As chairman of Paramount Pictures from 1992 to 2005, Sherry Lansing was the most powerful woman in Hollywood. But for all her success, she also experienced moments of high anxiety. Twenty years after James Cameron's Titanic became the biggest hit in movie history - until it was supplanted by Cameron's own Avatar - she still recalls the stress of deciding whether to make the movie.
"There was a lot of tension between the two production managers, and then a lot of tension between all the executives," she explained, speaking of the film's very early stages, when 20th Century Fox and Paramount were in talks to co-finance the ultra-expensive movie. "And they stood by their numbers."
When Paramount challenged Fox's budget (then coming in at around $109 million), and asked to renegotiate their initial 50-50 deal, "They said, 'Well, what's the worst you think this movie can go to? Let's agree on what the worst is,' " Lansing recounted. "And I remember saying, 'I think $135 million is the worst that it can go.' That's how off we thought the numbers were - like, $25 million. And they said, 'Great. It will never go to that, so we will cap you on your investment.' "
Paramount raised its bid, but Fox agreed that no matter what the cost overruns, Paramount would not have to cover them. So for a total of $65 million, Paramount landed half the global rights to the movie, eventually making the studio hundreds of millions.
That was one of the stories Lansing told an audience of students at Loyola Marymount University's School of Film and TV on April 5, when she took part in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters. She was interviewed by THR's Stephen Galloway on the eve of the publication of his new biography, Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker (Crown Archetype, out April 25).
Lansing also spoke about her decision to turn her back on Hollywood at age 60, in 2005, when she left Paramount and the film world to set up a nonprofit organization, the Sherry Lansing Foundation.
"From the time I was pretty young, I always thought that if I was lucky enough to achieve my dreams and if I had financial security, at a certain point in my life I wanted to give back," she explained. "I wanted, just corny as it sounds, to try and make the world a better place. So that dream was always there and I always had that in the back of my mind. But in addition to that, by the time I left the job at Paramount, that feeling of passion that was what I thought made a great executive was leaving. My interests were starting to turn someplace else. The highs weren't as high, the lows weren't as low. I felt as if I were repeating myself. I'd been involved in over 200 movies by that time I left Paramount. So it was getting repetitive. And I'd been doing the job for over 12 years, I think. It was impossible to keep that same passion going."
She added: "There's a Harvard Business School thing that says, 'Every 10 years you should replant yourself,' and the only way to keep young is to learn new things and keep curious."
A full transcript follows.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I want to start in 1938. It's five years after the Nazis came to power in Germany, just a few months before Kristallnacht, which really was the turning point for Jews. And a teenage girl, growing up in Mainz, decides to leave this terrible place, travels across the country to Hamburg, makes this horrendous sea voyage in steerage to New York, and eventually reaches Chicago, knowing almost nobody. Who was that?
SHERRY LANSING: That was my mother. And my mother was the greatest influence in my life. In many ways, she was my inspiration and my role model. And interestingly enough, in reading the book, which I did for the first time at Christmas, I learned a lot about my mother that I didn't know. And as any relationship that's a mother-daughter relationship, it's complicated. You know, you want to please your mother. You are searching for her approval, searching for her love, and there's so many things about my mother that were left unsaid because she died at such a young age. She died at 64. And in many ways, the process of going through this and reading the book was a healing process for me. My mother came eventually to Chicago. She didn't know a word of English. She took a job selling dresses. And she lost her accent. She adapted. I found out in reading the book that she was engaged to someone before she married my father, which shocked me to no end, but explained my mother's incredible courage in a way to break the mold, to break tradition and to wait for love. My father died at a very young age, he was 42, of a heart attack. And my mother was 32 when she had my sister Judy and me to raise. And she never wanted to be a victim. And that really resonated as a nine-year-old child. I watched my mother cry and mourn, but pick herself up and decide that she would have a life. And one of the most revealing things was, very soon after my father died - he was in real estate and he owned some modest buildings - they came to my mother, the men that worked for him, and they said, you know, "Margot, you don't have to worry. We will run the business and we will take care of you." And my mother said, "No, you won't. You will teach me how to run the business and I will take care of it and my children." And so, seeing that as a young child and knowing the grief that she was going through, it changed my life forever. She was really my first role model and my biggest inspiration.
GALLOWAY: You know, I never asked you this. How do you resemble her and how do you not? Not physically but…
LANSING: She was a redhead. I'm not [LAUGHS]. She was tall.
GALLOWAY: You are also tall.
LANSING: Yes. So, my mother, because of her life, had almost a contradictory way of viewing life. She had this great zest and joy for life and I think that I have that. The glass is always half full for me. I see the joy in life and I see the joy in simple things. And my mother did, too. You know, an ice cream cone was fun, riding a bike was fun. She had, I think in many ways, sometimes less fear than I did. I was scared to go on the rollercoaster. She wasn't scared to go on the rollercoaster. I didn't do it. She did it with my little sister. But she had - and this I share with her - tremendous anxiety. She had it for a reason, that her whole life had been taken apart when she was a very happy young girl in Nazi Germany. And because you were Jewish, everything was taken away from you. And she would say to me, when I was a kid, when I'd wake up and sing a song, she'd say "Ah-ah-ah, sing before breakfast, cry before dinner," which is a really terrible thing to say to a child unless you understand where it came from. She was always afraid to compliment you. That would be like, you know - I could even remember going "Poo-ey, poo-ey, poo-ey, that put a hex on it." There was that feeling that you shouldn't say nice things about your children or say nice things about anything. If you did, you would be jinxed. She felt that way. I understand why that was. But it was difficult as a child, because no matter what you did, it wasn't enough. She would never say it. I learned as an adult why she would never say it and I learned that she felt it - which was the most important. I am not like that. I over-compliment. I over-praise. I over-express my feelings toward people because I never got it in my family. I am the first to hug somebody, because I wasn't hugged. I am the first to say, "That's the most wonderful book I have ever read," when maybe it's a good book. Because I was so needy for that, I tend to go the opposite way. But we do share what I would refer to as an anxiety gene. And I think it is genetic, that I worry about everything. I worry about everything, you know?
GALLOWAY: You still worry?
LANSING: Always. Different things, but it's like free-floating anxiety. Not every day, I don't want to say it like that, but I do worry a lot about - what was the line I heard the other day, when I was saying to a girlfriend of mine that I worry? She says, "Yes, I spent my whole life worrying - and some of the things actually came true."
