The Production Line

Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy were just two kids a few years out of USC film school, trying to figure out how to make movies in Hollywood, when they got a call from someone representing Oliver Stone. They had this script they were trying to get made, one written by an up-and-coming young filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino, and Stone was interested. Suddenly, the film for which Hamsher and Murphy had hoped to scrape together $1 million or so promised to turn into a big-name, big-budget, wide-release monster.Eventually, that's just what "Natural Born Killers" (1994) became: a controversial, $38 million hit starring Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis. But not before the fledgling producers learned that while bigger is in some ways better, it's definitely not easier. They wound up butting heads with Stone, with Warner Bros., and even with Tarantino (who didn't want the film made), experiences for which film school and a few small productions had not quite prepared them. "That's why we were so overwhelmed," Hamsher says, recalling her first-hand immersion in "the politics and egos that go along with that kind of budget."Hamsher tells the story in "Killer Instinct", one of a pair of recent books that dissect Hollywood from the point of view of a female producer. Like Lynda Obst's "Hello, He Lied "(published last year, now out in paperback), the candid "Killer Instinct" paints Movie Land less as a dream factory than as a place where films get made almost in spite of themselves.When Oliver Stone came calling, for instance, Hamsher and Murphy were embroiled in a lawsuit that was brought by a friend of Tarantino's who had hoped to direct the film, and that might have cost them the rights to the script. They won that battle, but even when Stone's status made the project a go, the fun was just beginning. Hamsher describes episodes as seemingly petty (but psychologically important) as fights over office space, and higher-octane stuff like the power struggle with Stone's handpicked co-producer, whom she considered ineffectual.But all that paled alongside the hand-to-hand with Stone, who here comes across as unstable, utterly dedicated and hyper-manipulative. Hamsher writes that while she chose not to partake in Stone's legendary debauches, she did get close enough to heavily influence "Killers" toward her and Murphy's original vision. If you think the art of film is primarily the province of directors, actors and technicians, it's interesting to learn how much input Hamsher had. She tickled Stone's ear with the modern hard rock that dominates the film's soundtrack, and convinced him that hillbilly killers-on-the-run would have a muscle-car like the Challenger Mickey (Harrelson) and Mallory (Lewis) wound up driving, not the Cadillac Stone had envisioned.Eventually despite Stone's disastrous early edit of the film, and further editing to avoid the studio no-no of an NC-17 rating "Killers" wound up close to the film Hamsher wanted all along. In an ironic denouement, Hamsher now says, "I kind of find [the film] hard to look at" because so many subsequent movies have "looted, ripped off and copied" "Killers"' frenetic style and satiric nihilism.The Zen of HollywoodObst has a much different sensibility than Hamsher. Her first project was "Flashdance" (1983), and she later produced hits including "The Fisher King" (1991), "Sleepless In Seattle" (1993) and "Contact" (1997). That most recent film was actually among the first she tried to produce when she came to Hollywood in the late '70s after a stint as editor of "The New York Times Magazine". The trials of bringing Carl Sagan's novel to the screen are among the many experiences Obst mines in "Hello, He Lied", which is structured as a producer's guide to the rules of power in the film game.In pursuit of peace of mind in a culture where lying is both natural and expected, Obst raids the "Tao Te Ching" and Zen koans for nuggets of wisdom. But what comes through most clearly is the pervasive sense of insecurity everyone feels. A few of her aphorisms: "Everything can be undone, including success"; "Insomnia is the cost of ambition"; and "There's nothing more desirable than something someone else wants."What counts, though, is making movies, something both Obst and Hamsher continue to do, two more examples of the growing power held by women in Hollywood. Yet Hamsher says the double standard remains: "How dare you be young and female and have a strong opinion?""Killer Instinct" won't endear her to many, in particular Tarentino, who comes off as especially immature. But no one's griped to her face. "Everyone who calls says they love it," Hamsher says. "No one who calls would say any different. That's Hollywood."Hello, He Lied"(1996), $13." Killer Instinct "(1997), $25. Both are published by Broadway Books.


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