Had a chance last week to talk with Lindsay Doran producer of the Oscar winning Sense & Sensibility and the current Nanny McPhee Returns about a bunch of different topics.
As a person who does a lot of interviews, I found Lindsay's answers and insights to be very, very interesting. Hope you do too. Her bio is at the end.
Women & Hollywood: You grew up a child of Hollywood. What was it like?
Lindsay Doran: I was born very late in my father's life. He was 55. He was a studio executive for nearly 50 years working on films like Sunset Blvd. My mother typed scripts for Preston Sturgess. My brother was the publicist on 2001: A Space Odyssey. So it was all around me and what I saw was people who loved it and people who did not have to compromise who they were to be successful in the movie business. Filmmakers wanted to work with my father. He was an executive producer in the original sense of the word meaning he was an executive but also a producer. He was home every night at 6:45 and we all had dinner together. I grew up listening to people talk about story. There was always the sense that the story was the thing that mattered and that was always the thing I loved most.
There were no women though. There were no women executives. There were no women directors. There were no women producers. There were no women anything. There were no role models as far as that went.
W&H: What's the difference between your dad's time and your time?
LD: Firstly, they made a whole lot of movies because there was little else people could do with their entertainment dollars. There was a captive audience that would go to the movies every week. How much money they did certainly wasn't in the public's mind. You talked about whether a movie was good or not and that was the end of it. So the business of it is quite different.
W&H: You've been a studio executive, run a studio and been an independent producer. Talk about the differences in the jobs.
LD: The main difference is that when you are a studio executive you are responsible for a number of films at the same time. When I first got to Paramount I was supervising 5 go movies at the same time. I was looking at 5 sets of dailies every day. It was a 12 hour a day job. It was difficult to get involved on a line by line basis in a screenplay and I did it anyway because that's what I love to do.
The other big difference is between being a buyer and a seller. When I was a studio exec my phone rang all day long. The minute I became a producer even though I was running Sydney Pollack's production company the phone hardly ever rang. I had to initiate everything. But in the end that's what I prefer because I can work closely on the script and be in the editing room if that's what it requires. You can supervise every aspect of it.
W&H: You have worked a great deal with Emma Thompson. Can you talk about how that relationship?
LD: We've made 5 movies together over 20 years. I was an executive at Paramount and I developed a script called Dead Again. I became the producer and we sent it to Kenneth Branagh. He came in and said that I will play both male leads and my wife will play both female leads. He really knew what he wanted. I really didn't know Emma so I went to see her here in LA while she was performing in Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear.
I had also been looking for someone to write Sense & Sensibility my whole life - someone who could be funny and emotional and make it accessible. I already knew she loved Jane Austen so I approached her and she had only written skits (for a show called Thompson) and she tried to talk me into doing Persuasion instead. She agreed to do it and I managed to get Amy Pascal who was then running Columbia Pictures to agree to pay for it for an unknown screenwriter. And then Emma did Howard's End and became a huge movie star. Then she didn't have a whole lot of time for writing.
It's been a terrific partnership without ever being formalized as a partnership. We never bothered to have a company.
W&H: How do find the material you want to produce?
LD: In a way it finds me. When I was an exec at paramount I would hear lots of pitches and read lots of scripts and I kept bringing things to my boss and she would say no that's not really good enough so I would say ok I'll go find something else, and finally I realized that I had so much going on with the movies I supervised that I didn't have time to look for new scripts. So I thought well I just wont bother anymore. And what I learned was certain things just found me. I'd hear a story or an idea and I'd wake up in the middle of the night and go oh wow that's such a good idea. So I went after those things. If anything didn't make me want to stop everybody on the street and tell them the story I just didn't do it. There's a project I am working on now that came from my doctor. She just told me a story and I thought what a great idea for a movie. Nanny McPhee was something Emma told me over lunch. She said she had read these books when she was little. I didn't read the books until later. Stranger than Fiction was the same thing. I was working with a guy of something else and he said to me I want to write a movie about a guy who has a narrator.
W&H: So how did Nanny McPhee actually get made? How do you take the idea and make a movie?
LD: I was running United Artists (UA) when Emma told me the idea so I put it into development and by the time we got the rights which took a while I was no longer running the studio so I became the producer. MGM (which owned UA) essentially owned the script. She and I worked on the script for a good seven years. It was nine years before the movie came out. It took forever. And when the script was ready we went to MGM and said ok this script is ready to go. MGM didn't want to make the movie and didn't believe in it. A lot of people wanted to do it and Working Title came to us and were interested in working with Emma and with Kirk Jones who was attached as the director so they were willing to put up the money through Universal so we made the movie that way.
W&H: This time Susanna White directed the film. How did that come about?
LD: I looked at the work and met with many different directors. I was looking for someone who had poetry to the way they shot and somebody who really had a feel for the material in a very personal way. She really identified with Mrs. Green. She felt that the mothers of the world were going to recognize themselves in this incredibly harried woman. She suggested some changes in the script to underline that fact so not only to the children change over the course of it but Mrs. Green also changes. She seemed to have a grasp on it that was more interesting than anyone else I met.
W&H: I guess I don't need to ask you the question of which is your favorite film?
