Notes on the Life of an English Major

Laurie MacDonald

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Laurie MacDonald is an English major’s heroine. Single-handedly, she provides the perfect answer to the question most often posed by parents, friends and strangers:
“What can you do with a degree in English?”
Now you know the answer: “Anything.”
Maybe even become a fabulously successful movie producer like Laurie MacDonald, a Sonoma State English graduate who, with co-producer Walter Parkes, ran DreamWorks Pictures until 2005.

There they developed both commercial hits such as the “Men in Black” movies, and more literary films such as “Amistad” and “Awakenings.” Many of their movies scored both commercially and critically. They are only the second producers in history to produce three consecutive winners of the Oscar® for Best Picture – “American Beauty,” “Gladiator,” and “A Beautiful Mind.”

Now they run Parkes/MacDonald Productions, where they continue to make movies for DreamWorks, as well as their own independent productions.

“These days kids think they have to know what they’re going to do after they graduate,” MacDonald says. “But there’s great value in not being sure what you’re going to do until you’re out there meeting people.”

MacDonald, George Clooney, Walter ParkesGeorge Clooney consults with Laurie MacDonald and Walter Parkes

That’s how careers are made and lives are developed, MacDonald says—by following life’s leads, walking through the doors that open, and trying not to predict the outcome.

MacDonald’s own narrative began with her mother’s love of books. Daughter of an English teacher, Laurie developed her love of storytelling as a child.

Now she advises young people to follow their fascinations rather than try to fit a known career path. “If there is something you’re interested in, that’s where success lies,” she says. “It’s true in movies – the best ones are based on something you’re just fascinated in.”And not only in movies. “Computers and the Internet started with a fascination,” she observes, “that had nothing to do with commerce.”

When MacDonald graduated from Sonoma State in 1976, she thought about going to law school because “everyone thought about going to law school.” Instead, she moved to San Francisco and took a job in a bookstore to pay her rent.

Then a friend who worked in sports broadcasting at local television station KRON invited her to visit the station, and her life drama took a turn.

The RingNaomi Watts in The Ring.

“I walked into the newsroom and thought, ‘This is a blast.’ I loved film, and I thought maybe I could learn to write for television.”

She took a job at the station watching tapes of each day’s programming to verify for advertisers when their commercials aired. “The most boring job in the world,” she calls it, but she spent evenings working in the newsroom for free to learn the business.

After six months she got a job as a production assistant in the newsroom, and that provided her entre into storytelling for television and later, films.

She made the move from television to movies and San Francisco to Los Angeles, after four years as a local TV producer. When her show ended, she knew it was time to either move into network television in New York or movie production in L.A.

GladiatorJoaquin Phoenix in Gladiator.

She chose the movies and began by reading scripts for producers, writing detailed synopses and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses. “It takes a long time to develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t,” MacDonald says. “A script can’t be judged solely on the quality of its writing, though for an English major, bad writing can be hard to overlook. But sometimes you find a good idea locked into a bad script, and that makes it worth producing.”

Though it’s an important job in the production process, she said, “it has its drudgery aspect and you’re paid little. But it’s a good way to break in and meet people.”

Jobs in production opened up for MacDonald, first with a producer making movies for MGM, and later with Columbia Pictures. She climbed the corporate ladder and continued to develop her judgment about what makes a good movie.

The title “producer” covers a variety of roles, she explains. It can refer to an investor in a film, a creative producer who puts together the project, or a line producer who manages the physical production of the movie.

Men in BlackWill Smith and Tommy Lee Jones star in Men in Black.

MacDonald and her husband, a former screenwriter, are creative producers. They select scripts to produce, hire the screenwriters, directors, casts and line producers. Depending on the project, MacDonald and Parkes may be intimately involved in everything from scriptwriting to decisions made on the set and editing the dailies, or they may simply look at the results of each step along the way and offer comments and direction.

“The most important work we do is sitting in a room with the writer, collaborating on scenes. Getting a good script is the hardest part of making a movie.”

Yet it’s all really storytelling, she says. “Editing is retelling the story by making cuts and putting scenes together. In marketing, you have to remember, and remind others, what the story is that you’re trying to tell.”

MacDonald loves the entire process, and that’s key to success in life, she says. “You have to find something you love the process of doing, because you can’t always predict the outcome.”

Sweeney ToddJohnny Depp in a scene from Sweeney Todd.

Even when talking about her favorite movie, MacDonald talks about the process of producing the work rather than the film itself. She calls Gladiator “the most satisfying from beginning to end,” involving “the most intimate collaboration.” The movie started with just an idea based on history brought to the producers by a writer. To shoot the film, “we recreated ancient Rome,” she says. “You could be on set and walk to the Coliseum.”

“Producing a movie creates an intense, year-long relationship with the people involved, says MacDonald. “I love that aspect. I can’t tell you the level of talent involved in all the jobs. I feel very lucky to get to bring those people together.”