Behind many of the big-budget productions that have recently graced our shores is Ned Dowd, a producer who has had a truly diverse career. Paul Farren learns how he went from professional ice hockey player to executive producer on King Arthur.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine, Issue 99, 2004
Ever since the Kalem Film Company first set up its gear in Killarney, Ireland has managed to lure Hollywood productions to its shores on regular basis. The most recent (and biggest) of these is of course King Arthur, a film that provided a lot of gossip as well as employment last year. One of the people we can thank for this is executive producer Ned Dowd, who is the man behind four of the recent big-budget productions to shoot here: The Count of Monte Cristo, Reign of Fire, Veronica Guerin and, of course, King Arthur.
I’ve been asked to interview him about his involvement with the Tiernan McBride International Screenwriting Award, and I do – eventually – but the man’s career path is a distraction, and impressive to the point of incurring seething jealousy. He has rubbed shoulders with a long list of talented people, as you will see, but he also played Ogie Ogilthorpe in one of my favourite sport movies, Slap Shot. So what is the first step on the road to being a successful Hollywood producer? Professional ice hockey, it would seem.
‘I was a professional hockey player; I came out of college, played for the St Louis Blues and a lot of minor league teams. I think I was in my third year of playing I was in Pittsburgh. My sister Nancy is a professional screenwriter; she got an Academy award for Coming Home’, he says in an off the cuff manner. ‘She was going out with a Canadian actor at the time – Donald Sutherland. He was a hockey fan, so she said “my brother is in some league, somewhere”.’ One visit to little brother’s league was enough for Dowd’s sister; she was inspired by the lunacy: ‘if there weren’t about seven or eight fights a night the fans would go away disappointed’. She gave him a dictaphone. ‘She said carry this around for a while. So I got an idea; I recorded stuff for a season, sent off some tapes, didn’t think anything of it. The next year I got a phone call. She said: “You’re not going to believe this, but I wrote this script and my agent got it to a big well-known director – George Roy Hill”. I didn’t know who George Roy Hill was, he had just done The Sting and Butch Cassidy’. One trip to la later, and Dowd found himself working on Slap Shot. ‘I worked in terms of the Hockey players and it was a great experience. It was four or five months; I taught Paul Newman how to skate, did the whole thing. I worked as the stunt coordinator too, and I brought in all the goons who I had played with in professional hockey.’ A sad footnote to that story (for me), was a sequel with the original characters missed the goal. ‘It would have been brilliant seeing these guys thirty years later, but Universal said “no we’ve given it to the video division”.’ He is pragmatic about the affair. ‘The important thing is that it’s really held up well after all these years.’
After the movie Dowd returned briefly to ice hockey but soon realised a career in that direction was not forthcoming. But the filmmaking bug had hit, so he headed to LA to start from the beginning again. ‘It was a bit of a fall, because on Slap Shot I had been doing three jobs: production assistant, technical advisor, stunt co-ordinator and I had a part in the movie’. A stint as a production assistant with abc led him to a meeting with Robert Altman. ‘He sort of took me under his wing, and that was a really lucky move for me.’ Dowd certainly has had his fair share of luck, but hard graft has also played an important part in his evolution. ‘I got to work on features with an eye to being an assistant director, and during those years I did anything I could to get my director’s card. I was an AD on thirty to forty movies. I really enjoyed it because I got to work with some really great directors.’
In 1988 Dowd moved into production while continuing to work as an AD. ‘I was very lucky in those years to hook up with a guy in New York – Michael Hausman – he was Milos Forman’s producer. We came up with an idea. I always had an affinity for Ireland; my grandparents came from Kerry and I spent a summer here in college. So we wanted to do the Godfather of Ireland, you know. I read an article about the Westies, a gang in Hell’s Kitchen; a true story about how they tried to take on the mafia, and we came up with the idea for State of Grace. I produced the picture in New York, and it was directed by Phil Joanu. It was first time out of the gate, it was the first movie I tried to get off the ground and I didn’t know what I was doing.’ The final result shows that he probably did, State of Grace is an arresting film, which features superb performances from Gary Oldman, Sean Penn and Ed Harris.
Dowd continued to work as a ‘gun for hire’ in his role as a line producer. ‘I had this sort of weird journey in terms of producing. You have nine different production credits on a movie – that guy didn’t do anything, and that guy didn’t do anything, that guy’s the writer, he got a producer credit. But I like to think that I’m guy who knows how to make the movies’. He says this passionately but modestly; two qualities that resonate through his conversation. Though box office earnings are important to him it is the creative aspect that seems to thrill him the most.
