ALTA Q&A

Writing Her Own Script

Lucy Fisher in her office at Red Wagon Entertainment in Los Angeles. The award-winning producer’s films include “The Great Gatsby,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Jarhead.”
KEVIN SCANLON
Lucy Fisher in her office at Red Wagon Entertainment in Los Angeles. The award-winning producer’s films include “The Great Gatsby,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Jarhead.”
Lucy Fisher started out as a waitress, but ended up running the studio. Will Hearst sits down for a Q&A with the groundbreaking Hollywood executive.

The life of Lucy Fisher might look like a carefully plotted Hollywood movie. She is the film producer behind Academy Award-winning titles like “The Great Gatsby” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” She and her husband, Doug Wick, are the heads of Red Wagon Entertainment, whose most recent production was “The Divergent Series.” She has served as vice chairman of Sony’s Columbia Tristar Group and held executive positions at Warner Brothers, Zoetrope and Twentieth Century Fox. Along the way, she managed to raise three children and persuaded movie studios to build day care centers. But, just like the rest of us, she often made it up as she went along. Fisher sat down with Alta Publisher and Editor Will Hearst to discuss her career and share her passion for movie-making.

WILL HEARST: The last time I saw you on a regular basis, you were an English major. You could have been a writer or an academic. You could have devoted yourself to being a mom. But you are in a profession where people would die to be part of it, and you’ve done very well. What happened?

LUCY FISHER: I wonder about that myself. Doug [Wick] and I have puzzled about it because he didn’t know me then. I’m very surprised that my life took the turns it did because it really wasn’t a plan, as you well know. We didn’t, any of us, have a plan.

HEARST: Right. You were always a good student.

FISHER: I was interested in literature, but I wanted to get a job. I didn’t want to be dependent on my parents for spending money. So I went and looked on the message board for a cleaning job, and I saw something there for a waitress instead. It was at the Signet Society [Harvard undergraduate club for literature, music and theater]. I had been to the Signet as a guest, so I knew what it was. I showed up the first day and I didn’t realize it was a prank — that the person in charge was a steward, you know, “a drunken 70-year-old guy who had lived there 100 years,” or whatever, and he had been fighting with the waitress and said he was going to replace her. He put up the ad. Then I showed up. I walked into a scene where everybody was mad. I said, “I just answered the ad.” I met Peter [Ivers, a Harvard graduate, who later became a musician and scored the movie “Eraserhead”] on my very first day there. Just recently, as an aside, I got an email from Jim Atlas [a fellow Harvard student, who later started Atlas & Co. publishing, and was founding editor of the Penguin Lives Series]. Do you remember him?

HEARST: Yes, sure.

FISHER: Well, I had not been in touch with him at all, but he said, “The last time I saw you, you were asking, ‘milk or Coke?’” Because that’s what I did: I would go to each person and say “Do you want milk or Coke?”

HEARST: Like that scene in “Citizen Kane.” He never forgot that girl — the “milk or Coke” girl.

FISHER: That’s what I was. I had a little salon in the kitchen, where I would invite the people I thought were cool to eat. I just served while the pundits expounded. There were no female members. When I was a senior, they did allow women. I should have joined, but I didn’t because I liked my little power base in the kitchen.

There was a Harvard scene of plays — real theater and very well reviewed. Tim Hunter was making movies with Stockard Channing and Tommy Lee Jones. They were all older than us. When I met Peter, he was already out of school. He was just hanging around the Signet. Then Peter got a record deal. My plan had been — if I can call it that — do I go to a commune or not? Then, after Peter got the deal and I graduated, our plan was to go to California. So we got into a Volkswagen and went.

HEARST: Was this the epic moment in your life?

FISHER: I was a rock ‘n’ roll lady. But you know that my father had died.

HEARST: Yes, when you were quite young.

FISHER: I was a junior in college when it happened. It was terrible. I got a phone call that he had a heart attack, and I freaked out. So a year later, we were in California, staying at various people’s houses on couches. But I began to feel guilty about my mom being home alone.

