Laura Ziskin
Image via s_bukley /

Laura Ziskin: Glorious Hollywood Warrior

by Shannon Gaulding

Her hair was short then. The pixie cut, also known as ‘this is what happens after chemo’, looked sharp on her. Laura Ziskin was always able to successfully rock a New York ‘chic’ look and no way was she gonna let short hair look anything other but intentional and awesome. Her battle with breast cancer was public and was gnarly but she had turned a corner. An O. G. Rrriot Gurl, Laura had produced movies with a baby on her hip in the 80s (unheard of at the time), run Fox 2000, produced the Oscars and produced two Spider-Man movies… with another on the way. Cancer had chosen a glorious warrior to confront when it settled into Laura’s body.

I was a young executive at Columbia Pictures at the time. Laura and I had gone through the fire on Spider-Man I and II. She had yelled at me, making outrageous demands. I had bawled in the privacy of my office and then called her back, guts shaking but voice firm; I can’t say she respected me but I was inside her friendship circle, that I knew.

I was running a movie which was shooting in New Zealand. The director, strong willed, English and very talented, was being quite difficult. We had a casting meeting with the head of the studio and he had skipped town to promote another picture, after promising not to.

What the fuck was I gonna do now? The sole responsibility for the picture weighed mightily on my shoulders. A punk rock girl who had chewed through a drug addiction, the music business and my own soul, I found that the strength which had come so effortlessly in my youth had been replaced now by self doubt and sticky fear.

Stand up to Cancer

Photo by Shannon Gaulding

I went to go see Laura for advice. She welcomed me into her office and rattled on about the upcoming Stand Up To Cancer fundraiser, the ineptitude of some teamster named Larry and the immorality of agents.

I shared with her my situation. She let me natter away – the boring details of someone else’s drama, each couplet of remembered dialogue recounted with passion, with a breaking voice. I knew I had blown it; the movie would now fall apart due to my inability to control the director, the situation, the flipping weather in New Zealand. I was a bit hysterical.

She looked at me, those eyes sharp as a knife and said the craziest thing.

She said “you know what to do. Stop thinking. Stop talking. Just shut the fuck up. You know what to do. Now go do it.”

I remember being momentarily confused. I remember seeing the security golf cart drive by out the window. I remember thinking ‘who is she talking to?’ and looking over my shoulder to see if anyone had joined us.

“You know what to do.”

And I did.

Years have gone by. Laura has passed away, ashes spread over the Pacific. I think of her always when it rains. And I think of her simple words, spoken in her irascible ‘I don’t have time for this shit’ voice which was always rushing on, with great authority, to the next battle, most of which she would win. The big one she would lose.

I wish I could call her even though I know she would have no words for me. She would trust me to counsel myself. Laura wasn’t big on rescue. She was big on getting shit done. She was big on belief. She was big on daring and doing.

I think of her when it rains…

Shannon Gaulding

About Shannon Gaulding

Shannon Gaulding is an independent movie producer living in Los Angeles. She enjoys gardening (who has the time?), sleeping late (almost never), camping in the Sierra Nevadas (heaven on a stick) and eating Pterodactyl ribs home-smoked by her foxy, long-haired husband. She makes no mention of her willful children (male, ages 10 and 12) whom she forces to watch old movies which they pretend not to love - SEVEN SAMURAI (in b&w with subtitles!) and JEREMIAH JOHNSON - over and over again.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,