Lauren Shuler Donner – ACE Honoree

March 30, 2020

1st Qtr, 2020

When American Cinema Editors selected Lauren Shuler Donner as this year’s Golden Eddie recipient, it chose to laud the 45-year career of a Hollywood titan as well as illuminate the often-overlooked relationship between producer and editor. Donner’s storied career spans film, TV and stage with a mix of genres and styles that echoes her passions, ambitions and creativity. Along the way, her work grossed $6 billion worldwide and she boosted many notable editors, writers, directors and actors to great success.

Growing up just outside of Cleveland, Hollywood felt like a far-off land let alone a place where one could make a serious living. A combination of seemingly-innocuous experiences ignited a deep fascination in Donner’s psyche. “My dad gave me a little Brownie camera when I was young,” recalls Donner. “I had a real love of taking pictures and I used to write. I wrote prose, poetry. I used to draw. None of which I did very well, but I did it all the time. I have a great love of story. When I was in school, I gravitated to subjects like history and English more than science or math. They spoke to me. Also, I had a cousin I would go to the movies with all the time. Movies were a big part of our lives. Movies and music. My youngest memories were watching Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin movies and just laughing and playing out the scenes from them afterward. Our other favorites were Abbot and Costello movies. These movies weren’t profound, but they inspired me by entertaining me nonetheless. When I finally figured out in college what I wanted to major in, it all made sense.”[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Donner graduated from Boston University and it was one of the best experiences of her life. Donner admits, “I loved taking film classes. I remember carrying a 16mm used camera and walking along the BU bridge and filming and imagining myself this budding director. I loved editing my films down in the basements until bleary eyed and begrudgingly having to give up my edit bay to another student. And I loved acting in my friends’ movies because it taught me early on which side of the camera I belonged.”

At the suggestion of one her professors, she moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘70s. She remembers, “One of my early jobs was as vacation relief at NBC for crew. Of all of the jobs available that I was interested in the most was camera. I always loved the visual side of things. The guys taught me the camera on The Tonight Show. I couldn’t shoot that because that was their big moneymaker, but I got to shoot the local news and after that I freelanced quite a bit. I did it for about three years.

I was the only woman! Everybody was watching me. The older men didn’t want me. It was the hardest thing I did. They really didn’t want me. The younger men were great. I’m generalizing but mostly that was the truth. At a certain point, my second to last show, I shot the Easter sunrise service at [the] Hollywood Bowl. I was the top camera. Those who know the Hollywood Bowl know that it’s all uphill and pretty steep. I carried my own equipment, so nobody could ever say a woman couldn’t do what a man could do. I was walking down the stairs and I thought, ‘You know, I could do better than this.’ I had done it. I had done it well.

At that point, I had been in the business enough to start thinking about what I wanted to do. I was still in my 20s. I decided I wanted to tell stories. Instead of shooting, I want to tell other people how to shoot. That’s when I decided to make the transition. I knew all the crews. As the only woman, everybody knew me. And I could write just enough. My next step was as an associate producer in television because I could put together a crew and work on the show.”

Soon Donner would face another adversary. “I got into a serious car accident that put me out for many, many months. A woman ran a red light and I crashed into her,” recalls Donner. “That’s when I started writing again. I had a lot of friends who were writers and I found I was an okay writer, but I was a very good editor and collaborator. I could nail what was wrong and try to fix it. A friend of mine knew (writer/director) Nancy Meyers, who at Motown Productions was a Creative Executive. Nancy left, and my friend told me about her job opening. I went in there, they gave me this script, and I wrote five pages of constructive criticism and they hired me. That script turned out to be Thank God It’s Friday.” She joined Motown as a creative executive and was upped to associate producer. “That’s how I was able to make the transition. It was a really different way than anyone else has become a producer. It’s usually story or development jobs or through production as a line producer.” True to her producer spirit, not even recovering from a major car accident could keep her from making this downtime productive.

Donner hit the ground running after Thank God It’s Friday. Her follow-up, Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill, paired her for the first time with director Joel Schumacher. However, it was her third feature that really cemented Donner as a Hollywood producer on the rise. Mr. Mom came about purely through creative networking. Donner shares, “I was reading the National Lampoon and came across a very funny article that made me take notice of the writer – John Hughes. We connected and talked on the phone all the time. I thought he was really funny. Duh. We both had a midwestern sensibility, so we got along very well.

At the time, he was writing a movie for the movie division of ABC. During one of our many conversations on the phone, he relayed to me that his wife was away and left him alone with the kids. He was a total idiot with the boys. His stories were hilarious. He said, ‘I have an 80-page script in a drawer about those experiences called Mr. Mom. Would you like to read it?’ Not only was it funny, it validated those men who were out of work [at the time due to the recession] and had to stay home and take care of the house and kids. At the same time, it validated women, too, because it showed that being a housewife wasn’t easy especially if you had kids.”

Donner continues, “I figured out John got married right after college. He had never been on his own. He was telling me these stories and they were hilarious. He had never done laundry or cooked for himself. I really loved working with John Hughes on that. It’s a movie conceptually that I was very proud of. John and I stayed close.” She also made it her mission to cast Michael Keaton in the lead role after an agent friend told her to watch Night Shift. While she wasn’t on the set of Mr. Mom every day, the film turned out to be a resounding success.

Soon after she reunited with Joel Schumacher and John Hughes, respectively, on two era-defining movies: St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty in Pink. Both films were edited by the late Richard Marks, ACE. Donner reminisces, “Since I was there every day, I really saw the power of editing. It was storytelling in a character-defining, story advancing way. Richard was a genius. He was very tough but tough for the right reasons. I loved being in the cutting room. Occasionally, we’d make a deal. If he and I were on the same side and the director wasn’t, we would play good cop/bad cop on what we felt was right.” She laughs, “I probably shouldn’t say that. No director will work with me now. I respect immensely the power of editing.”

