Remembering the man behind the magic

The most powerful person on a movie set used to be the young guy with the laptop. Not any more, says Rob Long

There was a time in the early 1990s – somewhere between the end of the typewriter era and the beginning of the internet era – when the most powerful person on any movie or television set wasn’t the star or the executive producer, but was the person – usually a young person, often someone’s assistant – who carried the script around on his or her computer.

This was before wi-fi and cloud computing, before email and synchronised backups, so the copy in the computer was often the only copy, the master copy, of the multimillion-dollar project.

I had a friend back then who carried around one of those PowerBooks from Apple Computer – remember those? They seemed so advanced and sophisticated at the time – when he was working for a director of a major studio picture. Whenever there was a story discussion or a script conference, his boss the director would wave at him and say: “Open up the thingy and get this down.” And he’d open the computer and type in the changes.

My friend soon realised how powerful he was. The script and the changes were saved on the computer and then backed up to a floppy disk, which was also entrusted to the low-ranking assistant. In effect, no matter who had the official writing credit, no matter who was truly in charge of the production, no matter how many executives or movie stars demanded changes, the de facto most powerful person was my friend, the 23-year-old slightly power-mad assistant who carried around the MacBook.

He once confessed to me that he somehow lost an entire scene – something about cutting and pasting – and had to recreate the multi-page sequence from memory. No one noticed. (Which isn’t surprising; the movies he worked on weren’t very good to begin with.)

But as the early 1990s gave way to the late 1990s, and scriptwriting software became more robust and flexible, it became easier to track and follow changes as they happened – hourly, even – and to make sure that everyone, to use that awful phrase people use in business, was on the same page.

It wasn’t just scriptwriting software that became more powerful. Editing pictures and recording sound became so easy and commonplace you can now do it easily on your phone. Movies are shot on digital cameras and recorded onto wafer-thin disks. The cumbersome and laborious phases of movie and television production – from the reams of paper used in scriptwriting to the heavy canisters of film stock – evaporated as computing power went from strength to strength.

Andy Grove, who died a few days ago, was for decades the chief executive of computer chipmaker Intel and the pioneer of the semiconductor industry. He was the impresario of the microprocessor and he did more to change the way we all do business in the entertainment industry than almost any other person.

It was Grove’s Intel that drove the exponential increase in computing power. It was the silicon chip that gave us the Hollywood we know today: streaming video, on-demand movies, tablet-viewing of hit television shows, desktop editing, dazzling computer-generated graphics.

Those of us in show business tend to gloss over the pioneers in the geekier and more boring areas of moviemaking. We’d rather watch beautiful people glide down the red carpet and get awards for pretending to be other people, for crying on cue. Grove and his team at Intel did more to ensure the health and prosperity of our business than every blockbuster picture and every dramatic scene put together.

But the computer revolution he ushered in did more than that. In this business, we tend to think of technology as merely something we use to get our stuff out there – streaming distribution, digital sound recording and photography, online editing. And it’s true that Grove’s Intel chips did much to make everything we do faster and more efficient. But at the very start of every project is a script, and the script is written, almost always, on a computer running software that’s written for a microprocessor, often from Intel. We are all in the technology business now, all of us, not just the one young person with the laptop under his arm.

For better or worse – I’m pretty sure for better – none of us is at the mercy of a single computer or solitary computer operator. And that means that any of us, thanks to Intel and Grove and a lot of other engineers and computer nerds, can write and shoot and edit a movie anywhere we are. We don’t have to be in Hollywood and we don’t have to speak English. All we need to know is some basic techniques and have access to some widely available technology, and we’re as well-equipped as Steven Spielberg.

Andy Grove was more than a computer chip maker. He was the founder of the largest and most democratic movie studio ever known.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl