The late producer talked to THR last fall in a never-before-published interview about her dreams, victories and challenges. “When I started, I was the only woman in the room.”
After battling cancer for seven years, Laura Ziskin, 61, died June 12 at her home in Santa Monica, surrounded by her family: husband and screenwriter Alvin Sargent, daughter and producer Julia Barry and son-in-law and writer Eli Dansky. She leaves behind an impressive roster of films, from the hit Pretty Woman and the Oscar-winning As Good as It Gets to the hugely successful Spider-Man franchise. She earned a spot in Hollywood history by becoming the first woman to serve as sole producer of the Academy Awards, a task she took on twice. And rather than suffer her disease silently, she became a fiercely committed cancer activist, co-founding Stand Up to Cancer, which calls upon the resources of the entertainment industry to urge the public to support new approaches to research focused on getting therapies to patients quickly.
On Sept. 23, she spoke with THR’s Stacey Wilson in this never-published interview.
Laura Ziskin, 1968 Ceralbus photo
The Hollywood Reporter: What was your childhood like, growing up in Burbank?
Laura Ziskin: I describe myself as someone who was always putting on a show, even when I was a little girl. I wanted to be an actress but I liked organizing everybody and putting on plays. I was a producer. I wanted to put on a show. In some ways, the most rewarding thing I’ve done were the two times that I did the Oscars, particularly the first time because it was really like the ultimate, you know, “Let’s put on a show,” with every great movie star in the world available.
THR: Did you get it from your parents? The showbiz bug?
Ziskin: My father and step-mother were psychologists. But I don’t know where it came from. I just always liked performing, and I wanted to put on a show and I wanted to tell a story or have someone tell me a story. What’s great about making movies is the sort of additive process of bringing people together and having an idea and watching the idea be added to and at the end you have this thing. It’s really a collaborative experience. It’s very dynamic –- in a good and a bad way. You can see how things go right and you can see how things go wrong. You can see that one misstep that derailed the whole thing, or you put Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman … you know if you put someone else in the movie — if Richard [Gere] wasn’t in the movie. It’s the choices you make. I love making movies, but I think it’s a kooky time to be making movies.
THR: How so?
Ziskin: There’s a kind of weird schism between this very mass entertainment and maybe the promise of the Internet, which hasn’t yet come to pass, where you can make very specialized entertainment. The movie business has taken over the mass audience, and we’ve started making every weekend a contest.
THR: When do you think that started?
Ziskin: It started with entertainment news. A trade publication telling the trade what’s going on in the trade is one thing. But an announcement – used to be Monday morning, then it became Saturday morning, then Friday night — about the grosses creates this contest mentality, and then you have to be the winner, and then you have to create the most mass entertainment. There are exceptions to the rule, but most movies don’t have the ability to find an audience. So the movie plays out very quickly in a lot of theaters to get the biggest gross. So that demands that we make things that are hits before they open. So they have to have the elements, they have to be franchises.
THR: As Good as it Gets, which won Oscars — would that movie be difficult to get made today?
Ziskin: That was a very hard movie to get made. It’s funny in a way because the over-40s or baby boomers, we have a movie-going habit. My generation –- I would go to the movies every weekend if it was something I really wanted to see. Now, young people have so many other potential entertainment activities. For me as a filmmaker, I do the projects I’m really excited about. I feel like the movies I made earlier in my career could never be made now –- it’s just a different world. Listen, I’m really blessed. It was serendipitous, but an unusual turn to me to be involved in the Spider-Man franchise because certainly that wasn’t where my career was headed.
THR: How did you get that job?
Ziskin: I had been at Fox 2000, but it wasn’t really where my heart was, and when I wanted to go to back to producing, Amy [Pascal] was at Sony, and she made a deal with me. And I was happy to be there because it was 12 minutes from my house. But I knew it would be a long time before I would get anything in production because I had to leave everything behind at Fox. I literally said, “Just give me the biggest motherf—r you have.” I just wanted to be in production in something big. I had never read a comic book. Then I got engaged (to Spider-Man screenwriter Alvin Sargent) and started hearing about Spider-Man, and I really liked it. I thought it was a really great story, and I got very excited about it.
THR: How did Sam Raimi become attached to the project?
Ziskin: He was already involved when I got involved. So I came on in the early days of prep, and there really wasn’t a script yet. We had an amazing 10 years together –- it was really an incredible time. I’ve worked with a
really interesting, eclectic bunch of directors from Gus Van Sant to Steven Soderbergh to David Fincher –- people from whom I’ve learned so much. But the 10 years I spent with Sam, I really learned more about making movies than in my whole life.
THR: What was your approach to working with Sam?
Ziskin: He’s very collaborative. He knows exactly what he wants. He’s a real showman. He really thinks about the audience. It was very exciting. I don’t think I’ll ever have an experience like that where we got to be a family in a way, working on three movies, for an entire decade with somebody. It’s pretty extraordinary.
THR: You naturally gravitated toward being a producer. How do you grade your tenure as an executive at Fox 2000?
