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06/16/2011 09:05 am ET Updated Aug 16, 2011

Laura Ziskin's Immortality -- Through Her Words

The morning I woke up and heard she was gone, Peter Biskind wrote me while I was pretty much still in shock, and said he had a treasure trove of quotes from filmmaker Laura Ziskin, dated from the 90's. I knew they'd be wonderful, though I couldn't yet open them. I wasn't in shock because I didn't know she was sick. She had long declared herself cancer's number one enemy.

But I had seen her only a week ago on the lot looking beautiful, and I'd refused to believe she could die. Laura was a force of nature, she was a natural, an authentic, un-self-conscious whirling dervish, who got more done in one day than most of us get done in a year. Her thoughts unwound as she spoke, which is why her quotes are among the many sources of her immortality. She was not afraid to fight for a picture, to say what she thought, or to stop in her tracks as she drove home from work as a young mother, and burst into tears, as she wondered if she could live up to either job well enough, the one of leading a movie, and raising a child.

And she was generous enough to share that fact with a room full of women, who try to be perfect. She knew there was no perfection, in beating these internal task masters, in winning every movie fight, in winning the last fight with a killer gene that had seized her seven years ago and wouldn't let her go. But she didn't let go without taking it on, without raising 200 million dollars to save others, and starting an organization "Stand Up to Cancer" that will be another talon of her immortality. Stand Up to Everything. That was Laura.


Here are excerpts from an unpublished interview Peter Biskind did with Laura in 1998. Biskind is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and the author of Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America. 2011-06-16-photo9.JPG

On Fox 2000:

Fox was aware that there was a point of view missing in their management, which indeed turned out to be the case when I came to my first senior staff meeting. It was me and 12 middle-aged white guys. I sat down and said, 'Where's the girls?' And they answered, 'You're it.' I said, 'Oh, wow.' The funny thing is, they can bring me in and say, 'We want this point of view from you,' and then when you give it, they don't get it. I felt like an alien.

What do women want?

I don't know what a woman's point of view is; I don't think all women are alike. But because I am a woman, that influences what I do. Women and men have different interests; we don't perceive things the same way. It's like when you go to the movies, there are some things women like more than men, and vice versa. For me, when I was starting out as a producer, I was told, 'You have to make movies for 17-year-old boys.' I was a 20-something woman, approaching 30, and I thought, I don't have even a clue how to do that, and if I try to do that, I'm gonna fail. Ultimately, I have to make movies that interest me, and hope that other people like them too, and if they don't, then I won't work. But I can't pander to an audience, because I'm no good at it. The things that work, work. Emotional, human, identifiable stories -- they're hard to find and hard to execute.

On breaking into the business:

There were a series of bizarre interviews -- there are certain men in the movie business when they're going to interview you, you're not going to get to speak, they so enjoy listening to themselves. Then they think, that was really a successful interview, I had fun with her. You haven't said a word, but they hire you anyway. They want a lot of women working for them because they know we work harder for less money. A lot of women came up because they were the ones who actually took the time to do notes, type them up, give them to their bosses, who were out schmoozing.

On being a single working mother:

I had to figure out how I could be a producer and a parent at the same time. When I started out in the 70s, I didn't have any models among my peers. Most of them didn't have children, they went to two business breakfasts every day, two lunches, two dinners, and spent their weekends reading ten scripts. I couldn't read ten scripts on the weekend because I had a two year old who would rip them out of my hands, and I couldn't network and go to parties because when I was not in the office I wanted to be home with my daughter. I had a good friend, David Bombick, who was president of David Geffen's company, who has since died. He was up on everything that everybody was doing, every producer, every writer, and he would tell me, and it would make me crazy. I'd be paralyzed, thinking, I can't do that, I would never think to do that. It drove me mad. I made a decision early on not to pay attention to what everybody else was doing because I felt too intimidated. So I said, I cannot do volume, I have to have a few things that I really care about that I can fight for.

On practicing what she preached:

As mothers we tend to be concerned about what are we feeding, in a cultural sense, our children. Somebody brought me a dope smoking comedy. I thought, This is really funny, but I'm saying to my daughter, 'Don't smoke pot,' and if I make this movie, I'll be the biggest hypocrite in the world, and I can't do it. I don't want to censor anybody, but I definitely am self-censoring. There's certain stuff that I won't do. Is that a male thing or a female thing? Maybe where you draw the line about what you won't do, maybe that does have to do with gender.

On breaking the glass ceiling:

This has always been testosterone-driven business. Now that there are a lot more women in decision making positions, maybe it may become a more estrogen-driven business. What's historic about studio heads now being women is that 'we' define culture. I don't think ever in the history of civilization have women been the definers of culture. We live in a society where men have made the world. Buildings, cities, they're man-made. We read Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Salinger; the male world view is considered the universal world view. The female view is the Other. It is possible, as the number of female culture makers increases, that what's considered universal will grow to include the female view. That's exciting to me. It will be different. And if it is different, it will ultimately make a difference. But that's something we're not going to know for a long time.