BWW Interview: Hollywood Producer, Lynda Obst, Talks THE HOT ZONE and Working in the Film Industry

BWW Interview: Hollywood Producer, Lynda Obst, Talks THE HOT ZONE and Working in the Film Industry

Environmental conservation organization, EcoHealth Alliance will honor award-winning Hollywood producer and author, Lynda Obst at the nonprofit's spring benefit "Going Viral - Connecting You to a Healthier World" on May 16 at Guastavino's in NYC for her work on National Geographic's The Hot Zone. The six-part limited series, premiering May 27, is based on Richard Preston's international bestseller and inspired by the origins of the Ebola virus and its arrival on U.S. soil in 1989. Obst has produced more than 20 movies and TV shows including Interstellar, Contact, Sleepless in Seattle, The Fisher King, Flashdance; Amazon's Good Girls Revolt, TVLand's Hot in Cleveland, SyFy's Helix, NBC's miniseries The '60s.

The author of two best-selling books: Hello, He Lied & Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches and Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, answered a wide range of questions including why it was so important to make The Hot Zone; how the entertainment industry has changed since she wrote "Hello, He Lied" in the '90s; what advice the former journalist has for women (and men) starting careers in the era of "MeToo" ; and what the EcoHealth Alliance honor means to her.

Lynda, can you tell me a bit about yourself? How did you begin your career as a producer?

I was happily ensconced at The New York Times Magazine with a brand-new baby when my then husband announced that we were moving to LA for his career. I was suddenly looking for a house as he'd already accepted the new job. I'd met some fun characters from the movie business when covering them as a journalist. One of them, Peter Guber, reached out to me when he heard I was moving west to offer me a job. I ended up developing "Flashdance," "Clue," and "Contact" during that first job. When "Flashdance" became a hit, I started getting other jobs. Soon afterwards, Dawn Steel partnered me with the late great Debra Hill to start a production company at Paramount where Dawn was President. Then Debra and I went off to make Chris Columbus's directing debut, "Adventures in Babysitting"-and, shazaam, I was a producer.

I understand The Hot Zone has been a project years in the making. Can you walk me through how you first became involved in the project and its journey to becoming a Nat Geo miniseries?

I was a producer at FOX when the New Yorker article by Richard Preston, 'Crisis in the Hot Zone', hit the market. It was the first installment of his book, The Hot Zone. There was a stampede to buy the article so Preston talked with all the potential producers and chose me. (He later told me that it was because I wanted to center the story on Nancy Jaax-the Army scientist/mother/wife who contained the outbreak). I developed the script and then got Ridley Scott (now my partner and EP on the series) to direct, Jodie Foster and Robert Redford to star. It felt like the best work I'd ever done. To my shock and chagrin, I suddenly discovered that we were being raced to the screen by something called "Outbreak," and they were using stuff that came from our underlying material. It felt so unfair and unjust -- I thought they couldn't possibly get away with it. I was wrong. As we all now know, they can get away with anything. As the press covered the to's and fro's like it were the Pentagon Papers and their director tried to steal Redford, they started shooting footage of monkeys to accelerate their start ahead of ours. We lost. I was stunned. A few years later, I tried again to mount it as an indie horror movie with FOX Searchlight but we couldn't agree on a filmmaker. Meanwhile, another clone ("Contagion") was released, further stealing our thunder. I was very discouraged. But then the golden age of television began, with its great writing and long form limited series. This was the right medium, I realized: We could get the Science right, the nuances of the story right without a cheesy resolution in the third act and illuminate the conflicts in the marriage arising from Nancy's heroism. I first set it up at FOX network for a miniseries, and when they decided not to to make minis, the president of the network and I realized NatGeo would be a perfect home. They agreed. Phew.

You wrote Hello, He Lied in 1996. How do you think the film industry has changed since then?

I wrote another book explaining that called Sleepless in Hollywood. For starters, the original movie - non franchise, non superhero one off-is an endangered species. The international market which used to be 1/3 of the total box office is now 50-60 percent. This favors movies with a low dialogue/high action ratio, limiting cultural nuances like humor. Recently, with the rivetingly disrupting streamers doing both movies and features in volume, the bottleneck on what can get made is opening, at least for now. The death of the DVD which had been the profit margin of the studios (thus their new reliance on International) mixed with all the technological advancements that came in its wake - from email to Netflix-have transformed the industry and continue to do so.

