Debra Hill

Co-writer/producer of the 'Halloween' films

One of Hollywood's first female producers, Debra Hill was described by the director John Carpenter as "a real pioneer in this business, who opened the road for women". Her first production was the classic horror movie
Halloween (1978), a low-budget project that became the most successful independent film of its time, costing $300,000 and grossing over $55m.

Debra Hill, film producer and screenwriter: born Haddonfield, New Jersey 1950; died Los Angeles 7 March 2005.

One of Hollywood's first female producers, Debra Hill was described by the director John Carpenter as "a real pioneer in this business, who opened the road for women". Her first production was the classic horror movie Halloween (1978), a low-budget project that became the most successful independent film of its time, costing $300,000 and grossing over $55m.

She co-wrote it with Carpenter, the film's director, and the couple produced and wrote two sequels, though neither was considered to approach the quality of the first, which starred Jamie Lee Curtis as a babysitter terrorised by a murderous psychopath named Michael Myers. Curtis, describing Hill as "the most influential woman in my professional life", said that she represented "the independent Hollywood woman's spirit".

Halloween was set in a small town based on Haddonfield, New Jersey, where Hill was born. "I used that sleepy safe community as a backdrop for Halloween's community," she later said:

Both John and I were raised in the Fifties, and there were a slew of films we watched when we were kids, like The Creeping Eye [1958] and The Crawling Terror [1957]. We wanted to bring to Halloween that kind of scare and reinvent the horror pictures we grew up on. Once we got the idea to set the film on Hallowe'en night, we set up the idea of Hallowe'en scares like the boyfriend dressed up in a sheet who's not your boyfriend. We actually didn't write in the same room together. I sort of wrote the babysitter's story, and John wrote the Sam Loomis character. Once we created Michael Myers as a throughline, we put it all together.

In the famous tracking shot that opens the film, a point-of-view shot seen from beneath a Hallowe'en mask, it is Hill's hands that play those of Myers, grabbing the knife and stabbing his sister.

Hill began her career as a production assistant on adventure documentaries, working her way up as a continuity girl, assistant director and second-unit director. "Back when I started in 1974," she recalled,

there were very few women in the industry, and everybody called me "Honey". I was assumed to be the makeup and hair person, or the script person. I was never assumed to be the writer or producer. I looked around and realised there weren't many women, so I had to carve a niche for myself.

Her association with John Carpenter began in 1976 when she was script editor on the film that made his reputation, the taut thriller Assault on Precinct 13, which she also helped to edit.

In 1985 Hill and Carpenter ended their partnership, Hill having produced two more films directed by Carpenter, The Fog (1979) and Escape from New York (1981), plus two sequels to their earlier hit, Halloween II (1981), directed by Rick Rosenthal, and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), directed by Tommy Lee Wallace. (There have been eight Halloween films to date, five of them written by Hill.)

In 1983 Hill produced David Cronenberg's Dead Zone, based on the Stephen King novel, then she and a friend, Lynda Obst, formed an independent company, Hill/Obst Productions, making films primarily for the youth market, including Adventures in Babysitting (1987) and Gross Anatomy (1989). Their most prestigious film was Terry Gilliam's Oscar-nominated The Fisher King (1991). Hill also worked for the Disney organisation, producing short films for Walt Disney theme parks and a television special for Disneyland's 35th anniversary.

She teamed up again with Carpenter in 1996 to produce Escape from LA, and she, Carpenter and the film's star Kurt Russell formed a partnership to develop video games, an animé movie and comic books based on Russell's character, Snake Plissken.

Hill was an avid environmentalist, and on the set of her production Crazy in Alabama (1999), directed by Antonio Banderas, she persuaded her star, Melanie Griffith, a keen smoker, to abandon cigarettes during filming. "Once I got Melanie to see her character doesn't smoke, she found other things to do."

Though disappointed with the current state of the film industry - she told a conference in 1998, "Films now are driven less by story than by marketing" - she was working on several projects at the time of her death from cancer, producing a remake of The Fog, and preparing, with Carpenter, Halloween 9.

When she was honoured by the organisation Women in Film in 2003, Hill remarked, "I hope some day there won't be a need for Women in Film. That it will be People in Film."

Tom Vallance

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