HEARST: You were how old then?

FISHER: I was 20. But my brother and sister were younger and my mother was only 45. So I left Peter and went back to New Jersey and got a job at Prentice Hall writing book jackets.

HEARST: An entry-level literary job, like the mailroom of an agency. I think of P-H as science publishers.

FISHER: It was a textbook company. But, as a tax write-off, it had a trade division, with the worst authors and the worst books.

I couldn’t type 40 words a minute because my father had told me not to learn how to type so I would never have to be a secretary. But I wrote unbelievably great book jackets — so good that they made the book sound great. My boss would say to me, “Why do you care so much? These authors don’t even think these books are good.”

HEARST: You had a gift.

FISHER: Well, I had a little knack, which turned out to be useful because then I missed Peter too much, so I came back to California. He was living at the Tropicana Motel and he had a little business card that said, “Peter Ivers Music for Cash.”

HEARST: A very simple value proposition.

FISHER: Yes, for a guy who never took a job for money in his life, I might add. But I said, “I’m not going to live in this sleaze-bag hotel, even though it’s historic rock ‘n’ roll.” So we found a place. I thought I could get a job in publishing, but there weren’t any.

Then I got a job at a crappy newspaper that was started by the same guy that started the L.A. Free Press. It wasn’t alive very long. It was called the Hollywood Daily News, and my job was to drive it to the printer. My other job was to go to the local news radio station and pick up wire service reels. But we couldn’t afford the wire service, so I would go to KFWB every day — and bring it back to the newspaper. One day I said, “I’m sorry, this is my last day. The company’s bankrupt and do you know of any jobs?” They said, “Yeah, you can start here at midnight.” So I said, “OK. I will.” I started at midnight to 8 a.m. in the newsroom of the local news station.

HEARST: Radio.

FISHER: Radio. 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world. Between 2 and 5, nothing went on because 5 a.m. was 8 in Washington and New York, and then the world woke up. And the local murders were over by 2. My big break, 3 months into the radio job, was that I became a freelance reader for United Artists.

HEARST: That was your moonlighting job. Your real job was working at the radio station?

FISHER: Yes. As it turned out, I had seen every French movie ever made. I had read only one script, which wasn’t really a script, but Peter had done the score for “Eraserhead.” It was David Lynch’s first movie at the AFI [American Film Institute].

I had seen “Eraserhead.” That was my qualification in film. I had also written those book jackets. I was a great reader and a great synopsizer, and because of that, I got a big break: a job as the lowest-level freelance reader. They were good to me and it was a wonderful place to work. At that time, they were making, believe it or not, in one span, “Annie Hall,” “Rocky,” and “Midnight Cowboy.” They even had “Cuckoo’s Nest” — not that I had anything to do with them.

HEARST: Still, there were good things going on in that shop. You would read them all?

FISHER: Sure.

HEARST: And write coverage?

FISHER: Write and play a lot of tennis. We lived in Laurel Canyon in a house.

HEARST: At that stage, how could you tell that a script had something extra?

FISHER: I was always a very good reader. And I did love movies. Most of the stuff I read was the bottom of the heap. One moment did shock me. I see my boss reading to someone over the phone. He is rejecting it, and he is reading my notes — just quoting from them. And I’m thinking, “Wait. I’m the only person who has read it. He didn’t read it. Nobody else read it.”

HEARST: But you were starting to develop your own taste?

FISHER: Yes. Early on, I said, “I know you’re giving me only the bad stuff. I want to read what you’re making that you consider good so I’ll be able to recognize the difference and know what good is.”

Then something very funny happened. There was a script starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, and it was being directed by Arthur Penn. I said I want to read that script.

HEARST: Was it “The Missouri Breaks?” What was it? I think Tom McGuane wrote it.

FISHER: How the hell would you remember that?

HEARST: Laughs.

