Unicorns in the Wild

On women, genius, and the workplace of filmmaking

1. QUIET ACTION

I have always loved how softly Meera Menon calls “Action!” There’s a quality of firmness without aggressiveness to her tone when she initiates a scene: She reminds me how to get things done without raising one’s volume. Her authority—as the director of Farah Goes Bang (which I co-wrote and produced) and Equity, which premiered at Sundance 2016—has nothing to do with volume. People listen to her because they want to hear what she has to say.

We were in our 20s and shooting a teaser for Farah out at a horse ranch in Sunland, California when, toward the end of one of the shooting days, a neighbor got angry about the noise level. He started shouting over the fence at us that he was going to call the police. The DP, Paul, and I exchanged glances and braced for a conflict, both of us ready to spring into any necessary action to protect Meera and the production. I was so ready to fight like a man. But then Meera went over and spoke calmly and kindly to the angry neighbor, and defused the whole situation in minutes. A gentle touch; an obstacle cleared. Her way was the right way.

2016-Mar-women-create

It was Meera who first made me question the hierarchical, paramilitaristic structure of the film production workplace. She doesn’t love hierarchical modes of power: “I think it’s important to swing your dick around sometimes,” she quips in an email, “but I try to unzip only when it’s completely and totally necessary.” She also points out that the origins of filmmaking’s paramilitary mode lay partially in the soldiers returning from war who crewed the sets of 1940s and ‘50s Hollywood. In other words, the paramilitary of film production is the male heir of the actual military. As such, there’s a misogyny, a deep, pervasive exclusion of women, inherent to both structures.

There are two ways to repair deep corruption: You perform complex, intensive surgery from within the broken structure, or you throw it out and build a new one. Some women filmmakers are constructing a new system. Some women filmmakers are performing the surgery. As the public conversation toward pay equity, leadership parity, and fair representation for women in TV and film gains some momentum, that conversation also has to account for what kind of workplace culture women are capable of creating from their positions of leadership.

But because women in positions of real leadership and influence in film remain, well, unicorns in the wild, we still lack a certain female narrative, a certain kind of war story, a certain body of evidence. A workplace story. What kind of professional culture do women leaders create in film? What does a set run by women look like, sound like, feel like? What kind of collaborative experiences happen along the way to getting women’s stories on camera? What the fuck is the point of hiring women?

 

2. HOW DO WOMEN MAKE MOVIES?

The question glitters with essentialist danger: How do women make movies? It threatens to engulf us with facile binaries of Mars and Venus, lazy generalizations, unhelpful assumptions. We cannot conscientiously locate the quality of a filmmaker in the body. But it remains true, I think, that the way we present or perform gender affects how films are created.

We already know, for one, that women are likelier to tell cinematic stories of greater gender parity than men are. One of the key findings of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s first-of-its-kind study on female characters in popular films was that, while only 30.9 percent of speaking roles in lm are female, films directed or written by a woman had significantly more girls and women onscreen than films created by men: With a woman at the helm, female character totals go up by 10 percent or more.

But we also know that women are still largely shut out from positions of production leadership. We’ve made progress in obtaining data on male supremacy in the filmmaking industry, but the numbers are abysmal: Davis’ 2012 study found females comprised seven percent of directors, 20 percent of directors, and 23 percent of producers worldwide. More recently, amidst the ongoing ACLU investigation of gender-based civil rights violations in the film industry, Bloomberg Business’s documentary, The Celluloid Ceiling, found that only 1.9 percent of Hollywood’s 600 top-grossing films, and 14 percent of its 3,500 TV episodes, were directed by women. The current system still egregiously fails women.

To be a working woman filmmaker today sometimes seems like a task of being half content creator, and half whistleblower. In 2015, more than any year before, it seems that women are willing to call out Hollywood’s broken system: Jennifer Lawrence, Patricia Arquette, Meryl Streep, Lexi Alexander, Effie Brown, Ava DuVernay, Reese Witherspoon, and many other actresses, directors, writers, and producers have all publicly critiqued Hollywood’s gaping gender divide.

And the critiques are moving beyond simply highlighting the fact of women’s exclusion, and into detailing that exclusion’s effects. The actress Romola Garai made headlines when she called for on-set childcare, or at least some measure of production-scheduling consideration for parents. Responding to the constant sexist assertion that studios and executives just “can’t find” qualified women directors to hire, Destri Martino created the searchable database The Director List, which contains career and contact information for over 1,000 female directors.

But studio change is slow, and women filmmakers who want to work are mostly doing their business in television and in independent film—the latter of which is now a $5 billion industry. Out of that primordial soup of Sundance, Silver Lake, free streaming, and boundary-breaking rose gender warrior Jill Soloway. Amazon’s non-traditional TV-distribution mode has bolstered Soloway’s freedom to build a non-traditional set culture for her show, Transparent, and the results of that freedom are challenging paradigms far beyond it.

