Up in the air: travels as a Hollywood producer

Thirty-six years of weaving movie magic have taken Boston-born Hollywood producer Ned Dowd all over the world. He’s lived it up in Beijing with Jackie Chan, spent months in Mexico with Mel Gibson and managed New York parking problems on a Gary Oldman film. I talked to Ned about the travel highs of his career – and found out why Ireland is the place he now calls home.

Ned Dowd on the set of Desert Bloom
Ned as second assistant director on Desert Bloom (1986)

“I still view the travel aspect of my work as a total privilege. Generally you are going someplace for a really long period of time – and often to countries you wouldn’t normally vacation in,” says Ned. “I’ve been very fortunate in being able to live and work under sometimes arduous conditions in some beautiful places.”

One of Ned’s most memorable filming locations, he says, is a national park straddling North Carolina and Tennessee where he shot The Last of the Mohicans (1992) with Daniel Day-Lewis and director Michael Mann.

“The Great Smoky Mountains are like a little secret in America. It’s not an area which gets lots of tourists, but it’s stunning.” (Dirty Dancing fans should note that Lake Lure in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains provided the backdrop to Baby and Johnny’s starry summer romance.)

Vienna captured Ned’s imagination too. Filming The Three Musketeers (1993) in Austria for Disney, he found the capital to be “a jewel of a European city”. But stunning locations do not always make ideal working environments, as Ned and his crew learned the difficult way.

“The city came alive at night and it was hard to get everybody – including the cast – to go to bed. You would look at your watch and suddenly it was two o’clock in the morning and you’d think, I’ve got to go to work in four hours.”

The set of The Three Musketeers
Filming The Three Musketeers at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna

Movies have varying gestation periods and, when the months spent working on a project stretch into a year or more, Ned may find himself setting up home near the set. “We were in the state of Veracruz in Mexico shooting Apocalypto (2006) with Mel [Gibson] for so long – the better part of 18 months – that I really felt like I was Mexican at the end of it! I even had a Mexican driver’s licence. It was a great project to work on.”

Ned with Apocalypto actors
Ned in Vera Cruz with actors from Apocalypto

And he adores Mexico City, one of the most populous metropolises in the world. “It’s so densely packed, with over 21 million people, but it kind of works in a patchwork quilt sort of way. It’s not a city that’s all laid out like Washington or Manhattan, but it kind of works and it’s incredible.”

While making The 13th Warrior (1999) on the Campbell River in Vancouver for Touchstone Pictures, Ned set up home on a whim. Occasionally flown to work by seaplane, he became intrigued by a tiny island he spotted from the air.

“It was this little strip of land about five miles long and maybe half a mile wide. It was sandy on one side and overgrown with forest in the middle. One day I asked the pilot whether we could land and take a look at it. We jumped off the plane and followed a path that led up this hill. All of a sudden we saw beautiful cottages in amongst the trees – they just looked incredible. And one of the trees had a board nailed to it saying: THIS LOT FOR SALE. CALL SADIE ON …”

The strip of land turned out to be Savary Island, named by explorer Captain George Vancouver in 1792. The permanent population of the island is only 100, but this number can swell to over 2,000 in summer months.

“I called Sadie and asked a few questions about the lot. There were about thirty trees on it, with the beach just over the hill nearby. I asked, How much were you looking for the land? and Sadie said she was hoping for eight or nine. Eight or nine thousand Canadian dollars? I said. I bought it on the spot! We were lucky enough to build a summer cottage on the property, which is still there.”

Early in his career, Ned worked as a location scout for Paramount Pictures. That was an undeniably fun way to travel. “They’d give you a credit card, you’d get on an aeroplane, rent a car, go and take pictures, have a bit of a holiday, come back to Hollywood, paste them up and show them to everyone,” he says. “Now of course there are photographs of the whole world on the internet, so you can’t justify going out and seeing everything for yourself.”

Shelley Winters and Ned Dowd
Ned with Shelley Winters on the set of Ellie (1984) in Waxahachie, Texas

While cinematic backdrops are often vital to a location manager, there are many more considerations for deciding where to shoot a film. One of them is the positive impact you can make on a region’s economy.

“When you go someplace to make a movie you obviously try to hire as many local people as you can,” says Ned. “When we were in Mexico on Apocalypto all the extras were locals. We also hired a lot of farmers to help us build the Mayan city set in a sugarcane field and they were so grateful for the work.

