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On-Set Interview: Kathleen Kennedy for "War of the Worlds"

By Brad Miska Saturday February 14th 2004 04:11PM
Kathleen Kennedy for "War of the Worlds"

A producer of over sixty movies and Spielberg's right hand lady, Kathleen Kennedy is a true legend in the filmmaking world. Amongst her credits are such films as "ET", "Poltergeist", the first "Indiana Jones" & "Back to the Future" sequels, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", "Cape Fear", "Gremlins", "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", all three "Jurassic Park" films, "Twister", "Schindler's List" and "The Sixth Sense". She's now working with Spielberg on "War of the Worlds" and sat down with our set visitor Brad Miska to chat about the feature:

You managed to miss the floods huh?

Actually we've had knock on wood, such amazing luck with the weather cause we were back East and we though winter could approach us at any moment. Then we got back here and we had mostly interiors when the rain hit. It was meant to be, the movie was meant to be.

Can you talk about the challenge of starting about a movie in November that's coming out in July with big movie stars and visual FX shots?

I don't think there is any way we could have done this without having Steven as a director. He's so clear, we've been using "pre-vis" extensively on this in a way that I think it's a tool that he uses as effectively as anybody I've ever seen use it. It's really been a fantastic communication tool. I also feel that we have the unique situation that almost everybody- and I've been making movies with Steven for 25 years and there's a handful in excess of 15020 years involved in this movie- so that's another key component.

What's pre-vis?

We did a very down and dirty "pre-vis" on 'Jurassic Park'- its basically creating cartoons on a computer and we took storyboarding and moved the pictures very very limited way- now with high speed computing and what not we have much more extensive moment in what we're creating. So you get a clear idea of the pacing of the film and you really start to lock in on how long a scene is going to run. We don't get into obviously trying to animate actors or anything like that, but it does give us a very clear idea of exactly what part of the location we're going to see.

For example we went out in August we scouted all the locations of the movie and scanned everything into the computer. Then we actually built the sequences around the actual locations we were going to shoot into. So if there was a building on one end of the street and Steven knew he was going to stage a key action moment around that building we can see exactly what we were going to actually need to either rebuild or add or destroy or whatever was necessary for the scene. So it's a really really valuable tool now used in filmmaking.

As I brought up before it's so important to have someone like Steven because a lot of people allow the artist to go off and do their own version based on the script without minute to minute input from the director. Steven literally lived in the same office with the guys who were creating this on the computer. He would stand there over their should and say, "No no I want a 35mm on this, I want the camera down here," it would be very similar to what he would do on the location. It's an extremely accurate representation of what he is shooting.

Is this latest treatment of extraterrestrial life by Spielberg- is it pure imagination or does it come from science or theory in any way?

First it comes from HG Wells. He wrote an extraordinary story in 1887 that has aspects today that are amazingly relevant, so we have to give him a tremendous amount of credit. Clearly staging the action sequences - yes Steven is making that up, but so much of the story was inspired by what was in the book. Almost the entire cellar sequence for instance is right out of HG Wells.

So what's relevant to today?

Wells write the story ads a reaction against British imperialism and colonialism and the whole superpower issue going on in politics today, there is a kind of relevancy to what he was reacting to. This is similar to what people around the world are reacting to today, not to suggest that we're doing a political movie in any way. But it does give a kind of subtext, what is also interesting about Wells is that the story had a very strong personal point a view and that's something that Steven and David kept immediately sending on to bring into this contemporary version. You've got a real sense of this man and his family and who he was and what he was fighting for and how he was trying to protect his family and survive. That's all inherent in the structure of HG Wells' story. That's also what is also unique about a movie like this is that it's not designed to be just a special FX film, it's really much more about the humanity and people in the story and the FX is in many ways this gigantic backdrop. But the story that's compelling is watching what is happening to this family.

How have you seen that Steven has changed from ET to people being killed by aliens?

I don't know if that's to suggest that Steven has changed. This is a movie that he knew about a story that he knew about from when he was in college. So before he even became a filmmaker this sort of was the epitomized as the best sci-fi story out there. So that's what draws him to this. Does the world today impact the way he might be think about this story? Yeah I think it probably does. ET was ground in a kind of innocence that doesn't necessarily exist as it did then today. Steven is still an everyman making movies. I think that he views the world in much the way we all do, he has the unique ability to translate that into storytelling and to big mass appeal movies. I think that the heart of his filmmaking and heart of his storytelling he is always influenced by the subtext of what's going on in the world.

You just spoke about all the things that make Wells story relevant after 107 years. What do you guys bring to the table to make this similarly ageless 107 years from now?

