Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder. Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.
I’m taking the week off. So here’s a tale of ups and downs and all arounds from The War Department:
Unlike my husband, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at an early age. I studied broadcasting and film in college and moved to L.A. from Massachusetts to find a job in Hollywood. I knew no one. And although I wasn’t discovered sitting in Hollywood malt shop, I did land a dream job on the MGM lot fresh off the boat. I was working for a temp agency and got placed with a young, up-and-coming producer who had just made a studio deal that came with an assistant.
There I was. Dark tan pantyhose under my ill-fitting, off-white wool Ann Taylor suit, behind a desk in an office impaneled with posters from The Graduate, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and The Getaway, just to name a few. My boss, Gary Foster, has since produced Sleepless in Seattle, Tin Cup, The Soloist, and the hit TV show Community. Gary endured my atrocious typing, paralyzing shyness, and hopeless phone skills. Front office material, I was not. Nevertheless, he gave me scripts to read for coverage and encouraged me to develop material and sit in on meetings. There was a development job in my future. An aspiring and eager newcomer couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity or a more generous mentor.
A Writers Guild strike loomed and my position would fall under studio cutbacks. But before that happened, Gary left MGM to produce Loverboy for Tri-Star and took me with him. Yes. Loverboy, starring a young actor later known as McDreamy. But I had already met my McDreamy. You see, Doug was developing a script for Gary.
And so began my horizontal journey through Hollywood. No. Not that kind of horizontal. I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I quickly realized I didn’t have the temperament to be a producer or studio executive. I spent some time with the film editors on Loverboy and remembered how much I enjoyed cutting my Super 8 film in college. Ready to start a new career, I took a pre-AVID editing class at Valley College followed by a job as an apprentice editor on a low-budget film. I hated it.
I missed being on the set, being in production, and going to work at a different place every day. And I missed working with such an interesting spectrum of people. From the Teamsters to the art department to the hair and makeup couple who both wore all black or all white every other day. It was blue-collar, white-collar, college, trade school. We were family and no two days were the same.
So I went back to the set, working as a freelance P.A. on commercials and music videos. I pulled an all-nighter on Bobby Brown’s Every Little Step and saw the top male hand model skillfully ply his talent. The pace was fast and in some ways more exciting than feature production. But the crews couldn’t bond and become family like on features where long stretches of time lead to deep conversations and unlikely friendships. It was working in commercials that I first became truly aware of “the line.”
“The line” refers to a figurative demarcation in a movie’s budget. “Above the line” salaries are variable and negotiated and include those of the stars, producers, director, and writers. The rest of the crew is “below the line.” Day and weekly rates are either set by the unions or industry standards. The phrase can be used derogatorily. Shortly after this below-the-line grunt married someone above the line, we were socializing with some of Doug’s above-the-line friends. I recall one dinner where his A-list director friend commented, “Yeah, well. He’s below-the-line. What do you expect?”
A reminder of how far I was below the line came early one morning. Pre-dawn. An hour and a half north of L.A. It was cold and we were shooting a spot with cowboys riding through an open field. The camera setup was a hundred yards or so away from the equipment trucks. And the director wanted oatmeal. Yours truly hustled over to craft service and added warm water from the electric urn to a powdery packet of instant oatmeal in a Styrofoam bowl. The man of the hour took a bite and spat it out before chastising me that the oatmeal was cold. Um. Yeah.
I reached my tipping (er, quitting) point not long after that. It was on a soundstage. The aforementioned hand model had left; only product shots remained. This was a different director and he kept a case of red wine under the craft service table covered in a floor-length tablecloth. His glass was empty. I had never opened a bottle of wine before and decimated the cork with the folding corkscrew. He needed the drink. Badly. As I was carrying it to him, his producer started shouting at me. “Run! Hurry! Look, she won’t run. Goddamn it, I said run.” I’d like to say that when I reached him I threw the wine in his face. I didn’t. Instead, I made another lateral below-the-line move into still photography.
But years later I was visiting an above-the-line friend on location. It was a big-budget movie. I played golf with the star, went to dinner with the producers, and visited the set where they were shooting a multiple camera action scene. That’s when I saw him. The producing partner of the wine-drinking, directing diva from my P.A. days. Working as a second camera assistant on “C” camera. Not a bad job. But definitely below the line and definitely a sizable step down from his West Hollywood production office.
An old adage comes to mind…
—The War Department, a below-the-line girl living in an above-the-line world.
- Read more articles by Doug Richardson
- Guerrilla Screenwriting: PowerPoint Presentation for Movie Financing
- Short Circuit: Production – Setting It All Up
Get Doug’s volume of Hollywood war stories in his new book
The Smoking Gun: True Tales from Hollywood’s Screenwriting Trenches