On Transparent, Soloway instituted TV’s first “transfirmative action program,” which prioritizes the hiring of transgender cast and crew in creating a show focused on transgender identity. Transparent’s set bathrooms are gender-neutral. The showrunner herself keeps a bed for afternoon naps in her office. She prefers to hire writers without a lot of TV experience, and she won’t use “militaristic” directing commands like “Action!” or “Cut!” at any volume; she finds them too phallic, too male. (Just consider the shape of the exclamation points we automatically attach to those words.)

The actress Kathryn Hahn, Soloway’s friend and one of the stars of Transparent, commented, “She talks about directing from her vagina! And I think it’s so true… it’s really feminine, and I mean that in the fiercest sense of the word. It’s like magic witchcraft. When she does it, you literally feel like the set is a womb. You feel like you’re in an amniotic sac of her brilliance, like it’s the safest place in the world.”

Cisnormative feminist language aside, Soloway, with Transparent, has created a set culture that validates, rather than erases, the identities that comprise it. Her socialistic anti-hierarchy throws a middle finger to many of the traditionally male authority structures of TV production: the aggressiveness, the heteronormative objectification of women, the structure of TV’s extra-long work day. Soloway observed, “This industry was created for men to be like, ‘Sorry, honey, I’m working on a movie. Sorry, not going to make it home.’ There’s this illusion that you’ve got to work long, crazy hours, and it’s really hard. But it’s really not.”

Soloway’s assertion is convincing, but I don’t know if I’ve actually witnessed the alternate utopia she describes: I’ve certainly never worked a day of film production shorter than 14 hours. I ask the director and writer Ry Russo-Young (You Wont Miss Me, Nobody Walks, and the upcoming Before I Fall) what she thinks of Soloway’s vision of a set ungoverned by Action and Cut.

“We’re at the beginning of a long revolution,” Russo-Young says wryly. Her tone reminds me of Soloway’s status as the ultimate unicorn: the exception rather than the rule.

 

3. HOW IT FEELS TO EXIST

The actress Breeda Wool, most recently of Lifetime’s critically acclaimed series UnREAL, reads a lot of casting notices in pursuit of a ‘girl next door’ type. “As a woman, when I read ‘girl next door,’” Wool observes, “it instantaneously means I exist in the eyes of some random neighborhood male kid who I may not have talked to—my entire existence is the gaze of some random kid down the block. That random kid who may not actually exist is more potent than my actual existence.”

If a character doesn’t exist to a writer, she won’t exist to a director, either, and the minor and major acts of erasure domino onward from there. Erasure can determine how actors are treated. A woman who does not exist—unseen, unheard—can be paid less and harassed more. This potency of the male gaze also undermines Wool creatively. “It becomes this really weird head fuck. As an actor, I’m hired to exist. But a lot of the scripts I get and roles I’m asked to create actually require me not to exist.”

Wool continues, “When I join a project where I already know my existence is being erased, that [dynamic] exists on set. That’s the story that’s being told. It’s a lot like racial stereotypes. If your story is constantly told and retold by people who are eradicating you, how in the hell do you show up for work?”

Even though this rift in existence exposes actors’ precarious roles as pawns in an imagination external to them, actresses are hardly the only women on a set who have to fight for the right to exist. After the disastrous fourth season of HBO’s Project Greenlight provided an accidental object lesson in the abject misogyny of Hollywood’s loftier ranks, the producer Effie Brown became an equally accidental patron saint of the intersectional feminist backlash against the show. The pivotal conflict of the reality series became the myriad ways in which Brown and her work were continuously discredited, undermined, and ignored by newly anointed PG director Jason Mann, executive producers Matt Damon (who told Brown, to her Black face, that “when you’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not the casting of the show”), and Ben Affleck (who rewarded Mann with $300,000 out of his own salary in extra funding to shoot on film rather than digital, against Brown’s wishes), as well as the Farrelly brothers, advisers to the project, and by extension, HBO.

Regarding the conflict with Damon over the racially objectionable casting of Project Greenlight’s film, The Leisure Class, Brown has articulated feelings of erasure, of fighting for her right to exist. She described the production leadership’s attitude toward her, the producer, as “‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ To my chagrin, when you’re in that room, you have to validate yourself if no one takes you seriously: ‘Listen to me, I know what I’m doing.’” And on Project Greenlight itself, the viewer can see these men not taking Effie Brown seriously. It’s a discrediting by a thousand tiny knife strokes: their blank faces, their eye-rolling and shit-talking as soon as she leaves the room.

It’s worth noting, too, that Effie Brown is a self-described “army brat” with conscious respect for filmmaking’s paramilitary structure, who describes her own leadership style as “I lead, you follow the chain of command, or get out of the way.” It’s painful to watch Project Greenlight evict her from its chain of command. The system Brown believes in fails her, right before our eyes. Sometimes women who show up to perform the surgery end up doing the construction.

 

4. IN PRAISE OF DIFFICULT WOMEN

It’s nice to be nice, but there’s plenty of essentialist danger in suggesting that gentleness, accommodation, and nurturing are either endemically “feminine” qualities, or the most valuable qualities to the political theater of the film set. In such a high-pressure environment, toughness is equally essential to establishing credibility—but there, as in all things, the highly gendered vocabulary of power comes into play.

