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An Interview with Katherine Fugate
by Scott Holleran
April 16, 2004
The screenwriter's name is Katherine Fugate (it's pronounced few-jhay) and, if the name is unfamiliar, it is not because her movie scripts are low-profile projects. The 38-year-old writer for The Prince and Me, her first feature to be released in theaters, which has exceeded expectations, is working with top directors—Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose, Lost in Yonkers), Chris Columbus (Harry Potter, Stepmom)—and actresses—Julia Stiles, Jennifer Aniston, Shirley MacLaine—and her credits include TV's popular Xena: Warrior Princess, which may make it to the silver screen.
With her next movie, Miss Fugate—who is the niece of I Dream of Jeannie's Barbara Eden (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Five Weeks in a Balloon)—moves from fairy tales to football in Chris Columbus's NFL Dad. In this interview with Box Office Mojo, she is disarmingly honest, steely and feminine all at once—about her tragic family, working with Jennifer Aniston, and how she stepped off Hollywood's corporate ladder to write what she calls her favorite theme: seize the day.
Box Office Mojo: How did The Prince and Me happen?
Katherine Fugate: It was an open writing assignment. I walked in with 40 other writers in a cattle call where the producer has a generic idea and they need a writer to make it into a movie. So I was hired based on a pitch I wrote from their general premise: a prince who meets an American girl.
BOM: Your family background is considerably less joyful than The Prince and Me—
Fugate: There's a lot of tragedy in my upbringing. My parents divorced when I was five. Someone close was dying every three or four years—and that shook me up. My mom died in a car accident, but she was already dying of alcoholism. She had been in and out of [substance abuse] rehabilitation. My [half-brother] died of a drug overdose, Matthew, [Barbara Eden's only child] died of a [heroin] overdose, and I have a sister who's battling her addiction. So writing was always an expression. Later, I realized that my writing gift was being raw and honest and that sort of touched people. People think they have to be tough, mean and dark, that it's more interesting. I figured anyone can do drugs and be dark and think that's creative. Because I grew up with that, I didn't think it was creative at all. I thought it was an easy way out. I thought it was braver to be light and honest and to try to inspire people [to be their best]. Having Barbara Eden as an aunt while growing up was my special secret. I felt protective. Then, one day Barbara went with me to church and everyone came up and said [to me] "how come you didn't tell us that your aunt is Barbara Eden?" What was so interesting is that it had hurt her feelings. I had always kept it private—I have a different last name—so at the premiere of The Prince and Me, I was delighted to walk along the red carpet with my Aunt Barbara.
BOM: How did you prepare for writing The Prince and Me?
Fugate: I went to Monaco and London. I met people close to [Monaco's] Prince Albert in Monaco and people close to [England's] Prince William, who was sort of the model for the movie. Looking at Prince William, they showed me a list of 18 girls who have the right bloodline in the right age range and [they explained that] he will marry one of those girls. It's like he's the modern day reality show: here's a bunch of girls, he has to marry one of them, and that's it. That, to me, was so incredibly offensive. That in this day and age people are telling people whom to love. So, in a bigger sense, that's when I knew I had a movie in The Prince and Me.
BOM: Why did you insist that the college student who falls for the prince [played by Julia Stiles] be a Midwesterner?
Fugate: Girls from big cites like New York and L.A. have lived faster lives than I wanted to portray. I wanted an earnestness, a seriousness and I was very adamant that she was pursuing a career in the medical profession. I wanted to show a girl choosing science, not something that was fame-oriented, like acting, dance, or music. I wanted to show someone driven to better the world through what is traditionally a masculine profession. She was going to be an archaeologist, because I liked the idea of her studying man's history, but it was suggested that archaeology wasn't sexy.
BOM: What does The Prince and Me say about love?
Fugate: Look deeper—beyond what you think someone is. Love flourishes when we look deeper. [Julia Stiles' character] assumed what a prince was and he assumed what an American college girl was. People don't let people surprise them. They make an assumption, they move on.
BOM: The Prince and Me is a classic man-woman romance, with the man portrayed as someone the woman wants to look up to—not as his inferior but as an equal—
Fugate: That's me. I'm very romantic. My [friend] says I'm stuck in the 1940s. My view of the world is very romantic and sensual. I had to learn that's okay, because a lot of people are not like that. I want to admire someone's choices. It sounds like the woman's subservient and that the man is higher or better but it's not—it is a sense that someone respects the partner's choices.
BOM: Is free will reflected in The Prince and Me?
Fugate: Yes. Free will is an integral part of every movie I write. There's always a similar theme, that everyone has the right to choose whom they love. Every theme has that carpe diem [seize the day] mentality—conquer your fears. The Prince and Me attracted me because here the prince had no choice to be born a prince; he was the product of a system instilled for thousands of years. Two people had sex and had him, he was a prince, and that was it. The only choice he has now is to either accept that responsibility and become king or abdicate the throne and walk away. That's a huge dilemma.
