg—I think we’d already done Raiders of the Lost Ark and maybe ET— I’m at a party and these two lawyers come over to me and they say, “There’s no reason for you to know us. We filed a petition to deny the FCC’s [Federal Communications Commission] broadcast license of the television station that you were working for. And, as a result, one of the stipulations from the FCC in approving their license was that they hire women. And you were one, and we’ve been watching you ever since.” I, of course, knew none of this at the time. But it’s fascinating to think that this happened in 1973, given what’s going on now and the spotlight on the limited representation of women, certainly in technical jobs and positions of influence and power.

I was also very fortunate that Steven was incredibly receptive to women in positions of power. Very early in my career working with him, he moved me into a producing position. I can’t say that everybody in Hollywood in his position would have necessarily done that, but he did that right away. So, I was enormously fortunate that I was working with somebody who never missed a beat.

“Technology can help to make you feel something differently.”

I’m always very attracted to new technology and new ways of doing things, because I think that one of the wonderful things about this business is that there is constant change. You draw from things from the past, but you’re always moving forward. And so, there is innovation constantly in service of content. And so, I just find that incredibly exciting and thrilling. I think the technology has been one of the things that has been truly thrilling about the kind of movies I’ve been able to be a part of because we have had those game changing moments.

Probably the first time I was really aware of the power of technology in film was with something I wasn’t involved in then, but I am now: Star Wars. Like so many people, I remember walking into the theater and seeing that movie and stepping out and going “Oh my God, I’ve just experienced something way beyond anything I ever could have imagined.” And that was the genesis of Industrial Light & Magic. I have the good fortune of having worked with them my entire career, pushing, first storytelling and then pushing the technology to deliver on storytelling.

Movie prop, rock with mosquito trapped in amber
This insect trapped in amber is a prop from the 1993 film Jurassic Park.

I’ve actually sat in a room when we didn’t think that we could make dinosaurs feel like they were real. And I was there when the first wire frame dinosaur ran across the movie screen and we jumped out of our seats because we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. That whole experience with Jurassic Park is something I’ll never ever forget, right through to being with the first audience seeing dinosaurs for the first time. You could feel and hear this audible gasp in the theater, and that goes down as being one of the more thrilling moments for me.

I’m a big believer in that quote: “technology in search of content.” It is not technology that’s necessarily moving people—it’s the stories that are moving people. You want it to feel seamless and you want one to be benefitting and enhancing the other. Technology can help to make you feel something differently. When you watched those dinosaurs, you had an emotional reaction. And that’s because that dinosaur, for all intents and purposes, was real. That’s always what we’re trying to achieve.

“The only way I can effectively do my job is to feel like I’m really a part of the process.”

I enjoy making things. I just really love the creative process of having that kind of blank slate, especially when I look at something and I go “Oh my God, how are we going to do that?” That is the best question because you want to be engaged in the creative process to solve that. I still produce now. Even when George Lucas asked me to step in and run Lucasfilm, I said to him “I’ll do it, but I still need to produce.” Because it’s just not interesting enough to me to only serve as an executive. I really like the back and forth of rolling up my sleeves, and I want to know people; I want to know how they think. I want to understand point of view. I want to get inside it. The only way I can effectively do my job is to feel like I’m really a part of the process. Creativity is such a living, breathing organism and it’s changing all the time, so if you’re not there and in the process of making something, you’re really not affecting what it eventually becomes. It’s the minutiae in the creative process that I really love. A lot of times, the more successful you become, the further away [you get] from the very thing you loved doing. And I’ve never wanted that. I guess in the moment of making a decision, I’ve been able to step back and go “Wait a minute, the perception of this might look good, but the reality is, it’s going to pull me further away from the very thing I love to do.” And the stakes always get higher. That never bothers me. I mean, bring it on.

On the Indiana Jones costume, Schindler's List script, and the ruby slippers

Leather jacket and hat
Actor Harrison Ford wore this leather jacket and fedora for the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The 1989 film featured the title character created by George Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg in the series of hit movies.

I have incredible memories of making this film. I think that George and Steven were so influenced by Flash Gordon and even James Bond. In looking at this we’re coming out of a lot of thirties and forties movies and the influence around creating the fedora and why it was important for him to have the hat and the swashbuckling nature of the character and Steve McQueen’s sort of influence around a leather jacket. Those were the kinds of conversations everybody was having: “How are we going to make Indiana Jones the coolest guy to hit the screen?” What embodies both Steven and George is that they are very much a product of their times. They were and are, to some extent, still very optimistic storytellers. And they were coming out of that kind of age of innocence. And I’ve always said that the two of them almost entirely lack cynicism and that I think that’s kind of difficult to find today.

Script cover, Schindler's List
Screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapted Thomas Keneally’s 1982 historical fiction novel, Schindler’s Ark, about Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party who saved the lives of over one thousand Polish Jews during World War II.

This was a book that both Steven and I became aware of in 1981. And which is right around the time of Raiders and we would talk about this constantly for 13 years. We would go back and forth, and I think what was interesting—because obviously that was a formative time of the two of us even getting to know one another, because I started working with him in 1978. So, Raiders, 1941, those were sort of the early movies [where] we got to know one another. And I think Steven had a very difficult time coming to terms with making this story. He struggled a lot with just exactly where his point of view was on the story and what he thought of Oskar Schindler, and what he thought his motivations were. Every movie we would make, we would stop and say are we ready to make Schindler? And we’d work on a script. And eventually 13 years later he made it. This is Steven’s movie. I will never ever say that this was coming from my driving passion. I knew it was Steven’s driving passion. I always thought it would be an incredible story to bring to the screen, but it’s not my story; it’s his.

Sequined costume shoes
Dorothy's slippers, originally described as silver in L. Frank Baum’s novel, became red for the movie The Wizard of Oz, to show up better on the Technicolor film’s now famous yellow brick road.

“There is no place like home!” Seeing the ruby slippers makes me think that The Wizard of Oz is still, ironically, a touchstone of storytelling that I can’t tell you how many times we reference. There is almost never a story meeting that you don’t sit down nowadays and you’re talking about Joseph Campbell or you’re referencing The Wizard of Oz. Those are the icons of our storytelling. I remember the scary monkeys—that resonates. And the tornadoes. We talked about those a lot when we were doing Twister because that was all done with a lady’s stocking in The Wizard of Oz. Needless to say, we didn’t use that technology. It had improved a little bit.