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OPEN DOORS - The Legacy of Debra Hill Continues To Change The Face Of Hollywood

Posted By Tamara Krinsky, Monday, May 2, 2016
In November 2015, an article in the New York Times by Maureen Down took a deep dive into the state of women in the entertainment industry.  The statistics presented where frustrating and depressing.  The piece stated that in both 2013 and 2014, women were only 1.9% of the directors for the 100 top-grossing films.  A study by professor Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University reported that in 2014, 95% of cinematographers, 89% of screenwriters, 82% of editors, 81% of executive producers and 77% of producers were men.  This is despite the fact that in the same year, women made up 50.8% of the U.S. population.

The one bright spot in this maddening set of figures is that female representation in the producing ranks is slightly better than in most other areas of the business. As more voices have spoken out about correcting the inequity of men versus women in front of and behind the camera, both in regard to pay rate and simply the number of people filling the jobs, mentorship is often brought up as a key factor of the equation. And if you ask some of today’s most prolific female producers about pioneering mentor figures, one name comes up over and over again: Debra Hill.

Hill’s body of work includes both commercial and critical successes, such as the Halloween series, Escape from New York, Clue, Adventures in Babysitting and The Fisher King. She passed away in 2005 at the age of 54 after a battle with cancer. While she may not be entirely responsible for the better-than-average representation of female producers in the industry, one could make an argument that she had a significant influence on getting more women into the producer pipeline. And it’s not just because she made a point of encouraging other women— it’s also because she was a fantastic producer. She didn’t just open doors for her colleagues—she demonstrated how to expertly do the job once they walked through them, thereby helping to set them up for longevity in the business.

Producer Debra Hill and friends on the set of "The Dead Zone", 1982. Getty.
Hill earned her crack producing skills by doing practically every job on set before taking on her first producer title. She started as a PA on documentaries and worked her way through many different departments, including script supervisor, assistant director and second-unit director. Her big break came in 1978 when she co-wrote and produced Halloween with director John Carpenter. The film, purportedly made for about $300,000, had a domestic gross of $47 million. This made her one of the very first independent female producers with a bona fide box office hit.

As she progressed through her career, Hill maintained her passion for the process of moviemaking. Many of those she worked with and/or influenced, such as Stacey Sher and Gale Anne Hurd, have commented on what seems to be Hill’s defining legacy:

There’s no above and below the line— it’s all one crew moving forward, trying to get there and make the day. Every person on a film or TV crew is essential to that project’s success, regardless of their title or role on production.

Sher, whose producing credits range from Gattaca to Erin Brockovich to The Hateful Eight, was Director of Development at Hill/Obst Productions in 1985 and eventually became Vice President of Production. "I think she was an unbelievably detail oriented, hands-on producer,” said Sher. "She kept track of every nickel of every petty cash receipt. She certainly had a great sense for story—she cowrote the Halloween movies with John—but I think that while she had a great story sense, she made production more creative. She found creative solutions and always looked at things from a directorial and producer’s point of view.”

At Hill’s memorial, Barri Evins, who served as President of Debra Hill Productions from 1995–2001, provided an example of this when talking about their attempt to make a film version of the television series Sea Hunt. During a meeting, special effects experts laid out complicated plans for filming the project, which was set in the world of scuba diving. After listening to all of their ideas, Hill laid out a much simpler plan using a small tank, green screen and specific lighting package. Described Evins, "Their mouths dropped and there was utter silence. And after a moment they said, ‘We think that would work.’ I honestly don’t think they’d ever been in a meeting with a producer who turned around and said to them ‘No, I don’t think so. I have a different idea and I’ve thought it out.’”

In addition to her deep knowledge of physical production, Hill was known for her generous and affectionate nature. This manifested itself in every aspect of her career, from her work on set to her support of emerging women in the business.