LANSING: Because very few do. But it's like I worry about big things, and I worry about little things. And I found the secret to it - because I do think it's genetic and I do think I inherited it from my mother and I remember how anxious she would be. For me, the way to get over it is just to get busy. If I put my attention on something outside of myself, then I don't worry. Because the minute I have a worry - I mean, you should worry if somebody's sick. You should worry about important things. You should worry about your rights, and fight for causes that you care about. But mine sometimes just pops out of nowhere. And then I find if I pick myself up and I do something - that's why I found work so satisfying - if I do something, I stop worrying. And doing something can be reading a book. It can be watching television. It can be going to the movies. But it can also be doing work - students doing your homework, reading the assignments. And I found great comfort in action. And that made my anxiety go away.
GALLOWAY: Early on, you wanted to have a career. You didn't want to stay home. I found one of the most interesting things was that Sherry never learned to type because she didn't want to be forced into a career as a secretary.
LANSING: And now I regret it!
LANSING: Because if you could see my emails, they are so pathetic! I can't even tell you.
GALLOWAY: Your mother took over your dad's business. You were eight when he died, and she proved to be very gifted herself. But she really was scared of your having a career. Why?
LANSING: This will sound like I grew up on another planet, except for those people who are past 55, 60 maybe. When I was growing up, my mother and her generation basically felt that you should only work as a way of passing time until you got married and had at least two children. And the only careers that were open for women at the time was teacher or nurse - which are fantastic careers, I mean fantastic and I actually am a former math teacher. But those were the only careers that I was told that I could do. And my mother was not doing this out of cruelty. She was presenting this world because she thought it was realistic and would cause me to be happy. And yet I just wanted to work. I remember sitting on a beach with a bunch of my girlfriends and there was sand and you could take a stick and write what you wanted, and everybody said, "When you are 21, what do you want?" We were like, I don't know, 11 or 12 or maybe even teenagers. And someone wrote marriage, and someone wrote two kids and I wrote work. And I remember how surprised everybody was and then how ashamed I was, because I felt like, wow, there must be something wrong with me. Why didn't I write something else? And then I learned to keep it a secret. And not only did I want work, I wanted work in the movie business. I didn't know what that meant. But that was really like saying that you wanted to fly to the moon. I think, when I started to become successful in the movie business, my mother was very, very worried. She thought no one would want to marry me and she thought that was the most important thing. And she thought that it would affect my personal relations. And she said how worried she was that people would take advantage of me or I would meet the wrong people. She was very nervous about Hollywood. She had this image that she had seen in movies. And I remember when she came out here and met the people that I was friendly with, she liked them and she was so surprised that they were normal and nice and cared about making good movies. So, she would never talk to me or compliment me. When I was made head of the studio, one of her first things was, "Well, now no one will marry you. I hope you'll be happy, whatever." So, she was worried and yet there's a wonderful thing that I found out only on her death. And it still moves me, to be honest with you On her death bed, I was so stricken with grief, I mean, she was 64 years old, she was so young and so vital, and I remember sitting as she was struggling to fight the disease and I said, "You know, mother, I'm going to do anything. I'm going to get married. I'm going to have two children. I'm going to do anything. We're going to be OK. You're going to be OK." And she said to me, "No, I don't think you should get married." She said, "I think you love your work and I think that's really what you should do." And she set me free, as she was dying. And then, within several months, I went back home to Chicago and I met with a lot of her friends during the process of grieving after the funeral. And I found that my mother had bragged about me to all of her friends, which she had never told me, and that she had kept a scrapbook of all my clippings. And I never knew it until she was dead. I think secretly she knows what's going on and she would be proud and happy.
GALLOWAY: You came to Hollywood in the late 1960s. But you didn't start off working in Hollywood. What did you do?
LANSING: I was a teacher, a math and English teacher. Teaching is my second passion. I wanted to be a social worker or a teacher and I wanted both of them equally. So I taught in Watts, East L.A., math and English in high school. And I loved it. And in my life now, where I run a foundation, most of our programs are there, so it's like going back to the same school. I loved teaching math. I loved the kids, but secretly the first thing I really wanted to do was get in the movie business, so I would teach and I would stay after school and then I would go into a gas station and change my clothes and try and get a job in the movie business.
GALLOWAY: It wasn't always safe being a teacher. There was one occasion of when gangs overran your class. What happened?
LANSING: I don't want to paint a negative picture, but there was a time when a gang of students came in for no reason and they started to attack one of the other students and a fight broke out in the classroom. And then I tried to pull the kids off and there was a trash can and they threw it around the room. I realized that I better get out of there or I was in trouble. I went to the principal's office and unfortunately there had been a Molotov cocktail [thrown in his office] and the principal's office was not there and he was sitting in the center of the courtyard. It was a very violent day at the LAUSD. I think it wasn't the only school where gangs were attacking. But that's not what I remember. It's really interesting because to me, and I see it still today, there's this rage that those particular kids felt, and that I'm sure kids feel today who are in those very same schools, because it isn't a level playing field and it drives me crazy. You know, 20 minutes from here, those very same schools, there's often not a math book. There's often not a math teacher. There's a shortage of tens of thousands of math teachers in the LAUSD school system and, by the way, throughout the whole state of California. To me, education is the way out of poverty. And it is the only way. And so the rage that people might feel is justified. Maybe the method is wrong. You don't attack people, but what I remember is how unfair the system was, to be honest with you. And what I am frustrated about - and I think the teachers are great and I think everyone is trying their best, so I want to be clear about this, and I don't have a magic wand to fix it - but when I go back to the school, and I see that there still isn't a math teacher and there still isn't a math book for a huge percentage of kids in public schools, then I go, "That's wrong. And we have to do something about that."
GALLOWAY: You got diverted from being a teacher and you did start work as an actress. I want to show you a clip from -
LANSING: Oh, no. Oh, God. [LAUGHTER] Oh, God, please.
GALLOWAY: You know the thing.
GALLOWAY: I'm going to show a clip from Sherry's first break as an actress when she was in her mid-20's in a Howard Hawks movie called Rio Lobo opposite John Wayne.
LANSING: John Wayne.