Ziskin: If we had only made The Thin Red Line and Fight Club, I would be so proud of that division. But we also made a lot of money with Soul Food, they made money with Fight Club in spite of the fact that they said they didn’t – they made a fortune on the DVD. Thin Red Line got seven Academy Award nominations. Never Been Kissed was a very successful movie. We only made 20 movies when I was there, so I don’t think I was there long enough – it was a start-up from zero, you know. I felt I did what I set out to do. Making movies is not a real high -return business. Nobody lost their shirt, and we didn’t have any huge, hundred million dollar-grossing movies either. But I think we made interesting films and the division continued, and many things that we started got made subsequently.
THR: What are you most proud when you look back on what you’ve achieved in your career?
Ziskin: I’m proud I survived. You know I’m proud that I was able to develop and produce movies that I wanted to make. I’m very proud of the talent that I nurtured: Kevin Costner, Tobey Maguire, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts. I feel that I helped people early on, but mostly I love the work. I love making movies, I love filmmakers, I love actors, I love writers. There’ll be a moment I’ll look around the set and I’ll think, “Oh, I remember where I was when I read the scene or the meeting where we said, ‘Why don’t we do this?,” and now all these people are here because I said I’m going to get that movie made –- that’s very rewarding. And then the first time you sit in the theater and the lights come down and the movie comes on, and something happens on screen and you think about how that moment came to pass — and it works. Those are the two times it’s fun to be a producer. The rest of the time it’s really hard. And kind of thankless.
THR: Do you have any big regrets?
Ziskin: I passed on Jurassic Park – what was I thinking?!
THR: You passed on producing it?
Ziskin: Yeah. It came to me and a lot of other people. I don’t know if I would have gotten it. I also read Dances With Wolves because my friend wrote it and I loved it, but I didn’t know how to make it. And the right person made [it]. I don’t regret I didn’t do it because I loved the book, and I was a big champion of it, but I didn’t know how to do it.
THR: Who were your role models when you were starting out?
Ziskin: Hannah Weinstein, Paula and Lisa Weinstein’s mother. She produced Stir Crazy –- she’s the only woman producer I’d ever heard of. I was a big fan of Jerome Hellman who did Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home. I didn’t know him but I really admired his work. That was it pretty much it. I wasn’t even aware that much of producers. It was really after film school, when I started working for producers and they really trained me about what makes good movies — it turns out to be great scripts.
THR: How has being a woman affected the way you work, if at all?
Ziskin: It has totally affected who I am. When I started, I was the only woman in the room and the only woman in the van, which is bad because you always have to pee more than the men because [men are] like camels: Excuse me can we stop and go to the bathroom.” Now there are so many women, but are there women with ultimate power? Not so many. It still is a man’s world. I think it’s hard for women to be directors, particularly in the feature world because, biologically, your peak career-making years are also your peak baby-making years, and that’s just the truth. And those are choices women have to make. My career is certainly different and blessedly so because of my daughter and I made a lot of choices because of her that probably helped my career.
THR: How old is she now?
Ziskin: She’s 27. She works with me now. It’s fantastic. It makes me so happy. She went to Sarah Lawrence for college And she was reluctant to work with me. I don’t think she loves the movie business the way I do. But she’s a great producer. She just really gets it. She produced the pre-show for Stand Up To Cancer. She runs my development – we have really great scripts. She can do it all. She just gets it –- she grew up with it. I’m in an awe of her. I watch her how she deals with people and I just think damn, she’s good.
THR: Do you see yourself in her when you were her age?
Ziskin: No, I don’t know what drove me to this career. I just always figured it’s what I would do. I didn’t imagine not somehow putting on a show. I certainly thought it was hard. I had very few skills. If I hadn’t been a producer I’d been a failed actor. That would have been really disastrous.
THR: You produced the first post-9/11 Oscars. What was that like?
Ziskin: I always say to my fellow producers if you have an opportunity to do it, do it, because it’s such a fun thing. It’s instant, it’s live, it’s got every element. And that’s also been true of the Stand Up to Cancer events. I would rather not be doing things about cancer, but I think it’s an important thing to do. And if by putting on a show, we can raise awareness, make cancer a first-tier issue in this country, raise some money, spend it wisely in the direction of really making a difference … I don’t see the cure coming. We failed terribly, but I think being a producer makes you a problem solver, so you kind of go, “Well there’s a problem. What do we do? How do we solve it?”
THR: How are you coping with living with cancer on a daily basis?
Ziskin: I’m pretty mad. I think it sucks. I’ve been in treatment for seven years, but I had a period of time where I was in remission and I hope I will be again. I feel fine — if they didn’t tell me there was something wrong with me, I wouldn’t know it. They tell me I have an incurable disease and that the goal is to try to live with it for as long as I can. It’s a really nasty, bad disease and we have to do better.
THR: What do you think your legacy will be?
Ziskin: I’m one of a group of us who came up in the ’70s — we were a little bit post-feminist or products of the feminist movement — and paved the way for other women. Stand Up to Cancer has also been really powerful for me. One thing I wanted to do was to say we’re all the same, and this can happen to anybody. I won’t be around, so you guys are going to have to solve it for your generation and your children.