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This Director's Cringey On-Set Story Says SO Much

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Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images.
In the past year, I’ve frequently been asked to talk about being a woman in film. My debut feature, The Adderall Diaries, was released this year, and I am indeed a woman. I find the eagerness to confront sexism encouraging and indicative of the potential for real progress. I’m excited to have a voice and a platform from which to speak, to be a filmmaker, and to be part of the conversation.

And yet, I’m not terribly comfortable answering the question, “What’s it like to be a female director?” It’s the only kind of director I’ve ever been, and the answer has to involve so many more voices than just mine, across so many more years of vision and experience than I have so far. It’s just one part of the diversity problem in which the film industry is complicit.

I’ve heard many well-meaning people say that women inherently have qualities that make them well suited to directing. I disagree. I think gender has nothing to do with it. Directing requires a unique blend of skills and personality traits — diplomacy, the ability to galvanize and inspire, a balance of steadfastness and flexibility, fluency across departments and communication styles, to name a few — but none of those skills has a damn thing to do with gender, race, or sexual identity.

I felt a now-familiar defiant rage settle in my gut. That feeling can be highly motivating.

I will say that it never occurred to me to be deterred by the statistics until recently. As a kid, I watched all my other dirty outdoor friends come home with their Boy Scout knives and camping plans, and I couldn’t wait to sign up. When I got to Girl Scouts and found out there would be no knives or camping or fireworks, and instead we would be selling cookies and learning to double Dutch, I felt a now-familiar defiant rage settle in my gut. That feeling can be highly motivating. This should be very obvious to anyone who is a person, but no one likes to be told they’re not capable of things of which they most certainly are. I am now significantly more discouraged by the statistics. I hope they will change and believe we’re trying. In the meantime, there really are many female directors to admire and be inspired by. We’re not so rare.

No one has ever said something overtly sexist to me on set. But I do feel it sometimes, the underestimating and doubt. It’s coded and it’s mostly in subtext. It’s always surrounding a negotiation of power. It comes up a lot around money. I’ve consistently had to fight to be included in basic discussions about finances and business decisions. It comes up most often when someone I’m speaking to is trying to decide who I am, so they can decide whether they have to do the thing I’m asking.
Recently, I introduced myself to a location manager (“Hi I’m Pamela, I’m the director”) and asked her about the possibility of shooting in a hallway I’d seen. We had a little discussion and she said, “I’d really like to run it by the director. Do you know when he gets here?” After a confused moment I said, “He is me. I’m the director. I’m here.” Somehow, she repeated again, “Okay, let me know when he gets here and we’ll talk about it.” This woman was otherwise totally articulate and coherent. This happens to me at least once on every project. The forest ranger who wouldn’t tell me where exactly the poison oak was after informing the cast they would “erupt into tiny painful blisters” if they touched it. The grip who pulled up a chair and started reading his paperback in the 6 feet between me and the actors on the first day of The Adderall Diaries. The huge number of people who ask me at lunch if I work in hair and makeup or the art department. It’s not conscious, and I know they don’t mean to be disrespectful, but they just don’t include “director” as one of the possibilities when they’re trying to suss out what my job on set is. Even if I’ve already said it.

In the discussion of gender and filmmaking, one of the comments I hear most often is, “We need more female directors because we need more strong female characters.” While I appreciate the sentiment, it troubles me for a couple of reasons.
The first is that I don’t think “strong” is exactly what’s missing from the depiction of women on screen. I like superhero movies. I love Ripley and Furiosa and so many other film she-roes. But what we’re so often missing is real female characters. Authentic female characters. Complicated and flawed and rich female characters. That’s what was so exciting to me about two of my favorite films last year, Mustang and Diary of a Teenage Girl — I recognized myself in those characters. I loved them and cared about them and learned from them. That’s so important. It’s the entire purpose of art for me, to connect with someone in the secret or sensitive corners of themselves in which they feel the most alone, and say, “You’re not crazy and you’re not weird; I feel this way, too.” The women in those films are whole, authentic humans. They also happen to be female. I love the story about Helen Mirren reading the Eye in the Sky script and saying that she wanted the part, not rewritten for a woman, but as is. I wonder how many films have great characters that could be cast without thinking of gender.

The second thing that bothers me about the female-filmmakers-equals-strong-female-characters equation is that, while I endeavor to write all of my characters well, I don’t really want to be required to only make films about women just because I am one. The number of questions and pushbacks I got about making a father-son story as my first feature made it very clear to me that there was a population of people with a kind of “stay in your lane” mentality. They welcomed women making indies about women, but not necessarily doing anything else. I’m clearly not a father or a son, but I do have the same empathy and imagination that allows many filmmakers to write characters who are astronauts and gangsters and other kinds of people they are not.
One of my favorite quotes, which I often reference when asked for advice to other filmmakers, is Billy Jean King’s “pressure is a privilege.” Pressure means you’re in the game. It means you’re in pursuit of something valuable. It means you’re near to power. And resistance often means someone has correctly identified you as someone who might have the opportunity and skill to share that power. Pressure can also be an incredible motivator, and it can be applied to create real change. I really believe that in the not-too-distant future, with significant pressure, we could see a real restructuring of power and inclusiveness in the film industry.

For those of us in the industry right now, I defer to Effie Brown’s excellent motto, “invest, mentor, hire.” Invest in films written, directed, produced by, and starring women, people of color, and LGBT folks. Mentor young men and women who have bold voices that you believe in, and do what you can to get their projects into the hands of your colleagues who can help get their projects made. When you’ve got the power to hire, use it to demonstrate the principles you believe in, and surround yourself with a diverse team. Those of us who consume media have power, too. Most of us can’t finance a film, but we can choose which ones to seek out and support with our ticket dollars and social media posts and word of mouth. We can watch and share and talk about content on television and online, especially on platforms like Refinery29 that specifically endeavor to support diverse voices. We can support organizations like the Sundance Institute that conduct research to understand statistics, support diverse filmmakers, and help develop incentives that ask the industry to be held accountable for hiring practices.

It’s a real sign of evolution that inclusiveness and diversity in film is a hot topic right now. Pressure is a privilege, so let’s leverage it. So many of the people who have the power to create real change are listening.

This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called
Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!
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