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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Jean Higgins, Muir 72

By Kelli Anderson

For Emmy-award winning executive producer Jean Higgins, the most challenging aspect of producing the ground-breaking TV series LOST was not finding a widebody jet in the California desert and having it shipped, in pieces, to Oahu, where it would serve as the set for the crash of Oceanic flight 815.

Higgins accepting an Emmy during the September 2005 ceremony for her work on the first season of LOST. She is flashing the "shaka" sign to everyone in Hawaii.  Higgins also won a Producers Guild of America Award for television producer of the year in 2005.

It was not coming up with a way to ferry film from the mainland to Hawaii while avoiding damaging security X-rays. It was not even figuring out how to conjure a snowy street in Buffalo in 80-degree daylight in Honolulu’s Chinatown in Season 2. “The biggest challenge was taking 350 people and willing them into a functioning mass, day in and day out, whether it rained, whether you were in the mud, whether you were burning up on the beach,” says Higgins, who was with the show six-plus years, from pilot to series finale. “Sometimes it worked better than other times, but we never failed. Ultimately, with a TV show, you make your air dates.”

LOST, the labyrinthine story of the survivors of a plane crash and the mysterious island on which they crashed, was one of the largest, most complex TV series in history. The cast was huge—14 to 16 regulars a season, all living on location far from home—and the turnaround between episodes was just eight days. It was filmed entirely on location on Oahu, whether a scene called for jungle, beach, hospital operating room, submarine interior, or Tunisian desert. For Higgins, who describes her job as “a huge, three-dimensional puzzle,” there were budgets to balance, actors’ schedules to juggle, sets and wardrobes to keep track of, scripts to prep, Hawaiian culture to navigate, and locals to court. “LOST was the perfect show for me,” says Higgins, an experienced scuba diver who often doubled as the show’s second unit director for underwater and other scenes. “It was 100 percent mental and 100 percent physical.”

It was, in a way, the job she had been working toward her whole life. Higgins grew up in the San Fernando Valley, well within the gravitational pull of Hollywood. But when she entered UC San Diego in the fall of 1967 (her parents thought her “too wild” to go to Berkeley), she wasn’t considering a career in entertainment. A math whiz and a surfer, she hoped to major in oceanographic engineering. “I had visions of building cities under water,” she says. She was also intrigued by the possibilities UCSD awakened her to above sea level. “There were all these Nobel laureates around; it was fabulous,” says Higgins. “I just lucked into this most wonderful place to go to school.”

She took a philosophy course from the so-called “Father of the New Left,” Herbert Marcuse, whose teaching assistant was political activist Angela Davis, M.A. ’69. But it was a theatre performance class Higgins took as a junior that radically changed her career outlook. “I was 5’6”, which at the time was pretty tall for girls, and I was blonde and decent-looking, so I got really good parts,” she says with a laugh. “I had great fun.”

Shortly after graduating in 1972 with a “special project in theatre” degree, Higgins joined a small LA theatre group and got a job as a production assistant with a tiny commercial company. While working on her first ad, about baby safety seats, she had an epiphany. “I realized that all that goes into making an ad or movie is so much more interesting than just acting, and that I wanted to be in charge of the whole thing,” she says. “So when I was 21, I decided I wanted to be a producer.”

With no contacts, mentors or role models, Higgins blazed an unusual path through the industry, picking up, by dint of curiosity and initiative, a rare combination of filmmaking and business skills. Working in the corporate communications department of the Peterson Company, a large commercial house, she pestered gaffers and sound engineers to teach her their crafts.  “Because you have to oversee everybody, I figured my job is not to know how to do their job particularly, but to know enough so they can’t snow you,” she says.

In her late 20s, she joined upstart production company American Cinema, where one of her first jobs was to team up with another woman to market Chuck Norris’s first picture, Good Guys Wear Black. “We learned everything: media buying, newspaper ads, line ads,” says Higgins. “We put Chuck on every radio show and into every high school and police academy. We did karate demonstrations in the park, where we realized if we didn’t get a permit, the police would show up and we’d get on the news! The movie ended up making money.”

