You may not know Denise Di Novi by name, but she’s almost certainly a creative influence behind a film you love. Since making her debut as a producer on the 1988 cult classic Heathers, Di Novie has navigated a top-flight career as a Hollywood power producer, forging a career that has topped a billion at the box office. Along the way, Di Novi produced a string of Tim Burton‘s best films, including Edwards Scissorhands, Batman Returns, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. In the years since, she and her production company, which she has focused more at studio films directly towards female audiences, from Practical Magic and Message in a Bottle, to her recent stint shepherded a string of successful Nicholas Sparks adaptations.
Now, Di Novi is making her directorial debut with the Katherine Heigl and Rosario Dawson two-hander Unforgettable. A rare meat and potatoes thriller in the mold of female-driven subgenre that dominated the ’90s, the film follows Dawson’s Julia Banks, a woman recovering from a traumatic relationship who falls in love with a man who has the world’s scariest ex-wife. The woman in question is Heigl’s Tess Connover, a perfectionist with a deeply misguided sense of self-entitlement who makes it her mission to get Julia out of her ex-husband’s life at any cost.
With Unforgettable in theaters this weekend, I recently hopped on the phone for an extended interview with Di Novi to chat about the film. She talked about making the jump from producing to directing, the unexpected way she ended up with the directing gig, why she wanted to make an old-school thriller, how she got started in the industry at a time when there wasn’t much precedent for female producers, and why it’s important for her to foster female-driven stories. We also looked back at some of her beloved early films, her creative partnership with Tim Burton, and how Heathers has found new life with a new generation of moviegoers. Read the full interview below.
How are you today?
DI NOVI: I’m fantastic! I’m having a blast.
Oh great. I know for some people the press days can be kind of a grind, so that’s great that you enjoy it.
DI NOVI: Oh yeah, this is not a grind at all. A lot of great response to the movie, especially from women. So it’s really exciting.
Yeah, it’s a lot of fun and that’s something I definitely wanted to talk to you about because this is a film with a lot of different female characters, and that’s not something you see a lot.
DI NOVI: That’s for sure.
There are, by my count, about four female characters that have a clear point of view. I always knew how they felt about the scene they were in.
DI NOVI: Oh, I love that!
This is your directorial debut, but you’ve directed so many films over the years, is that something you actively seek out in your projects? That female perspective.
DI NOVI: I do. For two reasons. One is, I don’t think you see it enough so I feel some responsibility if I’m in this position where I can try to get movies made. Secondly, it interests me. It’s what I relate to and I understand it. I find it fascinating. I like to see women in challenging situations and see how they deal with it or don’t deal with it. That’s interesting to me.
I think that really manifests in this movie, and I think it probably helps that you had a female screenwriter. A lot of the communication, or the acts of violence that aren’t actually violence, are communicated through these sort of touchstones of femininity. Tessa’s power move with the wedding dress, cutting the hair, those sorts of things are explicitly feminine aggressions.
DI NOVI: Yeah, I had a female producer, female writer, female studio executive, female advertising executives and we all get it. There is, there’s a vernacular and a language that we have, that makes sense. The great thing that we’re seeing is that half of the people who love the movie are men. Men love the movie, which is really exciting for me. I think they love the genre and they like that it’s an exciting thriller, but they find that fascinating as well.
Well, it’s all sort of a delicious movie–
DI NOVI: I love that word.
Yeah! It’s so much fun to see an erotic thriller again because those kinds of movies just aren’t being made right now. Why was that a genre that appealed to you?
DI NOVI: I have always loved this genre of movie. As a kid, Hitchcock was my first favorite director. All of those movies. I remember when I saw Rebecca, it just blew my mind. Then I loved Adrian Lyne movies, then I loved all the Ashley Judd, Jodie Foster movies. And then just kind of went away for some reason, and I think the studio was really smart in saying that these movies can often work, let’s make another one. I was just really excited about that. They’re often female protagonists, females in jeopardy, but in this one to have two females. It’s not just a woman dealing with her husband, it’s two women kind of going head to head and that was really exciting for me.
So I have a pretty film nerdy question. I may be reading into this too much, but I also really love the genre. Were the wind chimes on the phone a call back to Body Heat or am I just a nerd?
