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“Are you old enough to drive?” Harrison Ford and his companions quipped to Bonnie Arnold when she picked them up from the Atlanta airport. It was 1985, and the freelance production assistant—today one of Hollywood’s biggest producers—had taken a job driving Ford and a production team around north Georgia as they scouted locations for The Mosquito Coast, a 1986 film about an American inventor (Ford) who attempts to create a utopia in the Central American jungle. At 5’1”, the youthful-looking Arnold (’78) didn’t cut an imposing figure behind the wheel of the 15-passenger van.

“I needed help just getting into the driver’s seat, and I could barely see over the steering wheel,” she says.

Arnold’s ambition was to be a producer, not a chauffeur. But it was early in her career, and the Georgia film scene was no L.A. “I had to say ‘yes’ to anything that even slightly related to what I thought I wanted to do,” she says. Still, she was determined to make a good impression. “What was special about that experience was the opportunity to listen in as the filmmakers and the production team discussed how each location we visited could enhance and support the story of the movie,” she says. “Anytime there was an opportunity to offer an opinion or an idea, I made sure to chime in. Being a part of those conversations made me appreciate the importance of doing your best work, no matter what job you might be doing.

“They must have liked my driving,” she jokes, “because in the end, they offered me a job.”

After serving as production coordinator on The Mosquito Coast, Arnold took on bigger production roles on films including Dances with Wolves and The Addams Family. In 1995, she broke onto the animation scene with thePixar hit Toy Story and went on to work for Walt Disney Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation. She’s now producing one of the most successful animated franchises in recent years, DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon. Her role in bringing the series to life, and her subsequent appointment to copresident and then president of the studio—positions she held from 2015 to 2017—help make her one of the most respected producers in Hollywood. The Hollywood Reporter has regularly featured her in its annual Women in Entertainment Power 100 list.

The 2010 film How to Train Your Dragon (trailer above) received Oscar nominations for best animated feature film and original score. Video by DreamWorks Animation.

In 2017, Arnold, a member of COM’s dean’s advisory board who has received distinguished alumni awards from the college and from BU, spoke about her career trajectory in an interview with COMtalkand in her address at COM’s convocation. She takes us behind the scenes of a selection of the films she’s worked on.

Leader of the Band (1987)

Starring Steve Landesberg and Gailard Sartain

Leader of the Band, a film about an inept marching band, wasn’t destined to become a classic, but it was a turning point for Arnold. If she was serious about becoming a producer, she realized, she needed to make a break for Hollywood, “where every day there was something interesting going on in the film industry that I could watch or be a part of. I wanted to be in the thick of it.” Leader of the Band’s producer David V. Picker, the Hollywood legend who’d signed the Beatles for A Hard Day’s Night (1964), brought James Bond to the silver screen and held top positions at United Artists and Paramount, provided the inroad she needed. Working as a production coordinator on Leader of the Band during its shooting in Georgia gave Arnold a chance to impress Picker—and tell him that she wanted to be a producer like him. When Picker was named president of Columbia Pictures after Leader of the Band finished filming, he told Arnold that if she came to Hollywood, he’d get her a job. Arnold packed up, drove to L.A. and was soon working on films including The Mighty Quinn (1989), which starred Denzel Washington.

Bonnie Arnold

Bonnie Arnold’s producing work has earned her shared awards and accolades including a Golden Globe for Best Animated Film and an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film, both for How to Train Your Dragon 2, and an Annie Award for Best Individual Achievement: Producing, for Toy Story. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Arnold

“David was my sponsor,” Arnold says. “He gave me advice, he made calls on my behalf. But I also worked hard for him, and I was good at what I did. In movie production, you cannot be afraid of hard work, and I worked 12- and 15-hour days when I had to.” She also had other qualities that producers—whose work can include hiring the director, tracking a film’s costs, coordinating shoots and keeping production units running in sync—appreciated, she says. “In addition to being able to work with talent, I think strategically and have a good sense of storytelling. I educated myself by observing other good producers do their job. One producer would always leave a couple of items in his inbox. I thought he was just procrastinating. I came to understand that he was giving the situation time to play out or diffuse before he stepped in. He wasn’t being lazy, just strategic in managing the situation.”

Dances With Wolves (1990)

Starring Kevin Costner

Even as Arnold carved out a career in Hollywood, contacts she’d made in Atlanta proved to be handy sources of work. One of them, producer Ray Stark (Funny Girl), asked her to be an assistant to the producers on Revenge, about a retired naval aviator who falls for the wife of a Mexican crime boss. Arnold was tasked with accompanying executive producer and lead actor Kevin Costner on the flight to Mexico, to make sure his travel logistics ran smoothly. “Little did I know I would have to fend off every fan between L.A. and Mexico City,” she says. During the four months on location with Costner and the other producers, “we all got to know each other very well,” says Arnold. “I think I did a good job supporting the producers as well as doing anything else that was asked of me. Kevin noticed my work, and we talked a lot about his next project,” which would be his directorial debut. When Revenge wrapped, Costner asked her to work on Dances with Wolves. Arnold said she was in—if she could be associate producer.

The film about a Civil War soldier who joins a tribe of Sioux was a risk for a host of reasons. It was a Western, which was considered a dead genre, and the script required shooting a stampede of 3,500 buffalo, which famously took 8 days of filming, 20 wranglers and a helicopter. Arnold’s job was to coordinate logistics for the 80-person film crew and work with ranchers, police and government officials to support filming in roughly 30 shoot locations in South Dakota. “It was such an amazing experience to go on location to a state that had never had a major Hollywood film made there and figure it all out,” she says.

