Sleepless in Fredericksburg

To escape the fast pace and high pressure of Hollywood, Lynda Obst bought a place in the Hill Country and swaddled herself in all things Texan. But the veteran movie producer hasn’t slowed down. In fact, she’s moving faster than ever.

July 1997By Comments

PEOPLE CLOSE TO LYNDA OBST REMAIN skeptical about the Texas thing. The Manhattanites are still waiting for her inevitable return to the world of literature, politics, and journalism that she occupied before becoming a big-time movie producer. Obst’s eighteen-year-old son, Oly, is mortified by his mom’s sudden interest in the Houston Rockets after a lifetime of Los Angeles Lakers games. In Hollywood the hard-core show biz types can’t figure out why anyone would choose Texas over Aspen or Martha’s Vineyard, while Obst’s friends, accustomed to her unbridled energy and unparalleled efficiency, can’t quite reconcile those qualities with the notion of little Lynda, happy at last, in the peaceful, isolated Texas Hill Country.

Then they come to Obst’s Fredericksburg home, a four-bedroom, 124-year-old stone-and-wood retreat. They note the near absence of anything related to the movie business inside. They marvel at the birds and the wildflowers and Obst’s elaborate, lovingly maintained green-and-brown cowboy boots, the ones with the hearts over each toe. And they finally concede the point: When Obst raves about the quiet, the friendliness, and the unhurried, pressure-free pace, she means it.

Or so it seems. One leisurely afternoon not long ago, 47-year-old Obst was taking her friend and producing colleague Mary McLaglen on a shopping tour of Fred (as some Fredericksburg residents call their town). McLaglen and Obst—both compulsive, type-A personalities—routinely spar about which one of them is more capable of chilling out; as a part-time Texan, Obst figured she’d finally won. But when they arrived at the Fredericksburg Herb Farm, the sales staff snapped to attention. “Take care of that right away,” one of the clerks said to another, anticipating how fast Obst is always moving. Obst was busted: You can put the woman in Texas, but she can never entirely be of it.

She’s hardly a carpetbagger, however. Obst’s love for the state is boundless, and she has been warmly accepted by a wide circle of natives, including lifelong Fred people, Austin literati, and through her friendship with musician Joe Ely, the vast Lubbock singer-songwriter-artist-bohemian crowd. “Lynda really is a Texas girl,” says playwright Jo Carol Pierce, one of the Lubbockites. “She really is the spirit of Texas, though I’ve had to transfer ownership of one of my ex-husbands to her ’cause she didn’t feel that she had enough.”

What Obst may be lacking in divorce experience is dwarfed by the credits on her professional résumé. Part of a generation of women that includes Paramount Pictures chairman Sherry Lansing and former Columbia Pictures president Dawn Steel, Obst is one of filmdom’s best-known producers, famous for her good taste, sharp mind, and fearless temperament. She plays the standard Hollywood game, from her attention to the bottom line to her occasional cutthroat moment, but her primary allegiance is to the creative side, which means that actors, writers, and directors love her. “She’s either more passionate or smarter than anybody else, usually both,” says William Broyles, a former Texas Monthly editor in chief and the Oscar-nominated co-screenwriter of Apollo 13, who has worked with Obst on an script about the Religious Right.

“Endangered species” is how Obst lovingly refers to her type of project—the most famous example of which is 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, a film credited with reviving the “date movie” when it grossed $130 million in a summer filled with bloated action fare. (The traditional benchmark for a decent summer hit is $100 million, though now that The Lost World made that much in five days and many movies cost that much to make, the bar is rising). Since Sleepless, studios commonly counterprogram romantic comedies against the big sequels and the action pics. Obst’s other films—there have been nine in all—include The Fisher King and last year’s One Fine Day. “I come from the simple world, where if you love the script and you can cast it and make it well and responsibly, that’s moviemaking,” Obst says. Then, mocking herself and all of Hollywood, she adds with a melodramatic flourish: “I know that sounds naive.”

If Obst has had a run of good years lately, 1997 may well be one of her best. First of all, there’s lingering positive press for Hello, He Lied: And Other Truths From the Hollywood Trenches (Little, Brown), the memoir she finished writing in Fredericksburg two years ago. Released last fall (the paperback is due out in September), it is neither an autobiography nor an ax-grinding film-and-tell. Rather, it’s a subjective but clear-eyed anthropology of the peculiar culture that is Hollywood, part nuts-and-bolts career advice and part rallying cry, especially for female readers who aspire to join Obst in the ever-growing circle of what she calls “chix in flix.” Reviewers and readers agreed that the book elevated Obst’s professional profile and also pegged her as a credibly objective show biz observer.

