Karen Ballard/Warner Bros.
Veteran producer Denise Di Novi never gives up. When her new movie UNFORGETTABLE lost its original director, she stepped in to grab the reigns and make her directorial debut with the female-led thriller, which hits theaters on Friday.
Not only did Di Novi have to make the transition from producer to director on the fly, she also had to recast the film’s two leads, tapping Katherine Heigl to play against type as a psycho mom terrorizing her ex-husband’s new fiancée (Rosario Dawson). That decision appears to have paid off, as Heigl has been drawing some of the best reviews of her career from a press corps that has treated her rather unfairly in recent years.
Though Di Novi is still extremely active as a producer on the Warner Bros. lot, which has been her home for the past two decades, she got a kick out of directing and hopes to continue juggling both responsibilities, as many male filmmakers do. She’s also eager to work in television given the rise in opportunities to tell unique stories on the small screen.
As Unforgettable enters theaters, Di Novi spoke to the Tracking Board about working with Tim Burton early in her career, WB’s commitment to diversity, the possibility of another writers’ strike and the collapse of exhibition windows.
At one point, you were simply going to produce this movie and Amma Asante was going to direct. So when she fell off, what compelled you to step in and make this your directorial debut?
To be honest, it wasn’t my idea. I had put together a list of 10 female directors that I submitted to Warner Brothers and then the studio called me and said, ‘we think you would be the best person to direct this,’ because I was very hands-on through development and passionate about the project. I didn’t have a moments hesitation and I jumped at the opportunity.
Does this movie even happen if you hadn’t stepped up?
Well, this is an unusual movie for Warner Brothers to make. It’s a small thriller that only cost $12 million, but they say they’re committed to diversity and hiring female directors and making more female-driven films. Personally, I think it’s genuine, which is exciting.
This is a movie written by a woman and starring three generations of women. Was it important to you to make your debut with a female-driven project, or would you have agreed to direct some macho action movie had Warner Brothers asked you?
Probably not. I think I wanted to be in familiar territory, especially for my first film, and the themes of this movie are very meaningful to me. In particular, the theme of how women are conditioned by society to have to be perfect all the time. It’s been going on for thousands and thousands of years, imparted from one generation to the next, and that kind of social conditioning is both sad and fascinating to me.
Kate Hudson and Kerry Washington were originally set to star in Unforgettable before Amma Asante fell off. How did you settle on Rosario and Katherine, particularly the latter, who’s so good in this movie. Why did she make for the perfect villain in your eyes?
I’ve always been an admirer of Katherine. I did Life as We Know It with her, so I’ve watched her work and seen what amazing acting chops and technique she has. I also really like her personally. She has this fearlessness and strength, and literally a stature to her that I thought was perfect for this part. A lot of actresses were scared to play this role because the character of Tessa is so evil, but Katherine was fearless. She gave me 110 percent.
I grew up watching these kinds of ’90s thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Single White Female that pit women against each other. Why do you think studios aren’t as keen on making them anymore?
I don’t know, because if you look at all those movies, they have a longevity and they opened well and they’re not that expensive to make. I think that’s why Warner Brothers greenlit this film, because there hadn’t been one like it for a long time. I think they should make more of these kinds of movies because people really like them, and for filmmakers it’s a way to tackle real issues and themes and still make a fun, commercial movie.
What was the biggest challenge in making the transition from producer to director, and did it help to be working with Warner Brothers, where your company has been based for years?
It helped so much to be at Warner Brothers. I’ve had an overall deal there as a producer for over 20 years, so they’re like my movie family. The support I got from every department, from top to bottom, was phenomenal, and it was incredibly moving how much people wanted to help me and support me.
To be really honest, it’s much harder to direct than it is to produce, both physically, emotionally, and mentally. As a producer, you kind of have to keep the macro in mind so the director can be able to focus on little details of the movie. As the director, every single thing matters and is important, so the level of engagement and focus and intensity is much greater.
Do you plan to keep directing, or would you prefer to continue to focus on producing?
I’d like to be like many other directors and do both, but I have a producing partner named Alison Greenspan and we have a lot of projects in development and she’s very capable. I’d love to keep producing because I love doing it and working with directors and making movies, but yes, I really want to direct again. I really liked the greater intimacy I had with the storytelling. That’s what I loved the most.
Studios don’t hand out a lot of producing deals these days, and the ones I’ve written about of late have concerned actors getting their own vanity labels on the lot rather than producers who roll up their sleeves and really do the work. Is that a worrisome trend for the industry?
Studios cutting back on producer deals has been happening for 10 years. I think it’s a matter of the overall trend of cost-cutting and slashing overhead in general in our business. I know I feel very lucky and grateful to still have a deal at Warner Brothers. I just think it’s a trend in every area, not just producer deals. I mean, there was a lot of money being spent for many years, so I think the equalization and frugality you see coming into play is not such a bad idea.
You started out producing Tim Burton’s movies. What’s your fondest memory from that part of your career?
The greatest thing about working with Tim is that he’s an artist who transcends filmmaking. The way he would paint and draw his vision of the movie before he even started working on the movie, and then watch it slowly come to life from those images, was really thrilling for me. I really felt like I was working with and in the presence of one of the great geniuses of our business.
You produced his Batman Returns, which is one of the best comic book movies of all time. Has the genre changed for better or worse since 1992?
I think Tim did one of the best jobs, to this day, of any of the comic book movies, on Batman Returns… but I do think those films have improved a lot. They’re much more character-based, performance-driven and interesting in general these days. Some of them are not so good, but they’re actually a lot harder to make than they look. Those films are incredibly difficult to make well.
You directed an episode of Bones and served as an executive producer on Lifetime’s remake of Beaches. Do you see more TV in your future, either as a director or as a producer?
I’m really eager to do television. I love television and I love all of it. I’m not picky or snobby about network shows vs. cable shows. I think it’s such a great opportunity for so many stories to be told that we didn’t have an outlet for in the past. I want to do pilots, and yes, I want to create a TV show.
In your professional opinion as a veteran of our industry, do you think there will be a Writers’ Strike, and do you think their demands are reasonable or not?
People do seem to be pretty convinced that there will be a strike. I lived through the last strike and saw so many people’s lives and finances decimated by it, so it’s a heartbreaking prospect. But the TV business has changed so much with how shows are structured now on cable, I think some reinvention and redefinition has to happen.
You’ve been around to see exhibition windows collapse, so what’s your take on studios giving into the demands of the audience and talking to theater owners about going day-and-date?
It’s interesting… being in the business for so long, I’ve felt for years like things weren’t changing and it was really hurting the business. So many things were not catching up to what was happening with regards to the audience’s viewing habits and preferences, and I think people are finally talking about how can we make this work financially. We have to change to keep this business alive and vibrant, because the audience is telling us what they want. We can’t tell them what they want, we need to listen to them and figure it out.
Any updates on the Jetsons movie or the Little Women adaptation that you’re producing? And are you still planning to direct Highway One?
No updates on either of those, but yes, I’m still attached to direct that one, we’re just still in the casting throes.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief