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A friend of mine once described me as a Polish producer, because I was the only producer she knew who wrote for extra money. Over the course of writing this book I discovered that I also write for extra career options, extra outlets for my frustrations, and extra work: What would I otherwise do on Sundays or on planes? Relax? But it was only after it was completed, over the course of three years of excruciatingly frustrating work, that I realized why I had felt so compelled to write it: Through it I refound the joy of producing, and remembered the reasons I had started producing at all.
I have a kind of hybrid world view: I ended up in Hollywood accidentally, so I arrived with a reporter's eye and an anthropologist's distance. Slowly, inevitably, I've gone native. Fifteen years of day-to-day exposure turns anthropology into sociology. My perspective swells and shrinks in the daily drama. Often I lose it entirely. Writing is my tool for getting it back. Sometimes it even works.
What on earth is this thing variously called producer, executive producer, coproducer, associate producer, scrolling before the film begins? What is this endlessly qualified job that seems to be done by so many and yet is actually done by so few? The Oxford English Dictionary defines produce well: "To lead or bring forward, bring forth into view or notice; to offer for inspection, consideration, exhibit." This is what we do. We lead and bring forth: our work, our worth, our products to be exhibited. We start movies and then we finish them. We bring them forth to you, the viewer, our audience. How we actually bring something forth--out of the dailymayhem that annihilates the best of our intentions--is the subject of this book.
I've watched Hollywood change radically over my tenure, the "baby boomers take Hollywood" years. It has undergone systemic changes, personality changes, changes in opportunity for gender and race, changes in technology. Yet in many ways it never fundamentally changes: Its unwritten rules have stayed the same as they were during its founding-mogul golden era. But interestingly, in the past few baby-boomer years, the inner workings of Hollywood, not just the glamorous goings-on of its movie stars, have become news, worthy of reportage. Why? Somehow it is intuitively clear that what goes on in the deep, dark recesses of the movie business tells us something (scary) about the process of work mixed with power in the latter days of this millennium, in every venue. Success is sudden; defeat is swift. Reinvention remains an option.
Over the course of my education in the movie business, I've seen my peers crash and soar; I've seen the system create and destroy; and somehow, despite the drama and the sideshows, I've learned how to get movies I love made. There is, I've discovered, a peculiar logic that underlies the seemingly arbitrary customs and traditions that have evolved in Hollywood. I observed, theorized, and wrote it all down. It may not all be exactly right (rightness being an elusive thing), but it's how it looks from where I sit. It is my manual for surviving the havoc in the modern trenches of work.
This is not a mean book, so if that's what you seek, seek elsewhere. I love what I do, at least a good deal of the time, and have few axes to grind. Those I'm still stuck with I've tried to ignore. This book tells everything I know about Hollywood. It's a pretty funny place. Funny like hell.
The Ten Commandments for Chix in Flix:
1. Thou Shalt Not Cry At Work
Ever. One of men's most legitimate fears about us is that in a moment of crisis or argument, we will break down and resort to tears. They simply don't know how to react to strong emotion in a professional context. When we cry they feel an unfair advantage is being taken, as they suddenly see a previously tough colleague as their own emotional wife, daughter, or, worse, mother wanting something from them. If I get distraught or want to cry, I take off. I disappear in my car to cool down, while my assistant screens my calls. Tears don't belong in the office. You must gather your thoughts, then subtract inappropriate emotion from the equation and behave like a pro.
2. Thou Shalt Not Have An Affair With Thy Boss
(I personally don't know why you would want to. Talk about a busman's holiday! No relief.) It's a truly terrible idea to sleep with your boss. First, it's the shortest route to getting fired. (Never underestimate the wife.) Second, even if a woman does wonderfully well and buys a thousand great scripts under his tenure, her success will forever be attributed to her special relationship. Don't think no one will know. Everyone will know. Remember The Player: "All rumors are true." If a woman must have an affair at the office, she should try a peer.
3. Thou Shalt Subdue Thy Sexuality
Only actresses are allowed to be overtly seductive; it's their job. Like in high school, women must guard their reputations, and come-on is uncool. But they must also take flirtatious pleasure in male company. Men will be so relieved to be noticed. Big sister works for me. Little sister is even more effective.