I think that what we're doing is trying to ground it in what's familiar right now. I know that one of the images that Steven was particularly attracted to was that for instance there has never really been an attack on American soil. There's never been a war certainly this generation can relate to- seeing refugees and people displaced is imagery that we're not familiar with in this country and he's going right at the heart of that and trying to take a lot of the imagery that were seeing today in the world and applying it to this story- and granted a big fun scary movie. But at the heart of it, it's grounded in the reality of that familiar imagery and hopefully you'll come away from this movie scared and feeling like you saw a big summer movie but at the same time making you think. I think that's how he's been so successful as a filmmaker, being able to do something that isn't just empty entertainment but it actually has substance to it.

Do you guys use the black smoke from the novel?

We didn't really stress that as an element, the tri-pods the red weed- that's been the predominate iconic imagery. We're going with the red weed...

Practical and CG or all CG?

It's predominately CG. CG is getting so good today that the argument we made years ago what we did in 'Jurassic' is we build a lot of things for reference, lighting reference, that kind of thing- but its just not practical financially anymore to try and do both anymore.

Same for the weaponry?

No, were trying to build as much as we can. It's mainly the tri-pods that are CG.

What about the superbowl ad, where the bridge explodes, will something be added later on?

Well I don't know (laugh). We are trying to be very true to the story. We are trying to do it in a very realistic way if that makes sense.

How important was it for you to get someone from the '53 movie? You already have Ann Robinson?

Gene Barry is in this too. We thought it was important to have an [homage] of the original. The interesting thing is that this movie is in no way trying to be a remake of the '50s movie it really is much more inspired by the HG Wells. We thought for the moviegoers what was just a nice homage within our movie. They don't have a huge role, but they'll be obvious.

You destroying Los Angeles City Hall?

No it's all East coast.

Will you be destroying your writer?

No we tried to talk David into a scene where he gets taken by a tentacle- but no [laughs].

Are these aliens recognizable as aliens or are they reinvented in a way we've never seen before?

I think they've been reinvented, but they're still inherently inspired by what Wells describes.

Well he had octopuses?

No they're not octopuses.

Are they Martians?

No they're not Martians. The feeling was that we know so much about Mars now that doesn't really fall into the realm of realistic expectations.

How realistic is this?

It's always interesting when you try to arrive an attention and POV and try and get everybody on the same page visually that's going to make the movie. We talked a lot about 'Private Ryan' and for instance the reality of Private Ryan, the feeling of being the mist of a real event. Essentially we're bringing the fantasy element of aliens but were grounding it in a very realistic theory. It has a look, I have to say, this movie looks like nothing you've ever seen. The combination of the two is quite interesting. It really does have that kind of realistic feeling of 'Private Ryan.' It's not going to look like 'Ryan' it has its own look, but we are trying to do a lot of things to give it a very visceral feeling.

You said that CG has come a long way, and 400 FX shots in that amount of time, is ILM working a massive shift?

We actually organized the schedule so that the bulk of their work was up front so that we turned over almost 125 shots before X-mas... We haven't eliminated green screen, but augmenting things is much easier now and looks much more realistic. Again it still goes to that it's still art and you have to have people who are really talented at recognizing how the movie is going to look and matching lighting and coming up with really clever ideas, it's like anything- not everybody can create FX shots.

What's going on with Talisman? Is there a director attached?

I wish there was. Well eventually get around to doing that. We love that story.

How long?

We couldn't speculate because its all about finding the right person.

How about Indiana Jones 4?

We're going to see a script in about a month.

Who's the screenwriter?

Jeff Nathanson

Will Sean Connery be back?

Until I read the script I won't really know.

What is it like watching Tom and Steve together? They're great. They haven't gone through the Minority Report experience. There's a real seamlessness to how they approach everything and they have such phenomenal trust both ways that they love working together and everything is a collaborative experience. Tom has great ideas; they bounce things off one and another- every scene just gets better. They're quite something to watch, Steven described something the other day that I hadn't thought about it quite this way but he's absolutely right, which is we sit around in this kind of hurry up and wait scenario and a lot of levity and we all have a lot of fun and laugh a lot, and then the minute we start to zero on what the scene is we're about to shoot, everyone gets extremely serious and extremely intense for that moment that is captured on film- and then is totally relaxed again. That's the beauty of watching Steven and Tom- that razor sharp intensity on every little detail on what's going on in that moment that we're trying to capture it pretty amazing. They don't let anything fall through the cracks and everything's discussed and everything's thought through and anticipated. Were always very very clear as to exactly where we are going with the storytelling. That's rare with an actor where it's not just about their performance but it's a constant discussion about the whole movie. What's the status on Benjamin Button. Is it dead? No, Fincher. I was just on the phone with everybody today on that. It looks like it may go forward this summer.

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