DI NOVI: Oh, I love it! That’s a great film nerd. A little bit, yeah. There’s a lot of things. I wanted to kind of be inspired by this language of film that I loved and kind of feminize it in a way, and make it my own and make it contemporary. So there’s a lot of little touches like that.
That’s awesome. In addition to making your film debut with Unforgettable, you also directed an episode of Bones this year. So why was 2017 the right year to make your big directorial debut?
DI NOVI: You know, it’s funny how things happen. It wasn’t my idea to direct the movie, to be honest. It was the studio’s idea. They suggested that I direct it and when they said it I just said yes immediately. There was no question in my mind. It felt like after all these years of producing that this was the right script and the right time for me to direct. I didn’t know if I would love it or not. By about the third ay I thought “I love this. I want to do it again.” I did the Bones episode to see if I liked directing television, because I love television and I want to work in television, and I loved doing that. Now I’m starting another film for Amblin in September called Highway One that’s a female action movie. It’s funny how things happen in life. Sometimes, you just take the opportunity when it comes. Life can be surprising.
That is so interesting. Is directing something that you had considered over the years and you were very content with your successes as a producer?
DI NOVI: You know, over the years sometimes people would say to me, “How come you’re not a director? How come you haven’t moved into directing?” To be honest, when I started there were barely any women producers, let alone directors. It was hard enough to become a woman producer. Then as people would say to me “Oh, you should direct,” I would be starting another movie as a producer. I just had a really lucky and busy prolific career as a producer. Then when my kids were little I was kind of grateful that I was a producer, which had more flexibility in terms of being a mother to small children. The opportunities never came my way, and that’s ok. I loved my career. Now my kids are adults and it’s really the perfect time.
It’s interesting that you say you were actively interested in getting into television. I think that has been a field with much more opportunity for female directors than movies have been.
DI NOVI: Yes. I think that’s true. I think there’s more female driven stuff on television. I think there’s so much good television now, and there’s a lot of things on television that would have been a movie or maybe wouldn’t have been made at all if it wasn’t for cable and streaming. It’s a really exciting part of the future and I really want to be a part of it.
I think it’s true for the actresses as well. You see a lot of really established, award winning, career actresses taking roles on TV now and I think they just get more interesting things to do.
That’s true. I think that some of the writing, directing, and the content is better than a lot of movies sometimes. Actors, well artists in general – actors, writers, directors — what we all care about the most is good work and being able to create something that is really resonant and meaningful. We’ll kind of do it wherever we can do it. So if it’s happening on television, that’s great.
Yeah, the stigma definitely isn’t there anymore that used to be.
DI NOVI: Yeah, not at all.
Speaking of actors, can you talk about finding the right leads for Unforgettable. They fit their roles so perfectly.
DI NOVI: I have been a big fan for years of both actresses. I’ve worked with Katie – Katherine Heigl before. I had been watching Rosario Dawson and thinking, “She’s such a movie star. I want to find a movie where she’s the lead character and a star,” and I thought that she was just perfect for this role. Her kind of goodness and her open-heartedness and her incredible energy level and strength. And then, you know, Katherine Heigl is just so strong, and beautiful, and charismatic, and so intelligent and her technique as an actress is just really amazing, so I kind of felt like they had something in common and they were equals. You could see these two women kind of, when they’re in the frame together, your eye doesn’t know where to look because they’re both so awesome. They’re equals, they’re true equals, and yet they’re so different, and you know, I really wanted to design the characters to be opposite in so many ways, but kind of be struggling with some of the same things at the same time.
Something I found interesting is it seemed to be maybe dismantling a little bit this idea of two types of female perfectionism. The super chill girl who’s always just naturally beautiful, and then the really put-together woman who owns a thousand makeup brushes.
DI NOVI: You’re 100% right. You so got it, I love that. She kind of wears the bohemian soft colors of clothes and the loose curly hair and stuff, and she’s chill, and Katie is like the Hitchcock blonde, perfect, but they’re both kind of suffering underneath, of being that type of woman and being desirable to the male character.
Yeah, that translated really well. For getting behind the camera for the first time, what was one or two of the big takeaway lessons that maybe you didn’t expect to learn in that process?
