Laura Ziskin for “Spider-Man”

She is one of the most powerful female producers in Hollywood with hits like “Pretty Woman”, “As Good as it Gets”, “Hero”, “To Die For” and this year’s Oscars ceremony under her belt. Now she’s producing this Summer blockbuster which looks to be giving “Star Wars” a run for its money. The multi-talented Laura Ziskin made a brief trip to Sydney recently and I got to speak with her in person for half an hour about her career, this film and beyond:

Question: Congratulations, not just for this but being the first female solo producer of the Oscars and stepping into Gil Cates’ well worn shoes.

Answer: Well thankyou, it was so much fun – I had the best time. He (Cates) gave me lots of advice.

Question: Now that you’ve done one, is there any lessons learned and would you do it again?

Answer: I don’t think I’d do it again. I just had such a good time, I always wanted to do it because I’ve watched it all my life and I never understood why it wasn’t more about film and so I really wanted to invite filmmakers and make it as much about film as possible. I’m not a variety show producer, I wouldn’t know how to do that, but I’m a filmmaker so I wanted to really make it about that – I had an AMAZING response. I’ve never done anything where I’ve had the kind of response from people that…to do the Oscars you know going in that, you know that great line that you can please some of the people all of the time or all of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time – you know you’re going to be attacked for something and that goes with the territory, but I did the things I wanted to do…well I didn’t want it to be quite so long (laughs).

Question: You got selected for the job before September 11th, did that change the tone much?

Answer: Yes it certainly affected everybody, and it was something I was aware of – I didn’t want to make it about that but I felt it was something that needed acknowledging and I guess the biggest thing for me was what Tom Cruise said at the beginning. I knew I wanted to open with some sort of statement about ‘do we really have any business congratulating ourselves and patting ourselves on the back, and is there a value to what we do’ and I was hoping to really have that be a unifying element in the show, to somehow try and put what we do in some context about what’s the value of what we do.

Question: How’d you get Glenn Close from the back of the stage down to the front entrance and back again so fast during the broadcast?

Answer: (laughs) Oscar show secret, and I keep all my secrets.

Question: So how’d you become involved in “Spider-Man”?

Answer: I had come back to Sony as a producer, I had taken a stint for five years – I’d started a division at FOX called FOX 2000 which I did really because my daughter was just becoming a teenage and was much less portable. When your a producer you have to travel around and go where the picture is, and she wanted to go and travel with me until she was about 11 and then she didn’t want to go and I didn’t want to leave her so the people at FOX came to me and asked did I want to do this thing ,and I thought this is a way for me to stay home. But its a very different kind of a gig being a studio executive than being a producer and I think much less satisfying. When your producing your like in a trench an its raining and people are shooting at you so there’s a lot of adrenalin going, when your a studio exec your like at the Pentagon and your saying “send us some more tanks” and “lets go have lunch” and that sort of thing. So I really wanted to get back into the trench and I made a deal with Sony and I said to Amy Pascal (who runs the studio) I’m going to start developing my own material which is how I work usually, but that will take a while so why don’t you give me something – give me the biggest ‘mother’ you’ve got – something really challenging cause I’m really looking for a challenge. So I got this one.

Question: One thing with Sony is that back in 1997 they had a very very strong line-up of major Summer blockbusters films, and then for 2-3 years afterwards it went pretty quiet and then Amy got a bit of criticism and started changing the formulas and adding more action pieces. How does it feel to be the figurehead of their strongest line-up in five years?

Answer: Yes its fantastic, we’re excited.

Question: Is there a lot of pressure because of that?

Answer: Oh absolutely, but you can’t think about that you just have to try to make the best film you can and come and talk to people and promote it and hope they’ll like it, but ultimately its about the movie. Studios are a cyclical business, I think it just is that way you know you can’t always have hits – its the nature of the beast. Every studio goes through those kind of cycles. Its thrilling they had a wonderful opening with “Panic Room” and I think they’re going to have a good Summer and we’re excited and we hope we can kick it off.

Question: In several interviews you’ve been referred to as the great problem solver, how does that sound?

Answer: I think that really defines producing and one aspect of it. Once a project is going forward, then that truly is your job – to solve the daily problems.

Question: Was there any sequences on this you thought going into it would be impossible to pull off and yet came out beautifully?

