Lauren Shuler Donner Movie Note

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The following appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News. The citation is Strauss, Bob (1995-07-30). "ON THE SET, IT'S EITHER HER WAY OR THE HIGHWAY - SHULER-DONNER'S INSISTENCE JUST A WAY TO SHOW SHE CARES". Daily News of Los Angeles.

The warnings have been sounded so long and so often, you'd think savvy producers would listen to them by now.

Everyone says don't shoot with animals, kids, special effects or water," noted Lauren Shuler-Donner, the producer (with Jennie Lew Tugend) of the orca adventure "Free Willy" and its currently playing sequel, "Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home." "We had 'em all."

It wasn't easy. But bringing in the more elaborate sequel to the popular whale tale was like most other pictures Shuler-Donner has overseen: challenging and carefully guided by the producer from start to finish.

"I'm a very hands-on, creative producer," the Cleveland native stated unapologetically. "I'm very involved in script development and casting. I like to be on the set - and if I can contribute, I do. I'm in the editing room all the way through.

"If I can make the movie better, I try. I think a good creative producer does have an impact on the movie."

That kind of attitude isn't always appreciated by directors, but at least one finds it attractive. Shuler-Donner has been married to filmmaker Richard Donner (the "Lethal Weapon" films, "Maverick," the upcoming "Assassins" with Sylvester Stallone) for nine years; they've been together since she produced his 1985 fantasy "Ladyhawke."

Professionally speaking, Shuler-Donner's method of creative producing has attracted a number of the business' most high-powered filmmakers. Her first producing credit was for the John Hughes-written, 1983 hit "Mr. Mom"; she also oversaw Joel Schumacher's "St. Elmo's Fire" and Ivan Reitman's Dave," among others.

Not exactly a list of guys who suffer unwanted interference gladly.

"Of course, the director is, essentially, the captain of the ship," Shuler-Donner acknowledged. "It should be the director's best possible movie.

"I'll suggest different approaches to shots and takes, help to clarify what scenes are saying. But if it's a crucial scene that they're not getting, I'll keep hammering a point until I win," she revealed. "You've got to pick your fights judiciously and always think about what's best for the film, of course. But a lot of it is also in the way you make suggestions.

"You don't do it in front of everybody on the set. And you have to figure out how to present your argument - by cajoling, yelling, being a little charming and funny - whatever works. What's usually best is just asking, 'Can you shoot (a take) this way for me? We'll worry about it in editing.' That works most often."

For "Free Willy 2," which was directed by Dwight Little ("Rapid Fire"), it wasn't so much a matter of director and producer seeing eye to eye, but of everyone working together to prevent the film's many uncontrollable elements from floating off in different directions.

"This time, we tried to widen the scope, bring in new characters and another environmental issue," Shuler-Donner said. For the sequel, Jesse (Jason James Richter), Willy's original liberator, camps beside a Pacific inlet with his foster parents (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson) and his newly discovered half-brother, Elvis (Francis Capra). Willy and his family pod are cavorting in the waters nearby, but the reunion turns deadly when a tanker runs aground and spills oil into the water.

"In the first film, we mixed live whale (footage), whales filmed out in the wild, swimming miniatures and animatronic whales," Shuler-Donner said. This movie had three times as many whales, so there were three times as many elements to deal with. We shot two summers' worth of wildlife footage, had some great animatronic whales, and most of the movie was filmed on actual locations."

Which means wet locations.

"Water was the hardest," Shuler-Donner conceded. "It's so unpredictable, the tides are constantly changing. The waves got choppy, the wind blows you all over the place, there's no stability. Sometimes, the current got so strong, it washed away the cables linking the controls to the animatronic whales.

"I can totally understand the 'Waterworld' guys' problems," she said, referring to the trouble-plagued, ultra-expensive seagoing epic. "You have to be incredibly prepared and then some, and then allow for the unpredictable."

The sequel's heavier reliance on robotic over live whales was not only necessitated by the film's open-water setting, but by the ongoing health problems of the original's star orca, Keiko - problems that the Donners hope are finally about to be resolved, one way or another.

Keiko, who has a serious skin condition, has been stuck in a too-small tank at a Mexico City water park for years. But now, a 2 million-gallon tank for the killer whale is under construction at the Oregon Coastal Aquarium, and plans are to move Keiko there by year's end.

"It's an enormous undertaking," Shuler-Donner, who clearly knows about such things, said. "He also has to be treated and brought up to a certain level of health before we can transport him."

The best-case scenario is that Keiko, 16, can be retrained to live in the wild and reintroduced to the pod he was taken from 14 years ago. Barring that, He stays in this new, bigger tank at a much better place," said Shuler- Donner, who believes that, ideally, no animals should be in captivity. This will be a rescue and rehabilitation facility for animals all along the West Coast, so Keiko will benefit many more marine animals."

Those wishing to make contributions to the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation can call (800) 494-2537.

Besides her ongoing involvement with Keiko, Shuler-Donner also does work for such organizations as Women in Film, TreePeople and Doctors Without Borders. And she's busy developing her next three film projects - "Speed Racer," "Jonny Quest" and "X-Men" - all live-action versions of TV cartoons.

With all this on her plate and her husband constantly directing blockbusters, it's not easy to keep a Hollywood marriage intact. But Shuler- Donner has mastered organizing that, too.

"I like having a (production) company with him," she said, "because we each gravitate toward individual chores that we like. I like running a business and developing material, and he doesn't. I like his input on my projects and he seems to like mine, too, on his.

"And I like having him right in the next office, so I can go in and vent and he can hug me right there," she added. "That's the true bonus. When you make movies you spend a lot of time apart, which is really detrimental to marriages and causes a lot of breakups in Hollywood."

Although she's directly produced only two of Donner's films - "Ladyhawke" and "Radio Flyer" - Shuler-Donner and her husband executive produce for each other often. This means at least a few location visits per picture - which are nice for the couple, but also require the strictest professional behavior.

"When you're making a movie, you've got to be careful to keep your personal life out of it," Shuler-Donner explained. "I've got to treat Dick like I would any other director.

"There are obvious benefits to working with him, because of the shorthand you can use and everything you know about each other. But there are drawbacks, too, because this is a person you care about, while the others you'll probably never see again," she said with a laugh. "You've got to put whatever's best for the movie first. If there's something I disagree with Dick about, I'll push the issue and try to talk him into it until I get my way."

Shuler-Donner said that getting her way is coming easier for her and a handful of other top female producers. But as the movies she makes indicate, Shuler-Donner has a very high tolerance for difficulty.

"It's much better now for women than when I started out," she said. Part of the reason is that a lot of us have been successful, and that's opened the door for other women producers. At this point, it's as easy for us as for any successful producer to get a movie made.

"But it's not easy for anybody. And it still is a male-dominated field. Be that as it may, it doesn't stop me."


2 Photos


Photo: (1--2--Color) "If I can make the movie better, I try. I think a good creative producer does have an impact on the movie," says producer Lauren Shuler-Donner, whose most recent film is "Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home."

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