 

Dances with Wolves (trailer above) won Oscars in 1991 for best picture, director, screenplay based on material from another medium, cinematography, sound, film editing and original score. Video by Orion Pictures

Toy Story (1995)

Starring Tom Hanks and Tim Allen

The first time Disney offered Arnold a job—as associate producer on 1994’s The Lion King—she said no. “I felt it was time to focus on my career objective—being a producer” in her own right, she says. Six months later, they did offer her a producer job, but “I would have to move 400 miles north of L.A. to work for a start-up animation company that had never made a feature-length film,” she says. “This was going to be unlike any other film ever produced; it was to be animated entirely with computers.” Arnold decided that the promise of a producer’s credit was worth the risk.

Pixar’s Toy Story, which explores the secret life of toys, was a smash, bringing in more than $370 million worldwide. Over a decade later, the franchise has three films (with a fourth due out in 2019) and two Academy Awards; its digital wizardry is credited with revolutionizing animation.

In his review of Toy Story 3 (trailer above), Time Out’s Ben Walters wrote that the franchise is “deservedly seen as the gold standard for computer-generated animation.” © Disney • Pixar

“I was able to be a creative contributor,” she says. “Usually, you’re somewhat relegated to managing the money or the schedule. But Pixar was looking for someone to be a creative producer, to help get the best version of the movie on the screen.”

~ Bonnie Arnold ~

For Arnold, Toy Story was an unprecedented opportunity to get involved with the storytelling side of a film. “I was able to be a creative contributor,” she says. “Usually, you’re somewhat relegated to managing the money or the schedule. But Pixar was looking for someone to be a creative producer, to help get the best version of the movie on the screen.” That meant “spending time with the director, John Lasseter, as we prepped the film to discuss what he was trying to accomplish creatively with the storytelling as well as the look of the picture.” She also joined Lasseter and top creatives from animation, layout and lighting to review how sequences of shots—and the film as a whole—were coming together during production. During that time, she became a first-time parent, which gave her helpful insight into the project. “When you have a kid, you reconnect with your own childhood and the things that you loved. It helped me to better understand the story and identify with the characters and the audience.”

 

Arnold and fellow Toy Story producer Ralph Guggenheim discuss working on the film.Video © 2014 ScreenSlam

How to Train Your Dragon 1–3 (2010, 2014, 2019)

Starring Jay Baruchel and Gerard Butler

Arnold’s career in animation took off with Toy Story. She produced Disney’s Tarzan (1999) and DreamWorks’ Over the Hedge (2006), along with the live-action film The Last Station (2009) before taking on How to Train Your Dragon for DreamWorks Animation. The film series is based on British author Cressida Cowell’s books about Hiccup, a Viking “dragon whisperer.” The first two movies (the third is in preproduction) would prove to be among the most successful of Arnold’s career—grossing a combined $1 billion worldwide—and would make her one of the most successful producers in Hollywood. But in the early stages of the first movie, it didn’t seem like Arnold had a hit on her hands. “We were getting to a point in the process where we realized the story wasn’t coming together,” says Arnold. “We were going to have to depart from the original material in a more radical way.”

From left: Actors Djimon Hounsou, America Ferrera and Craig Ferguson, with producer Bonnie Arnold and actor Gerard Butler at the premiere of How to Train Your Dragon 2

From left: Actors Djimon Hounsou, America Ferrera and Craig Ferguson, with producer Bonnie Arnold and actor Gerard Butler at the premiere of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Twentieth Century Fox/AP Images

The first step was bringing in the new writer-director team of Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. In one of the biggest changes to the story, the dragons became enemies of the Vikings instead of their servants, which added heft to the friendship between Hiccup and the dragon Toothless. “We also decided that Toothless would become a large, fearsome dragon instead of a runt like Hiccup, a significant change from the story in Cowell’s book,” Arnold says.

Arnold flew to England to show Cowell revised character designs and talk through story changes, winning her support. The experience taught Arnold how important it was to be willing to make changes to a film’s narrative—without destroying its essence. “I feel the movie was true to the characters that Cressida Cowell had created, especially the lead, Hiccup,” she says. “The story remained authentic to his character and his struggle to become the leader that his father, Stoick, wanted him to be. You have to keep in mind what is best for the movie and keep supporting what that vision is. You start to see images and writing that make you feel like, ‘I’m caring, I’m rooting for the characters to be successful.’”

Like Cowell, critics and audiences were won over. The movies are among the top-grossing animated films of recent decades, and both films were nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature film.

Following the success of the How to Train Your Dragon movies, Arnold was tapped to become copresident of the studio with Mireille Soria, in January 2015. In a statement announcing her appointment, then DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg called Arnold one of the “most accomplished and prolific filmmakers working in feature animation today.” In December 2016, Soria stepped down to focus on producing, leaving Arnold in charge as president. During the time that Arnold held executive roles at the company, DreamWorks Animation rolled out box office winners including Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016), Trolls (2016) and The Boss Baby (2017), which received an Oscar nomination for best animated feature film.

In 2017, Arnold stepped down from the DreamWorks Animation presidency to return to producing for the studio, a role she calls her first love. She’s producing How to Train Your Dragon 3 with Brad Lewis and is developing a new animated feature, The Wizards of Once, based on Cressida Cowell’s 2017 book of that name. “Creating stories that families and kids will enjoy and learn from,” she says, “is the heart and soul of what I love doing.”

The Journey from “No” to “Yes”

In her address at COM’s 2017 convocation, Arnold offered career advice to COM’s 2017 graduates, and talked about how saying “yes” to the unexpected furthered her career:

Video by the College of Communication

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