How producer-turned-director Denise Di Novi helped Katherine Heigl escape rom-com perfection in ‘Unforgettable’

Denise Di Novi has had one of the most eclectic producing careers in Hollywood, which is immediately apparent as you step into her Santa Monica office, tastefully adorned with memorabilia from the movies she’s produced.

Atop one shelf, Michael Keaton’s Batman glove casually greets visitors while a mind-controlled penguin commando from Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” stands sentry.

Near the prop penguin that fanboys would kill to own, a placard commemorates 1998’s “Practical Magic,” one of the first films the producer made after setting up her own shingle on the Warner Bros. lot that she’s now called home for 20 years.

Across the room hangs one of Di Novi’s favorite keepsakes: an expressive collection of doll faces used to bring Sally to life in “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Over the course of her three decades as a movie producer, Di Novi’s films have spanned genres and divergent demographics and grossed more than $1 billion domestically to date. Among them, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” “Message in a Bottle” and “Focus,” three of her $100-million-plus worldwide grossing titles, plus “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “Heathers.”

Now she’s crossed a new frontier in an already successful career as she makes her debut as a feature director with her latest film, “Unforgettable,” a juicy R-rated thriller about a woman being terrorized by her new fiancé’s ex-wife, starring Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl. Playing out a “Fatal Attraction” for the Pinterest set, with cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, the film weaves a delicious cat-and-mouse game that probes much deeper into the burdens of modern women trying to have it all than Glenn Close’s bunny-boiling psychotic ever did.

What took so long for Di Novi to take the director’s chair? For many years, Di Novi says, transitioning to directing didn’t just seem like a daunting challenge. It felt impossible.

Women directors were a rarity in the business when she started out. But the native Angeleno was determined to work in the film business. She launched her producing career with 1988’s “Heathers,” the culmination of her stint as an executive at New World Pictures, the indie genre label founded by B-movie king Roger Corman.

“When I produced ‘Heathers’ I hired a female line producer because I thought a guy wouldn’t let me boss him around a little bit, and she was totally qualified and had worked on other movies,” she recalls. “And the bond company said, ‘Well, then you have to hire a male production manager… because there are no men producers.’”

A recommendation from “Heathers” star Winona Ryder led to Di Novi’s fruitful producing partnership with Burton, with whom she’d go on to make “Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman Returns,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Ed Wood” and “James and the Giant Peach.”

But it wasn’t until 1994’s “Little Women” — the first in a run of Di Novi-produced movies aimed at women moviegoers, including “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” and “Message in a Bottle” — that something new clicked.

“I did have something inside me — and I wanted to make my own movies,” she says over lunch in her office, describing the allure that propelled her toward producing the Gillian Armstrong-directed “Little Women” with Columbia Pictures executive and future Sony head Amy Pascal plus writer Robin Swicord. “We all shared the fact that the book inspired us to do more than maybe was expected of us, and carve a life out in a different way.”

Even so, it took an outside push for Di Novi to make the move toward directing. When Amma Asante, who was set to direct “Unforgettable,” exited the project, Di Novi got a call from Warner Bros. executive Greg Silverman and studio head Kevin Tsujihara with a question: Why don’t you direct?

She said yes, and took the role of the ex-wife Tessa to Heigl, with whom she’d worked on 2010’s “Life as We Know It.” She wanted to know if the actress had it in her to go as dark – and deeply, empathetically broken – as Di Novi had in mind for her easily misunderstood antagonist.

“Katie had been this paragon of a kind of rom-com perfection,” Di Novi says of Heigl. “I saw her strength. She is who she is. She has this almost Amazon confidence, and she speaks her mind. She’s comfortable in her own skin. I wanted Tessa to look and seem like she was perfect, but have this tortured self-identity underneath.”

She also had a specific parameter in mind for Dawson’s character, Julia, a free-spirited woman coming to terms with her new role as a stepmother while struggling to overcome her past victimhood.

“I really wanted a woman of color for the lead role, and the studio was supportive of it,” she says. “It was important to me for her to be the hero, and to have her be the lead, but for the movie to not be about race. It’s never mentioned. She’s beautiful, she’s brilliant, she’s successful, and she’s brown. Big deal! But that was a big deal to me.”

In the film, Dawson’s Julia is a successful San Franciscan and domestic abuse survivor who gets engaged and heads to Southern California to live with David (Geoff Stults). He’s a tall, caring, total package of a future husband who comes complete with a sprawling home, a good job, a sweet young daughter -- and Heigl’s Tessa, the icy blond nightmare ex from hell.

Before long jealousy, societal pressures and a lifetime of untreated mental instability send Tessa off the deep end as she watches Julia live out the happily ever after that was once hers.

“Somebody saw it and said, ‘Oh, it’s a feminist De Palma movie,’ which is interesting to me because De Palma was not feminist,” says Di Novi, laughing. “For me it’s exciting to see female actors be able to play the entire spectrum of human experience.… The whole spectrum of female experience — that, to me, is what we’ve really not had in movies.”

She quotes a line that she’ll later repeat, one that applies not only to the cinematic representation of female life in all its glory, but also to her own late-career jump into the director’s chair: “You can’t be it ‘til you see it.”

“Some actresses were afraid to play it,” adds Di Novi of the Heigl role. “But she’s fearless. She saw a good part and she knew she could crush it. To me, she was a real woman. I know a lot of women like that, and a lot of women do.”

Heigl, in a separate interview a few days later, flashes a knowing smile and quips, “I have had opportunities throughout my career to play darker characters — it’s just that nobody ever saw them.”

She echoes Di Novi’s assessment of “Unforgettable”s desperate, deranged housewife. “It was really important that Tessa have some vulnerability and that as an audience you get to see that, and maybe sympathize with her a little.”

Heigl laughs, imagining how she’d handle a similar situation: “I hope I wouldn’t make the same choices that Tessa makes.”

“I think we’ll know that we’re successful when the dark side of being female is just as OK as playing a feminist hero,” Di Novi says.

The messaging simmering beneath “Unforgettable’s” thriller trappings is just as important to Di Novi as providing for her audience pure, unadulterated entertainment value. As Tessa and Julia tangle for increasingly risky stakes, the film scripted by Christina Hodson and David Leslie Johnson deconstructs the crazy-making pursuit of feminine perfection that fuels both women.

“Because of our social conditioning our currency is, are we desired by men? Are we desirable?” Di Novi explains, decrying the “tyranny of perfectionism” that female viewers in particular relate to. “That’s what little girls learn: Are you pretty, are you sexy, are you attractive — what happens when you really buy into that?”

Dawson’s Julia “seems like the opposite,” adds Di Novi. “But she’s given up her career, given up her friends and given up her life, because she thought she found the perfect man who desired her. She loses herself and allows this other woman to gaslight her because she puts all of her identity into this relationship as well.”

“Will a guy see all that in the movie?” she says, laughing. “I don’t know.”

During production, says Dawson, Di Novi’s innate understanding of her characters also set the “Unforgettable” shoot apart.

“If we had a male director it would have been fine, but the dynamic that exists in the real world would have existed on that set, and on-screen,” she offers. “The bubble that we were in as all women just commiserating and talking with each other, affirming each other -- that’s not what it’s like out there. That’s not what it’s like on a set that’s mostly all men. It doesn’t exist.”

Di Novi is already preparing to direct her second feature in September, a female-led action film for Amblin about a single mother and war veteran who returns home from Afghanistan and must use her battle skills when her daughter is kidnapped.

“It’s really been a gift to have a deeper connection to my creativity,” says Di Novi. “To have a good movie the director has to be the final call, and it has to be their vision.”

“As a good producer, you have to balance supporting a director with pointing out when they’re losing focus – or protect them from the people who are trying to water down their point of view. So to be the person whose creative vision is being supported,” she adds, “is really cool for me.”

jen.yamato@latimes.com

@jenyamato

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In the final sentence of the interview with producer-director Denise DiNovi, one word was incorrectly transcribed. Instead of "supportive" the word DiNovi said was "supported." This article was updated with the correct quote: "So to be the person whose creative vision is being supported is really cool for me."
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