"Rocky" movie poster

FISHER: He did. Anyway, so I take it home and bring it back. I go, “This script was mis-collated. That’s why it made so little sense.” I thought it was numbered incorrectly. They said, “No, that’s it.”

So I asked, “Why are you making it?” And they said, “It’s a long story,” so I started to understand that it doesn’t always work the way you’d think. They had a package that came together, and they would try to make the script work.

They did ask me to read another script by this unknown person [Sylvester Stallone] — “Rocky.” That was a perfect script. After “Rocky,” I got tired of doing the same old thing — but they said you have to keep doing it and wait until you’re either fired or promoted.

HEARST: So you’re good at your job and that creates a problem?

FISHER: I guess so. Plus, I was bored. Anyway, there wasn’t a solution there, but they helped me get a position at Sam Goldwyn Jr. Studios, and that was a promotion, which was nice of them.

HEARST: The son of the famous producer Samuel Goldwyn? Sam Senior made “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and Sam Junior made art house movies.

FISHER: That’s right, but at that point, Sam Jr. hadn’t made a movie in seven years, nor had he distributed one. Typical story, the father was the father and it was hard to be the son. So I had to scrape around and find new writers who didn’t have anybody. I enjoyed that. I met younger people who had no place else to go. And, subsequently, Goldwyn started to release art movies. He did very well.

HEARST: I thought the pictures with his mark were kind of special and interesting.

FISHER: Those were the ones he just picked up, where he bought the finished movies.

Then I got a job at MGM. Actually, Sherry Lansing left and there became a position open as a story editor. Now I’m moving up, from a reader to a story editor to an executive story editor at MGM.

HEARST: What does that entail? Do you get to tell somebody, “Listen, I like it, but you have to make some changes,” as opposed to just reading it and commenting?

FISHER: Let’s put it this way: It was a barely functional studio, and the night before I started, I was thinking, “I don’t want to take this job. It isn’t even a good studio.” On my first day,  as Tim Mayer was helping me unpack my stuff, the person leaving said, “Good luck. This is a dead-end job.”

HEARST: I always tell my kids: The first day of your job is the worst day of your job. There’s always something horrible about the first day of a new job.

FISHER: I was on a different floor from all the other executives — I was on the ground floor and they were on the third. Then I got lucky: I read two scripts first and got my bosses to buy them. So that kind of put me on the map.

HEARST: Making those choices takes something — taste and talent.

FISHER: One was “Fame.” It was called “Hot Lunch” when it came in. The other was “One from the Heart.” This was in my short time there — six months.

HEARST: They must have trusted you if you’re this unknown person who says, “You should buy these scripts.”

FISHER: I was an enthusiast, for sure. I’ve never played it safe. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.

HEARST: It was a finished script?

FISHER: Yes. I asked a friend what he was working on, and he said, “An original. It doesn’t have a name. This one is from my heart.” So I told him that’s what we’ll call it: “One from the Heart.”

I knew Paula Weinstein, who was fabulous — one of my best friends. She was at Fox, which was then the best studio. They had just made “Star Wars,” but they also made “Young Frankenstein,” and they were making “Alien” under Alan Ladd Jr. It was the moment in time when it was the finest place ever. I got a phone call: “Will you come in and meet Laddie? There’s a job as a vice president.”

HEARST: Geez.

FISHER: That’s what I said. I’ve been a story editor for only six months. I don’t know anything. Plus, it’s Yom Kippur. I went in after sundown, and he said, “Do you want to move to Fox and become a vice president?” I was like, “Are you kidding? That’s the greatest job ever.”

HEARST: Somehow the word had gotten out.

FISHER: That was embarrassing because, without my asking, MGM had promoted me from story editor to executive story editor and put a little announcement in the paper.

So I had to go talk to the head guy and I said, “I feel you’ve only been wonderful to me, and I feel really horrible saying this,” but I started to cry. “I feel like I don’t know what to do.” He said, “If I could go there, I would. Just go and good luck.” I did, and it was as great a place as you could possibly work.

HEARST: At what point does it become collaborative?