Answer: Many. Starting from when I came into the project, the script wasn’t really finished and everyone hadn’t agreed upon the story, and there wasn’t a budget – the studio had an idea of what they wanted it to cost, the script required it cost something higher, you know that sort of friction between the money and the creative side. We didn’t have an actor playing Spider-Man and Sam had been very interested in Tobey who I loved and thought was brilliant, and we had been doing some video screen testing and the studio was very resistant to Tobey, they loved him as an actor but he wasn’t what they imagined as Spider-Man. The first thing I did when I came in, my first problem I solved was I said to Sam we need to do a real full on screen test, hair, make-up, wardrobe, editing and music so they can see him as he will ultimately be seen in the movie – so we did that and he got the job.

Question: Was there anyone else attached to the role in the early stages?

Answer: No, no other actor but then similarly with Kirsten – its quite a famous story now, we knew we wanted the cast to have chemistry and Kirsten was in Berlin working on a film and we were less than a month from starting the picture it was December and we had not cast the role, and Tobey had really read with probably every young actress in the country and from out here – England, Australia, etc. and I loved Kirsten, I loved her work and wanted to see them together so the only way we could do it was to go to Berlin.? Tobey had a terrible flu and we said you have to come and he’s “No I can’t go, I’m too sick” and I said “No you have to come” and we all got on a plane and we went.? We tested her with a video camera in a hotel room and were stealing lights from the hallway, she’d come in from a full day of working to test. Just like that though, you knew it. Then we got on a plane back home and “Bring it On” was on the plane and so that was a sign, and we cast her.

Question: What’s it like working with Sam compared to some of the others you’ve dealt with over the years?

Answer: He’s a dream. He’s so hilariously funny, and I think he’s defined by his humanity and I have a theory about directors in terms of what the result is in the movie and it has taken me 20 years of making movies to really learn this, is that directors put themselves on the screen. Who the director is, is what you’ll end up with, whatever the characteristics are of that person is very evident in the finished work and Sam I think is defined by his great humanity and that makes it very satisfying to work with him, he’s really human, really really funny, EXTREMELY hard working and has a wonderful kind of visual style so it was an absolute treat – and you’ll hear this from everybody you’ll talk to, we love him. He’s adorable, he’s got a little baby face. He’ll get mad at me for saying this but we were in the middle of making the movie and one night I couldn’t sleep and there was this special on PBS or something about people faces and they talked about people who had baby faces and how they always get what they want cause they’re so irresistible and that’s Sam with that little babyface that’s so cute.

Question: In regards to the design of the costume, the Spider-Man suit stayed true to its original nature but the Green Goblin costume was completely changed, can you talk about that?

Answer: That was a struggle, a big struggle. Coming in I was not a Spider-Man aficionado, but Avi now says I’m a super geek so now I’ve been indoctrinated. I came on the movie and I said so what’s a Goblin anyway? I didn’t quite understand what that was and he’s in the green tights and the purple tunic and the pointy hat. We liked the character because of the psychology of the character and the relationship of Norman being Harry’s father and Harry being Peter’s best friend and Norman being this kind of father figure, so the psychological underpinnings were great. The glider was great and all that, but the visual of the Goblin felt that it wouldn’t translate to film that it might look too goofy. So, because he’s a weapons manufacturer we started thinking in terms of maybe the suit came from something he was designing in his lab, and then the mask became a challenge and that we fixed on finally was that because he was in the war business and he’s a wealthy man, you see in his house he has a collection of warrior masks and somehow there’s that…we don’t ever explain it but we hope that there’s a kind of subtle connection that when he becomes the Green Goblin and starts to go crazy, that he’s created this kind of war-like scary mask. Its subtle, we debated over whether we should explain it or not and decided not to.

Question: You wrote the story for “Hero” or “Accidental Hero” as it was known in this country, do you still have the desire to write again?

Answer: In a way its a producerial task to come up with stories, I would absolutely do it again if I had an idea for one but I couldn’t write a screenplay though, I don’t have the skill to do that.

Question: Are there any other superhero projects you’d like to work on or do you wish to do something completely different next?

Answer: Well we’re working on the sequel, “Spider-Man” is my life now, and I do want to do other things. I tend to get interested in…in the 90s I was kind of obsessed with the media and the power of the media and that formed “To Die For” and “Hero” that was at the time of my obsession. Right now I’m fascinated with technology and the rapidity with which the world is changing because of technology and I’m sort of frightened by that so I’ve actually have two projects, very different kinds of things that deal with that themeatically. Artificial Intelligence and stuff like that is so…scary, to me – very scary.

