Tell Me More: Breaking Up the Hollywood Boys Club
Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.
Blockbusters like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman show the power that female filmmakers can have in Hollywood today. But what are the continuing challenges they face? In her new documentary Half the Picture, filmmaker Amy Adrion gathers insights from numerous successful female directors on their career paths, struggles, and hopes for the future. In this episode, recorded when she was visiting Tufts, Adrion takes a hard look at those continuing challenges, and puts a spotlight on the wins by some of the women making films today.
HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day. Blockbusters like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman show the power that female filmmakers can have in Hollywood today. But what are the continuing challenges they face? In her new documentary Half the Picture, filmmaker Amy Adrion gathers insights from numerous successful female directors on their career paths, struggles, and hopes for the future.
In this episode of Tell Me More, Adrion spends time with Tufts University’s Julie Flaherty to take a hard look at those continuing challenges, and to put a spotlight on the wins by some of the women making films today. Let’s listen in.
JULIE FLAHERTY: Filmmaker Amy Adrion, welcome to Tufts, and thank you for speaking with us today.
AMY ADRION: I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
FLAHERTY: Now, I knew that women directors were uncommon in Hollywood, but when Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for Best Director in 2008 for The Hurt Locker, I figured things were looking up. I didn’t know how bad things were until I watched your film [Adrion’s documentary, Half the Picture]. In the last eleven years, women have directed only four percent of movies. In fact, the number of women filmmakers has basically stayed the same for the past two decades. I guess the big question is: why is it so hard for women directors to get work in Hollywood?
ADRION: Well that’s—you’re cutting right to the chase, right in the beginning. I mean that’s the question, right? And it is hard for women. Sometimes you hear the idea that it’s a pipeline problem, that the women directors aren’t there. But they really are there, and there are a lot of talented, experienced women directors who are looking to work more in Hollywood, in film and TV. But for many, many reasons, they tend to not get those opportunities. A lot of those reasons are things that we do explore in the film.
I think some of it is just the history of filmmaking and unconscious bias—or becoming more, perhaps, conscious bias. People have an idea in their head of what a film director looks like, what they sound like, how they speak, how they carry themselves. And I think it takes a little bit of mental work to picture different kinds of people in those roles. You look at someone like Dee Rees, the incredible director of Mudbound, African-American, lesbian woman. I think even people who are very progressive, it just takes a minute to be, like, “Oh, wait. That’s the director.” Right, that’s the director. Those just aren’t the images that we’re used to seeing.
I think some of it is that. I think Hollywood is a business of relationships, and if you’ve worked with someone and you admire their work, and they’ve already had these opportunities, it’s easier to give them that next opportunity.
I think there’s some of that. It’s still harder for women to raise money for their films. When women-directed and women-centered films do well at the box office, it is still seen as an anomaly and a strange occurrence and, “Who could’ve predicted?” I mean, you still hear that about RBG or Wonder Woman or whatever.
Further down the line, most powerful people in agencies, studios, distribution companies are men. Film reviewers are largely male—top film reviewers. The top programmers of film festivals are largely men. Throughout the ecosystem, there’s a severe gender imbalance. And all of those places where the gender imbalance is present, those all become challenges and stumbling blocks for women who are hoping to get more work in this business.
FLAHERTY: Let’s talk about a specific argument that some people make. They say that the people who are successful making films are the ones that get hired to make more films. And in your film, you interview Patricia Riggen. She directed the film The 33, which was about the Chilean miners trapped in a cave-in that I think a lot of people saw. She was talking about her first film, called Under the Same Moon. She said it cost less than $2 million to make and it made more than $23 million worldwide—a very successful return. But she said that didn’t generate a single movie offer for her, which I thought was just fascinating. And the thing is, that wasn’t an isolated occurrence. You’ve heard the same story from other women directors. Could you talk a little bit about that and what that means?
ADRION: I think that’s kind of when the conventional wisdom, and these conventional arguments break down. People often say, “Well, Hollywood is a business. People are in this industry to make money. This isn’t a charity. It’s not their job to give opportunities to anyone who wants them.” And that is perfectly understandable. It’s not a charity. These companies have shareholders and they want to make money.
So, I think you do hear this argument sometimes, “Well, if women’s films were successful and if there’s box office, then money talks and those are the people that are going to get those opportunities.” And statistically, that’s just not true, because you have example after example. Whether it’s low-budget filmmaking, indie filmmaking, female directors with their first films hitting a grand slam out of the gate with a box-office critical hit. So, women like Kimberly Peirce who made Boys Don’t Cry and Hilary Swank won an Oscar—that was Kimberly Peirce’s first feature film ever. Or Karyn Kusama with Girlfight. Patty Jenkins with Monster; Charlize Theron won an Academy Award. That was her first film, the director’s first film. And then it took each of those directors nine years, ten years to get their next movie after that.
Or even, at the bigger budget level: Catherine Hardwicke with Twilight. She had a $40 million budget on that film. She launched an enormous, worldwide phenomenon franchise. That film made over $400 million. And she got some opportunities after that film, but nowhere near kind of the size of budgets that her male colleagues who had had those kinds of successes. They would jump up to bigger projects—and she did not get that opportunity.
