In­die film­mak­ers share their thoughts on and ex­pe­ri­ences in a skewed in­dus­try

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY RE­BECCA KEE­GAN

When a U.S. sen­a­tor praises a movie stu­dio for hir­ing two women, a Hol­ly­wood is­sue has off icially en­tered the wider con­ver­sa­tion. Sen. Bar­bara Boxer sent a note to Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsu­ji­hara re­cently, com­mend­ing the stu­dio on its se­lec­tion of women to di­rect the films “Won­der Woman” and “Un­for­get­table.” In the let­ter, Boxer, whose daugh­ter, Ni­cole Boxer, is a doc­u­men­tary film­maker, also pointed out the in­dus­try’s poor track record of hir­ing fe­male di­rec­tors over time and said she will “con­tinue to fol­low the is­sue of women di­rec­tors and your stu­dio’s ef­forts to ex­pand di­ver­sity at all lev­els.” Less than 5% of ma­jor stu­dio movies were di­rected by women last year, ac­cord­ing to a Times anal­y­sis. Boxer’s let­ter comes two months af­ter the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union asked three gov­ern­ment agen­cies to look into Hol­ly­wood hir­ing prac­tices with a spe­cific eye to­ward pos­si­ble gen­der

dis­crim­i­na­tion. At the same time that movie stu­dios are com­ing un­der f ire for their fail­ure to hire women, women are work­ing in greater num­bers in in­de­pen­dent f ilm. Ear­lier this month, the Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val sched­uled a slate with 40% of its films di­rected by women. Dur­ing the fes­ti­val, The Times in­vited five of those di­rec­tors and the head of the fes­ti­val, Stephanie Al­lain, to our news­room to dis­cuss the broad is­sue. They are Zoe Cas­savetes, whose “Day Out of Days” is a sadly comic chron­i­cle of the hu­mil­i­a­tions of be­ing an ac­tress; Marya Cohn, whose “The Girl in the Book” is a drama about a young as­sis­tant book editor forced to pro­mote a male au­thor with whom she has a dis­turb­ing per­sonal history; Daphne McWil­liams, whose doc­u­men­tary “In a Per­fect World” con­fronts the chal­lenges of boys raised by sin­gle moms; Re­nee Ta­jima-Peña, whose doc­u­men­tary “No Más Be­bés” tells the story of the forced ster­il­iza­tion of Mex­i­can im­mi­grant moth­ers at a Los An­ge­les hos­pi­tal dur­ing the 1970s; and Delila Val­lot, whose doc­u­men­tary “Can You Dig This” pro­files ur­ban gar­den­ers in South Los An­ge­les. (The in­ter­views were con­ducted in­di­vid­u­ally and have been edited for clar­ity.)

What do you think when you hear that less than 5% of stu­dio movies last year were di­rected by women?

Delila Val­lot: Maybe we need to learn to play golf? I don’t re­ally fully get it. I know we used to be in cin­ema dur­ing the silent era. Did you know that? Tons of fe­male di­rec­tors. I guess once guys fig­ured out it could be mon­e­tized they were like, move over … and we never quite came back from that.

Re­nee Ta­jima-Peña: I’m not sur­prised at all. I think it’s a mat­ter of catch­ing up with the mar­ket­place. When I started in film, we were al­ways ar­gu­ing, “Look, we can do this. We should have a place at the ta­ble.” Now that’s no longer the ar­gu­ment. It’s more like, “You wanna reach the mar­ket? This is the mar­ket.”

Stephanie Al­lain: I think, “Where can I see the movies that are be­ing made by women? I know they’re out there.” I also think it’s grossly un­fair.

Daphne McWil­liams: I’m not sur­prised.... Women seem to be more be­hind the scenes, in pro­duc­ing. I don’t know how the stu­dios op­er­ate, but it seems like it’s re­ally close-knit. For my­self, I just de­cided I’m go­ing to make my own film…. I wasn’t plan­ning on wait­ing for some­one to give me the op­por­tu­nity. I kept see­ing that my hard work be­hind the cam­era was not go­ing to evolve into

some­thing else. I think it’s just putting your­self out there. It’s a big risk, but I just think women have to de­mand it and lean for­ward. Lean in and do it, just take it.

How would your movie be dif­fer­ent if it were di­rected by a man?

Zoe Cas­savetes: I was think­ing, “If you didn’t say this was di­rected by a woman, would you know?” There was some­thing very per­sonal about the ap­proach as a woman. Maybe it could be a great movie for men to watch and see, “Dang, that hap­pens to women?” It just shifts the per­cep­tion a lit­tle bit.

Be­ing women of a cer­tain age, there’s a sen­si­tiv­ity to­ward how a cam­era gets set up, how light­ing gets set up. Men don’t un­der­stand those is­sues be­cause they just get hot and rugged and we just have loose necks and gray hair. There’s a cer­tain sen­si­tiv­ity for a woman to look at another woman and say, “This is how I’m go­ing to frame you, this is how I’m go­ing to light you and take care of you.”

Val­lot: I’m not sure the movie would have been dif­fer­ent if it was di­rected by a man. I might say, though, that there were times I was afraid to go to cer­tain ar­eas at night with an ex­pen­sive piece of equip­ment, where if a guy was di­rect­ing they would per­haps not have felt that fear.