BOM: Do you like the final cut?
Fugate: I like it very much. [Director] Martha [Coolidge] exceeded my expectations.
BOM: Are you happy with the movie's marketing?
Fugate: Yes. I thought the poster was beautiful, lush and romantic.
BOM: Has the box office success met your expectations?
Fugate: I didn't know what to expect. Box Office Mojo had forecast $8.4 million, so it exceeded predictions [opening at $9.4 million] and that had a lot to do with Paramount's marketing.
BOM: What sparked your interest in writing for movies?
|Barbara Eden & Katherine Fugate|
Fugate: I did theater in high school and I had majored in theater, at [University of California, Riverside]. I graduated on a Saturday and by Monday I was renting a U-Haul and driving to Los Angeles. I wanted to get to L.A. as fast as I could. My first job was checking in videotapes, I was a waitress and I worked at a General Cinema movie theater, just trying to pay the rent. I knew that I didn't want to be an actress because I had grown up and watched the realities of being famous and the toll it takes, because Barbara [Eden] was my aunt. So when I graduated, I decided I was going to write because I was stronger and more confident at it. What Barbara did for me was get me my first job as a third assistant director on Circus of the Stars [a television variety special] in the 1980s. Barbara was one of the ringmasters. I was an extra, too, which was fun. Five celebrities were my responsibility—I had to get them to their mark, cue them, have them go [onstage] and escort them off. It was two hours live and it was not paid. Then I got my first major [entertainment] industry job at ICM [a Hollywood talent agency], where I worked for Barry Mendel [who went on to produce The Sixth Sense] who was an agent. I was 24 or 25.
BOM: How did you get the job?
Fugate: I applied on my own. I worked for Barry Mendel for about two years and I learned a lot. For anybody new, there's nothing like it, because you are the wheel. I knew what was going on at every studio, I knew who had competing projects. It is like boot camp. We were all this one group of assistants who, for two years, worked our asses off and were paid like 200 dollars a week. We were expected to wear designer clothes and work 8 a.m. to 9 at night. I only left because I was offered a job at [Twentieth Century] Fox for higher pay.
BOM: That's a big step from Circus of the Stars. Why were you so ambitious?
Fugate: That's an interesting question and it makes me think of a formative influence. I remember when I graduated from college, my teacher called in all the seniors who graduated. She called us in separately. I was petrified. I sort of anticipated a speech like, "go and do well," and she just looked at me [instead] and said: "you have tenacity." She said that most of this world isn't about creativity and talent—it's that plus tenacity and most people don't have it. I would be up until four in the morning painting sets [for theater] and doing things to get the show right while everyone else would be done and at home and asleep. I never really saw myself and I didn't know that I had anything [unique] to get me anywhere. [Succeeding requires] hard work and tenacity and the need to finish, to complete [the job] to the best of your ability and get it done. I hear all these people say they want to be a screenwriter and they'll sit down and they'll write for like a week. They get maybe 17 pages and they're bored. It's that extra thing—obsession, fear of failing, not letting yourself down. That teacher was right but I didn't recognize that at the time. I would draw on that as inner strength whenever I was unbalanced. I kept remembering that someone believed in me that much to single me out and tell me that I would make it.
BOM: What did you do at Fox?
Fugate: I was an assistant to the senior vice-president for two years. After that, I went to work for Sony—which was then Columbia—as a creative executive and that's when I had an epiphany. It was 1994 and we had [the Northridge Earthquake, 6.7 on the Richter scale in southern California.] Here I had a cell phone and an assistant, I was making a good salary, and I thought this is it, I've made it. But I wanted to be a writer. I had made it, I had come from being a waitress, but inside I was unhappy. I was counseling other writers and giving them notes on how to [improve] their screenplays. Then that earthquake happened and it was a reminder that all things people do are subject to nature. The world and life is whimsical everything is so fragile. Before my mother died [in a car accident], and before my brother and [my cousin] Matthew [both] died of drug addiction, no one thought they were actually going to die. They thought they were going to get better and take another turn. I always saw my mother in an [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting and becoming a mom. I always saw my brother and cousin being clean and sober, not showing up late for holidays, and not causing so much heartache. I always saw that as the next act. But the fact is that once you pick a certain path—and death is the certain destination of drug abuse—that's the path you're on. I have two [conflicting] views: one is who am I to judge what someone's born to do? The other is individual responsibility and choice. That's harder for people to accept because they'd like to think that they were born a drug addict or an alcoholic and that they are not responsible for [their choices]. I still think you are responsible—every choice you make is your responsibility and every choice leads you somew