On the cinematic side of things, there’s Contact, a story Obst has been trying to turn into a movie for the better part of seventeen years; it opens in theaters nationwide on July 11 with a star cast (Jodie Foster and Texan Matthew McConaughey) and a megastar director (Robert Zemeckis). Contact is a prototypical Obst project: Based on the Carl Sagan novel about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, it is a work of obvious intellectual and artistic seriousness that, like Sleepless or Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump, could still be a big summer hit.

But what most excites Obst personally are her new Texas projects. She has several in the works, including The Liar’s Club, based on Mary Karr’s best-selling Texas memoir, and Above the Fold, a film bio about former Atlanta Journal and Constitution editor Bill Kovach (the screenplay is being revised by former Texas Monthly contributing editor Lawrence Wright). She is also developing a script with Jo Carol Pierce and Sharon Ely, Joe’s wife, for Tornado Jam, a film that might well be her directorial debut. Finally, though she has made movies here before (including 1994’s Bad Girls, which was shot in Bracketville), Obst is producing her first film as a Texas resident. Hope Floats, a modest, quirky drama-comedy that focuses on three generations of women, began filming in Smithville, an hour east of Austin, in May. It is being directed by Longview native Forest Whitaker and stars Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick, Jr.

“This is my perfect life,” Obst insists. “A little house in Austin”—where she spends the workweek—“with weekends in Fredericksburg. And, of course, a movie to make. And income! That works too!”

lynda obst drives a golf cart like the new yorker she once was, which is to say you feel as if a trip to the pavement is imminent even as you’re impressed by the pinpoint recklessness with which she squeezes between a telephone pole and a line of police tape. We are in Smithville, on the set of Hope Floats; carts are the chosen form of transportation between three locations (a house, a nursing home, and a one-hour photo shop) and base camp (the familiar rows of trailers, trucks, and mobile food units, called honeywagons, that sit in the front yard of an old school building).

Smithville has never been captured on film before, which is what made it preferable to Bastrop, just a few miles away but as familiar as the Universal Studios back lot, or the Hill Country, which these days is to the medium-sized Southern drama what Monument Valley, Utah, is to the western. And Smithville proved serendipitous in other ways: In Steven Rogers’ original script, most of the action takes place in a picturesque gothic house that backstops a dead-end street, its backyard garden overlooking a river. A three-story house on a secluded, tree-lined Smithville street fit the bill exactly.

Hope Floats is actually set in a town called Smithville, with Bullock playing a recently divorced former prom queen who returns home, young daughter in tow, to live with her mother in a home filled with stuffed wildlife; Dad was a taxidermist before he moved to the nursing home down the block—another eerily coincidental script detail, for there really is a nursing home down the block from the house in question. The film was originally going to be set in Arkansas, but given Obst’s Fredericksburg connection and Bullock’s recent purchase of Central Texas property, the switch was a no-brainer. (The two women recently exchanged bumper stickers: Bullock got Obst one that says “Texan By Choice”; Obst got Bullock “Don’t Mess With Texas Women.”)

Obst, says Forest Whitaker, “is more actively involved than most producers I’ve seen,” a fact she herself acknowledges. Though she’s always busy developing other projects and leaves a lot of the budget detail work to executive producer and unit production manager McLaglen, Obst loves to be on the set. Ideally, she’s a high-powered cheerleader, sitting quietly at the monitor watching the movie unfold. Other times, there are crises.

On this particular day, the biggest crisis involves a tray of sliced apples with nonfat caramel dip, a favorite snack of Bullock’s that Obst and nine-year-old actress Mae Whitman have also grown fond of. It is a problem that Whitaker can solve on his own: “Are we on caramel break?” he asks with good-natured exasperation, shaming everyone into lining up for another take. The scene being shot is “coverage”—close-ups, mostly—of Connick’s first scene, and it has been done enough times by now that Obst leaves off her wireless headphones; she already knows the dialogue by heart.

Between setups, Obst is back in her trailer with McLaglen, associate producer Elizabeth Hooper, three cellular phones, two regular phones, a pair of laptop computers, and a long list of things to do. She juggles calls, mulls over a not-yet-chosen location that was the subject of the day’s lunch meeting, and reviews some script notes from another project. She spends about five minutes on the latter task before flinging the pages to the floor resignedly. Needless to say, there will be rewrites.