GALLOWAY: You don't really need to know the..,
LANSING: Go after the bad guy. That's all
[LAUGHTER]. [CLIP] [APPLAUSE]
LANSING: That is probably the most humiliating clip that I have ever seen in my entire life. You couldn't have picked the other clip? [LAUGHTER] Looking at it sends shivers through my spine. As you can see, the world lost a great actress. [LAUGHTER.] It is so pathetic I can't even believe it.
GALLOWAY: When you look back on that, what's it like when you look at yourself in your mid-20's? Do you recognize that person?
LANSING: Well, it's just horrifying. [LAUGHTER.] That's all I can say. I mean. the clip at the end when I killed the bad guy is not nearly as horrifying as this one. I don't think I have seen that since the movie came out. So that's 110 years ago. So honestly, what do I feel? I feel humiliated. I feel embarrassed.
GALLOWAY: They all loved it.
LANSING: I feel that the dialogue's not very good. He's charming actually. He was Jorge Rivero. He was a huge star in Mexico. And he's really charming and you can see his charm there. But I guess what I feel is humiliated and embarrassed and I can remember how uncomfortable I was doing it.
GALLOWAY: You met Howard Hawks. And he wanted you to change you. How?
LANSING: Well, he wanted me to talk with a very low voice [deepening her voice] like that. And he wanted me not to have an accent and he wanted me to be very sultry and sexy. And it just wasn't authentic and it wasn't real and I felt like a fake the whole time and it made me very, very nervous - which is why I have such great respect for actors, because I can't do what they do. I really can't do it. I'm always uncomfortable. You asked can I relate to that person? Yes, I remember how nervous I was. I can remember how insecure I was. I can remember how uncomfortable I was. And I'm just grateful that I recognized that this uncomfortable-ness was a sign that I shouldn't be doing it. More than not having any talent - which is clearly obvious - more than not having any talent, it was so uncomfortable and I was so insecure. And I was so frightened. And the thought of being somebody other than myself was impossible for me.
GALLOWAY: What was John Wayne like?
LANSING: He was very, very nice. He was quiet, professional. The last scene in the movie, I killed the bad guy, it's not nearly as bad as that scene, but it was not good either. I killed the bad guy and Hawks wanted me to cry. He kept yelling at me and berating me, you know, to get the reaction of tears. And Wayne went to him and he said, "You're being too hard on her. She's doing fine." And I heard him say that. And Hawks said, "She can take it." Well, in fact I could take that. But what I couldn't take was the whole thing. I knew why he was yelling at me. It was to get me to cry and I eventually did. And I knew that. But acting is one of the professions I most respect because if you tried something and you can't do it and you thought at one time in your life - and of course, I did at one time of my life want it - and you realize that you can't do it that you can't just switch your personality that way, then you are in awe of people who can. And you're in awe of the ability that they have to be somebody else and then to go back to life.
GALLOWAY: You come out this movie and it's a shock. Here you are, you're 25 or 26 and you have achieved your dream which is unimaginable for a young Jewish girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago. You're a star and you hate it. And you decide to turn your back on this completely. And you kind of crashed. What was going on then?
LANSING: So, two things were going on. Your whole life, you have a dream to be in the movie business - me, I had that dream. At the time that I was growing up, there weren't film schools like you are lucky enough to be attending. I think there was one. But when I went to Northwestern University, you could only study acting and theater, and it wasn't film. I didn't know that there were script readers, all the many jobs that somebody could do. And I wasn't prepared, so I tried to be an actress, and as I said, for the reasons, my body, when I was acting, used to get this tension in my arms and legs. And I wanted it to go away. That was a sign of how uncomfortable I was. And I prayed it would go away. I wasn't going to turn to alcohol to make it go away, but it never went away. No matter what I did, that would be there and I would have this tension in my arms and legs which made it almost impossible to be comfortable trying to be an actress. And so when I got this part, and I realized how enormously unhappy I was and how enormously inauthentic I felt, and how enormously fake I felt, and that this wasn't going to be my life, I realized I needed help. I realized that there was something wrong. And I was also going through a divorce. I was separating from my husband at the time, my high school sweetheart, who was part of that dream. So two things were falling apart, my personal life, my professional life. And I realized that all those things were supposed to make me happy, but nothing could fill me up except myself. And I knew I needed help. So I went into therapy. And I went into, actually, more than therapy. I went into analysis. And I went to see a doctor, first once a week then several times a week, to talk about my lack of self-esteem. I don't know how to say it any better: my lack of self-esteem, my insecurity, and how these things were not going to fill me up. And I'd better fix myself and then find out what I liked. And for me, therapy was the greatest gift I could ever give myself. There's nothing I could have done for myself that would've been better. And it was very hard for me to pay for it. I think I had four jobs that I was juggling so that I could afford it. And yet I know I would not have the life I have today if I didn't have those three years. And that's how long I was there, three years. And to be honest with you, I still go. I go for a tune up, for a touch up.
GALLOWAY: You went when the book was about to come out!
LANSING: [LAUGHS] When it comes out, I'm telling you, I'll be there every day! [LAUGHTER]. I have things that bother me and I don't want to dump them on somebody else. So this is a safe place to talk about them. It was very helpful. I'm not suggesting that it would be helpful for everybody. Everybody has to find it [whatever helps]. Religion is very helpful for people. A good friend is very helpful. A priest is very helpful. A rabbi is very helpful. You just have to find it. But when you get depressed or when you face a crisis, don't feel you have to do it alone. People always say to me, "Couldn't you have talked to a friend?" No! In my case, I couldn't have, because I wanted to have an objective person and I really needed more than a friend could give be. But for other people, a friend would be fine. Just don't feel you have to do it alone. Because I think that may be how you can get stuck in a place. If you're going to overcome your fears and get un-stuck, then I think whatever form of therapy is what you should seek out.
GALLOWAY: It's so hard when you are young. People look at you and say, "Oh my God, this is Sherry Lansing. She's one of the greats. She has so much." It's almost unimaginable that you could have been this fragile, insecure person with zero self-esteem.