Just before that time, Donner produced the adventure drama Ladyhawke. While the film wasn’t the success she had hoped it was an absolutely worthwhile endeavor as it introduced her to editor Stuart Baird, ACE, and re-introduced her to director Richard Donner, from which Lauren Shuler gets her surname. She gushes, “I had the great honor to work with Stuart Baird. Baird is an awesome editor. Watching him and Dick in the editing room was pretty good trial by fire. That was four years of college right there.”

Richard Donner and Baird had great success before on The Omen and Superman so their shorthand in the editing bay was well grounded. She had met Richard Donner at the premiere of Superman some years earlier, but this time while scouting locations in Czechoslovakia and nursing a broken heart over a failed marriage, she soon saw in Richard Donner “the bighearted guy that everyone knows.” From that point on, he became her greatest champion, good friend and soon-to-be husband. With three hits under her belt, Lauren Shuler Donner kept her trajectory going with hits like Three Fugitives and Dave, but she would soon find herself associated with a phenomenon that was altering the industry – the blockbuster. This designation has been something that really started with films like Star Wars, Superman and Jaws in the ‘70s, but those weren’t seen as the norm. In the ‘90s however, a film could recoup its entire budget in a weekend. For Donner, Free Willy was her first taste at breaking the $100 million mark domestically. Its success spawned two sequels and a television series. Later on, You’ve Got Mail continued to prove romantic comedies could hold their own in the blockbuster category alongside big-budget special effects pictures. The film also reunited her with Richard Marks. It was around this time that The Donners’ Company development executive Scott Nimerfro brought Donner the X-Men properties.

She explains, “He gave me a big notebook filled with bios. First bio I read was Logan. He had these heartbreaking flaws: an uncontrollable berserker rage, Adamantium someone had put into his body that forced him to heal any physical damage, no memories of his life and an unrequited love for Jean Grey. There was so much to empathize with him about. I read all the characters after that and fell in love. Their mythology was captivating but just human enough that you can access them and empathize with them. If we purposefully ground these characters so that the only thing that’s not real about them are their powers, then people will accept this as reality.

When Bryan [Singer] and I made the first X-Men, it was his idea to start out the first film at the concentration camps in World War II. It explains Magneto’s origins and why he feels enormous anger about what people have done. It’s the humanity of these villains and heroes that make them familiar and you can feel that they’re part of our lives just enough to want to spend time with them. In the first one, there was enough politics and thematic material to draw me in. The X-Men canon is about tolerance. We hit it on the head. The government wants to restrain them, cure them, and separate them. Anyone can identify with that.” Superman and Batman movies had already been popular fare with moviegoers before, but it was the X-Men movies that really catapulted them into the mainstream. The X-Men franchise has birthed nearly 10 sequels and a number of TV shows, many of which Donner has produced or executive produced to varying degrees.

Throughout she’s found the time to work on other projects like Any Given Sunday Deadpool and The Secret Life of Bees, as well as spend time on her philanthropic work helping fund cancer treatments. In recent years, Donner has tackled new creative challenges: a return to television and two forays into musical theater. The shows Legion and The Gifted mirror the X-Men’s flawed humans with supernatural abilities and debuted in 2017.

Both shows are still part of the Marvel expanded universe but create a sensibility and world unto themselves. While Donner is still looped in on the movie franchises she built, she has removed herself largely from the day-to-day producing duties of the latest X-Men films in order to focus on Legion and her passion projects: transforming two of her favorite films, Dave and The Secret Life of Bees, to the stage. “It’s been very different,” she admits. “Totally different ways to tell the story. It took me years to learn and I’m certainly still learning. Musicals are two acts, while movies are three acts.

I’ve done 35 or 40 movies now, and I can say this musical world is quite challenging. However, I love the actors and talent that we’ve worked with.” In times like the one we’re living in now, two heartfelt stories about a decent everyman as the President of the United States, and a young girl who finds a surrogate family in 1964 South Carolina may just offer some good feelings we so desperately need.

For those who want to enter the entertainment industry, her words speak for aspiring producers as well as editors. “Keep in mind, it’s going to be very tough. Someone’s going to push you out of the way. Someone’s not going to give you what you want. Always remember it’s not personal. No one is going after you personally. It’s a business. You have to keep your sense of humor. Pick your fights. Don’t go picking fights about everything or no one is going to listen to you. I just read this quote from Nancy Pelosi, which I think is great and I definitely advise: ‘Know how to take a punch, but know when to throw one.’ As you’re working your way up, make sure you’re constantly networking and forming alliances because in our business it’s half what you know and half who you know. And that is really important. Don’t worry about peers that are advancing when you’re not. That has nothing to do with you. There’s enough room for everyone’s success. Do keep your alliances!” Looking back at her roster of work, Donner admits, “When I watch audiences laugh at our films’ jokes, when the audience weeps at moments of our character’s goodbye, when the audience fans out of the theater happy to have been moved at something I had a part in creating, I feel a satisfaction like no other.

It’s a powerful gratification. It’s an aphrodisiac. I am eternally grateful for the editors I have worked with. I know the power of the editor. I respect it. I need it. Half of the job is making the film and the other half is putting it together. I am truly honored and flattered to receive this distinction from ACE.” Thank you, Lauren Shuler Donner for the laughs, the tears, the thrills and the comfort.

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