4. Thou Shalt Not Dish Other Women
Year of the woman or not, about this we all try to be politically correct. There are plenty of men around to bash us. Competing with women is passÚ. Compete with everyone.
5. Thou Shalt Understand Thine Own Personal Style
A woman must know what she looks best in, define her personal style. She must wear it well, keep it clean, and get great haircuts. She must have a great facialist, nutritionist, manicurist, and, most important, colorist. No one goes gray in Hollywood, and style always, always matters. It says you know who you are. (Or who you want to look like, at least.)
6. Thou Shalt Entertain
Entertaining always enhances a woman's profile, though there's nothing quite as dreary as an industry dinner. She must pretend she doesn't mind, and reinvent the dinner party with a fascinating mix of breaking writers, English directors, and handsome Young Turks.
7. Thou Shalt Keep Thy Mind And Body Well Tuned
Keep reading books. Not just for work. Work will not sustain intellectual curiosity. Be terrified if it does. But books do. And be peripherally active. It's the only good thing about Southern California. I find it helpful to think I'm in training. I use sports metaphors and give myself motivational pep talks. Be your own coach about everything.
8. Thou Shalt Return All Thy Phone Calls
The Sherry Lansing secret to success. Damnit, be polite. No one can bear the arrogance of a woman who doesn't return her calls. How dare she? Isn't she grateful? Anyway, we know better.
9. Thou Shalt Not Appear Tough
Only men are allowed to be tough. Why is this? Angry women remind everyone of their mothers and their potential wrath is more painful. We must be conscious of this disparity, fair or not. The trick is to be tough-skinned without seeming to be tough at all. It is best to display softness as a velvet glove over a firm hand. (Think Liddy Dole.) This requires avoiding power struggles for their own sake. Screaming at anyone is a mistake, even in private. (This includes all service-related screaming at hairdressers, messengers, assistants.) A team can't be run like this. Everyone is waiting for powerful women to become dragon ladies: It makes good copy. Don't play into ugly expectations. Be smarter.
10. Thou Shalt Be A Pro At All Times
Taking disappointment in stride, being graceful in the face of rejection, keeping perspective on the true scale of a problem, are all large parts of being a pro. Feuds must be avoided because anyone with whom a woman is feuding is likely to show up in a crucial role in her next project. Composure is the key. No one wants to work with a nut, no matter how talented. People must feel they can count on you. And when they can, you're a pro.
When On Location There's Always Temptation
"I can't go on. You must go on. I'll go on."
"This show's gonna wreck."
--Teamster captain, Bad Girls
My first genuine production emergency erupted immediately upon my arrival in Austin, Texas, in 1987, three days prior to commencement of photography on Heartbreak Hotel. It was a romantic fantasy, set in the early seventies, about a young boy's effort to introduce his lonely mother to Elvis Presley, starring Charlie Schlatter, Tuesday Weld, and David Keith as Elvis. To be directed by Chris Columbus and produced by my partner, Debra Hill, and me, the movie had been prepped in Los Angeles by a production manager without my involvement. I didn't know from prep. This was my second movie as producer and on my first, Adventures in Babysitting, I had happily ceded all preparation and production issues to Debra. I had thought I could wing in from the coast and oversee opening day festivities, kind of like the baseball commissioner. I was in the zone, like most producers, delegating the little details like crew deals and scheduling the movie to underlings. Debra, the physical production expert of the two of us, was still in Los Angeles doing postproduction on her movie Clue. Little did either of us know that I would be ambushed on my arrival with the ominous news that there was to be a "parking-lot meeting" (read: crew mutiny) on the day we were scheduled to commence. I had never heard of a parking-lot meeting, but I knew this was not good.
The reporter in me went to work. Who was leading this revolt and what were the issues? I was mapless, clueless, without allies on the set or even the knowledge of where to find any. I now know that the teamsters know everything and I avoid ambushes by getting the scoop from the driver on the way in from the airport. Over the years, on various projects, I learned things like the actress is screwing the cinematographer; the construction coordinator is a drunk; the art director is padding receipts; the production manager is an idiot; the key grip is screwing the wardrobe department; and hair and makeup are at war among themselves. A normal day on set.