LANSING: Zero self-esteem, and the misapprehension that that lack of self-esteem could be filled by being an actress, by seeing myself on the screen. But you know, I have to say something. We are all forever a work in progress. I mean, that is the truth. I remember when I finished analysis and I said to the doctor, "This is it? I mean, aren't you a little disappointed? This is as good as I'm going to get?" And he said, "Well," he said, "you know, your problems don't go away. They just don't." I don't have zero self-esteem now. But I still have many times when I have self-esteem issues. And you know, I said this the other day: It just comes up out of nowhere - like out of the salad - all of a sudden you are talking and suddenly you are insecure or you don't know what to wear or you don't like something or whatever. And it just comes up. And the difference is when you confronted it, you have tools that you can deal with it. And you say, "Oh, that's my mother on my back, criticizing me again. Oh, there's my father yelling at me again." You know, they've both been dead for so long, but they still live on. Do you know what I'm saying? It doesn't go away. You know, I'm really happy to be here talking to all of you, but in an hour, I could have something that bothers me. So I just want to say, don't ever think that it goes away. You just get tools and you know what it is. And you could deal with it but you are forever in your whole life a work in progress, and forever there is a 12-year-old that's driving in to work with you every day. And you are still on the school playground and you are still whatever it is in college or you are still wondering why someone didn't return your call or ask you out.
GALLOWAY: What's interesting is that you hit this low point and then you get a very modest job reading scripts for $5 an hour and -
LANSING: - fell in love with it. I was teaching and I realized that there were a lot of jobs that I could get in the movie business now, because I had done a movie, and I saw them and I realized one of the jobs was as a script reader. You read the script. You synopsize it so the producer doesn't have to read it himself. And I thought, "Well, I know how to do that. I have a college degree." And so I got this wonderful job with this producer Ray Wagner, who was one of the most extraordinary producers there ever was, made some of the best movies in my opinion. And he was an incredible mentor. I had a teeny office that's not as big as this one [she points]. And I had a desk and I would read the scripts and I felt so happy. And I felt, if I never did anything in my life but read these scripts and synopsize them, I would be happy. I was doing that while I was substitute teaching. And then eventually he hired me full-time. And I knew this was where I was supposed to be. I didn't have the tension in my arms and legs. I didn't have to stay up at night with nightmares. I didn't have any of that. I just went in every day and I felt good. And I felt authentic and I felt I could do it and I wasn't afraid to speak my opinions and I felt confident. And that was really the beginning of my career, because with Ray Wagner, he would read my synopsis then he would call me and he would ask me my opinions and then eventually he would let me sit in the room with the writers and I would express myself and I was not frightened. It just was where I was supposed to be. It was the job that I felt good about myself in. And I didn't have the fears. I mean, I didn't have fears giving my opinion to a famous director. I just wasn't scared. I don't know why but I just wasn't.
GALLOWAY: But there was one famous director - and this is astonishing. You went from being a reader to being a junior studio executive and you sit down with Don Siegel.
LANSING: So we were in a meeting about this movie Telefon. I hope I remember the story right. You can probably correct me. But I remember the gist of it. Stephen did amazing research, and he would remind me of events that, because denial is a great way of life [LAUGHTER], I had just forgotten - and I tend to forget the unpleasant things and just go right to the good stuff. And so I hope I remember. So in Telefon there was a scene where the villain comes out in a bathroom to attack a woman. Anyway, Charles Bronson comes in to take care of it. And I said - and this became the basis of a lot of the movies I did - I was in my late 20's, early 30's, and I said, "No, the woman has to attack the man and she has to get vengeance for what he is doing." And the head of the studio, the vice president of the studio, and the director [were sitting there] -
GALLOWAY: All men.
LANSING: - all men, yes, all men, and I wasn't afraid. As I said, I felt comfortable that my opinion, my voice was OK. I could express my opinion. And Don Siegel said, "My dear, I totally disagree with you," and something like, "she could never attack him." And he came at me [moving, as if threateningly] to try and show me that he could overpower me. It was actually physical, yes. And today it would've been such a great class action lawsuit, I tell you! [LAUGHTER] But then, you just sat and went, "That's inappropriate." Even now, if that word comes out of your mouth, you are just so scared. But I remember that I worked with wonderful men who were absolutely open and they said, "That's enough. You've made your point." I didn't win that battle. And the interesting thing is - he's an incredibly great director by the way. He really was talented.
GALLOWAY: But it's shocking that in his own book, he said it.
LANSING: But that's how times have changed. He didn't think it was anything wrong.
GALLOWAY: He comes towards Sherry, and says, "If I raped you…" and he writes about this as if there's nothing wrong with that.
LANSING: But that was also how different the times were then. You've seen these shows. You have seen Mad Men. But all these shows that you see - Good Girls Revolt, the one that's about the newsroom - they are great shows and it's hard to believe that that was the world of my time. No one thought anything. I didn't think of suing him. I didn't think of leaping up and saying, "How dare you?" You just sort of went, "Oh, that's the world." And then your consciousness changes. And today no one would do anything like that - we hope!
GALLOWAY: I wish that were true.
LANSING: Yes, we hope.
GALLOWAY: You became an executive and one of the first major films you were put in charge of coincided with a pretty shocking and terrible event in American life. Let's take a look at a clip from The China Syndrome.
LANSING: It's a great film. It's a great film.
GALLOWAY: The China Syndrome was an unlikely title. Nobody knew what it meant. You thought of changing it and then you got a phone call from Jane Fonda.
LANSING: Yes, I remember it very well. The marketing department thought the title was not a good title and that we wouldn't be able to sell it and nobody would be able to understand what it was. And so they floated a lot of new titles and presented them to the filmmakers. And I was sitting at my desk and I got a call from Jane Fonda and she says, "Whose idiotic idea is it to change the title? And certainly, you're not agreeing with that, are you?" And, of course, I was agreeing with it, and she said, "This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of. Are we clear that they'll understand what the title is when we are done?" And I said, "Yes, we are and I accept it. So I went back and told the marketing department, and it was really to Jane's credit. I mean, it was ridiculous to think of changing the title. Just like Dog Day Afternoon there are titles that you don't understand and then when you see the movie they become iconic - and The China Syndrome is iconic. And I so admired her, because she was one of the first strong role models I saw who was a woman, you know? She was not only a great actress but she also became a great producer and she was not afraid to speak her mind. And that moment when I saw her do it and I realized that I was not fighting for the title, kind of going along with the marketing department, was when I thought, "Wow, I better find my voice too and if I disagree, disagree." She was for me a real inspiration.
GALLOWAY: Ten days after that movie opened, what happened?
