Debra Hill and the Crucial Role of a Movie Producer

What even is a producer? The short answer: a little bit of everything.

Debra Hill Movies

What is a movie producer? This seems to be a big question for those unfamiliar with film crews, especially because the word is often preceded by a qualifier like executive, supervising, or line. But, the producer proper is perhaps one of the most crucial roles on set.

In the PBS Digital Studio video “Producers: Crash Course Film Production,” Lily Gladstone runs through the different kinds of producers, their responsibilities, and how they keep the proverbial clock ticking. In a nutshell, the producer does a little bit of everything. In fact, Gladstone says there is no one thing a producer does. A producer is someone who makes sure a film gets made.

This means they touch all aspects of a film’s production, from budgets and scripts to casting, editing, and the music score. They are one of the few people involved in the film from the very start to the very end as the producer does the bulk of the work. If it’s part of a film, the producer probably had something to do with it. They’re even responsible for selling the film and securing distribution.

No one project is the same for the producer, and their responsibilities can vary depending on who they are working with. Robert Teitel, the producer of the Barbershop franchise and The Hate U Give, told the Chicago Tribune that whenever he’s asked what he does as a producer, he answers differently every time because “every project is different.” 

Importantly, a film can have more than one producer. The director can be a producer when they are involved throughout the entire filmmaking process. As Gladstone describes, the best way to know who the producer (or producers) proper are is simply their names are the ones that come after “produced by” in the credits.

To better understand just exactly how a producer shapes a film and ultimately delivers the best product possible, it’s helpful to look at one of the best: Debra Hill.

Hill was perhaps one of the most influential female producers in film history. She was responsible for bringing horror classics like Halloween, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and The Fog to life. Hill and John Carpenter were constant collaborators, even writing scripts together. While Carpenter may receive much of the credit due to his role as director, these films might not have happened without the leadership and persistence of Hill.

Hill had to be meticulous as a producer, making sure to keep track of every minute detail on set to ensure a smooth-as-possible production. She managed the budget and made sure to collect every receipt, she cataloged every prop so nothing was misplaced, and she kept a tight inventory of all supplies. Perhaps that sounds like micro-management, but it was all in the name of success and organization.

In an interview with the New York Times, Lynda Obst, a former collaborator with Hill, said, “Debra knew how to do every job on a set,” which embodies the role of a film’s producer. She could do anything and step in wherever she was needed to, again, ensure the success of the production. She knew about lighting, cinematography, everything. Obst said, “She just was able to solve a problem, imaginatively.”

She even had a say in casting, particularly for Halloween. She heavily advocated for Jamie Lee Curtis to play Final Girl Laurie Strode. Hill’s influence and power as a producer not only kept the crew organized but ultimately created one of the most iconic female characters in the horror genre. A producer does not just file paperwork; they work tirelessly across departments to make the best film possible. 

Being a producer in Hollywood isn’t easy, especially as a woman in a male-dominated industry that revolves around who you know and the connections you make. Hill spoke to the Los Angeles Times in 1982 and discussed how she navigated the space and was able to get such crucial work done:

“I discovered very early that there are two ways for a woman producer to go. You could be aggressive, or you can be very nice. So I arrive on the set, in my tight jeans, and people wonder.”

She even said, in 2003, that most men assumed she was in hair and makeup, not the film’s producer.

Hill was a prime example of how the producer is a true renaissance man — or woman — on set. Her dedication to creativity and teamwork ushered in the success of several important films of the 1980s and 1990s. She was the backbone of these projects, providing structural integrity to usher it to completion. Such is the role of the producer: a juggler of jobs, a keeper of schedules, and the film’s number one cheerleader. 

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Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance writer and editor based in Washington, DC. She loves all things horror and will defend bad vampire movies until the end of time.