"Debra was inclusive and supportive of other women,” said Sher. "I also saw the ‘protect your space at the table’ mentality in Hollywood. I don’t think it’s true anymore. We’re going to see more and more women coming into the business, with every Lena Dunham, Sofia Coppola and Amy Schumer. You can’t be what you don’t see. I really believe that now. I saw women who had my job, so I knew what I wanted to do.”

Hill’s friend Gale Anne Hurd added, "It was more than mentoring. She looked at all women, regardless of where you were on the ladder, as equals. It was less of a mentor/mentee relationship than a ‘We are all sisters and we are all equal, and we should share our knowledge, share power.’”

Hill and producer Lynda Obst did just that while running Hill/Obst Productions together at Paramount Pictures in the 1980s. During her remarks at Hill’s posthumous Celebration of Life, Obst described the landscape when the two of them began working together. "When we met in the ‘80s, there was no Women In Film. There were very few women in film, in fact. And no women producers. There was no women’s networking. There were executives, and at that time if one was fired, one would be drafted to take her place.”

The two producers met while Obst was working for Peter Guber and Hill came to her with the pitch for Clue. "By the time I had met her, she had done every job on a movie set, including making hit movies,” said Obst. "One of the first female studio heads initiated some early ‘girls club’ networking —the late, great Dawn Steel—and suggested that Debra and I become partners. She saw the yin/yang of us. Debra knew everything about physical production and I knew development.” 

Adventures in Babysitting was everyone’s first movie but Debra’s, and she generously taught us all. A key thing among a thousand things she taught me is that a set is where a producer belongs. Not on the phone or at the studio, but with the director, with the crew, making the movie that you’d nurtured.” 

Hurd, whose long list of producing credits includes The Terminator, Alien and The Walking Dead, said the most important thing that she learned from Hill was to always be thoughtful and supportive regardless of how frustrated you might be.

"Everyone should be treated with respect,” said Hurd. "That’s why I think Debra was so important as a positive role model because she could be tough, but she was always kind and caring. Very rarely did she let the slings and arrows that we face every day in this business get to her. Many of the rest of us had to become tougher and tougher to give as good as the guys. And she never did that. She was able to really maintain that level of grace that the rest of us just aspired to.”

Paul Reubens had a similar experience working with Hill, who produced Big Top Pee-wee, which he cowrote and starred in. He said that on a particularly difficult day on set Hill pulled him aside for a chat. "I don’t know if you realize this,” she said, "but you dictate the mood of this whole set. You are the star of this film and you wrote this film, and [if] you come in in a bad mood, it just spreads so quickly.”

Remarked Reubens, "And that was something I didn’t know. That’s something I have been able to take with me from that movie and has helped me—and probably all the rest of the people who have to work with me—quite a bit.”

Hill’s desire to help succeeding generations of producers has continued beyond her death in the form of the Debra Hill Fellowship, which was established by the PGA in 2005. The Fellowship is awarded annually to "a man or woman completing an accredited graduate program in producing, and whose work, interests, professionalism and passion mirror that of Debra Hill.”

Hurd announced the Fellowship at Hill’s memorial service. "With Debra, giving a hand to the women who followed her wasn’t an afterthought to her success. It was an article of faith. Despite a career’s worth of critical and commercial successes, I firmly believe that if Debra had found herself 20 years later to be the only woman producing feature films, she would have been profoundly disappointed.”

Lucienne Papon, SVP, Scripted Television, ITV Studios America, was the first recipient of the Debra Hill Fellowship in 2005. She had just graduated from UCLA’s MFA producing program and was concurrently working as a creative executive for a production company based at Sony.

"The boost of this award was all about me being at a place where I was at the bottom of the totem pole but I had potential. It was a validation that I had some of the qualities that would help me prevail in this business at a time when I wasn’t so sure,” said Papon. The grant she received allowed her to join networking organizations like Film Independent and Women In Film, as well as to option material.