As it relates to gender and authority, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the co-creator of Lifetime’s UnREAL, tells me she is “hyperaware of a vocabulary that’s really prejudiced against women.” She maintains a basic respect for the paramilitary structure, in which she prioritizes communicating “as clearly and plainly as possible,” without passive-aggression or pandering. “When I’m directing, it’s really important that I spend zero time thinking about if anyone likes me.”

Despite this, when “female directors are labeled as difficult, or tough,” she points out, it’s code for a director who’s “too emotional, or can’t keep control of her crew.” When male directors are exacting, or laser-focused on their vision, or even straight-up difficult, we call them geniuses.

In an appealing subversion, Shapiro’s feminist concern seems less to be about protesting that women—that any directors—are never difficult to work with, and more to be about making the cultural room for women to be difficult when they need to be. “’Genius’,” Shapiro argues, “is a word that excuses a lot of bad behavior, and we just don’t have that word for women. We need a word for women that means ‘she’s really talented, she’s super creative, she might be kind of hard on your budget, she might be kind of hard on your crew. But she’s worth it.’”

Vocabulary isn’t the only problem, Shapiro continues: “People think female directors are milquetoast, middle of the road, mediocre, or soft, or don’t have a really strong point of view. But then all the really radical, creative [women] get blacklisted. The people who survive are the people who can get along with network executives. Whereas in the male directing school, there are these outliers of really ‘genius’ people who still get to work a lot.”

Ry Russo-Young echoes the stranglehold of the genius/difficult paradox almost exactly: “You are, as a director, innately difficult because that’s your job. When men are difficult, they are rewarded, and when women are difficult—I mean, I’ve been called micromanage-y. If I were a man, it would be like, ‘he knows what he wants, he’s so specific!’”

“I’m not saying that you can’t lead with love, and I try to lead with love as much as I can,” Russo-Young says. “But movies are really hard work.”

“I’ve seen $5 million projects get sunk because of a director with really male attributes: stubborn, egotistical, not collaborative,” Shapiro says. “I’ve seen male attributes sink shows. We never say let’s not hire men anymore.”

In both my conversations with Shapiro and with Russo-Young, David Fincher emerges as the ultimate male-genius paradigm. Russo-Young puts it succinctly: “Nobody walks away from a David Fincher film saying ‘I had such a great experience!’” And nobody expects him to lead with love, either.

“People fetishize how tough he is,” Shapiro notes. “My goal is to hear somebody talk about a woman director that way.” In awed tones, she mimics what she means: “Oh my god, she’s incredible, she’s obsessed, she’s totally impossible, she’s so mean.”

 

5. MOTHER CUTTER

Verna Fields, early-widowed single mother of two, is best known for her Academy-Award-winning editing of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Fields was as integral to shepherding Spielberg into Hollywood as she had been to George Lucas; essentially, she midwived the careers of the two most influential film directors of the late 20th century.

Of Fields, Spielberg would later say:

We all referred to Verna Fields as Mother Cutter. She was very earthy, very maternal. She cut her films at her house, at her pool house, in the San Fernando Valley, and it was a very haimish kind of workplace… All of our disagreements happened with that darn shark! Verna was always in favor of less to be more. And I was trying to squeeze in that one more—because it took me DAYS to get that one shot! So I’m going back to, I’m on a barge for two days trying to get the shark to look real, and the sad fact was that the shark would only look real in 36 frames and not 38 frames. And that two-frame difference was the difference between something really scary, and something that looked like a great white floating turd.

It makes me profoundly uncomfortable to suggest that in some metaphysical way, Verna Fields may have edited from the womb. But doesn’t her work also testify that in order to make risky, vulnerable work, a creator needs a certain reassurance of emotional and physical safety, a certain kind of nourishment and nurturing? Or that in a sensibility marked by a very male hubris, violence, and preoccupation with size, what Spielberg’s Jaws really needed was a mother’s touch? Filmmaking needs both toughness and gentleness. Filmmaking needs both the foundation of precedent and the renewal of disruption. Filmmaking needs both men and women. Without multiplicity, we are a great white floating turd.

We are no longer soldiers returning from war. We don’t even have the same need for “Action!” and “Cut!” that we once did. Digital filmmaking, Meera Menon observes, means “you don’t have to be precious about footage… you can be more lenient with when the shot begins and ends.” There are “exciting possibilities that lie before the scene ‘starts’ and after a scene ‘ends.’”

I love women bold enough to be loud, and women brave enough to be quiet. I love hearing stories about how quietly Sofia Coppola and Barbra Streisand speak. I love reading that Shonda Rhimes brings her kids to work. I love the story Sarah Gertrude Shapiro told in her TED Talk about how she once showed up drunk, and with a straight white male friend posing as her assistant, to a meeting with a Big Hollywood Lawyer. I think that these, too, are acts of genius.

I hear this woman genius everywhere. I see her. She and her gaze exist to me. In this, we have already succeeded.


Illustration by Marisa Reisel