‘I did Wonder Boys with Curtis Hanson, an auteur in every sense. We sat down and talked about the movie in its every facet, and from that we worked together towards making the picture. For me, if that happens I’ll go work twenty-four hours a day. That to me was the most rewarding experience, because we pulled it off. The picture didn’t perform well, but critically it was well received and it was a good movie’.
While working as line producer on The Count of Monte Cristo, more good fortune arrived in the form of Morgan O’Sullivan. Through his company World 2000 he has been responsible for enticing big budget productions to Ireland for many years. ‘I talked to Morgan, who is a very good emissary for filmmaking in this country, by the way. Then I came over and looked at some locations. It worked for a lot of reasons to make the movie in Ireland, including the tax breaks and all that; it also worked because the locations were stunning.’ So stunning that Dowd has lived here ever since. ‘While we were running with that we got the go ahead on another script, which was Reign of Fire, and I thought “English countryside in the future; castle – lets do that here as well, I’ve got a good relationship here”. I sold them on that. We couldn’t find anyone to produce the movie because it was difficult and ridiculous; the script has dragons eating subways and all this stuff. So I decided to take a break from the production job at Spyglass and produce that movie – despite foot and mouth and all that; we had a lot of hassles. Again, the film didn’t perform 100% as it should have, but it was a good effort from a production standpoint.’ Following that was the Jerry Bruckheimer production Veronica Guerin, directed by Joel Schumacher. ‘I was lucky enough to get on that with Joel and it was great. Like getting back to the Curtis Hanson thing, Joel is such an auteur. We hit it off – he’s great – he was a great partner. Then Jerry Bruckheimer brought King Arthur here, which kind of gets us to where we are now.’ So it does. At the time of this interview King Arthur was in the hands of special effects people in England, and all was quiet in Ireland’s fair film industry regarding big-budget productions, the kind that our Irish crews have become reliant on over recent years. King Arthur could be the last of them for some time.
But what does Dowd think the factors are that have led to this decline? The rate of the dollar and competition from other countries is losing Ireland business, and it would seem Section 481 is not enough to reduce this loss. I ask him if he thinks the recent fear that 481 might be abolished had a negative effect. ‘It was harmful only in the fact that it sent the wrong message out ahead, saying the tax credit’s going away. I think we stopped the bleeding by saying that it’s here now, in fact it’s even better. But it’s just level crunching now, if you take in the cost of inflation when you were changing over your currency. It wasn’t a currency change over, it was “we’ve got a chance to jack the price up a little bit”, and it happened a lot in areas where we as a film industry were affected, including hotels and restaurants. So it made all that more expensive’. Dowd remains hopeful: ‘It’ll come back, you know’.
Does he feel anything can be done at government level to help the current situation? ‘You need someone farsighted enough to understand that there is a benefit; there’s a hidden benefit as well, but unfortunately times are tough now. The movie industry is perceived to be something run by wealthy people, and that’s just not the case. I mean, the rank and file of this country number over six thousand people who make their business directly from the film industry, and it’s a big blow.’ Another benefit to foreign productions seeking to shoot here is the training previous films have provided. ‘People who worked as assistants on Count of Monte Cristo; over the course of those four movies are now head of departments, and have the skill to do it and have been exposed to a broad range of expertise that’s come from all over the world to make these movies.’
Speaking of skills, it’s time to talk about the Tiernan McBride International Screenwriting Award; Dowd was the chair of this year’s panel. What was his impression of the material received? ‘I think that, for such a small country, the quality of material in just the last round was very high. This year we had almost double the submissions from last year, so the word is getting out that it’s a worthy project.’ So is he scanning the entries with a producer’s eye? ‘This year there wasn’t anything that tickled my fancy, but as an ulterior motive sure. Whenever you read a script you always say, “is this something I could make?”’ So, has he plans to produce more films this side of the water? ‘Yeah, totally. What we’re trying to do in this down-time is to get back to pet projects after the epics. I’ve got things I’m interested in; my approach is that if there’s a certain drama I’m interested in I take it from there and develop a story. I’m looking to develop projects so I can go to somebody and bring financing to it. All you’ve got to do is find an American distributor. If you make a movie for five-to-ten million, you can raise the money fairly easily from the production end based on getting an American distributor. He makes it all sound so easy, but then he has earned a position that has its advantages. ‘My relationship with Hollywood in terms of those people is good, so I can actually get that. I think, on a much smaller level, those smaller movies are infinitely more rewarding, and you can hit a home run with a movie like that. When you succeed with a picture like that it’s great for everybody’. After an hour in this man’s company something tells me he just might hit that home run.