Lynda Obst: Still Producing Great Shows

May 29, 2019

Lynda Obst, 69, is one of Hollywood’s best-known and most successful producers. She has made over 20 movies and TV shows over the course of career. Her credits include “The Fisher King,” “Interstellar,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Contact,” “Hope Floats,” “One Fine Day” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” 

She is the executive producer for the National Geographic channel limited series based on Richard Preston’s “The Hot Zone” (see this week’s Arts & Entertainment supplement) and a recipient of the Women in Film Crystal Award, as well as the We Empower Women’s Pioneer Award and the first Polly Platt Award.

Obst also wrote the best-selling book “Hello, He Lied & Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches,” which was adapted into a documentary for AMC. 

Originally from the suburbs of New York, she created Rolling Stone magazine’s “History of the ’60s” and later became an editor for The New York Times Magazine.

Howard Rosenman: You have quite an impressive resume, but you also have an incredibly talented family. Your younger brother, Rick Rosen, is a partner at William Morris Endeavor; your son, producer Oly Obst, has several series on air, including “The Resident” and “Chad.” How did that happen? 

Lynda Obst: Rick came to Hollywood first. He worked his way up, first from working at a studio, home video and then eventually as an agent through ICM, and then he helped found Endeavor. I came out when Rick was just beginning because I was in journalism before that. 

HR: When did you get woke to Judaism?

LO: During my son’s [addiction] recovery. When he was going through recovery, he started to believe in God. He had missed that growing up as a skeptic, secular, science-oriented son of a [Carl] Sagan-ite. While he was in the program, he had searched to find a meaning for the concept of God in his life. When I came home from that conversation, I was bereft that I had worked so hard at raising him but it didn’t occur to me that leaving God out would be such an important thing. So I began to want to really know what my own tradition was. I didn’t grow up in a religious household. We went to shul only on the High Holy Days. So I got to know a wonderful group of rabbis and their families who live in the Highland area eruv. They were incredibly gracious to me and invited me into their homes for Shabbat [and] for every holiday.

HR: How have your Jewish values impacted your career?

LO: Well, I had a very strong sense of ethics. I studied ethics as a graduate student and wrote my dissertation on ethics. Then I went to The New York Times, where ethics is a kind of operating principle. Nobody pays for your lunch; you need a certain amount of sources; you always have to tell the truth. 

So when I came to Hollywood, and there was just a Wild West out here and there were no ethics, and it was take as you can and everybody grab and lie and fend for themselves, I found it formidable. My first boss was ethically challenged in a big way and he would terrify me by the actions that he took all the time. I tried to find other techniques to accomplish the same things without the same process. 

So Jewish ethics is one thing that really matters to me. Also, I think the search for meaning. In my movies, if there’s anything consistent in them, it’s certainly heart, but also a search. My relationship to Judaism is Jacobian, in that I wrestle with it. I’m a Jew through and through, but I’m kind of a nonbelieving kind of a person. I’m a scientist, so I wrestle with the idea of laws, religious laws; and I wrestle with the idea of one God, the one God in the Bible; and I wrestle with the idea of tribalism; and I wrestle very strongly with the idea of putting your people ahead of all other people, as opposed to all people being equal. 

HR: How do you feel about Israel as a progressive Jew in America?

LO: Dismayed. Because it’s not equitable. [Israel’s] Arab citizens are denigrated as second-class citizens. That’s not Judaic to me. That’s not in our principles because the war between the right wing and the left wing, inside the nation, is really a value crisis that involves social values, as well. Do we care only about demonizing another people to keep ourselves safe, or are we about improving the quality of our lives and the quality of the less fortunate among us? I will always go for the latter position.

HR: You became very friendly with Carl Bernstein and his then wife, Nora Ephron. How did that relationship come about?

LO: I met Nora at a volleyball game in Washington, D.C. She was my idol and my mother’s idol. I’d read every woman’s column she’d ever written for Esquire, and suddenly there was a volleyball game gathering outside. I’m a little bit of a jock, so I realized I was going to have to play the best game of volleyball of my entire life to get her attention. I’m pretty short, so that’s not easy in volleyball if you want to spike, but I was able to pass and I didn’t miss one pass that was sent to me. 

Afterward, we hung out. She liked me and asked, “What do you do?” I said, “I go to graduate school. Columbia.” She said, “Read this article of mine and edit it.” She later told me the story was apocryphal and wasn’t true, but I swear that it’s true. So she gave me a piece of hers to edit and it was uneditable. It was perfect. I wrote her back and said, “I don’t see anything to change. I don’t see a word out of place.” She said, “You really are an editor.” Then she began to introduce me. She wanted me out of graduate school and being a magazine editor, which she sensed was my natural occupation. She was right. Between Nora and my ex-husband, I got the job at the Times.

HR: What are the favorite movies you’ve made? 

LO: “The Fisher King,” “Contact” and “Sleepless in Seattle” — a classic. Many of my movies I love for different reasons. They’re perfect for what they are, like “One Fine Day” is great for what it is, and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” was the most fun movie to make, but movies like “Contact” and “The Fisher King” are more expressions of who I am.

HR: What are you doing now and what does the future hold for you? 

LO: Aging.

HR: But beautifully.

LO: I’m doing television and movies out of my office at Sony. I have “The Hot Zone,” then I have a bunch of movies and TV I’m putting together.

Howard Rosenman has produced more than 43 movies, including “Call Me by Your Name.” He is also a co-founder of Project Angel Food. 

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