Fortunately, this time the crew leader turned out to be a very attractive key grip. Very. I sought him out, and we took a long walk along Lake Austin on the day prior to the proposed walkout. The crucial issue was that the production manager at the studio had neglected to secure the "legal turnaround" for the crew, he explained patiently. I didn't know from turnaround either, but my grandfather had been a labor organizer, so I was all ears.
The crew's turnaround was the guaranteed eighteen hours of rest they would get between a late Saturday night and an early start on Monday. The unclosed deals, as they were written, allowed for no guaranteed rest time for the crew whatsoever. I told the key grip, Tony Marra, that I would "get into it" immediately and to prepare his crew to go to work in the morning with the understanding that the parking-lot meeting would take place if the turnaround could not be secured. Then I got on the phone with Disney and whipped them into a frenzy. That evening two Disney production suits flew by private jet to the set. The crew knew they had been heard, and I became their producer. When in doubt, get on the phone and yell. Someone's bound to listen, particularly when production is about to be derailed. That means money--physical production is the business part of show business. And, in its own way, it's the show part too.
On a normal show a producer's job is basically done during preproduction, or "prep," the six to eight weeks that precede shooting. It is important to note that in production, we always call a movie a show and we call preproduction prep. We call the fun part (hiring the new team) crewing up. Your use of this terminology is how other key crew members know you've done this before. Crewing up is when you turn into the CEO of a minicorporation, staffing from scratch. Santa Claus time.
Prep is a good news-bad news joke. The good news: You've got a green light. The bad news: You can't make your movie for the budget. (It was once said of Paramount in an earlier incarnation that it gave you a green light and then dared you to make the movie.) Presumably prep is the process of planning the shoot and then arriving at an approved budget, determining the amount of money it will take to prepare, shoot, and complete your movie. This includes the number of days you need to shoot, crew salaries, star fees, and critical assumptions about production realities: weather, effects, stunts, extras. Then, commonsensically, we defend these numbers and assumptions to the powers that be.
The ritual is a little different now. In today's world each movie's budget is pre-figured by the studio before the producer really knows what she needs. The studio models the genre and cast of the movie and tries to predict its profitability. It then addresses the few glaring budget assumptions that the script entails. The number the studio has in its collective brain is a function of that reasoning. They don't tell the producer the real number (duh! ) for the same reason I don't tell the costume designer her whole budget. The number we get, the number they tell us we cannot exceed for fear of a fate worse than death, is usually a large fraction of the real one. (What is that fate worse than death? I call it producers' jail.) Then you quibble and posture and bluff and play brinkmanship.
"We're not going to make the movie at that price. Forget it."
"Fine. Put it in turnaround. I can get it made for this price across the street."
You cannot cave now, as you are fighting for the lifeblood of the show: the salaries of its most important crew members--the cinematographer, production designer, costumer; the possibility of distant locations; the principal cast; the time it will take to shoot; the look of the show. All this is what makes prep the crucible for the producer.
I was scouting locations for The Fisher King in New York with Terry Gilliam, my coproducer, Debra Hill, the writer, Richard LaGravenese, and the cinematographer, Roger Pratt. Scouting with Terry was extraordinary because he is so brilliant visually and what he is imagining is so physically demanding, either because it is too high up to see or too high up to access. He is always looking up; my neck was constantly craning. Suddenly Terry would stop in front of what appeared to be nothing. He'd seen a beautiful piece of stone cornice-work, forty feet up the building in front of us. I saw nothing; he saw a textured background for an expositional scene. This is why he was the director and I was the producer. His job was to find stimulating visuals, mine to get the crane it would take to shoot them.
One day we were scouting Grand Central Station for a scripted scene to take place there. It was a memorable moment for me; I had virtually grown up at this station since my dad commuted through it his entire adult life. But it looked brand-new through Terry's eyes. He got us to the tippy top of the station