"Stuart Little" movie poster

FISHER: You always have to get somebody else to like it. Try to find something you think is good, try to get other people to think it’s good, and then try to get a director, an actor —

HEARST: Is there a person who has the final green light?

FISHER: At that time, it was one person. Now, it’s a gigantic committee.

HEARST: Isn’t it important to get a cast that somebody likes?

FISHER: By the time I was a vice president, I could do that.

HEARST: How did you get your phone calls returned from agents and actors?

FISHER: Paula [Weinstein] gave me very good advice that I will always remember. I had a project I thought had a good script. Robert Redford was a giant star. I didn’t know him, so I gave it to her to give to him because she knew him well. He passed.

Paula said, “I don’t think it’s such a good script, and you love the script, so you should have made the call.” She was right. That had more to do with his passing on the project that any other consideration.

HEARST: Because you were the passion person?

FISHER: Yes. Energy makes the world go ’round. They included me in everything even though I still knew nothing. After six months there — and I’m enjoying every second — there’s a war between Ladd, the creative head of the company, and a guy named Dennis Stanfill, who was the corporate head of the company [chairman, CEO, Fox Studios]. Laddie puts his hand through a wall and says “I’m out of here.” So then the entire top echelon of Fox leaves, six months after I’ve gotten there, which is six months after I’d left another job. They were a wonderful team, and I loved them all. They said, “Come with us, we’re starting a new company.”

HEARST: How flattering.

FISHER: Yes, but I still haven’t been on a movie set or been anywhere near a movie.

HEARST: Truly?

FISHER: I said, “I want to go, but I also want to stay.” I did stay, and I had four administrations in two years. Different people would come in and would get the same flowers from ICM and CAA. The cards would say, ‘We’re so happy you’re the new head of studio.” Two months later, they were gone. The same flowers would come with the same note to the next person.

I learned a lot, and I also saw a lot of crazy things going on. Then Sherry Lansing came in to be the head. By that time, [Francis Ford] Coppola was getting ready to start a little Hollywood studio of his own, a private studio. He had even bought a wonderful property on Las Palmas in the heart of old Hollywood. It had nine adorable sound stages.

He decided that I should be his head of production. One wrinkle for him was I still hadn’t seen a movie from start to finish. I pointed that out to him. He said, “I’ll be there and I can help you.” He got down on his knees in San Francisco and he said, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? I’ll go bankrupt, and you’ll know more about making movies than any other studio executive.”

We had money problems, but we carried on for two years. It was pretty divine in its own crazy way. I had a bungalow, which he had Dean Tavoularis, the production designer, paint in graduated shades of pink. He art-directed me into a 1954 Thunderbird hardtop convertible with the little portholes.

HEARST: My goodness.

FISHER: Suddenly, I was head of production at a studio. I brought my friend David Lynch, who I had done “Eraserhead. with. Jean-Luc Godard was there and also Gene Kelly [both directors].

HEARST: Cool.

FISHER: Very cool. Except that money was always a big problem, and we were making “One from the Heart.”

HEARST: Why wouldn’t money chase him? He could generate hits.

FISHER: He’s a genius — an artist, not a businessman. But I had to tell him: “Either give me authority or act normal.” He said, “No, don’t worry, I’ll do what I have to do.” Still, I didn’t regret a minute of being there. I did that for two years, and then I had to fire everybody and fire myself. Francis moved back to San Francisco.

Because of my time at Zoetrope, I felt that I needed three months off. Once again, I was following what I was interested in. It wasn’t like I wanted to be the head of this or that. So we rented a house in Ravello with Paula [Weinstein], and we got to be very friendly with Gore Vidal and Howard Austen.

HEARST: That famous house that’s on the cliff? Such a beautiful place.

FISHER: I spent the summer with them, then came back, met Doug in New York, and the next day I was supposed to go back to Los Angeles and start a job at Warner Bros. It was a much smaller place at that time. I was Bob Daly’s first hire [Robert A. Daly, co-chairman and co-chief executive officer, Warner Bros.].

