Interview with Donna Smith | Fast, Cheap Movie Thoughts
Posted by John Gaspard
Donna Smith on Production Management
Let’s start with a clarification to make sure I have this right: In the history of Hollywood, you are the only woman to run physical production at a studio. Is that right?
DONNA: Can you imagine? Over a hundred years in Hollywood there had never been a woman in charge of physical production at a studio. A distressing fact.
You’re a Minnesotan like myself. What brought you to Hollywood and to the movies?
DONNA: You know what the answer is? The weather. And that’s the absolute truth.
I had been very fortunate in my Minneapolis working days, because I worked for five years at the Walker Art Center and I worked for five years at The Guthrie Theater. So how much more blessed can anybody be if you’re interested in working in the performing arts or in culture in general? It was like freeloading two educations, one in modern art and then one in classical theater. And I worked directly with Tyrone Guthrie; I was his assistant for three years.
So the weather drove you out of Minnesota?
DONNA: Yes. I met my husband, Gordon, at The Guthrie. I remember this: It was May and Gordon came home from the theater and he walked in and he said, “If one more fucking snowflake falls on me in the month of May, I’m going to lose my mind!” It was May and it was snowing. And he just couldn’t believe it; he was so insulted by that. I remembering looking at him and saying, “You’re not emotionally fit to live here anymore.”
And we actually moved within that year. We both had very nice employment and beautiful jobs at the Guthrie Theater — he’d been there since the inception. He was the very first employee; he was a stage manager who came from New York.
So we did move. Gordon said to me, “Do you want to move to New York or Los Angeles?” And my answer was, “Not New York.” I never had a heartbeat for New York. Every time I go to New York, even now, I want to stay five days and get out of there. I don’t like the energy, I don’t like the noise, I don’t like the pollution.
So we went on what we called our Odyssey and when we left Minneapolis we took a year to get to California, until our money ran out. We traveled with the sun and went all around the U.S., Canada and Mexico to get here.
I remember we were in Seattle and I said, “We have $11.00 left. We have to get to Los Angeles.” And it was true, we only had $11.00.
And along the way we had picked up a cat in Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, I found a little baby cat. So here was the cat traveling in the van with us with a litter box. It was kind of a hoot. I didn’t mind but Gordon objected. Carl was my cat, he lived with us for 12 years.
So we arrived here in Los Angeles with a van we’d been traveling in and Carl the cat and Gordon and Donna. Total unemployment. We didn’t know anybody in Los Angeles. And we had eleven bucks.
So you’d landed in Los Angeles … how did you find work?
DONNA: I went to an employment agency and said, “I’m kind of smart and know how to do things, and I’ve got a very organized mind. I have a great sense of detail. And I come from the theater!” I was so proud of that, and they said, “Go fish. We couldn’t care less. Theater doesn’t mean anything in this town.”
It was so awful. But this lady said, “I don’t care how good you are. We have one thing here, for an assistant filing clerk.” And I remember saying, “Assistant filing clerk? That’s a little beneath what I had in mind. I worked with Sir Tyrone Guthrie and all.”
Not even a filing clerk, but an assistant filing clerk.
DONNA: And only for two weeks. Some lady was behind in her filing and she needed someone for two weeks. So I said, “Oh, good grief. All right, I’ll take it.” I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know what else to do.
So she handed me a card and said “Go to this address tomorrow.” And that’s all that I had. It could have been a company that sold tires, I had no idea, the name meant nothing to me. So I went to the address, it was in Culver City, and I checked in. I worked for this really mean lady. She said, “Sit down over there and get this stuff filed!” She just had the personality of a snake; she was so abrupt, yelling and not nice.
So I sat down and she gave me this big stack of purchase orders. It meant nothing to me, they were just purchase orders and all I was doing was filing them by number. I didn’t read them or anything.
But it was serendipity, really.
On about the fourth day, I looked up because I heard this voice, and I thought, “Oh my god, there’s Rocky. What’s Rocky doing here?” It’s a very distinctive voice. And I looked up and there was Sylvester Stallone on the other side of the office. And I thought, “What’s he doing here? This is so exciting,” because the movie Rocky had recently come out and he was on the cover of Time magazine.
It was pretty exciting to see him. I didn’t say anything to the mean lady, I just told Gordon on the phone that night, “Guess what, I saw Rocky today!” I didn’t know his real name, by the way, he was just Rocky. And then two days later, there was Travis Bickle. And I thought, “There’s Travis Bickle, what’s going on here?”
So it’s Robert DeNiro.