LANSING: Ten days after that movie opened, there was a meltdown at -
GALLOWAY: Three Mile Island.
LANSING: Three Mile Island, which I think you've all read about, and the world waited to see what that meant, what was going to happen. Were they going to be able to stop the meltdown and were they going to be able to fix the nuclear plant? And I remember watching clips from our film on the news, and I also remember that when I got involved in the film, I wasn't that smart or that involved with the issue. I got involved with the film and learned about the issue, and I remember reading the script with Jim Bridges who had written it and was the director, and saying, "You have to explain this in simple terms so somebody like myself, who isn't part of these protest movements and really hasn't been educated, can understand it. For want of a better word, you've got to give me a baby-talk version in seconds so that everybody knows what's happening." And that baby-talk version was on every news channel, saying, "Just like in the movie." What we had made a fictional story about was happening in real life. But what was really interesting was, you were facing a real moral crisis, a film that's supposed to be fictional and is now becoming reality - and you are facing the decision that there is something way, way, way more important than the movie and that's this potential meltdown. We all decided never to exploit the marketing, never to try and sell it - "Look, this picture tells you what's really happening" - but just to walk away from it and never ever be dragged into it.
GALLOWAY: Did the real-life drama help the film?
LANSING: It's a lesson for all of you when you are making films: the common wisdom was, "Oh, your box office is going to go up," when in fact our box office went down and the picture was hurt, because the audience had had enough of it. You really do not want to go to a movie when you've just gone through it in real life. And you really say, "I don't want to see that, give me something else." I remember, as anyone does who's worked on films, it becomes your life and you work on them for years before they become a reality and some of them never do become a reality and you keep hoping they will. But I remember, when it was happening, this incredible guilt: you felt like, "Well, is this a good thing for the movie or is it a bad thing for the movie?" And you're saying, "How can I even be thinking of something like that when people could die?" It was a very complicated issue to go through. The good news about this movie and many movies is: they live forever. They live forever. And the afterlife of this picture, which was a lovely success but not a huge success when it came out, is that now it's an iconic film and everyone talks about it and everyone wants to see it and it helps the movement today as we question nuclear plants and the dangers, and people always refer to The China Syndrome. Success has many ways of coming to you. Sometimes it comes right away, and then the film's instantly forgotten. Sometimes you can't remember what won the Academy Award for best picture, and then you can remember the one that didn't. And then sometimes in the afterlife, films that were not successful at all become these giant successes because of streaming and DVDs and video and everything, they become these huge successes and people like yourselves will come up to me and say, "I saw the best picture, a picture that I remember seeing when it came out but no one else saw." I'm glad that we have all these ways to make films last forever.
GALLOWAY: You became the president of 20th Century Fox in 1980 and if you look at the news coverage it's just astonishing because it's around the world: "Sherry Lansing, former model, named first woman studio president."
LANSING: Another great class action lawsuit.
GALLOWAY: But your real love was producing.
GALLOWAY: And you became a producer and had an astonishing hit with a film nobody wanted to make. Let's take a look at a clip from a movie that was called Diversion, but you know it under a different title.
LANSING: Fatal Attraction.
GALLOWAY: You gave it away.
[LAUGHTER] [CLIP] [APPLAUSE]
GALLOWAY: It's good, isn't it?
LANSING: It holds up so beautifully. I saw it recently and you always wonder, when you loved a film, when you see it 10 years later, 20 years later, 30 years later, will it hold up? And some don't. And that's OK: they were of a time and maybe you are in a different place. But this held up like it was done today - and they're so good, the two of them.
GALLOWAY: You and Stanley Jaffe were the producers on this. What's your job as a producer? You start with an idea. Where did that idea come from?
LANSING: First of all, there are different kinds of producers. There's producers that just put up the money and that's very important, there's producers that have big production companies and maybe somebody else is working on the script and they don't go to the set or they're not that involved and that's OK, too. I wanted to be a producer and Stanley Jaffe was my idol. He had made some of the most iconic films - Kramer vs. Kramer, and I had watched him because we did Taps together when I was an executive. He was involved in everything. He wasn't the director, but he knew everything. That was kind of the goal, the aspiration that I had. So how did this movie come about? We were looking for a movie to make, obviously, and the way that we did things was: Stanley lived in New York, I lived in Los Angeles, and we developed material separately and then when we had a script that we were excited about, we would show it to each other. But in this case, Stanley called me one day and he said, "I've seen a short film by a man named James Dearden, and I think he has a lot of talent. And there's two other shorts as well, but there was a short film called Diversion" - and it's almost the exact first 20 minutes of this movie that became Fatal Attraction but slightly different. They have the affair, he goes home to his wife, the phone rings and the husband picks it up, slams it down because it's Glenn Close's character. How many of you have seen the movie? OK, good. Then the phone rings again and freeze-frame and you know the wife's going to pick it up and she's going to learn about the affair. So James Dearden came to Los Angeles to meet with Stanley and myself, as I loved all of the three shorts but I was obsessed with Diversion, this little short that was 20 minutes. And we started talking about what he could write, what he could direct, what ideas, and it was a brainstorming session: "What about this, what about that?" And I kept coming back to Diversion and I kept saying, "Why can't we make that into a movie?" I was fascinated by the Glenn Close character. Well, I was actually fascinated also by Michael Douglas' character, a man who cheats for no reason, has a lovely wife, whatever. And then I was fascinated by Glenn Close, a successful career woman, but when a man leaves her, she felt as if her whole self had gone. And I had experienced feelings like that. I had experienced feelings - again, let me tell you about self-worth - when rejected by somebody, and you just feel like, "Oh, my God, my whole world is just falling apart," and you're going, "Well, that's crazy," you know. So I was fascinated by them. But Stanley rightfully said, "Well, what's the movie?" And James said the same thing, "Well, what's the movie? The wife picks up the phone, she finds out he's having an affair, she throws him out and they get divorced, she throws him out and she forgives him. That's not dramatic, you know, we've seen this. What's the movie?" I said, "I don't know." And finally, after about two days, we couldn't find any ideas that we liked, and we talked about a lot of other things, and finally Stanley says, "You keep coming back to this. Why don't you and James go off and see if you can come up with something?" I said, "OK." So James and I went off and we said we would spend two days just sitting in the office, trying to come up with something.
GALLOWAY: Did you?