But after the time off, I had second thoughts. This part of the story is very romantic. I called Warner Bros. and said, “I’m not sure I want the job anymore.” I told them not to make the announcement in the trades. The person I called said, “Where are you?” I told him, “I’m at a pay phone booth in the lobby of a Broadway show during intermission.” He told me to sleep on it, and he asked if I thought this is the best way to make a life decision. So, I did sleep on it. I took the job and I stayed for 14 years — the longest I ever stayed in one job.

HEARST: It’s a story of resilience. Your spirit was never broken.

FISHER: Before this, the waitress job had been my longest.

HEARST: Weren’t you the head of the studio, or had the opportunity to be the head of the studio?

FISHER: Yes. I turned down the head of production, several times.

HEARST: Why?

FISHER: For my children. I had three kids, and I wanted to be at home. Throughout my career, I’ve always liked the actual work, but I have not liked the trappings so much. I enjoyed doing the work, and the directors liked me because I was that kind of person. I didn’t want to go to all the premieres, and I didn’t want to go to board meetings. I didn’t want to be responsible for a whole slate of movies. I wanted to be part of the ones I was interested in, so I wasn’t being a martyr.

HEARST: So by that time you had children?

FISHER: I was extremely lucky, and I can thank Bob Daly for that. After my first child, I asked if I could work from home one day a week, on Fridays. I promised to get everything done. He said fine. Steven Spielberg would say: “I’m going to have a Lucy Fisher day” when he wanted to stay home on a Friday.

Then, after I had the third child — we had three kids in three and a half years — I asked if I could cut my salary in half and work three days a week at the office and two days a week from home. He said, “Are you crazy?”

I told him he could make it up on my bonuses if he thought I deserved it. “I don’t want to disappoint you,” I told him. “I don’t want to disappoint my kids.” Finally, he said, “I will not cut your salary in half. But if you agree to extend your contract at full salary, you can work three days a week.”

HEARST: What an interesting counteroffer.

FISHER: He is partly responsible for our kids turning out so great, in my opinion, because he offered that deal.

I decided that we needed a day care center. I would never have understood it if it had not happened to me. I had access to the highest people in the company. And I thought, this is something I can make happen. There was one little day care center at Paramount for maybe 10 or 12 kids. I wanted a real one the employees could really use.

It took me five years. By the time it opened, my kids were older. It opened with more than 100 kids. It wasn’t physically on the lot because there are rules about how much outdoor space needs to be adjacent. It was right near the lot, though. The HR person was a woman who had a kid, so we said, “Let’s do this under the radar. If you can be near your kids, see them during the day, see them at lunch —”

HEARST: It becomes an advantage to a job offer. You can propose a solution to a significant family problem.

FISHER: That’s right. Sony copied it identically, as did many other studios.

HEARST: When did you and Doug start your own production company?

FISHER: Doug already had his company — Red Wagon — and I was a studio executive. He was an independent producer. But if he had a project at the studio where I was, I would just go into a different room. At that point, he had a deal at Sony. I was offered the job of vice chairman of Sony.

HEARST: Another big job. A lot of people would have crawled across the floor to get those positions.

FISHER: It must have been part of my negotiating power, even though I didn’t realize it.

HEARST: You had the ability to walk away.

FISHER: It’s true that I was never desperate for it. There had been a lot of turmoil at Sony. Peter Guber and Jon Peters had just been fired. I was very ambivalent about it, but I had a great contract, so I thought the worst that happens is they’ll fire me. That will be OK, too.

HEARST: You were imagining that possibility?

FISHER: It turned out that Sony did fire everybody but me. They fired every single person who hired me and every single person the next level below me. At one point, they came to me and handed me a press release, and they said: “The chairman was fired, you’re the chairman now.” I said, “Nobody asked me, and I don’t want to be the chairman.”

They said, “There is no chairman, so you’re just going to be the vice chairman, with no chairman?”