DI NOVI: Of being a director? That’s a good question, nobody’s asked me that. I think really digging deep in yourself as well, you know? I think the deeper I understood the material and the script and the themes and the characters, I felt the more confident I was and the more I could bring to the movie. So I was lucky to have my actors because they were right there with me in the deep end. We talked so much about these women in these situations, and we really kind of created this relationship where we were in it together and we loved these women. I loved Tessa. I was sad when the movie finished and I missed her, I just loved her, I was fascinated by her. So I think really having that deep, emotional connection to the material was both exciting for me and it helped me do a better job.
Did you find it challenging at all to shed the producer mentality?
DI NOVI: Yes, there were times where I was thinking about stuff as a producer and I thought, you know what, it’s hard enough to be a director, I have great producers and I can let them do their thing. Of course, I am a producer and I will always be a producer, and my years of expertise I think helped me make some decisions and figure my way out of some problems and assign solutions, but I really did try to wear my director hat and take off my producer hat as much as I could.
You referenced this earlier, but I’m curious because it’s absolutely true. When you started producing, female producers — I mean, they’re pretty rare now, but back in the 90s it was not even a thing, really.
DI NOVI: Oh, yeah. Very rare.
How did you sort of break through that and get your start?
DI NOVI: You know, I think it was just — I just kind of didn’t take no for an answer. You know? And I think part of it was just kind of, not ignorance… What’s the word I’m looking for? I just felt like, well, maybe there’s not any women producers, but maybe I could do it anyway. [laughs] It didn’t occur to me that that was a reason not to do it. There were a few before me, there was a generation that started a little bit before me of women producers and Sherry Lansing, she was the first woman studio president, and she was really inspiring to me. I was inspired by other women in other fields, I was an adolescent in the 70s with the second wave feminism, and I got very inspired by that and felt like, you know what, there’s no reason why I can’t do this.
So did you then go to school for it and follow that track?
DI NOVI: Not at all, I actually started as a journalist. Yeah, I wanted to be a journalist and I started in journalism, and I was a TV reporter in Toronto and then I started doing stories on film because I always loved film, but I didn’t think I could work in film. And then I got a job as a unit publicist and started working in the movie business.
So can you talk about, then, after you got your start. This question is a bit broad, butyou’ve been very loyal to the studios you work with, so you will have been able to track sort of in-house changes. But also just in the general sense, can you talk about seeing the film industry evolve over the last two decades?
DI NOVI: Yeah, I mean, it’s changed dramatically. And then, you know, some things have not changed. I think it’s a little bit slower than maybe it should be or we thought it would be. There are more women, but it’s still a very tiny portion. Very tiny. So that’s changing dramatically, and I can feel it even the last three years in terms of a commitment to diversity in general, not just for women, but people of color, but it’s still not a big enough change. It’s still really small when you look at the statistics. I think everybody’s been decrying the death of movie theaters for decades and, you know, people are still going to the movies in droves. It’s gone down, but it hasn’t gone down that much. I think the biggest change has been the emergence of cable and streaming on television. I think that has really had a dramatic effect, and I think it’s a positive one. I think there’s really good work going on there, and as movies stratify to being these gigantic tentpole movies, and small movies, I think it gives another outlet for character-driven material. The smaller or mid-budget type movies can be on television as limited series or series, so I think it’s putting a lot people to work and it’s creating a lot of great, really entertaining content.
That was a very well-rounded answer, thank you!
DI NOVI: Oh, good!
Speaking of, you said in the last few years there’s been a bigger push towards diversity on all fronts. Do you think that has something to do with the fact that audiences have become more and more vocal with each passing year?
DI NOVI: Yes, I think that people speaking up about what they want — and listen, I think part of it is that social consciousness and wanting to do the right thing, and part of it is starting to become aware that audience is not all white males and that we have a very diverse audience, and they want to see themselves and their experience on screen. And if we don’t have it, they’re not gonna come. So I think it’s both pragmatic and socially motivated.
As part of my job, I’m always tracking trends to see what people want to read about, and on Tumblr, I don’t know if you know this, but Heathers, partly because of the musical and partly because of nostalgia, has been one of the top trending topics on Tumblr for quite a while now.
DI NOVI: I didn’t know that! I keep getting asked about that, maybe that’s why.
It’s having such a huge resurgent moment right now. What is it like to see something that you made at the very beginning of your career finding popularity again at this point in your life?
