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Overlooked No More: Debra Hill, Producer Who Parlayed ‘Halloween’ Into a Cult Classic

Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

Perhaps the most famous babysitter in all of moviedom, Laurie Strode, the teen heroine of “Halloween,” is stalked by a crazed predator and survives — repeatedly. Laurie was resourceful and kind, “quiet but defiant,” said Debra Hill, who helped create the character.

Once a babysitter herself, with a taste for 1950s B-horror flicks, Hill wrote and produced “Halloween” with the director John Carpenter. Laurie endured as a symbol of female resolve, fending off her attacker and rebuilding her life.

“Here was a woman who didn’t run from danger, but stepped up to it,” Hill later told the author David Konow for his book “Reel Terror.”

Hill, those who knew her said, was equally audacious.

“Being a woman in show business is a scary situation,” Jamie Lee Curtis, who starred as Laurie and befriended Hill, said in a phone interview. “It’s a boys’ club, and she established herself, very early on, as a very thorough and capable producer.”

At the time, Hill was a rare female producer who grew to be a mentor for a pivotal generation of women in Hollywood — “part den mother, part cheerleader,” as Stacey Sher, her former employee and now a producer in her own right (“Erin Brockovich,” “Django Unchained”), put it.

Hill nurtured talent wherever she found it — the filmmaker James Cameron was once her visual effects guy; a second assistant director, Jeffrey Chernov, became a producer of “Black Panther” — and had the confidence not to fear that others would leapfrog over her if she gave them a steppingstone.

She later grew frustrated, friends and colleagues said, that the system in which she excelled as a producer did not welcome more women as directors. But even that did not dim her passion for the industry, and she spent the last few years of her life — she died in 2005 — working on a romantic thriller that would be her directorial debut.

Hill considered herself, above all, a storyteller, starting with “Halloween,” which she and Carpenter, her boyfriend at the time, wrote in three weeks. It catapulted them into major careers.

Released in 1978, “Halloween” had a shoestring budget, about $320,000, and went on to earn $70 million globally (around $200 million in today’s dollars), a record for an independent movie. A slasher classic that revitalized the genre, it’s now in the National Film Registry. Hill also championed Curtis, then 19, for “Halloween,” her first feature, presenting a model of female camaraderie in a male-dominated field.

Hill worked or was credited on most of the “Halloween” sequels — last year’s blockbuster installment, also starring Curtis, and made long after Hill’s death, was the 11th in the franchise — and collaborated with Carpenter on other seminal horror and sci-fi thrillers, including “The Fog” and “Escape from New York,” after their romantic relationship ended.

She was an exacting producer. As she told The Los Angeles Times in 1982: “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. Then they see I’m nice. Then, finally, they see I mean business.”

Curtis recalled that Hill scrutinized every receipt, keeping track of how many spools of thread and rolls of gaffer tape were used — and yet, said Curtis, Hill was “beloved” by her overwhelmingly male crews.

“She brought the proof that a woman can do anything in successful filmmaking that men do,” said Jeanine Basinger, a film historian. “They can make top box office blockbusters, they can make action films and genre films and horror films. She brought originality.”

ImageHill, center, on the set of “Halloween” with the production manager Don Behrns and the actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who said that Hill “established herself very early on.”CreditKim Gottlieb-Walker, Lenswoman.com

In the 1980s Hill teamed up with Lynda Obst, a former studio executive, in one of the first female producing partnerships. Their movies included “The Fisher King,” “Clue,” based on the board game, which was Hill’s idea to develop for the screen, and “Adventures in Babysitting,” the directorial debut of Chris Columbus (“Home Alone,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”).

“Debra knew how to do every job on a set,” from positioning cameras to fine-tuning lighting, Obst said. She remembered Hill standing “with her arms on her hips, like Peter Pan arriving in Neverland,” surveying every shot. “She just was able to solve a problem, imaginatively.”

On “The Fisher King” (1991), when the director Terry Gilliam suddenly decided during a location scout that he wanted to create an elaborate dance with 1,000 waltzing extras in Grand Central Terminal, Hill figured out how to pull it off. The sequence was among the most lauded in the film, which earned multiple Oscar nominations and won one (best supporting actress, Mercedes Ruehl).

Debra Gaye Hill was born on Nov. 10, 1950, in Philadelphia, to Frank and Jilda Hill. Her mother was a nurse and her father, who had been a Hollywood art director before her birth, eventually became a salesman, including on a car lot. The family, among them Hill’s younger brother, Franklin Robert Hill Jr., known as Bob, moved often.

Once, when house-hunting in Connecticut, their parents parked the children, then 10 and 11 or so, in a local movie theater. “I think Deb and I saw ‘Gone With the Wind’ four times a day,” said Bob Hill, a retired tugboat captain.

They later settled in Haddonfield, N. J., which Hill used as inspiration for the fictional Haddonfield, Ill., setting of “Halloween.” Horror, she observed, always struck in small, under-policed towns and sleepy suburbs, where it seemed, tantalizingly, like nothing could go wrong.

“The idea of pulling off the veneer and seeing what lies beneath has always intrigued me,” she told Konow, the author of “Reel Terror” (2012).

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Temple University, she became a flight attendant, then lingered in Jamaica, getting involved with a jazz musician.

That led to writing liner notes for albums, her brother said, which evolved into more writing gigs. She landed in California and, through her father’s connections, worked as a production assistant and a script supervisor, or “script girl,” as it was then called, on low-budget movies (including Carpenter’s first feature, “Assault on Precinct 13”) before moving her way up to producer.

Off the set, Hill liked to give dinner parties, cooking for up to 20 people. (She made a mean matzo ball soup, said her friend Diane Robin, an actress, and poached her salmon in the dishwasher.) Hill would gather guests around her piano to sing and coax them to dance. Sometimes, she pulled out a baton and did a majorette routine that she had learned as a teenager. Later, because of the cancer that would take her life, her legs were amputated; undeterred, she threw a disco-themed birthday party and danced along in her wheelchair.

Hill was 54 when she died on March 7, 2005. Her directorial debut never happened, but in a speech she gave in 2003 in accepting an award from the organization Women in Film, she wanted it known that ambitious women had notched their place.

“I want every producer, studio executive and agent in this room to include me in their directors list,” she said, “along with the women who have come before me, and the women directors who will come after me. If you need me, you’ll find me — I’ll be sitting by my pool, reading scripts and waiting for your numerous offers.”

In 2005 the Producers Guild, where she was a board member, named a fellowship in her honor, for women and men “whose work, interests, professionalism and passion mirror that of Debra Hill.” A dozen people have been recipients thus far, furthering her reach within the industry.

“There weren’t a lot of women to emulate or follow or learn from when I came to Hollywood in 1975,” Hill said in 2003. “Women struggled to have their voices heard, but I refused to struggle along with them. I realized that a woman can be successful in a man’s world.”

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