Marya Cohn: [My movie] is a per­sonal story and very spe­cific to a woman’s ex­pe­ri­ence. I don’t know that if you haven’t lived in a woman’s shoes — and ap­par­ently only high heels count — then I’m not sure you can re­ally tell those sto­ries in the same way. It’s re­ally a story about a woman com­ing into her own and sex­ual power and vi­o­lence in our so­ci­ety, which men are on the other side of.

Ta­jima-Peña: Most of the peo­ple [work­ing on] my film are moms. They un­der­stood the idea of be­ing de­nied the ba­sic right to have a child. The peo­ple in the crew made the moth­ers feel very com­fort­able. The moth­ers had to talk about things that are very pri­vate. They’re from a gen­er­a­tion … when you just didn’t talk about these pri­vate mat­ters.

I was told while we were in pro­duc­tion that some men who were able to green­light a doc­u­men­tary about this said, “Well, who cares? It hap­pened a while ago, it’s not that im­por­tant any­more.” But when I first heard the story … I was just floored. I’d been through preg­nancy … I grew up with Roe v. Wade, but I never as­sumed bear­ing a child would be de­nied me.

What’s the stu­pid­est rea­son you’ve ever heard for why women can’t di­rect?

Val­lot: That we’re not am­bi­tious, that there aren’t enough fe­male di­rec­tors, that our con­tent isn’t some­thing the larger au­di­ence will re­spond to. That doesn’t make any sense. Fifty per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is fe­male. … We do show up to the the­aters, and a lot of the times we make the house­hold de­ci­sions of what the fam­ily’s go­ing to see.

Cohn: It’s partly about be­ing the leader, be­ing the fa­ther, be­ing the per­son in con­trol, and partly it’s about trust­ing women with money and peo­ple don’t want to do that and film costs a lot of money.

Although there are a lot of women di­rect­ing in­de­pen­dent f ilms like yours, women are far rarer in big-bud­get stu­dio f ilms. What would you do with $200 mil­lion?

Cohn: The Melissa McCarthy movies where you take a James Bond-type char­ac­ter and make it a mid­dle-aged woman — that I can to­tally re­late to. So to do some­thing like that, to do a movie where you sub­vert tra­di­tional things. Do I want to make a stan­dard vi­o­lent ac­tion movie? No. But I think there are woman that do.

So this is ter­ri­ble, but I think if you gave me $200 mil­lion I might di­vide it up and give it to some other women who make a few more per­sonal sto­ries that go out and start a con­ver­sa­tion, change the con­ver­sa­tion, rather than make a movie that al­ready ex­ists.

Cas­savetes: I don’t even know what that means. Two hun­dred mil­lion seems like an aw­ful lot. I’d prob­a­bly make a movie about some­thing that hap­pened all around the world, to be able to travel and get im­mersed in dif­fer­ent so­ci­eties and cul­tures. Two hun­dred mil­lion should equal epic.

Ta­jima-Peña: I’d give it to 200 film­mak­ers. I haven’t seen a big-bud­get movie I’ve liked in a long time. I love movies like “Blade Run­ner” and mob movies. I think I would use that form to politi­cize some­thing.

Al­lain: I’d prob­a­bly split it up into $5 mil­lion each. ... Why spend $200 mil on one movie?

This is what all the women I ask say.

Al­lain: We’re so prac­ti­cal. Stephanie, 40% of movies at your fes­ti­val were di­rected by women. How did you do that?

The first thing is, you have to say that’s what you’re look­ing for. Di­ver­sity doesn’t just hap­pen. It has to be mined start­ing from the first set of eyes on the film.

Your two pro­gram­mers are women, you’re a woman ...

What you see, what’s in­ter­est­ing, what strikes you, is par­tially built from your ex­pe­ri­ence of who you are, how you are raised and what’s been valu­able to you. So I don’t be­lieve a group of ex­clu­sively male pro­gram­mers could have pro­grammed this fes­ti­val.

What three words come to mind when you hear the phrase “woman di­rec­tor”?

Val­lot: Am­bi­tious, in­stinc­tive, vis­ual

Cas­savetes: Cool, smart, de­ter­mined Al­lain: Very well pre­pared, will­ing to lis­ten, and in my ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause I have pro­duced women di­rec­tors, fo­cused on get­ting the job done and then get­ting home to their kids.

Ta­jima-Peña: Badass, brave, the fu­ture

‘I’d prob­a­bly split it up into $5 mil­lion each.... Why spend $200 mil on one movie?’ — STEPHANIE AL­LAIN, Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val di­rec­tor on what she’d do with a $200-mil­lion film bud­get



Pho­tog raphs by Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times





Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

RE­NEE TA­JIMA-PEÑA says many of the peo­ple who worked on the doc­u­men­tary “No Más Be­bés,” about forced ster­il­iza­tions, are moms.

Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

Denise Mil­ford Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val

ZOE CAS­SAVETES’ fea­ture film “Day Out of Days” fol­lows an ac­tress (Alexia Lan­deau) hav­ing to con­tend with ever-younger com­pe­ti­tion.

Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val

Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

DELILA VAL­LOT, who chron­i­cles the gar­den­ers of South L.A. in “Can You Dig This,” says it’s of­ten women mak­ing the fam­ily de­ci­sion of what to go see.

Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

MARYA COHN says her film, “The Girl in the Book,” is “about a woman com­ing into her own and sex­ual power and vi­o­lence in our so­ci­ety.”

Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val

DAPHNE McWIL­LIAMS, whose doc­u­men­tary “In a Per­fect World” looks at sin­gle moms rais­ing boys, says she couldn’t wait on oth­ers to give her a chance.

Delirio Films / Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val

Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val

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