As a producer, Obst’s real work began about a year ago. She and Bullock both fell in love with the script of Hope Floats on their own. Conveniently, it was a Twentieth Century Fox property, as Obst is a Fox producer and Bullock was about to get top billing in Fox’s sequel to Speed. What really got the project going was the interest from Bullock, who also came aboard as a producer (Obst has been impressed by the actress’s willingness to sit through long production meetings and fret over call times—the hour the cast and crew must arrive on the set for shoots). Obst says the role is Bullock’s greatest acting challenge to date, though it still makes use of her regular-girl charm. For her part, Bullock seems most concerned that her star status doesn’t compromise the integrity of a simple, well-made story. She knows Obst can prevent that from happening. “She’s a great protector of the creative process,” Bullock says. “The wonderful thing about her—and the frustrating thing about her—is she’s incredibly passionate and fearless to a fault. We get into a lot of battles, but that’s a good thing. We find different roads to get to the same place.”

On an untroubled shoot—as Hope Floats has been thus far—Obst considers herself a den mother, throwing private parties for the cast and crew every Friday and working closely with the crew, many of whom follow her from project to project. (She’s an honorary member of the Austin Teamsters local). In Hello, He Lied, she writes of the professional advantage of getting along with your crew: “[Y]ou find out everything. When the production designer says the sets will be ready in a week, and the carpenter tells you he hasn’t even gotten the wood yet, you know someone is lying.”

Hope Floats production designer Larry Fulton showed he must have read the book when Obst came out to visit the set one day during preproduction (or prep, to use the official lingo). The house was crammed with animals: stuffed owls, stuffed cats, stuffed birds, and the body of an eight-point buck, which Obst and Whitaker would eventually deem excessive. The actors had been rehearsing that morning at the house, which really did smell like a home, thanks to Fulton, who had baked a plate of cookies (a trick he picked up from reading about the making of The Godfather, whose director, Francis Ford Coppola, and production designer, Dean Tavoularis, always had a pasta sauce going).

Obst asked Fulton a question about how work was going.

“What would be the politically correct answer?” he ventured.

“The truth, sweetie,” Obst replied.

HOW DID YOU FEEL? HOW DID YOU FEEL?” That’s what Obst’s editor wrote all over the margins of her first draft of Hello, He Lied. “I refused to really study my personal life because that’s not what’s interesting about what I know,” Obst says. But her editor begged to differ. “She said, ‘You have to write about yourself inside these anecdotes. You have to tell us who you are.’” Obst begrudgingly did so, though no one will mistake the book for a confessional. One of her best friends, agent Bryan Lourd, told her, “I love this book. It’s so you: ‘Got married. Got divorced.’ Okay! Anything in between?”

Well, yes—and before and after too. Obst grew up Lynda Rosen in suburban Harrison, New York, where one of her high school classmates was, coincidentally, Peter Chernin, currently her ostensible employer as the president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Century Fox’s parent company, News Corporation. Dad was in the garment business—“We called him the Shoulder Pad King”—and Mom was a teacher. “My mother had this profound belief in education,” she says, “and my father had this profound belief that if you do, you accomplish.”

Accomplishment is often fueled by competition, and in Obst’s case it came in the form of her little brothers: Michael, who is the northeast bureau chief for ABC News, and Rick, who is a co-founder of the talent agency Endeavor (whose clients include Wesley Snipes and Adam Sandler). Obst is a die-hard Baltimore Orioles fan, mostly because Rick favored the New York Yankees. Last year’s playoff series still stings. “I was so mad at Ricky when that goddam kid caught that ball,” she says. “It was like I was eight years old again and Rick stole the goddam ball and I lost the World Series because of it!”

Obst attended Pomona College in California, where her roommate was New Age guru Marianne Williamson, before going on to graduate school in philosophy at Columbia University in New York. She met her future husband, David Obst, at a party given by journalist (and San Antonio native) Marie Brenner. David was a literary agent whose circle included the likes of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and Lynda was tantalized. It was the post-Watergate era, after all, a time when journalism and Washington and the New York literary scene were still pretty tantalizing. “It was the most interesting world I’d ever been in in my life,” Obst recalls. “Then I’d go up to 119th Street and be tortured for nine hours with a bunch of Talmudic students who were so much more serious than I was.”