LANSING: I remember we were having lunch and I said to him, "What if she was pregnant?" And he said, "Whoa!" I said, "You know, an affair can come and go. But a child is there forever. What if that is the thing that drives the rest of it?" And he said, " I know what to do." And within a few hours, he had the whole plot. It just was boom, boom, boom, boom, and we went to Stanley and told him and he loved it. So that was the beginning of Fatal Attraction. That was the beginning of the screenplay. Now, I wish I could tell you everybody loved it and it was just all terrific and everything, but that's not true. What then happened - and I think if I really was to analyze it, with rare exceptions, all the movies that have been the most successful are the movies that took forever to get made, and nobody wanted to make, and the movies that came together easily, with rare exceptions, usually didn't work. So we got the script. I thought it was fantastic. It had a different ending than the movie that was eventually released; in the original ending, Michael Douglas' fingerprints are on the knife and he is blamed for the Glenn Close suicide. He is blamed and it's thought that he murdered her and he is carted off to jail, which I thought was OK because he cheated on his wife for no reason. It was fine with me.
LANSING: So then we started to give the script, first to Paramount, which was our home studio, and then to other studios, because Paramount passed and every studio passed. The women who were [executives at] studios said, "How can you give this to me? I'm newly married. Why would you give me a script where a man cheats on his wife for no reason?" I remember Dawn Steel was newly married and she said, "That's terrible!" And the men said, "How can you give this script to me? I would never do anything like that. Who would do a thing like that?" And so everybody passed. Then we were on a plane with Michael Douglas, and he loved the idea and he committed, and then we went to the studios again - and everybody passed again. And then we decided he was not yet a big star, he was a television personality, he had done some movies but he wasn't really a big enough name to carry a film, and after that, we said, "Well, we'll get a director. If we can get a director, then maybe the studio would want to do it." We went in with just a script and Michael Douglas and us as producers. But maybe 30 directors passed on it. Nobody liked it, nobody was interested in it, blah, blah, blah. And then one day, Brian De Palma said he wanted to do the movie and that was enough for Paramount and Dawn Steel to say yes, because he had had such incredible hits for them. So you'd say, "OK, now that's the end of the story."
GALLOWAY: Was it?
LANSING: No, it's not the end of the story. [LAUGHTER]. The next thing that happens is, we go to New York where we're going to shoot the movie. We are scouting locations. Michael Douglas is attached to the movie and everything's going great and we are thinking about who the other people are going to be and Brian is very happy; he wants to change the script just a little bit, having read what he wants to do. And then, less than eight weeks before the start of principal photography, he asks for a meeting with Stanley Jaffe and myself, and he says, "I have a real problem." And we said, "What?" And he said, "I can't do the movie with Michael Douglas." And we said, "What?!" And he said, "Look, Michael is completely unsympathetic. No one will like him, no one will care about him and the movie will be a failure. So you have to let him go." And I remember knowing that if we didn't let Michael go, our movie was over, because the reason the studio had committed was Brian De Palma. And I also remember knowing that Michael had been attached to the project for one year when nobody else wanted to do it. It was a real moment when your value system is put on the line. And I'm happy to say there wasn't any question in Stanley's mind and my mind that we were sticking with Michael, because he was there from the beginning: he was there when the 28, I don't know, 30 directors were [passing]., and he never gave up on the project. And so we told Brian that we believed in Michael and that we were, sadly, going to stick with him - and he left the movie. I came back to Los Angeles and I remember my mother saying to me, "You know, maybe this movie business isn't so good for you, maybe you should go back to teaching." And it was many, many months later, if not a year, in which directors continued to reject it over and over again, and one day I got a call from an agent and she said, "Adrian Lyne has read the script and he loves it." And I loved his work. He was a terrific director. Stanley and I met with him, he felt Michael was right for the part, and that began the production of the movie. Paramount loved him. He had done Flashdance beforehand. That began the production of the movie - but even then there were problems.
GALLOWAY: Nobody wanted to do the Glenn Close part.
LANSING: We were rejected by so many people, I can't even tell you and we rejected Glenn Close [LAUGHTER]. What happened was, Glenn Close had been in The World According to Garp and she was fantastic. I think she was nominated for an Academy Award. But she was an earth mother, you know, and she was phenomenal, and I remember her agent, Fred Specktor, kept calling me and I kept saying, "Look, she's not right for this part, this part has to be a very sexy and vulnerable but sexy woman and someone who would seduce Michael, and it's really important and she's just not right. She's like an earth mother." And he kept saying, "She really wants to do this. She wants to come in and meet with you." I said, "I don't want to meet with her. I don't want to reject her. I don't want to be put in the position of rejecting Glenn Close. She's a brilliant actress." And then finally, you know, after six or seven calls, he said, "Glenn wants to read for the part." This is unheard of: she would read. She had been nominated for an Academy Award and all that. All that she asks is that she read with Michael. And so Adrian went, "Oh, my God, what are we going to do? We have to let her read." And so, cowards that Stanley and I are, we said, "So you go read with her, because we don't want to! And we think it's really important that she has your full attention."
LANSING: And so we stayed in our office, and it was literally not even 15 minutes, AND Adrian came out and he said, "Come here, I want you to see something." And we walked into the room and there was Glenn, her hair wild like that. Not exactly like that, but wild, in a black dress, with a big V, and looking completely different - like she does in the film, completely different than Garp - and most important, because it really isn't about the looks. We sat in a little corner and they did the scene and you could have felt it. She was perfect. And they did this scene - "Are you discreet?" - that was the audition scene. And it was perfect and she got the part, which was, for me, really one of the biggest lessons as a producer and an executive: never ever underestimate what an actor and actress can do. If they think they can do it, they know something that you don't know, and don't judge them by the parts that they've done. That's ridiculous and so stupid of us, because that's what she was cast in and she did them [the other roles] 100 percent. And so often when somebody wants to make a change, I've said, "Read for it or test for it," and if they won't do that, I've always thought, "Well, there's something wrong." Jodie Foster read for The Accused. It's really interesting to me how she knew she was right way before we did. And she's great, I mean just great.
GALLOWAY: You loved producing. But when you were in your late 40's you gave up producing and became chairman of Paramount. Why?
LANSING: I got married.
GALLOWAY: Who'd you get married to?