FLAHERTY: I have a devil’s advocate kind of question. And I think it’s the one that someone in the film actually addressed by saying, “Do we still have to answer this question?” But film directors, both men and women—they make up a pretty small part of the workforce. So why should the average person—the average movie-watcher—care about whether the movies are made by men or women?
ADRION: I think that was a question that was important for us to address in the film, because you do hear that, particularly from lay people who don’t work in the business. You’ll just see messages on message boards or often when there are articles in the New York Times or LA Times or Variety about representation, people will write, “I don’t care if it’s a man or a woman or they’re black, white, or purple—I just want a good movie.” And I think a lot of people kind of share that sentiment. They think, “Well, why does it matter?”
And I posed that question to Ava DuVernay, the filmmaker of Selma and A Wrinkle in Time, in the film, and she kind of gets very exasperated. And some of that exasperation is not even in the film, but I just remember her, when I interviewed her, being like, “Oh, that’s so whack. That’s so whack. Why are you asking me that?” And I think her answer is right. I mean, these are people who don’t understand that a film isn’t born fully formed.
There are people who have ideas, who’ve had life experiences, who cast the film, who direct the film and decide the relationships between the characters in the film, who decide what the film looks like, how people are filmed, how they’re shot, who gets the hero angle, who is on the sidelines, rooting their partner on.
FLAHERTY: One of the scholars in the film, she made a good analogy, that’s it’s not like we’re talking about making toothpaste here or some just consumer good. Movies are culture. They’re big influences on our culture and how we view each other and how we communicate and how the rest of the world views America. So do you want to talk a little bit about that?
ADRION: That’s the big reason why it matters. Movies are such a part of our culture. And we grow up being exposed to these images and these stories and these characters and you really do get a sense of what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, what’s valued, what’s not valued, what heroes should look like—how they should walk and talk and speak—and who the villains are. And so much of what we see in movies and TV, it affects us in our everyday lives as far as how much space we feel like we can take up, what the possibilities are in our own life, because of all of the images we’ve seen throughout our life.
It teaches us a lot, which is why it is particularly important in this industry to have different voices that are heard. I’m one of many women who sat in the theater on opening day and watched Wonder Woman and was crying my eyes out at fight scenes and you’re just—“Why is this affecting me? What is wrong with me?” But just to see these warrior women filmed in that way, with the respect and kind of these hero angles that they got and the positioning of them in that role, I had never, ever, ever seen it—and I am not that young. So, these images have a lot of power.
FLAHERTY: There’s a reason people talk about them as being magic, right?
FLAHERTY: And if the only magicians are men, that means something.
One of the most poignant parts of the film, I thought—your film—is just how many of these directors, these fabulous directors, thought that the reason they were hitting these walls had something to do with them—that maybe they weren’t talented enough or maybe they’d done something wrong. And how did hearing that resonate with you? Maybe you knew that’s what you were going to hear before you went into the interviews, but as a woman and as a filmmaker, how did that resonate with you?
ADRION: I think it’s often so much easier to counsel your friend about something that she’s experiencing that you have also experienced, but you’re like, “Well, you’re being crazy. Of course, you’re so talented and you’re beautiful and you’re this and you’re that. Why are you feeling that way about yourself?” But when you think about you, you’re like, “Oh my God, I should’ve done that, I should’ve done this.” I think it’s human nature.
We can drive ourselves crazy with that kind of self-doubt. And I think something that all of these women speaking up in a very public way over the past few years, whether it’s #MeToo or discrimination against women directors and discrimination in hiring—people sharing their stories has made very clear that it’s not just you. It’s not that you said that was the reason why you don’t have the career you want. There is a systemic problem, and there’s a huge gender imbalance in the industry. All the statistics have proven that there is discrimination in hiring of directors. Women come out of film schools at the same number as men and they have a lot of success with their early films, but they don’t ever get to those higher career levels as men.
FLAHERTY: You mentioned the #MeToo movement, and you started this film in 2015, well before the movement began in 2016. The directors you interviewed do talk about their experiences with sexual harassment, but it’s not the focus of the film. Do you see the #MeToo movement helping spark any of the change that you want to see in filmmaking?
ADRION: I think honesty and authenticity in all of these realms is helpful for all of us. I have so much admiration and respect for so many of these women who came out with stories, publicly, of being humiliated, of being embarrassed, of being put in compromised positions, of, in some cases, being harassed or attacked or raped. How much courage must it have taken, as public people, who do have to have a certain image to get work in this business, to put themselves on the line like that? I feel personally very grateful to each of them because it’s a really hard road.
I think those voices speaking up is—I think it only helps all of us to understand kind of the system we’re working in. And even when I started making this film in 2015, I had a neighbor who I was telling about the film that I was just starting. And he’s a writer in Hollywood. He had written some TV movies and stuff. And he was kind of like, “Really? Women directors in 2015? I mean—twenty years ago, of course, they had sexual discrimination. But you know—is this really an issue, that women are still, is that a problem?” And he’s a guy who works in the business, you know?