LD: It's hard to choose. It's like choosing among your children. I love Stranger Than Fiction. But Sense & Sensibility is the only one I carried around with me from the time I was 23 years old. It is the work of my life and usually that story does not have a happy ending. Usually when people dedicate their whole life to making a film then it comes out and most people don't know it. That's what you have to get used to as a filmmaker where you can have this dream and it can turn out to be a really bad movie or you can get kicked off the movie. A lot of these stories are just terrible.
So to have this great director (Ang Lee). Talk about taking a chance. Ang didn't speak a whole lot of English at that point and he had never read Jane Austen in his life, but when he read the script he said everything I wanted a director to say. He said I want this movie to break people's hearts so badly that they will still be recovering weeks later. I wanted to film to be hilarious and heartbreaking and he was the only one who knew. As good as Emma's script was and it deserved every award that it got, I thought that Ang brought something to it that made it better. He brought a visual poetry that I just thought was breathtaking. And he brought a subtlety and sensitivity and he knew how to hold back in a lot of ways. He underplayed a lot of things in a way that made it work better.
W&H: Where do you think women are now in the business?
LD: The very first time I was interviewed on this topic a very long time ago a journalist came to see me and said, do you want to run a studio? And I said no. And she said that's interesting. I've been thinking isn't that terrible that women are never offered that job and what I keep meeting are women who don't want that job or women who have turned it down. I had turned it down at that point and I only took the job at United Artists because it was a very small studio and I was only responsible for six movies a year.
Power doesn't seem to be something that a whole lot of women are interested in, and I think it's not a sexist thing to say that. I think it is something that some women are interested in and it makes sense for those people to be running studios or directing movies or running big production companies. But a lot of women it is simply not what they gauge it on. Maybe they want it but are not willing to make the sacrifices to have it, the classic problem of the working mother with Maggie and Susanna and Emma have been talking about all week (in promoting Nanny McPhee Returns).
I think one of the most telling things was when I was at United Artists there was a female executive under me and she already had one child when I got there and she had her second child while we were working together. She took let's say two months off when the baby was born and then came back to work. And we went to a preview right after she came back to work. And somebody came up to her and said "you're here? Really, didn't you just have a baby?" And she turned to me and said "you know my husband (who was also a studio executive at a different studio) is also at a preview tonight. Do you think one person is coming up to him and asking why are you here didn't you just have a baby?" So you have to be able to look that in the eye. It's not that the women don't feel guilty all by themselves. It's that the whole world conspires to make them feel guilty. I thought wow. This is what she has to go through and it's murder. Î just don't see men having that problem.
But I don't think we should just look at the statistics and say isn't it terrible that there aren't more women directors. Isn't it terrible that there aren't more women running studios. Because the truth is even though there are a lot more who would like to do it and aren't doing it - they don't want to do it in the same numbers. I just really believe it. I know no one wants to say that out loud.
I think the more interesting thing is the something I heard on the street recently where you ask three questions...
W&H: The Bechdel test?
LD: Yes. I think it's fascinating and why that happens is a very interesting phenomenon and why is it all still so boy oriented. It's odd. Because nobody cares who writes a screenplay. In general if somebody is a great screenwriter they are going to get hired but there aren't as many women writers. So what does that mean? And when there are women screenwriters they frequently want to write The Kids Are All Right, they don't want to write movie like say "sound barrier."
W&H: What advice do you have for people -- especially women who want to be producers?
LD: Be independently wealthy. It used to be that the studios supported producers. They would give them an office and an assistant and some money that they could live on and more money to develop material and you could make a living as a producer between the actual jobs. That really doesn't exist anymore. So the time that it takes to develop a story -- and it takes years -- you don't get paid during that entire time. It's a real problem for men and women who want to be producers. How do make a living in between movies? Then the second big thing is how do you avoid selling your movie down the river to the first entity that comes along that can get your movie made even though its completely wrong for the material.
The second thing is read as many screenplays as you can. Not books but wonderful screenplays of the movies that you admire going all the way back. Read any kind of screenplay you can get a hold of, any movie that you love that's the kind of movie you want to make and see how they work. Really analyze what makes them work so you can work with writers and give them advice based on real world stuff which is really useful.
Beyond that you just need to have the courage of your convictions. You have to be able to stand up to the odds to be able to say I'm going to do this no matter what. It has to be about I can't wait to get this story to the screen. I can't live unless I do it. You've got to have that kind of drive, especially now.
Lindsay Doran began her career at Embassy Pictures, where she received her first credit as executive in charge of production on Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap. Later, she joined Paramount Pictures where the films she supervised included Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, The Naked Gun and Ghost.
Doran then became the president of Sydney Pollack's Mirage Enterprises, where she produced Dead Again, Leaving Normal and Sense and Sensibility, which won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture--Drama and the Academy Award® for Best Adapted Screenplay.
In 1996, Doran became president and chief operating officer of United Artists Pictures, where she presided over a number of films including the 18th and 19th installments of the James Bond franchise, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough, as well as Ronin and The Thomas Crown Affair.
She later resumed her career as a producer and started her own production company, Three Strange Angels. Through Three Strange Angels, she has produced Nanny McPhee and Stranger Than Fiction.
Originally published on Women & Hollywood