“It’s great to go to a place and know you really are spending a lot of money in the local economy. For example, with King Arthur [2004] in Ireland we dropped 40 million US dollars on the ground, just on labour, goods and services.”

Ned on the set of King Arthur
Ned working on King Arthur in County Wicklow

There are of course also logistical considerations. “State of Grace [1990] with Sean Penn, Ed Harris and Gary Oldman involved 72 days of shooting in about 82 locations in Manhattan,” Ned says, still incredulous at the production team’s ability to achieve this feat.  “You have to use what they call parking PAs: people you hire to go park in the spots where your trucks will need to be the next day. The city won’t put a cop there or rope it off, so you need someone to physically put their car there for you and sit in it for 24 hours!”

Some movie sets leave a legacy in their host country. “Oddly enough, the set we built for Popeye [1980] in Malta is still there as a tourist attraction. Robert Altman [the director] hired production designer Wolf Kroeger to create this incredible cartoon town in a bay surrounded by cliffs, so you could shoot 360 degrees anywhere. It was beautiful, watching the set designers working on it. There wasn’t a lick of paint on it then but they’ve painted it all now and, 30 years later, it’s still there! With Valetta and its sandstone architecture and the blue sea and beautiful lagoons, I think Malta is a pretty cool place.”

Inevitably, being a Hollywood producer involves living, working and often travelling with A-list stars. Ned recalls flying into Beijing with Jackie Chan to film Shanghai Noon (2000). “It was like being with The Beatles – people were going nuts for him!” But Jackie is deserving of his heroic status, Ned says. “He’s a lovely guy. It’s funny because he always travels with about six or seven stunt guys that are his team, and they’re the fastest eaters I’ve ever seen in my life. We’d sit at these round tables with lazy susans in the middle and the food would be spinning round like it was on a roulette wheel!”

Ned admits that his life used to be chaotic. “I was like that George Clooney character in Up in the Air,” he says. “I didn’t have an aberrant lifestyle but I had a ridiculous lifestyle where I was always on the road or in an airport”. He had a sense of wanting to share his adventures with someone while scouting in Australia for From Alice to Ocean, a film which was meant to star Julia Roberts but never got made.

“I fell in love with Broome, which is on the western coastline facing the Indian Ocean. There’s outback right up to the sea and feral camels on the beaches. It’s a magical, fantastic place. And I asked, How come I’m doing this by myself?”

But there is hope for even the most suitcase-bound Hollywood producer. Ned found himself in Ireland producing The Count of Monte Cristo and Reign of Fire (both 2002), the latter a film about fiery dragons ravaging the earth. He fell in love – not only with Ireland – and now lives there permanently, enjoying a dragon-free existence in County Wicklow with his thriving young family. Counting the Wicklow Mountains among his favourite places on earth, Ned is delighted with the area in which his two children are growing up.

“My greatest fear was that they would have my horrible American accent, but I’m happy to report they have thick Wicklow accents. It’s great,” he says.

Ned working on Reign of Fire
Ned on the set of Reign of Fire in County Wicklow

Ned’s beds
Five hotels fit for a Hollywood producer:

Camino Real Polanco, Mexico City
General Mariano Escobedo 700, Anzures, Nueva Cobertura, Mexico City, Mexico.
Ned stayed here while making Apocalypto (2006).
Rooms start from 380 USD.

The China Club, Beijing
51 Xirong Xian Hutong, Xidan, Beijing, China,
Ned stayed here while making Shanghai Noon (2000).
Members only.

The Drake, Chicago
140 East Walton Place, Chicago, Illinois 60611, US.
Ned stayed here while making Things Change (1988).
Rooms start from 229 USD.

Hotel Im Palais Schwarzenberg, Vienna
Schwarzenbergplatz 9, Vienna 1030, Austria.
Ned stayed here while making The Three Musketeers (1993).
Undergoing renovation; due to reopen in 2013.

The Pierre, New York
2 East 61st Street at Fifth Avenue, New York 10065, US.
Ned stayed here while making State of Grace (1990).
Rooms start from 895 USD.

Kim Basinger, Ned Dowd and Richard Gere in a swamp
Ned in a swamp with Kim Basinger and Richard Gere for No Mercy (1986)
Film set of Hoffa
Filming Hoffa (1992) in Chicago

All movie dates refer to the year of release. All images are courtesy of Ned Dowd, who owns their copyright.