Question: With this a guaranteed franchise maker, a sequel on the way, does the idea of churning out a Spider-Man film every 2-3 years like the Bond films seem like a daunting prospect?

Answer: Yeah, I’m only half joking when I say “Spider-Man” is my life, I think for all of us – we wouldn’t be good at it and it wouldn’t be good for us if that was all that we did. They’re very all consuming projects, I really have done nothing else – I made an HBO movie and I did the Oscars, but this is what I’ve doing or almost two years and Sam for longer than that. fortunately the stories are interesting enough, but were not at a breaking point yet.

Question: One interesting thing was in the first teaser trailer there were little references to other characters.

Answer: (laughs) Yeah, that was just for the hardcore fans.

Question: Now that you’re aware of the whole franchise, are there any villains that you would love to see on-screen?

Answer: I would love to see Doc Ock, and there was some attempt to have him in the first movie but there was too much storytelling that there just wasn’t the time for it so that’ll be fun. Ask Avi, he’ll tell you more about it – I’m going to defer to him.

Question: You were asked the question yesterday about what its like to be one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, is it still a boys club over there?

Answer: Yeah its very different from when I started out, it was true there were no women producers – I knew of one – Pam Weinstein who was Paula and Lisa Weinstein’s mother and she produced “Stir Crazy”. I didn’t really know that and at one point I became a little hesitant as there weren’t many women and for years I was the only woman in the van or in the meeting or whatever, now its really changed and women are running studios – Sherry and Stacey and Amy, so that’s changed. Still its quite male dominated and of course the real power, the owners of the companies are men. Its better and I think way more opportunities exist for women.

Question: Rupert, Ted and Michael E. own us all in some way.

Answer: Well that’s exactly right, if you think about the real…that they’re five middle-aged, I’ll be kind, middle-aged elderly white men with mostly similar politics and who control all the media in the world that’s a shocking thing isn’t it.

Question: You cast Nicole Kidman in one of her first breakthrough American roles in “To Die For”, now its like six years later and she’s a huge success.

Answer: I’m thrilled. I thought she was robbed for “To Die For”, I thought that was for sure worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Question: What drew you to her initially?

Answer: I’d seen her in “Dead Calm”, and then she met Tom and she was playing more ingenues which I think she’s not an ingenue I think she’s a character actress really and we wanted actresses who wanted to play the part, in fact Meg Ryan was originally going to do it and then she fell out of it and Nic lobbied for the part, she said I know how and sometimes actresses are so smart about themselves, she had a conviction about herself, she knew something which I think even we didn’t know until – I’ll tell you when it happened. We put the wig on her and she became the character and we said “Oh my god!” – she’s nailed it, she’s brilliant – I don’t think there’s anything she can’t do.

Question: What about Tobey on this, was there any specific film you saw which drew you in?

Answer: I have loved him in everything he’s done, I think he’s a remarkable young actor and maybe the best of his age group. Incredibly internal, great movie actor – very subtle and very real, he can do so little and communicate so much and that’s the mark of a really great film actor. You see in the progress of the movie, its a real coming of age, boy into man story and where he starts. None of us, the studio included, can imagine anyone else in the part now.

Question: With people like Michael Keaton, Hugh Jackman, Eric Bana, etc. in these superhero roles, do you think its a good choice having these sort of lesser known but very talented actors in such major roles.

Answer: I think its true, I think if you have a big star its hard for the star to lose himself in the role as their always thinking I’m the next Tom Cruise you know, and so maybe that is so. I hadn’t thought about it, that’s interesting. You always want the best actor for any part.

Question: This is more FX oriented than any of the films you’ve done in the past

Answer: I’ve never done anything like this, it was an amazing education – fantastic. You do realise that you can do anything if you throw enough money at it. The hardest thing I think is that in the post production process you’re not every really seeing it, you know your seeing it unfinished so the leap that the movie takes from… you know, and your working and dubbing and its not finished, the final FX went into the movie this week, so you know you’re not really seeing – your imagining what its going to be like, its very difficult.

Question: Is it complete yet?

Answer: I think yesterday (Apr 2nd), by the time we get back there should be a print for the American press.

Question: How many FX shots has it ended up being?

Answer: About 400. We wanted more. (laughs)