LANSING: I got married to Billy Friedkin who's a brilliant director and a wonderful husband - which is more important than being a brilliant director. My happiest job was producing. There is just no doubt in my mind. I'm not a director, I'm not an actor, I'm not a cinematographer, or an editor, all these jobs that I'm so in awe of. But if you are a producer, you get to collaborate with all those people. You get to really be involved. I mean, I was on the set every single day. I saw every single thing that was going on and you feel a sense that you have helped and been a part of making this movie which you love no matter how it turns out. I have to say that, because they are all your children. It's like you just love it, and some of them turn out better than others, but you try just as hard on the ones that didn't turn out or that the public doesn't think turn out, because you still care about them. But when I was 47, I met my husband, who was a director, and I became a stepmother to two wonderful boys, whom I love as if they were my own children, and I was a producer on location, my husband was a director on location. I was missing this part of life that I had never experienced, which was being a mother. I hadn't been married for 20 years. So, I really was missing what it's like to be married, and I wanted to be home. And I had been offered the opportunity to run a studio several times, and I never even thought of it, because I really did prefer producing. And this time, Stanley Jaffe - who was now the head of Gulf and Western - came to me, and he was my ex-partner, as you remember. He had taken the executive job [overseeing Paramount]. And he asked me to be chairman of Paramount. It took me a long time to make the decision, because I wondered how I would balance it with my life and I wondered how I would keep this love of film that I had, and then I decided that this was very good for my life, and that ultimately your life is way more important than any film or any job, and this would really be a chance to experience marriage and to experience being a mother and to experience a whole new phase of life, which I was ready for at 47.
GALLOWAY: How did you approach running the studio?
LANSING: I decided that I wanted Paramount to be run like a big production company. So even though, as the head of a studio, you don't need to read every script, and even though you don't need to see the dailies every day, I did, because that's the part of the job that I liked. That's what I did because I liked it. I was selfish, and I went on location, and that's what I wanted to do, and I didn't really want to deal with the bureaucracies of running a studio. I would delegate a lot of that and I had a fantastic partner, a man named Jon Dolgen, and he was a genius at the financial aspect. We would go into these board meetings where there were just long spread sheets of all these financials, and I would always have my secretary call 10 minutes in and say, "There's a crisis outside! You have to come!" And once he looked at me and he said, "Twelve minutes? That's the longest you've ever been in one of these meetings." I said, "But you know how to do it, so you don't need me. And I like the other [stuff]." It was a wonderful partnership and a wonderful division of labor and I did love my time at Paramount. We made over 200 movies. I certainly wasn't the producer - the producers were the producers, the directors were the directors - but I felt like I was involved in every single one of the movies and I cared about them and I was very, very satisfied doing the job.
GALLOWAY: What do you think makes a great executive?
LANSING: Love of film. [LAUGHS]. You know, passion. I think probably that's the most important thing, and when you're in a meeting with a director and the producers and the actors and whoever, if they know that you love making this movie, if they know that you are on their side, that's half the battle. Then even if they don't agree with you, they know you care, and if they know you care, they're going to listen, they are going to think about it and know you'll come to a conclusion. But if they know that you are just looking at your watch and you are just waiting to, God forbid, get your bonus or whatever it is, they sense that. For me, the difference between when I was at Fox and hadn't produced movies and then when I was at Paramount and had produced movies was night and day, because I had a passion for every one of these movies, the good and the bad. The movies that you didn't like, I cared about.
GALLOWAY: And you knew every step of what was involved in a movie then.
LANSING: I did. I did.
GALLOWAY: I asked you that question once, a few years ago. I said, "What makes a great studio chief?" And you said, "Choose the right movies."
LANSING: Well, that's true. But you have to have passion for the films and then you probably will choose the right ones.
GALLOWAY: I want to take a look at a clip from a film that involved a very difficult decision. This was the most expensive film ever made at this time. Let's take a look at a clip from Titanic. Here we go.
GALLOWAY: So James Cameron has been developing this movie at 20th Century Fox. The budget has reached what was, back then, 20 years ago, an astronomical $110 million. You hear that maybe they want a partner on this. How do you jump in and what is the process of your thinking?
LANSING: The first thing is, you have to read the script, because no matter what, the script is the most important thing. If there isn't a good script, I don't think you can make a good movie, and in this case, the cast was not 100 percent set but the director was. And then you have to be sure you believe in the director. So when I read the script, I thought it was brilliant. I actually thought it was one of the greatest love stories I'd ever read and also, in the case of Rose, a female empowerment movie, because at the end, you see where her life had been. So those were themes that really, really appealed to me and I knew I would love the screenplay and I thought James Cameron was a genius and he is. He is a genius. And I thought that he could do extraordinary things that hadn't been done with the water, with visuals, whatever. And so the, I was the head of the studio; you call the other head of the studio. In this case, it was 20th Century Fox and it was Peter Chernin and Bill Mechanic, and you tell them why you are the very, very best place compared to anybody else and why you should be the partner and why you would be a great partner and on and on and on. And then you have everybody in your company call everybody else at every other level that you can possibly get to - if you can get Sumner Redstone to call Rupert Murdoch, you do. I don't think we did but you do, you know. And that's what you do and you are like in a bidding war and eventually we got it. And then you have to… there's a period of time after you have what you would call a handshake deal that you would get to vet the budget and we got to vet the budget. And we had real concerns because the budget had, and I'm not sure about the numbers but you've done your research so you'll be exactly accurate. I think it was about $20 million that they had in for special effects and I knew that was wrong. Here we were making a movie that was going to be $100 million, which was the most expensive movie practically at that time. I mean, it's shocking to me how the costs have escalated. It certainly was the most expensive movie we had ever made. And here you were making this movie and they only had $20 million in for special effects and they were shooting with water and Waterworld had happened. You knew that the numbers were wrong. So we sent our production manager over and we said, "We don't think these numbers are right, we think the budget has to go up." And there was a lot of tension between the two production managers, and then a lot of tension between all the executives, and they stood by their numbers and they said, "Well, what's the worst you think this movie can go to? Let's agree on what the worst is." And I remember saying, "I think $135 million is the worst that I think it can go." That's how off we thought the numbers were - like, $25 million more - and don't quote me exactly on these numbers, but generally that's the take of it. And they said great, "It will never go to that, so we will cap you on your investment." So I have to say that we slept very well at night when the picture went to $200 million, because we were capped. But in the end, it turned out great for everybody, because the picture was so phenomenally successful that everybody made a great deal of money off of it - and equally as important, the film was an artistic masterpiece. I mean, it really is and continues to be. I remember, because we were 50-50 partners, I remember, I believe it was Peter Chernin saying to one of the press that they had actually made more money than we had on it and I said, "Well, that's not true. We are 50-50 partners." And I remember going to Jon Dolgen and he was always doing financials and he had probably 25 financials and they went to - you know, if the picture does $200 million, if the picture does $300 million - and [it reached] numbers that nobody had ever heard of at that time. What did the picture do? $1.2 billion, something like that? Again, I don't want to be held up to these numbers, but he never did a P&L [profits and loss] that went to $1 billion because no film had ever done $1 billion.