As a woman just starting out in the film industry myself, I'm also curious how you think the industry has changed for women since you wrote the book-especially during the Me Too/Times Up movement?

Well obviously, it's a much more "woke" place, with many policies completely changed from not only when I began but in the last 5 years. 1) Men are super conscious of stuff they do wrong, when they used to slap us on the backside as a sign of approval 2) Women directors must be considered for everything. Eventually this practice will show up in the statistics 3) Critically, women are safer-there are HR and internal accountability procedures for office staff and vigilance about these issues on set. 4) Women's movies don't get the automatic reaction - "this segment of the market doesn't show up for the opening weekend" excuse - that they used to. This has changed my life.

You served as an executive producer on Amazon Prime's Good Girls Revolt, which is one of my favorite series. Can you speak about your time working on that show?

It was a very personal experience for me as an ex-journalist, Nora Ephron protégé and friend. Casting Nora, costuming her character and checking her dialogue was both a great privilege and burden at the same time. I so wanted to get her right and she is uncapture-able. But during the whole process, we felt as though we could illustrate to a new generation of women what it felt like to break a glass ceiling and what it felt like before there were any cracks in that ceiling. Women really responded and that made me very happy. Working on the period costumes was my most favorite thing. I am a costume junkie and live in the wardrobe trailer.

You've produced both movies and television, is there one you enjoy more than the other? How does the process differ?

Television is faster in every way. It is a faster green light process so you get a yes or a no within your lifetime or before your hair changes color. That is what I like best about it. But the idea of coming up with a second season of anything still makes me anxious.

The two mediums are increasingly similar-in terms of what set is like, whom you are hiring, marketing requirements. I also love that you don't have to resolve the story in three acts. However deep down inside I am still a movie producer and am the happiest on a movie set than anywhere else in the world.

The Hot Zone dives into the Ebola virus' impact on global health. Why do you think this is an important series to be made at this time and for people to watch?

Ebola never goes away. It hits the front pages as it tears through a country and then burns through the population until it seems to disappear. But the virus is just hiding, and it always returns. Increasingly the world is getting smaller, through plane travel and human migrations, and the virus travels with its host. We wanted to show that the U.S. is not immune, that Ebola is not an African problem but a human problem that requires the most of us scientifically, culturally and policy-wise to be conquered.

Congratulations on being honored at this year's EcoHealth Alliance benefit for your work on The Hot Zone! How does it feel to be honored for something you've been working on for a long time?BWW Interview: Hollywood Producer, Lynda Obst, Talks THE HOT ZONE and Working in the Film Industry

It is incredibly satisfying to have finished the show! When I watched the last reel for the last time, I burst into tears from, I think, a combination of amazement and exhaustion. I call this award my "and still she persisted" award, and I am profoundly gratified. The earth is our only home and we are its caretakers, mothers, fathers and children.

Do you have any advice for women pursuing careers as filmmakers?

This is the best time to be a woman in Hollywood in decades. Do note that I have been saying this since the 90's because, for one thing, I needed to believe it to get my movies made.

Don't overstate all problems as gender problems. Some are real movie people/movie business practice problems. It's crazy here for everyone. Make friends with other people-women and men-of your generation who will be crucial allies in the years ahead. Make each creative choice both from the gut and the brain to get those two parts hooked up permanently. Take yourself seriously or others won't. And have a few projects going at the same time so one defeat does not level you. Always remember to say "Next!" after a crisis -- it's the only way to survive Hollywood. But your true friends are not Next-able. They are your refuge.

Do you have any future projects coming up that you could tell us about?

I am excited about making Meg Wolitzer's novel, "The Female Persuasion," at Amazon Movies. I am partnering with Nicole Kidman, who is also starring, and the writers are the show runners for "This Is Us," and wrote Love, Simon. It's a spectacular intergenerational/intersectional feminist love story about a mentor and her protégé, my generation and yours. A bunch of others but this one is announced. ;)BWW Interview: Hollywood Producer, Lynda Obst, Talks THE HOT ZONE and Working in the Film Industry

Images courtesy of Lynda Obst

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