Over the next several years, Higgins and two partners formed and eventually disbanded their own company (Karson-Higgins-Shaw), which created advertising campaigns, trailers, TV spots and posters for studios. (“We were big in slasher and chop-sockey movies,” she says.) She also worked on a few “Movies of the Week” for Disney in between feature projects with producer Joe Wizan. “For a while, I had a features resume and a TV resume,” she says. “Back then there was a hierarchy. If you did features, you didn’t do television and vice versa.” Yet she jumped at the chance to produce the pilot for the West Wing in 1999. “I didn’t want to do TV, but I read the pilot for West Wing and, I thought, this is brilliant!”

During a dry spell in feature work a few years later, she served as the line producer for the first season of CSI: Miami and found the chaotic pace suited her. “TV is so fast and you have to be so hands on,” she says.  “And everything you’ve learned before comes into play because you need answers, like, right now.”

When Higgins heard a rumor in early 2004 that ABC was planning a pilot for a show in Hawaii, the place where she had learned to surf as a 13-year-old, she made a call and got a meeting with creator J.J. Abrams. Within hours, the unit production manager job was hers. (She would get producer credit on the pilot and eventually become an executive producer.) She was on a plane to Oahu the next day with the studio’s two parting admonitions ringing in her ears: Don’t go over budget and don’t tell J.J. no.

When Abrams insisted on a widebody jet for the crash set, Higgins took a breath—“there were no widebodies in Hawaii and we had just weeks before we started shooting,” she says—and began working the phones. Colleague Sarah Caplan located an old, desert-baked L-1011 that Higgins purchased through Thompson Aviation, had it cut into pieces and shipped out on every Hawaii-bound freighter that had space leaving San Pedro, Long Beach or Oakland. “They did it so fast I didn’t even have an inventory of what was in what container,” says Higgins.

Plane shipped, Higgins faced the next test. According to Abrams’ script, the fuselage lands on the beach  upside-down. No problem, except that the cargo hold is substantially heavier than the passenger compartment, so the fuselage would have to be stabilized—without digging, which is forbidden on Hawaii’s state beaches. Higgins recalled a CSI: Miami episode that had required trench plates (the metal plates used to cover up temporary holes or ditches in roads) for a car-plunging-into-a-canal scene. She knew the plates were 1,000 pounds each and cheap to rent. “If we needed 30,000 pounds to stabilize the fuselage, we could just build a frame and stack up 30 of them,” she says.

That was all just for the two-part pilot, which ended up costing over $10 million. The next six years would bring a weekly slew of problems for Higgins to solve, from teasing out labor issues, to figuring out the visual effects that would marry two jungle scenes together, to keeping cast and crew united. “Jean was kind of a maternal figure who fomented a familial feeling among the cast and crew and kept everybody on the same page,” says Thom Sherman, Warren ’88, who helped develop LOST as the head of Bad Robot productions between 2004-05 (Sherman also won the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Award in June). “And she had a sense of humor about the craziness that she had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Jean approached it as, ‘You can’t throw anything at me that I haven’t seen before’ and she would laugh about it.”

That wintry Buffalo scene? Six dump-truckloads of ice plus snow blankets did the trick. Shipping the film from the mainland without the risk of ruinous X-ray? She found space on a vegetable boat, of course.
“Jean was an enormous part of the success of LOST,” adds Mary Courtney, the series’ unit production manager for seasons 5 and 6. “She’s a wizard with numbers and budgets, she’s a really knowledgeable filmmaker and she’s extremely resourceful. Without her, the show would have been a different deal.”

To get everything done, Higgins kept a grueling schedule that allowed her a mere five hours of sleep a night and just a few weeks off between seasons. (Her son, Nicolas, now 20, lived with her in Hawaii while her husband, Tim Tyson, an arborist, held down the home fort in Woodland Hills.) “Jean is very smart and she has incredible stamina,” says Pat Churchill, who worked with Higgins as a producer, line producer and unit production manager during seasons one to five0. “She is like a Rosalind Russell character from the ’40s movies. She’s pretty indomitable.”

The series now wrapped, Higgins is back in Southern California, tending her garden and feeding her voracious reading habit with books on the Far and Middle East. Chances are her break from Hollywood won’t be a long one. There are nascent projects to consider and, as always, skills to master. “LOST was what I would consider a low-tech show because of what was available, so I’m behind on visual effects,” she says. “So there will probably be some visual effects seminars in my near future.”  No doubt there will also be more challenging and complex projects to will into fruition.

Kelli Anderson is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated.