Not so long ago, producer Lauren Shuler recalled, movie executives’ dialogue about her went something like this:
“What do we need her for?”
“Well, she developed the script and brought in the actor.”
“Oh, great, good work. . . . We’ll see her later.”
Shuler, 35, chuckled at the memory during a recent interview. She’s heard it all before and is well aware of the similarity between producers and Rodney Dangerfield--neither gets any respect.
“If the producers went on strike,” she quipped, “they’d (the studios) keep on making movies. The movies wouldn’t be as good; they’d fall apart, but nobody would care.”
She laughed--briefly--before continuing.
“But producing is a crucial job--especially if you produce the way I do. You’re the captain of the ship, the mother--you’re the one who guides it, pushes it and brings it together in the first place. . . . It’s very under-appreciated.”
So are women who enter the film business looking to be more than assistant whatevers.
From the moment Shuler hit Hollywood--eager to direct--she was told, “You’re out of your mind; you’re a woman,” she said.
It’s likely that the former film student might have more to say on both subjects . . . but she’s too busy producing movies to take the time.
Shuler’s credits to date include “Ladyhawke,” the coming “St. Elmo’s Fire” and a co-producer credit on “Mr. Mom.” She currently has seven-plus projects in various stages of development at Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures and Lorimar. And Walt Disney Productions just signed her to a three-year deal.
“Yeah, it’s amazing who’s become my friend these days,” Shuler said, smiling. As she took a brief pause from a hectic-turned-killer schedule, she resembled no less than a whirlwind in repose.
Sitting in her comfortably spare Paramount office, Shuler got down to business after a quick demonstration of her remote-control robot, which fired tiny plastic discs on command. Dressed in a casual jacket, shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, the husky-voiced dynamo was candid about her past without being whiny or bitter. Shuler’s finely tuned sense of humor ran throughout her staccato, rapid-fire sentences as she ran down her present responsibilities.
Just as “Ladyhawke,” the medieval fantasy starring Matthew Broderick, was released last month, Columbia decided to move up the release date for “St. Elmo’s Fire” (which stars Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Rob Lowe, Mare Winningham and Demi Moore) from late summer to June, which shortened the post-production process.
On top of that, Shuler was readying “Pretty in Pink,” starring Molly Ringwald.
Despite the pressures, Shuler remained semi-euphoric over seeing “Ladyhawke,” the first project she ever optioned, finally released.
“After all the hard sweat and the five years it took to get it made,” she explained, “to see my name on the screen and the way the audiences responded to the film gave me the chills.”
“Ladyhawke” hasn’t been the only uphill climb for Shuler. She reflected--without rancor--that her pursuit of a producing career hadn’t been easy:
“I’ve got battle scars all over me. They’re deep,” she said, her smile gone for the moment. “It’s been real hard. It feels to me that there’s never been a movie I’ve been involved in that anybody ever wanted me to produce.”
She could afford to be gracious . . . now. While it would be easy to attribute such problems to the fact that she is a woman, Shuler disdained the cliche.
“I think every producer starting out goes through that,” she maintained. “Perhaps it was a little more difficult because I was a woman, but I have to think that even if I was a man trying to get those movies off the ground, I would have come into some sort of resistance.
“It’s rough; it’s rough for anyone in the film business. It’s tough to get a movie made. . . . You’re dealing with a bunch of egos.”
How Shuler chooses to deal with those egos has earned her a reputation for being “tough,” an adjective that amuses her.
“It’s almost psychological, because you have to find the way to get your ideas across and then to get people to listen to them.
“Is it by yelling? Is it by humor? By just being nice? You have to very quickly be able to assess people and figure that out.”
When it comes to dealing with studio executives, she said, “Unfortunately, half the time it’s by yelling. You have to jump up and down and scream and yell and then they’ll say, ‘Oh, OK. OK.’ ”
That was her initial experience on “Ladyhawke.”
“Ladyhawke” drifted in and out of various production companies’ schedules for several years (the Ladd Co. originally optioned the project; Warner Bros. and Fox ultimately co-financed). Not only were the studios struggling with the high budget, but also with an overall reluctance to make a medieval/fantasy film (especially before “Excalibur”).
The film took so long to get in front of the cameras that Shuler managed to co-produce “Mr. Mom” in between.
“ ‘Ladyhawke’ was a $20-million movie,” she explained. “I can understand why they wouldn’t want to entrust that kind of money to a first-time producer.”
“Ladyhawke” director Richard Donner was at first wary of Shuler’s ability to produce the film.
“Even though he had his doubts in the beginning, he was good enough to stand by me. I guess eventually maybe my youth helped out and everybody calmed down.” (In fact, Donner and Shuler have been dating since the end of the movie.)
Shuler does not take kindly to suggestions that the men in her life (ex-husband Mark Rosenberg is Warner Bros.’ president of production) somehow boosted her career. Her credentials more than substantiate her ability.
Connections were definitely not Shuler’s forte when she first arrived, fresh from Boston University’s film school, almost 15 years ago.
“I tore out the yellow pages and went knocking at every place that listed itself as a film production company,” she explained.
Her first job was as an assistant film editor for a medical/educational film company, but it took getting lost in Burbank to really get her started.
“I’d gotten thoroughly lost and ended up in front of NBC in Burbank,” she recalled. “I didn’t plan on going into television, but there it was. I went in and it was the same old ‘give us your resume.’ I’d had it up to here with that line and had a fit.”
She grinned. “To shut me up--I think--they sent me to see a woman who called me up several months later and hired me as vacation relief. I think it was basically a token job. . . . There were three women and 300 men.”
Shuler worked in various departments before a stint on “The Tonight Show” where “I either pushed an audio button or pulled cable,” she said. “I thought, there’s gotta be more than this. I always had a pretty good eye and figured the best thing I could do would be camera work; so I asked one of the guys to show me how.”
She free-lanced around NBC’s various news shows before moving to Metromedia and soon became the first woman ever admitted to the electronic cameraman’s union.
Still, she was mainly interested in producing feature films. But it took an accident to provoke the change.
“It was fate,” she speculated. At the time she was an associate producer for ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” “I was in a car accident and was bedridden for several months with a broken kneecap. I thought, ‘OK, now you’re out of work--write a script.’ A lot of my friends were writers. In working with them I found that I was a good collaborator.”
This involvement led to a job as a story editor at Motown, where she eventually became director of creative affairs.
She later produced “Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill,” an NBC movie with Tanya Tucker directed by Joel Shumacher.
She recently re-teamed with Shumacher on “St. Elmo’s Fire,” the first film, according to Shuler, “where I felt very much in command. It all came together very professionally.”
Eventually, Shuler will move to Disney to begin her three-year producing contract and hopes to spawn TV projects and feature films. However, for the moment, Disney will have to wait.
“I feel like I made this deal and then said to them . . . ‘See you later,’ ” she joked, adding, “I promised them ‘I’m a real tornado. . . . Just give me until August.’ ”
Did she intend to become the Brian Grazer of female producers? (The “Splash” producer is notorious for the myriad of projects he currently has in development at different studios.)
Her response reflected producer Shuler’s confidence and humor.
“Or maybe he’ll become the Lauren Shuler of male producers.”