Passion Princess
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. <TABLE id=table4 cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=5 align=right border=0> <TBODY> <TR> <TD></TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>

BOM: What sparked your interest in writing for movies?

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 somewhere.{page}

BOM: You also wrote for Xena: The Warrior Princess

Fugate: I wrote [during] the sixth and last season. The main episode I wrote was "When Fates Collide," which a lot of fans felt officially outed Xena and Gabrielle as lovers. It had been pretty obvious if you wanted to see it but it was never as overtly stated and as clearly drawn. I have never experienced so much hate mail. At first, I was hurt. It's hard to read that people hate you and wish you to hell. But when I was able to step back, I knew I was doing the right thing.

BOM: Will there be a Xena movie?

Fugate: I'm supposed to write the script. I've outlined it, but [the deal is] not signed and sealed. It was assumed that Robert Tapert, the creator and executive producer, who is married to Lucy [Lawless, the actress who played Xena], was supposed to get the rights back from Universal. Under that assumption, I was approved as the writer with Lucy and Renee [O'Connor, the actress who played Xena's sidekick, Gabrielle] signed to reprise their roles. But now there's some big legal battle. Universal isn't sure who has the rights and everyone has a different conclusion.

BOM: What's the plot?

Fugate: This is what I'll say about a cult movie. I'm friends with Gillian Anderson [Scully on The X-Files, who went on to star in the X-Files movie]. There are expectations on many levels of a TV-based movie. You have original fans, those who saw it maybe a few times, hardcore fans who don't want to see any exposition because they've seen every episode maybe five times, and then you have people who have never seen it and you have to try and tell them a whole new story. There are so many angles. People have many desires; I was listening to Gillian, and [X-Files] is still Chris Carter's show, but some people wanted Mulder and Scully to be together and some didn't and that's it. Once you make a decision, you're going to alienate people and you're going to make others thrilled. It's the same with Xena.

BOM: Are Xena and Gabrielle going to be lovers?

Fugate: t was pretty clear that they were [lovers]. But the series wasn't about a lesbian relationship as much as it was about a heroine. I don't want to write a domestic drama. It's clear that they're lovers but that's not going to be the focus.

BOM: How was working with Julia Stiles, with whom you worked on your first, unreleased picture, Carolina, again?

Fugate: She's a beautiful actress and she is very [self-]contained. During Carolina, she was like 21 or 22 and she's going on 40. She is extremely mature and settled and measured and it shows in her acting. She's very professional. She always knows her lines and she doesn't deviate [from the script]. She never causes a problem. She is never unprepared. She has none of the affectations and insecurities [typically associated with] young actors. Conversely, Julia is so in control of herself that, when she was filming a scene in Carolina where she needed to break down and cry, it was very difficult and I knew it would be take after take after take. Julia stayed up all night long so she would be a mentally exhausted wreck. That's how much she cares about acting and making it real. I've met a lot of young actresses and she's got something else, something different, something that stands apart. <TABLE id=table2 cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=5 align=left border=0> <TBODY> <TR> <TD> <TABLE id=table3 style="BORDER-COLLAPSE: collapse" borderColor=#000000 cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=0 width=150 border=1> <TBODY> <TR> <TD></TD></TR> <TR> <TD align=middle bgColor=#000000>Buy from</TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE></TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>

BOM: You worked with Julia Stiles before for your picture, Carolina. What's it about?

Fugate: It's about a girl raised by her southern grandmother in Los Angeles. I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandmother while my father was remarried and while my mother was in rehab. As I said in the [upcoming] DVD release, it was like a Valentine to my grandmother—and to all grandmothers who are rarely represented, though they take on raising kids again due to the parents. Parents dump the kids off for whatever reason and the grandmas end up raising them; they're parents all over again. The story is about this crazy, outlandish, outspoken hellcat played by Shirley MacLaine raising her three grandkids, one of whom is played by Julia Stiles. It's basically my life story. I even had an Aunt Marilyn, played in the movie by Jennifer Coolidge [the manicurist in Legally Blonde], who was a madam with a radio show dispensing love advice, which I think is hilarious. She went to prison several times.

BOM: Is Jennifer Coolidge related to The Prince and Me director Martha Coolidge?

Fugate: Yes! They are related but they've never met. They realized through me as the conduit that there are two sets of Coolidges—all from Boston or New England—and they are all apparently related to [the late president] Calvin Coolidge.

BOM: How did you come to work with director Martha Coolidge?

Fugate: I wrote a personal letter and it was submitted to Martha with the script. I said you're the director I want for the material. In fact, Martha was the only director I wanted. When I worked at ICM, I was an assistant to Martha's agent. All day long, I dealt with actors, directors, and clients who felt a need to put people down. Martha always treated me as an equal and she had a sensitivity—she saw beyond the Hollywood game. It always stuck in my mind that this person sees deeply into things. So, when I was writing The Prince and Me, I had Martha in mind.

BOM: Some reviewers refer to her as a feminist director—

Fugate: I don't think of Martha that way at all.

BOM: What was it like to work with Shirley MacLaine?

Fugate: I will never forget sitting in a trailer talking to Shirley MacLaine about the origins of her ideas and beliefs. It's one thing to read her books [about mysticism] and people have their opinions but it's another to sit in the room with her and feel her energy and listen to what she believes. She's someone I always admired and looked up to. Now I know her and that's amazing to me.

BOM: Why wasn't Carolina released in theaters?

Fugate: Miramax just felt it didn't live up to the script, which is a compliment to me. They just didn't think it hit the mark. That was my first movie. It was made two years ago—Julia has long, blonde hair—and it was heartbreaking.

BOM: Is it available on DVD?

Fugate: It's coming out on June 11 [2004].

BOM: Have you done projects with Barbara Eden?

Fugate: She has a cameo in Carolina.

BOM: Are you involved in the I Dream of Jeannie movie?

Fugate: No. Barbara [who originated the Jeannie role in the popular television series] has a cameo—but this movie has been around forever. At one point, Jeannie was supposed to be played by Alicia Silverstone, right after Clueless. It has gone through several incarnations.

BOM: What are you working on now?

Fugate: A movie called NFL Dad for director Chris Columbus [Home Alone, Stepmom, Harry Potter]. It's my own idea about a hard-nosed head coach who ends up adopting this kid. By becoming a father, he learns to be a better man and a better coach and he takes his team to the Super Bowl. I've been a New Orleans Saints fan all my life and I love the NFL. I spent an entire year with the New Orleans Saints. I've been to their mini-camp, their training camp, I've interviewed players, the coach, his wife, and I've seen all elements of the NFL, whose approval we had to obtain for the use of their name. The tone is Kramer Vs. Kramer [in depicting the father-son relationship] and Jerry Maguire. It's not a kids' movie. It's an adult movie.

BOM: How did you get to write NFL Dad?

Fugate: After doing Carolina and finishing The Prince and Me, I pitched it to Warner Bros. and it was sort of like hitting the Lottery. Apparently, the first script Chris wrote was a football movie—he's a big football fan. Last year, I had been on a spiritual journey in India—as California as that sounds—and, on the way back, I spent time in London. Well, it turns out that Chris was there directing Harry Potter. So I met Chris, I told him my idea for a football movie, and he loved it and went ahead and bought it. Chris has four kids himself and he loved the idea.

BOM: Have you seen Chris Columbus' other movies?

Fugate: I've seen everything Chris has done and I really like his work. I didn't read the Harry Potter books, though Barbara is obsessed with them. She has read every one of them. When she found out I was meeting Chris Columbus, it was like I was meeting the President.

BOM: Are you working on a script for a movie starring Jennifer Aniston?

Fugate: Yes. Like The Prince and Me, the producers had a basic idea and they were looking for a writer. I was asked if I liked their idea and I did. Then we went to Jennifer and she loved it. It's very similar to Paper Moon, with a throwback feeling of people on the road. Jennifer plays an uptight politician's wife and she's very measured and perfect. Something from her past rises up and threatens to expose this artificial world she's created. It's sort of deconstructing someone's false world and letting them breathe again because they find out who they really are. I had one quiet moment with Jennifer, just the two of us, after being surrounded by her entourage, and she really wants to do good work. She has all the money in the world and a beautiful husband and a marriage and she wants to be an artist. She was so adamant that I not write her character as anything remotely like Rachel [Aniston's character on Friends]. She doesn't want to be safe. I've met a lot of actors who are flighty and mercurial and they always defer to their agents. Jennifer doesn't—she's on top of it.

BOM: Are you concerned that her fame will overwhelm one of your first features?

Fugate: What better company can I have? I'm writing movies for Chris Columbus and Jennifer Aniston, so I don't know how much higher I can go. Let's just hope they're hits!

BOM: Do you write for others or for yourself?

Fugate: I write for myself.

BOM: What are some of your favorite movies?

Fugate: That's hard. My favorite movies are so flawed. I like [Albert Brooks'] Defending Your Life. My favorite thing about that movie is when [the three-judge panel] show[s] [Albert Brooks' character] clips of [his] life and the times when [he] didn't work through [his] fears. It's a beautiful theme: what if we went back in life and showed all the moments that passed by due to fear. [Peter Weir's] Fearless is the same in that sense—that awareness that every day is precious. The Japanese movie Afterlife wasn't a great movie but it had the same theme. I like the look of [Vincent Ward's] What Dreams May Come—I like the book better—that movie is visually stunning. What I want from a movie is something that moves me and makes me look at my life. <HR>

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