A career change was in order. David Obst and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner had just gotten into book publishing, so Lynda and Wenner’s wife, Jane, decided to pitch them on a history of the sixties. “We thought, ‘They can’t turn us down,’” Lynda says. They didn’t, especially since she had rounded up a list of contributors that included Bernstein, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, and civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy—though Wenner did try to bump her down to “research assistant.” Lynda promptly took the whole package to another friend of her husband’s, Simon and Schuster mogul Dick Snyder, and as she puts it, “Jann caved.”

One of the ironies of Obst’s career is that everything she has achieved has been very much her own doing, but the twists of fate that put her in that position can be traced back to David. It was through him that she met filmmaker Nora Ephron, who remains her best friend as well as an important collaborator. Because of David, she got to edit a book. And, best of all, she eventually ended up in Hollywood after David made a near-unilateral decision to move his family there so he could pursue Simon and Schuster’s interests in the movie business.

It was a decision that would prove far more fruitful for Lynda Obst than for her soon-to-be-ex husband. But she did not go easily, because in the wake of the sixties book she had landed a job as an editor at the New York Times Magazine. In some ways, it remains the credit she is most proud of. Sure, she can get exiled superagent Michael Ovitz on the phone, has been kissed by George Clooney (who starred in One Fine Day), and could put together a guest list for anyone’s idea of an ideal dinner party—but that’s nothing compared to editing I. F. Stone, concocting cover stories about philosophy and science, and simply being the “counterculture” gal at an establishment paper in transition during a stormy time in American history. Had it not been for David’s new job, she insists, “I never would have left—never.” Even today, years later, she talks seriously of publishing a newspaper in the Hill Country after she retires.

As a producer, Obst is still immersed in the world of journalism, viewing the development process as similar to the editorial process. Flashdance, her first triumph as a junior production executive working for Peter Guber—one half of a successful eighties producing team with Jon Peters—was based on an idea by an Esquire magazine writer. More recently, she has optioned Marie Brenner’s February 1997 Vanity Fair article about Richard Jewell, the security guard wrongly accused in the Olympic Park bombing case.

Even in the middle of Hope Floats, the Jewell project is on her mind. One afternoon, on the way home from the set, the cell phone rings: It’s the agent for director Douglas McGrath (Emma), calling from Paris. Obst’s tone becomes heated as she launches into an impassioned spiel. References are made to “Harvey” (Miramax Films co-chairman Weinstein, presumably). She explains that she likes McGrath for this project because he is a onetime New Republic writer who grew up in Midland; he is “part of the media that called Jewell the UnaBubba,” she says, “but he grew up with Bubba.” She tells the agent that another project McGrath is interested in “has been around for fifteen years and will be for another fifteen years,” whereas the Jewell story is an important vehicle about the media, the South, and the culture of contemporary politics.

It’s hard to imagine a bombastic producer of action �icks—say, Joel Silver (Die Hard) or Jerry Bruckheimer (Con Air)—delivering this kind of pitch. Yet undeniably, Obst occupies the same world as those guys. She even made Buzz magazine’s list of Hollywood’s ten biggest bullies a few years back. Some producers might have such a feature framed for the office; Obst lost sleep over it, until her son pointed out that in some fundamental way, making the list meant she was good at her job. She is a creature of Hollywood; quality and class are important to her, but she still makes “movie movies” rather than art films, and they are meant to play at the mall rather than at Sundance. “I believe ‘endangered species’ movies work,” she says, “and it’s my job to keep making them inside the studio system. There are tons of people who can make them outside the studio system, but if we let the studio system turn into a tent pole assembly line, there will be only two ways of making movies: starving and gluttony.”

Harry Connick, Jr., remembers remarking to Obst that she makes a certain kind of movie. Her reply was telling: “I’m a girl. What do you expect?” But on top of so-called women’s pictures, Obst has a taste for highbrow hits: fanciful, intellectual films like The Fisher King, and soon, Contact. “Part of my job is to make blockbusters,” she admits, “but I’m not just attracted to your standard blockbuster. I would go to Contact if I hadn’t made it. It’s a movie about philosophy.”