I said, “That’s right.” Because at that point I knew that to be the chairman, and do it the way I think it would have to be done, you have to go to so many previews because that’s how you see the way the movie plays with an audience. And, worse, you have to do it at nighttime. Otherwise, it’s really hard to talk to the director and say, “Hey, this isn’t funny” if you haven’t been in the audience.

HEARST: For you, it has never been the title or the grandeur?

FISHER: Right. I just wanted to work more closely with my own movies and not have to supervise all of them. But, mainly, I didn’t want to be with the suits that much, and I didn’t want to work that much at night because it was important to hang out with my kids and put them to bed. You are either there or you are not. It wasn’t appealing enough to me to sacrifice that. I loved being a mom; I always knew I wanted children.

HEARST: What a benefit to them — to have a mom who is committed to the enjoyment of raising them.

FISHER: I was lucky enough to be able to have a great job, too. Everybody should have the opportunity to be able to have quality time with your kids and be able to have a good job.

Maybe I had never seen myself as powerful in business as I became. My grandfather was a big real estate guy in New Jersey, and I spent a lot of time with him. Some of it came to me naturally. I didn’t know the muscles I had. The education I had was helpful because it gave me the confidence to think my opinion should be valued, as opposed to asking permission. And because I went to Harvard — we women students were at Radcliffe at that time; we were only a quarter of the population — I was used to being outnumbered. It wasn’t something I noticed or felt self-conscious about.

I’m so much more aware now because of my daughters, and because of the times we live in. Our kids are all activists who work in some form of political action.

HEARST: Are you political? Is Doug? I know you have connections to political people.

FISHER: My parents were involved with civil rights. I’ve always been interested in Democratic politics. As it exists now, politics are horrible. If you consider that you’re watching all your rights go away and people aren’t voting.

HEARST: At some point, you and Doug wanted to see how you could live together and work together successfully.

 

"The Fugitive" movie poster

FISHER: Yes. Doug was already at Sony when I got there, so I considered it his studio. Suddenly, I was kind of his boss. It got a little complicated. I would still get up and leave the room. He was working on “Stuart Little,” and Warner Bros. had done all the movies from Amblin, Steven Spielberg’s company, like “Goonies,” and “Gremlins.”

HEARST: OK.

FISHER: “Stuart Little” was the kind of movie I would normally work on. Finally, they said I should stop leaving the room. Doug was the producer, but I was his studio executive. We loved the movie, and we loved working on it together.

We said, “We’ll try it and then we’ll see.” And we’ve had a lot of fun. We figured out some ground rules: Don’t talk about business after 10 — things like that. But it’s organic, and we break rules when they don’t work.

HEARST: Now that you have a reputation, when you call someone and say, “I’m Lucy Fisher. I have a script you should look at,” you get a response, don’t you?

FISHER: Laughs. It depends how old they are.

HEARST: In my limited experience, if you assemble good people, they bring their A game.

FISHER: You might wonder why anybody would not want to hire the best people. But some newer people are sometimes more interested in controlling more of everything. It’s a terrible mistake. You should want to get somebody who thinks of stuff you would never dream of. That is the real pleasure. That is the magic of the room being smarter than any single person in it. And when you are on a set, it feels like magic happens, and everybody’s applauding, and everybody’s feeling great. And there are times where there’s an actor who acts it in a way that you could never have imagined. And it brings a reality or an emotion that’s way past anything.

HEARST: How much of the movie is in the screenplay? And how much is launched from the screenplay? Or is it the director and the cast?

FISHER: It totally depends. I worked on a movie that turned out to be one of the best movies I worked on. We had only half a script. We just chased the script through the whole second half. When we saw the first cut, it was perfect. It was “The Fugitive.” We had the setup and the premise. But you look at the movie and say, “That must’ve been a great script.”

HEARST: I thought so.

FISHER: It wasn’t — it was just that everybody brought stuff to it and it turned out fine. But it’s always better to have a good script.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.