DI NOVI: It’s really rewarding because I have such a soft-spot in my heart for Heathers. It was my first movie, and it’s, I think, such a great movie, and I think Daniel Waters who wrote the movie is such a genius and it was such a brilliant piece of work, that I’m really happy for him, actually, that people still talk about it and appreciate it. I think it just shows that if something is really great and really smart and truthful and authentic in its own way, that every generation is gonna relate to it. It’s gonna have a life that continues. And that is, it’s really rewarding.
Well, it is a fantastically written movie like you said. It’s one of those things where my older sister loved it, I love it, and it’s funny now to me that teenagers are still loving it just as much as we did.
DI NOVI: Yeah! Yeah, I know, it’s funny, isn’t it? I have people who say to me, “My grandmother’s favorite movie is Heathers.” [laughs]
It’s still an edgy movie, it still holds up. It’s just sharp. You also produced a lot with Tim Burton during the era that, for my money, saw his best filmmaking, including the films you both produced with Henry Selleck. Can you talk about how that creative relationship started and sort of what you guys’ collaboration was like?
DI NOVI: You know, that was really a charmed period of my life, and I was looking back, I mean, what a lucky coincidence to have that happen. We had a connection with Winona Ryder, she did Beetlejuice, she did Heathers, we had a connection of his agents, we were at the same agency, and when we met, I think we both felt like we kind of didn’t fit into Hollywood and were atypical. We kind of felt like we were a good partnership for that reason. My dad is a jazz musician, and I think I had a real understanding of that kind of mind, that completely committed artistic mind that Tim has. He’s not just a filmmaker, he’s one of the greatest artists of his generation, so that’s a very particular point of view and a way of working, so it felt very familiar to me. It was a great period of my life and a great partnership, I’m very grateful.
It’s interesting, I recently rewatched Batman Returns for the first time in a while, and it’s interesting to realize you were a producer on that film as well, because Batman Returns is kind of secretly an erotic thriller in a lot of ways.
DI NOVI: It is! Yeah, you’re right.
I never noticed that as a kid, but it’s there.
DI NOVI: Yeah, yeah, I mean, that movie kind of holds up, but it’s also funny that at the time, people said it’s so dark and so violent, it’s so twisted, and now when you look at the Chris Nolan Batmans, it’s so kind of timid, but you’re right to pick up on kind of that sexuality aspect of it, yeah.
Do you ever want to return to the field of superheroes or did you get your fill between your time on those?
DI NOVI: I mean, listen, I would love to do a female superhero and kind of explore that dynamic and psychology and experience. I think the time has finally come for those movies. I’m rooting for Wonder Woman, I haven’t seen it but I’m rooting for it, and I think this point in history is where we should start having these moments work.
Absolutely, I still am a little mind-blown, I would’ve just assumed there would’ve been a Wonder Woman movie. I feel like I still have to check myself like, is this the first? Okay.
DI NOVI: Yeah, exactly. I agree.
You were on an adaptation of The Jetsons for rather a while, can you talk about what happened with that project? Or is it still floating?
DI NOVI: Believe it or not, it’s still being developed.
DI NOVI: At Warner Brothers.
Is that something you’re still attached to?
DI NOVI: Yes, yeah, it’s one of those long development processes.
Oh man, you must be passionate about your Jetsons.
DI NOVI: [laughs] You know, I’ve had a few of those in my life where they come in their own time.
Right, and sci-fi is a tricky thing to get right, I think.
DI NOVI: Yeah, it has shifted, the culture, over the years, of what works and what doesn’t and what’s lasted and all that, yeah.
So can you tell me any more about this Amblin film you mentioned? Because that sounds pretty great.
DI NOVI: Yeah, it’s cool. It’s called Highway One, and it’s written by Tony Jaswinski, and it’s a female action movie about a female veteran who’s on a road trip and her child is kidnapped. It’s gonna start shooting in September.
Oh, moving right on to the next one, that’s great.
DI NOVI: Yeah.
Do you have time for projects to produce in between directing right now?
DI NOVI: Yeah, I have my production company with Alison Greenspan and we have a lot of things in development as producers, so I’m gonna try to keep both those things going.
How are you finding that balance? That seems like a heck of a lot.
DI NOVI: Well, I have a partner. If I didn’t have a partner, I couldn’t do it, so that’s helpful. I think if I hadn’t been producing for twenty-five years, it’d be hard, but I’ve been doing it a long time.
Unforgettable arrives in theaters on April 21.