It is also a highly personal project for her, though in the end, she left the fine points of its production to Zemeckis, a director who also produces. But Obst first began working on Contact in 1980—she commissioned the treatment that Sagan eventually turned into his novel—and Sagan was a dear friend. In fact, scientists are her weakness; her close pals include Sagan’s widow, Annie Druyan, writer-professor Timothy Ferris, and Nobel prize—winning University of Texas physicist Steven Weinberg. Obst also dated an astronomer for several years. “It’s the most interesting subject in the world to me,” she says. “Scientists are so unrewarded for doing the most exciting work there is. They’re purists; they’re like the poets of the twentieth century. People always write movies about them winning the Nobel prize. They can’t imagine the notion of actually working for truth itself as opposed to some reward. I respect that so much.”

The timing of Contact is bittersweet: Sagan was able to spend a lot of time working with Zemeckis and was present during production, but he died last December. The subject makes Obst teary; she and Druyan are looking forward to the film’s opening with a mixture of excitement and dread. Sagan looms large in her thinking every day. His illness coincided with a major project falling apart on her and the final deadline looming for Hello, He Lied. Every time she thought she had an ending for the book, the story changed. Obst’s friend Ingrid Sischy, the editor in chief of Interview, observed that that was sort of the point: There is no ending. Finally, Obst allowed that not everything can be controlled or predicted. “It ended up really clarifying that kind of wishful thinking for me,” she says. “We project our need for resolution onto the world. We write stories and then we create narratives and pretend that they resolve themselves, as though they’re three-act dramas. But there is no ending, except when you die.”

THE FIRST IMPORTANT FILM IN OBST’S career was not This Is My Life, though that was the first movie she produced on her own. It was not The Fisher King, which she considers her greatest artistic success to date. And it wasn’t Sleepless in Seattle, her biggest hit. It was Heartbreak Hotel, a perfectly amiable little �ick that is not likely to go down in cinema history (except as part of the early oeuvre of Home Alone director Chris Columbus). “For a �op, I talk about that movie so much,” Obst says.

That’s because it was pivotal, in both her professional and personal life. In 1987 Obst and her friend Debra Hill ran a production company, and their roles were clearly defined: Obst was the script ace, the literature lover with an eye for good material and a �air for navigating what’s commonly known as development hell, the process that generally involves multiple rewrites and multiple writers before (if!) the picture gets made; then Hill would go make it. Obst had spent her early years in Hollywood doing development for both Peter Guber and David Geffen, and she teamed up with Hill specifically to learn about physical production. Their first project together was another Columbus film, Adventures in Babysitting, but Heartbreak Hotel was the first time Obst was on location by herself. She liked it, and after making The Fisher King with Hill, she struck out on her own.

More important, Heartbreak Hotel was filmed in Austin. Obst met people she wanted to be around, including Sharon Ely, masseuse Marilyn Prengler, and Mary O’Boyle, who owns half of the old LBJ Ranch. Bluebonnets and peaches in the Hill Country, bonfires and music and art at the Ely house: Suddenly Obst was living the life she didn’t know she wanted. She moved out of her hotel, rented a house in Austin, and spent all of her time away from the set on horseback or at Whole Foods. “I just thought, these are the most perfect days I’ve ever had,” she says. “And then they said, ‘It’s time to wrap and go home.’ And I said, ‘I can’t. I am home.’ I wept when I left. I said, ‘I’m coming back.’ And I’m here!

“Here” is an isolated spot several miles out of Fred where her neighbors include a �ock of sheep and a whole lot of birds: From dozens of trees, Obst has hung feeders, including a Texas-shaped one. Her binoculars and several guidebooks are always near the porch; one recent morning, within the space of half an hour, she spotted a cardinal and three nearly �uorescent goldfinches. Inside the house there’s a room where she does yoga and gymnastics and a bathroom adorned with Joe Ely’s photographs. The only movie memento is a shot of the marquee of Fredericksburg’s Palace Theater when One Fine Day was playing. It meant a lot to her to have her moment in Fred, where everyone knows her by name—especially the retailers. “When I walk into the stores, they applaud,” she jokes.

What Texas has become to Obst is the place where she is most herself, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by her friends and family. “It brings her so much happiness that I love seeing her down there,” says her brother Rick. “She can be by herself and write, and she has a whole different group of friends down there who broaden her interests.” True enough, Texas combined with science, literature, politics, journalism, and whatever else strikes her fancy is what gives form to Obst’s sensibility and makes her more than just a typical movie producer whose face is glued to her cell phone.

Just don’t expect her to slow down totally. “I always wanted to go to the East Coast and learn how to talk fast and think on my feet and stuff like that,” Jo Carol Pierce says. “But now I have a living example.”

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