The longtime journalist closely followed the production of the film “Last Vegas” on set in 2012, leading to her writing the nonfiction book “Below the Line: Anatomy of a Successful Movie,” which was published in 2019.
Courtesy of Citation Press
Making a major motion picture takes a long time.
There’s talent to recruit, contracts to ink, pre-production, the production itself, and then, finally, post-production.
For Meredith Jordan, a career journalist who has worked for or published pieces in National Geographic and the Washington Post, among other publications, it took even longer to get her story to print. Eventually, however, she wound up with a nonfiction book published in 2019 that’s worth its weight in gold for movie aficionados: “Below the Line: Anatomy of a Successful Movie,” from Citation Press.
About a decade ago, Jordan wanted to read about contemporary film production but most of the material she found didn’t cover what she was looking for. Books and in-depth feature articles that delve into film production typically focus on the talent working above the line — the director, producers, screenwriter, and the actors — rather than the crew, which is essentially everyone else involved in making a movie.
People tend to like stories and anecdotes about A-list actors and big-name filmmakers, so the appeal makes sense. However, that doesn’t cover things for those interested in what a film crew actually does, or the nuts and bolts — the people who are interested in seeing how the sausage is made, so to speak, which is what Jordan was interested in.
There’s also the issue that most books released see publication because they were studio-approved. Millions of dollars are funneled into television and film production, which includes marketing and publicity, so it makes sense for studios to want to protect their investments. They don’t want to see their potential failures getting ink or hitting the news cycle.
Meredith Jordan, used with permission
“At the higher levels, the reason they don’t let you do that is because things go wrong,” Jordan told me, stating how difficult it is to get on a TV or movie production while maintaining independence and control of what’s being written and published. “If a reporter is back there, the reporter knows exactly what went wrong. Or they let a reporter back there who has signed agreements.”
Realizing the kind of story she craved hadn’t been done, Jordan got to work. She dug into research, reached out to her industry contacts, and she started pitching potential subjects.
Jordan’s determination led her to the production of “Last Vegas,” a film released in 2013. Directed by Jon Turteltaub, who helmed the “National Treasure” movies for Walt Disney Pictures, “Last Vegas” was in production in late 2012, and stars Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Mary Steenburgen and Kevin Kline.
Prior to getting on the “Last Vegas” shoot, Jordan thought she’d be on set with a TV show for about two weeks so that she could go through the production cycle for an episode and then write about it. The plan wasn’t to write a book, per se, but to have an in-depth feature to publish in a newspaper or magazine.
“I got on a TV show at one point. I was approved by the showrunner, Kurt Sutter who did ‘Sons of Anarchy,’” Jordan said.
Between seasons of “Sons of Anarchy,” Jordan went to Sutter’s offices in North Hollywood to discuss the story she wanted to write and Sutter approved her pitch before their meeting ended. But when production commenced for the next season of the show, Jordan reached out to finalize her plans and a public relations representative from FX, the network that aired the show, killed Jordan’s story.
Jordan next turned her attention to the production of “The Walking Dead” TV show in Georgia. She had done a story on the show for the Washington Post and she had gotten to know the show’s star a little bit, actor Andrew Lincoln who played Rick Grimes. Lincoln liked the idea and even though Jordan spoke with the showrunner, her story idea never got anywhere.
Jordan wrote in her book’s preface: “For years I pitched anyone I met in a position of power in the industry to let me follow crew along for one production cycle. I had an East Coast ignorance of how things worked in Hollywood, which turned out to be a blessing. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, which was that not letting journalists hang around was so entrenched as policy that it might have been legislated.”
She elaborated on that point further in conversation with me. “[Studios] have their motives,” she said. “They would love to have a story or book come out about their movie that’s going to help them sell the movie. The hard part is not signing off — not agreeing to give them a copy that they can check things out.”
Michael Douglas (in red hat) arrives for work on the set of "Last Vegas." Photo by Meredith Jordan
Once Jordan finally got on the production of “Last Vegas,” which was shot in Las Vegas and in Georgia, the available analysis proved to be worth the wait.
Written and broken into chapters that keep the narrative linear and easy to digest, Jordan’s prose is both crisp and concise. She guides readers from in-depth aspects of pre-production through comprehensive coverage of the production, conducting hundreds of interviews with crew and following the action on set. She even delves into post-production.
Want to know how tax credits affect movie budgets and where films get shot as a result? Jordan explains it. Would you like to know how the crew of “Last Vegas” reacted to working with A-list Hollywood stars, like De Niro and Douglas? Jordan gets into that, too. She even writes about wardrobes, set construction, catering, actor contracts and what kinds of trailers were used on set.
Her attention to detail is without rival, as she takes a deep dive into her subject matter. With her final product which spans more than 460 pages, there’s no bloat to be found in “Below the Line” and it reads quick in spite of its length.
Written from the perspective of a journalist, meaning Jordan doesn’t insert herself into the narrative as a character, she chooses to focus on what’s happening and how crew associated with the production work and react, though she mentioned the book would have been funnier if she were in it as a character, given how her presence on set was such a weird circumstance.
“I didn’t know if this was going to be a good show or a bad show,” Jordan said. “Things could have happened — mistakes get made, injuries, all kinds of things — and it was very well run so that’s what I reported. But if it had been a debacle, I would have reported a debacle.”
“Below the Line” is getting a second printing, with the new version expected to hit store shelves in September. It was originally slated to come out this spring, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to changes in the publication schedule. The new edition will have a couple more chapters detailing the post-production process, Jordan said. In the meantime, Jordan, who lives and works in the Palm Springs, California area, has started work on a new book.
To learn more about Meredith Jordan or "Below the Line: Anatomy of a Successful Movie," click here to visit her website dedicated to information about the book.