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Laura Ziskin on the Oscars: Dull Moments Grow Like a Fungus

From landing Woody Allen to giving the Kodak Theater a baptism by fire, Ziskin was an inspiring and indefatigable producer of the Oscars

She coaxed Woody Allen onto the stage of the Academy Awards, crammed an Oscar show full of so many ideas that it shattered all existing records for the longest show ever, and almost got David Fincher to direct special commercials for Oscar night.

And she did it all while simultaneously producing "Spider-Man" movies – and, the second time around, while in remission from Stage 3 breast cancer.

Laura ZiskinLaura Ziskin, who died on Sunday night at the age of 61, produced the Academy Awards in 2002 and again in 2007, and remains the only woman to oversee the show solo.

Also read: 'Spider-Man' Producer Laura Ziskin Dies at 61

And after 15 years of backstage and rehearsal access to the Oscar productions over the years, I'd also say Ziskin was the most inspiring and indefatigable Oscar producer I watched tackle that formidable task, which she likened to "a speeding locomotive."

Her first stint with the show was the most notable: she took the job bursting with enthusiasm and ideas and determined to fit them all into a show that also turned out to be the first Oscars after 9/11, and the first in the Academy's new home, the Kodak Theater.

She told the Academy that the only way that she could do it is if they set up the Oscar production office on the Sony lot, where she was producing the first "Spider-Man" movie. AMPAS agreed, and gave her a giant Oscar statue to put in the lobby of her Sony office during Oscar season.

She immediately outfitted it with a curly wig and a feather boa.

She also shifted constantly between her two jobs: I was walking with her to a soundstage where the Oscar orchestra was rehearsing one afternoon when her cell phone rang. When she answered it, her greeting was succinct: "'Spider-Man' or Oscars?"

To salute New York City in the aftermath of 9/11, she pulled off the most surprising Oscar appearance ever, persuading famous Oscar no-show Woody Allen to appear onstage, and then keeping Allen's presence secret from almost everyone on the Oscar staff and crew.

"I thought it would be impossible, but wouldn’t it be great?" she said of the Allen appearance, describing it as "the highlight of my career."

A lowlight came that year as well, when she brought in Cirque du Soleil to perform on the show because she felt that the Oscars always needed a shot of adrenaline around the midpoint. At a Friday night rehearsal, two days before the show, Cirque performers missed their marks and fell in the audience, flung hula hoops into the audience that landed right where Julia Roberts would be sitting – and, for a capper, set the Kodak stage on fire, prompting two days of panicky meetings and overtime.

That night, Ziskin told me, she went back to her room in the adjoining Renaissance Hotel and found herself unable to sleep, convinced that her show was going to be a disaster.

"I sat there thinking, nothing's gonna work, there's too many things in the show, I've overstuffed it," she remembered. "I was too greedy, I wanted too much. I was scared. I called Alvin Sargent, my significant other, and said, 'I am going to jump off this building.'"

Cirque du SoleilIn the end, the Cirque problem was solved (right) and the show was one of the most creative and energetic Oscars ever – though, to be far, it also went wildly over budget and, at almost four-and-a-half hours, was by far the longest Oscars ever.

She was back at the Oscar gig five years later – though originally, she once confided, she wanted to oversee a novel idea for the show's commercials.

"What I really wanted to do was to create special commercials for the show, and make the Oscars like the Super Bowl," she said. "We developed an ambitious idea with David Fincher: a movie within the Oscars, during the commercial breaks."

She and Fincher came very close to pulling it off, she said – and during that process, she decided that if the show was going to feature her stamp during the commercials, she ought to produce the telecast as well. The commercial idea eventually fell through, but she stuck with the show.

This time, without the aura of 9/11 hanging over the show, she was determined to throw a big party, installing a deejay in a Kodak box to entertain the crowd during breaks. The show was not as wildly overreaching as the 2002 Oscars had been, but Ziskin – who tried to pace herself after her initial bout with cancer, but who was also producing a new "Spider-Man" – admitted that the show brought out her ambitious side. 

"I am still very greedy creatively," she said. "I don’t want a dull moment, because I think they grow like a fungus … I will not succeed at not having a dull moment, but I have to try."

That greedy creativity was, in many ways, the hallmark of Ziskin's forays into the Oscars; they were what made her two takes of the show less predictable than the usual Academy Awards show, a little crazier and probably more nerve-wracking for those in charge of counting the money and worrying about the running time.

But when Cirque du Soleil begins its long-term residency at the Kodak next month, it won't be far-fetched to think of it as a tribute of sorts to the woman who first put them on that stage.

And every time an Oscar show producer tries to pull off something spectacular, or unveils a surprise guest, or even runs overtime and over budget, it'll be hard not to think of Laura Ziskin's days as the conductor of that speeding locomotive.

(Photos courtesy of AMPAS)