"When I think about Debra’s legacy, it’s all about tenacity and passion,” said Papon. "I think that you have to really love this business and love the messiness of collaboration and love storytelling and love every job in the process—but it’s hard. I still had plenty of meetings well into my career where I was the only woman in the room. So I appreciate her devotion and commitment to our own authenticity, to speaking up with her own power and most importantly, to never being afraid of rolling up her sleeves in doing the work. I think the legacy of Debra Hill is that you do whatever is asked of you to tell the best story you can and find the audience where they are. I think that’s the foundation of producing.”

2010 Fellowship recipient Jacob Jaffke was inspired by Hill’s passion for collaboration with writers and directors. A horror fan himself, he has worked with writer/director Ti West on several films including The Innkeepers (2011) and The Sacrament (2013). Said Jaffke, "I’m not saying that we’re Hill and Carpenter yet, but they’re definitely a duo that we emulate.”

Like Hill, Jaffke worked his way through a number of jobs on the call sheet before earning his first feature producer credit on Sleepwalk With Me, a project cowritten and codirected by, and starring comedian Mike Birbiglia. Jaffke directly credits the Fellowship for the opportunity to produce the film. He came out of Columbia’s graduate film program with a large amount of debt, was living paycheck to paycheck and didn’t have the liberty of cherry-picking his projects. He described himself as, "a gun for hire, working on whatever projects I could to pay the rent.” The Debra Hill Fellowship changed that.

"I think the most valuable thing the Fellowship gave me was the ability to try out my own path and pick my own projects,” said Jaffke. With the money from the Fellowship in the bank and his bills paid, the young producer was able to pass on several films he didn’t believe in and instead wait for the script with which he wanted to make his mark. Sleepwalk With Me served him well, going on to win a number of awards, including the Best of NEXT Audience Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Jaffke was nominated for the 2014 Independent Spirit Piaget Producer Award, and currently​heads​ development for Eric Newman and hisStudioCanal–backed production company Grand Electric.

Hill’s effect on successive generations of producers extends beyond those she personally worked with or those who received money from the Fellowship in her name. PGA member Lotti Pharris Knowles (Chastity Bites, I Am Divine) cites Hill as one of her heroes in the business. A self-proclaimed "horror freak,” she came of age watching Halloween after school every day while her mom was at work. "Sometimes I would have to stop at a certain point because I got too freaked out,” she said, "but I just was obsessed with the teenagers, the dialogue, the building of tension—it’s just exquisite.”

Knowles already had aspirations of being an entertainer by junior high. She described how at some point during her multiple watchings of Halloween, "It hit me that there was this woman’s name who had cowritten the film and produced it. This made me realize that I could be something beyond just a movie star—there were other options in the entertainment business. Debra Hill was this person that I could look to and say, ‘Oh, women are doing this and it’s cool and I can do it too.’ By the time I was about 12, 13, 14, I was telling everybody I was going to make horror movies when I grew up ... and here I am.” Knowles is currently working on a variety of projects, including The Black Rose Anthology, a horror series featuring female directors of note. 

How vital was Debra Hill to the PGA?  Vital enough to serve as the
subject of Produced By's first cover interview, back in 
One can imagine that Hill would be thrilled to hear that her body of work and reputation have served as both encouragement and as an example to the next generation of producers. She was honored by Women In Film in 2003 with the Crystal Award. During her acceptance speech, she said, "I hope some day there won’t be a need for Women In Film. That it will be People In Film. That it will be equal pay, equal rights and equal job opportunities for everybody.”

When asked for a reaction to that statement 12 years later, Gale Anne Hurd paused and said, "We still need Women In Film.”

Hurd then went on to say that there have been inroads but, "It certainly isn’t reflective of either the diversity in this country or the gender equality in terms of actual stats of the population. There are now a lot of women who are shining a spotlight on the fact that it continues to this day. Women are paid less. Given less credit. And it hasn’t changed as much as we would have liked. But at least the discussion is now part of the zeitgeist. Debra began that.”


-Tamara Krinsky is an Emmy award-winning writer/producer, actress and broadcast host. She recently hosted the PGA’s coverage of the Producers Guild Awards.

This article originally appeared in the April/May issue of Produced By magazine


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