DONNA: It’s Robert DeNiro. So I told Gordon that night on the phone, “I saw Travis Bickle today, he was in this office.” And Gordon said, “What is this place,” and I said, “I don’t know.”
But the next day I had the guts finally to ask the mean lady, “What does this company do?” And she turned around with her hands on her hips and said, “We make movies.”
And I sat down and thought, “They make movies? How do you make a movie?” I couldn’t ask her anything because she was so mean and nasty, so I just pondered that all day. And at least I realized, then, why Travis and Rocky were there.
Well the name of the company on the card just simply said Chartoff-Winkler. It meant nothing to me. Like I said, they could have sold tires instead.
This was the company that made Rocky. That’s why Sly was there, working on Rocky II. And that’s why Bobby was there, because he had just finished Taxi Driver with them. It was amazing.
Then on about day eight of my ten days, the man who the mean lady reported to (she turned out to be the Production Coordinator, working for the Production Manager), he came by me and said, “You. Come in. Take notes. I’m going to have a meeting.” So I was just sort of wide-eyed, but I went into the meeting — I had never been at a meeting in this place, I was just doing purchase orders — and I wrote down every word he said.
His name was Jim Brubaker, he was the Production Manager. He said, “We’ve already shot Rocky II, but Sly hates the ending and we’re going to re-do it. So we need to get 3,000 extras, we need to get the sports arena back, we need to have all the principles …” and he just rattled all this stuff off.
And I’m writing notes like crazy. And he pointed at me and said, “This is Donna Smith, she’ll be the Production Coordinator. And this is Benjy Rosenberg, he’s the first A.D. Coordinate everything with them. This fucking meeting’s over.”
And I remember writing down that word, “fucking,” and I just couldn’t believe it because we don’t talk that way in Minnesota. And I was just so alarmed and I wrote that word down and I actually missed the part where he said “This is Donna Smith, she’ll be the Production Coordinator.”
I went up to Brubaker after and I tugged on his sleeve like a four-year old and I said, “Mr. Brubaker, you said my name, I think you made a mistake.” He said, “No, I haven’t made a mistake. I’ve been watching you. You can do it, but if you don’t want to do it, I’ll get someone else.”
And I said, “No, no, no, I can do it. I just didn’t understand.”
Then Mean Lady came up to me and said, “You just took my job!” And I looked at her and said, “Oh my god, if that’s what happened, I’m not aware of it.” And she honestly cut me a break. She said, “I’m not going to hold it against you, because you’re so green. I know you didn’t go after it.” And it was true, I really didn’t go after it.
The next day I came back to that company and I was sitting there at her desk, looking at the Production Coordinator placard she had on the desk, thinking, “Yep, it says Production Coordinator. Yep, that’s what it says.” I didn’t know diddly. I didn’t know one thing about what to do.
Then people started coming up to me, asking questions. And I wrote everything down. I’d just sit there and say, “I’ll get back to you on that.” And that was okay, nobody seemed to mind if I said that.
What did you do then?
DONNA: Well, then you start trying to find out what the answers are. There was a pivotal moment. A guy came up to me, I didn’t know who it was, and he said, “Hey, toots, what emulsion are we on?” So I said, “I’ll get back to you on that.” And he said, “Okay” and just walked away.
So I called the drugstore, because I remembered that the word “emulsion” was on the can of film that you brought into the drugstore at that time. It had that word on it. So I called the drugstore and I said, “Hello, this is Donna Smith, I’m the Production Coordinator on the Rocky II re-shoots. Do you know what ’emulsion’ means?” And the guy said, “Lady, who do you think I am? Kodak?” And he hung up on me.
And I thought, “Oh. Interesting.” So I got the Yellow Pages out and I looked it up and there was a Kodak in Los Angeles, and I thought, “I’ll call them up and see if they know something.”
So I called Kodak and said, “Hello, this is Donna Smith, I’m the Production Coordinator on the Rocky II re-shoots. Do you know what emulsion we’re on?” The guy said, “Hold on a moment,” and then he came back and he said, “5247.”
I thought, “Well, I can do this job. It’s just reasoning. It’s sense of detail. I’ll just teach myself, because this Brubaker guy isn’t going to tell me anything and the Mean Lady is gone.”
I would never have called Kodak if the drugstore guy hadn’t hung up on me.
And then when I saw the man who asked me about the emulsion again, I said, “Sir, it’s 5247.” And he said, “Okay,” and he walked away. And as he walked away, I said, “Sir, sir!” And he turned around, and I said, “Don’t ever call me ‘toots” again.” And he looked at me and said, “Fuckin’ A.”