LANSING: And in fact, at a certain point, they [Fox] ended up getting a bigger piece because they had taken a greater risk in the equity investment in the film. But that's a high-class problem, that's all I can tell you.
LANSING: Everybody did extremely well and James Cameron had given up all of his points and we restored all of his points and everybody did very well. So it has a happy ending for everybody.
GALLOWAY: I want to ask you one last question. At 60 years old, you decided to walk away from it all. You did what no one does. You're at the peak of your path and you say "I'm leaving." It shocked people in the film community. I remember speaking to one of your executives, Karen Rosenfelt, and she was on an exercise bike in the gym and the news flashed on KTLA and she's like, "What?" Why?
LANSING: We have many dreams and many different chapters in life and I think life is about chapters. For me, from the time I was pretty young, I always thought that if I was lucky enough to achieve my dreams and if I had financial security, at a certain point in my life I wanted to give back. I wanted, just corny as it sounds, to try and make the world a better place. So that dream was always there and I always had that in the back of my mind. But in addition to that, by the time I left the job at Paramount, that feeling of passion that I just told you was what I thought made a great executive was leaving. My interests were starting to turn someplace else. I said this before: the highs weren't as high, the lows weren't as low. I felt as if I were repeating myself. I'd been involved in over 200 movies by that time I left Paramount. So it was getting repetitive. And I'd been doing the job for over 12 years, I think. It was impossible to keep that same passion going, and since that was disappearing, I knew in my heart that I didn't want to become an executive who didn't desperately care about every single movie. In addition to that, the movie business was changing. And so I had this dream about setting up a foundation and giving back. I was repeating myself and I felt the greatest way to keep young was to try new things. There's a Harvard Business School thing that says, "Every 10 years you should replant yourself," and the only way to keep young is to learn new things and keep curious.' And then third, which made it a perfect confluence of events, the films that I loved, the films that got me into the business, the films that were about people or about social issues, they were just being made less. They weren't what a studio executive was supposed to be making. You were supposed to, and needed to, make tent-poles. You needed to make tent-poles, which I loved by the way. You know, my goddaughter's one of the producers of Wonder Woman. I can't wait to see this. I mean, I really can't. I love those films, but they weren't in my heart in the same way and I can't tell you that I felt that I was in the zeitgeist for those films either. So the movie business was changing, I didn't want to turn 60 in the job. I picked 60 as an age where you are young enough to have a new life but not so young you can wait. And I had this incredible need: I had been so blessed in life and I wanted to give back. So I left with great joy, I have to say, and with great fondness for the memories I have in the movie business.
GALLOWAY: Do you miss it?
LANSING: I have never missed it one single day. I still go to movies all the time. I see all the movies but now I get to go as a fan. I'm addicted to television, too, I have to tell you. I'm just like addicted to everything. And I do think that life is about chapters and I do think that the ability to experience newness and curiosity [matter]. When I left the movie business, I felt like you guys feel today. I felt like I was young, I felt like I was just graduating college and that everything was new to me. I had to learn about science - because our foundation [the Sherry Lansing Foundation] is dedicated to cancer research. I had to learn about stem cells. I was studying again and I felt really alive and happy and joyous - and I still do!
GALLOWAY: OK. Questions.
QUESTION: How do you think your education and experience outside the entertainment industry helped you to navigate the industry? And second, in this day and age, what do you think is more highly valued, experience or education?
LANSING: I think that my education was the foundation for success in the movie business. First of all, you couldn't read a budget if you didn't have knowledge of numbers, and I knew math. So that was really important. My knowledge of literature allowed me to get my first job, I think, taught me about structure and screenplays. I wasn't lucky like you guys are to study film. And then what's valued more, experience or education? Both. You need the education to get the experience.
QUESTION: What makes you want to greenlight a sequel? Like Naked Gun 3 1/3 or Star Trek: First Contact, or Mission Impossible 2? Is it more than because the last one made a lot of money?
LANSING: The first time you think about a sequel is if the movie was successful. If the movie wasn't successful - and there are many that are successful in their afterlives - you think about a sequel, and then you don't want to ruin the franchise. So you better have a good idea. Lots of times, you can't think of how there can be a sequel, especially if the characters die at the end. How can there be a sequel? [LAUGHTER] But people sometimes figure that out. Anyways, it has to be something that can be made into a sequel and you have to make sure that the people who can do it are available or that new people who have that same kind of talent are available.
QUESTION: You spoke about passion, but what are some other qualities of a leader that you think are very important? And who are some of the greatest leaders that you've had the pleasure of working with?
LANSING: Well, there are many qualities of a great leader. Passion is one, empathy is another, listening is another, decisiveness is another. I think a great leader makes people feel comfortable, so that they feel that they're allowed to be stupid, they're not afraid to give their opinions. And when you rule in a culture of fear, you're not getting the best out of people. So first you have to create a collaborative environment. Listen, be respectful of others' opinions, be willing to change your mind - and then ultimately you have to make the decision. Decisiveness is very important.
QUESTION: I was wondering, for a young female that's trying to make it in the film industry, what would be the one piece of advice you could give if you could only give one?
LANSING: Never give up and have great resiliency. You know, when you read this book [Leading Lady] - I hope you all will - you will see the enormous difficulty that every movie had in coming to be. I told you about Fatal Attraction, but you will see The Accused was just as difficult. Braveheart is one of the most iconic pictures and you will see less iconic pictures, but, successful as they were, they were so difficult to get made and there was always somebody who never gave up, no matter what, and had great resiliency. Don't take the rejection personally, but listen if it's intelligent and make changes if they're needed and then move forward.