And I was just thrilled but also stymied, thinking, “Oh my god, how am I going to handle these people. These people are horrible.”
But unbeknownst to me, he went to the crew (I found out later) and told them, “Don’t mess with the new Production Coordinator. She’s really tough and she knows what she’s doing.” What a snow job that was.
At the end of the Rocky II re-shoots, Brubaker came up to me and said, “You’re really good. I want you to work with me on my next film.” And I said, “A whole movie?” And he said, “Well of course it’s a whole movie! For god’s sake!” He thought it was so stupid on my part, to talk about a whole movie. So he said, “Yes, it’s a whole movie.” And he gave me this script and said, “Read this.” And guess what it was? Raging Bull. That’s why Bobby was there, getting ready for Raging Bull with Chartoff-Winkler. So Brubaker was the Production Manager and I was the Production Coordinator on Raging Bull.
That’s how it all started, kiddo. In great detail, that’s how it all started.
So you were self taught?
DONNA: Oh yeah. No college degree on that.
Was your theater background any help?
DONNA: Very little, kiddo. I’m sure it did more than I remember now, but in many ways not really. Because now I’m working with things called Call Sheets and Production Reports and Film Reports and Footage Shot and all these forms that a Coordinator gets handed to do. And all the SAG rules, and I’m walking around saying to myself, “What doe SAG mean, everybody’s talking about SAG. I have to post a SAG bond, what the heck does that mean?”
I was in so over my head at that time, but I retained every single thing I learned. And I brought everything home. I think to this day Brubaker has no idea, but I brought everything home at night and Gordon, God love him, was a real good sport. We would sit at the dining room table and I remember going over all these forms — because it’s all forms — and trying to figure it out.
And then I started reading all those purchase orders I had been filing. I’m reading about Baby Ks and a 5K, and I’m thinking, “What’s a 5K?” I didn’t know any of it and none of it came from theater, none of the lingo or the language came from theater.
So, in reality, the employment people could have sent you to a tire company and you would now be an expert in the tire business.
DONNA: This is true. I would know tire measurements.
It really worked out. Raging Bull, of all movies to land on for the first one, I just learned and learned and learned. And I was good at it. I could really keep up with it, I understood it, the flow of it.
It was such a huge, huge film shoot to be on, and then it won the Academy Award and turned out to be the best film of the decade, and you think, “Wow. I did that.”
What happened next?
DONNA: Then Brubaker and I did True Confessions right after that. That was Robert DeNiro again and Robert Duvall. And guess what? Ulu Grosbard directed it. So I was going, “I know Ulu Grosbard! He’s a theater dude. And he’s married to Rose.” I knew all of that.
And everyone in Hollywood was saying, “Who’s this guy? What’s his name? Where did he come from?” But I was one person who knew. “Ulu, how are you? And how’s Rose?” And blah, blah, blah. Everyone else thought I’d walked off the moon because nobody knew him.
So I did True Confessions with Brubaker and I just never stopped working. I somehow just landed on one picture after the other.
The phone kept ringing.
DONNA: The phone honestly kept ringing. I never went to unemployment. I learned on the first movie that during the last week of employment everybody goes to the unemployment office and signs up. And that was my measure of success.
Then I had a call from a Canadian, a guy who called and said, “I hear you’re good.” I remember I had a smart mouth, and I said, “Is this a sexual call?” Isn’t that awful?
But his name was Lou Lehman and he was the president of the DGC, the Directors Guild of Canada. And Lou knew my husband, Gordon. Lou called and said that he was directing a movie and they were filming — you’re going to love this — in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. And I said, “I know where that is.”
He said, “I want you to come and be the Production Manager. We’ve already started filming. We’ve got a Production Manager, but I’ve got to fire him, he’s no damn good. And I want you to be my Production Manager.”
And I remember thinking, “Wow. Production Manager. I’ve only done three movies, how can I be a Production Manager already?” But I thought, if I do this for a Canadian shoot, in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, maybe nobody in Hollywood will know if I fall on my face.
So I took the job. And I remember flying to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin on a Sunday. I was reading the script and I told him, “I just have to be off limits for a couple of days, so I can read the paperwork and find out what’s going on.” That’s when I found it was Canadian Union, and I didn’t know any of the Canadian Union rules. And if you’re a Production Manager and you don’t know the rules, the crew can just gobble you up and spit you out.
So I knew I had to learn the rules. I was trying so hard to absorb all those rules, and then there was a knock at the door. I answered the door and there was a guy who just took up the entire doorframe.
He stood there and he said, “So, are you Miss Hollywood?” And I looked at him and I said, “No, I don’t think …. yeah, yeah I am….