I think just that the fact that #MeToo exploded in that way just kind of did some of the heavy lifting for us in our film of just explaining, “Yes, indeed, this is the kind of system that women are trying to work and have careers in.”
You know, that said, I am so grateful for the women who’ve spoken up with #MeToo and I am a little bit concerned that a lot of the attention can kind of get sucked up by these really salacious, lurid stories that need to be heard, but that can be the focus instead of the underlying fact that men just hold immense amounts of power in this industry and women are often approaching very powerful men to get their approval, support, opportunities from them. It is a systemic power imbalance that is the problem. It’s not some bad apples who are just perverted guys. It’s the system. So, I am concerned a little bit that some of the #MeToo stuff just sucks up a lot of the air about these other issues.
FLAHERTY: So, what is going to change it? How is this going to change? The studios have known for a while. They’ve taken some steps with panels or shadowing programs—things like that. What do you see needs to happen?
ADRION: The short answer is they need to hire women. That could be the end of every conversation instead of putting money or research or resources into shadowing or mentoring or diversity initiatives or programs or script contests or whatever. If they just hired more talented, qualified women, we wouldn’t be talking about this anymore. But people are reluctant to do that. They have people who they’ve worked with, who they’re comfortable with, and so they don’t want to be told what to do. But I think the answer is pretty simple.
And you know what? And I’m optimistic. I feel there’s a two-fold thing: I think we need to keep being loud about our advocacy and calling out things that are unfair and asking for more work by women and supporting that work with your dollars at the box office and what you see and what you watch and what you talk about on social media. And I think for people who are in this field, just keep making your work and that’s its own political statement also.
FLAHERTY: Let’s talk about some of the positive. Because the film, even though it’s talking about a lot of the challenges and barriers, it’s also very much a love letter to these directors, whose work you clearly admire. So, what are some of the stories that they told that really inspired you? Was there one particular moment in the film that really stands out as something that inspired you?
ADRION: I don’t know that there was one moment. Just getting to sit down with all of these women and just the fact that they’ve had the kind of difficult roads that they’ve had—and I mean, they’re all still working. And I think one positive thing, that’s not even part of the film, but all of the women in the film—their own personal opportunities have just exploded since making the film, and there are some women who were in the early stages of directing TV. There’s this woman, Tina Mabry, who’s in the film. And she’s been directing so much TV and she’s directing the pilot for this new show, and she’s got a big studio feature going. And for a lot of the women personally in the film, just anecdotally, a lot of great things are happening for them. And that’s as it should be because they’re so good at what they do.
But both in the film and in these little snippets that we have on our social media that we release on Facebook and Twitter, I remember both Ava DuVernay and Jill Soloway, who are incredible creators who I admire tremendously and who are also kind of leaders of movements. I mean, they just are very aware of the big picture, of so much of this, and speak for and about things that are much bigger than just their movies and TV shows they’re creating.
But both of them said, “When I see anyone, any woman, person of color, person with disability, LGBTQ, anyone who’s kind of outside the Hollywood system, when I see them making a web series or short film or documentary or a feature film, you just have to give them so much respect.” And Ava DuVernay just said, “This system wasn’t built for any of those people. It wasn’t built for them to succeed. It wasn’t built for us to succeed. That’s not what the machine is there for.” So, when people are making their own work despite all that, again, it’s a political statement, it’s a political act. And I think that kind of helped me put my work in a bigger context.
FLAHERTY: In your film, you discuss different genres and how women are considered for only certain types of movies. But you have examples of women who are like, “I would love to do a sci-fi film. I would love to do an action film. Give me a superhero film. I’m all over it.” Is there a connection between women directors and the perception of what those movies will be about and who they’ll be for—what the audience is?
ADRION: Yeah, definitely. And I think some of the experts talk about that in our film, that women do face discrimination in genre, certainly. I think the films that women are getting opportunities making now tend to be “women’s stories” that center on women, and women should tell those stories. But Kimberly Peirce in our film talks about making the movie Stop-Loss, which was about the Iraq War, that was based on her brother’s experience as a soldier in the war. And she said the entire time she was in pre-production and making the film, people just kept asking, like, “Well, why do you want to tell this story? Do you think you can?” She was explicitly asked, basically, “Why do you think you can tell this story?” and, “Are you the right person?”
And yet Paul Feig makes Bridesmaids and we all go, “Oh, he’s a great comedy director.” And why should he not be able to make a movie about female friendship and the complexities of female best friends? I think white men tend to be the baseline, and they can do anything, and women do face discrimination.
Jason Blum, who’s the insanely successful producer at Blumhouse who’s done all these horror franchise films, he did the most recent Halloween remake that was phenomenally successful. And an interviewer asked him, “Out of all of your theatrically released horror films, you haven’t had one female director.” And he said, “Well, we tried and I reached out to these two women who were fantastic and they were busy, and so there aren’t that many of them and we couldn’t find one.”
And then, of course, there was a huge social media backlash of “Here are lists. Here’s another 100, here’s another 100. They all have experience making horror.” But I think it’s one further kind of challenge that women face, that they can make certain kinds of films and there is no equivalent on the side of men. Men direct tampon commercials and no one goes, “Who are you to direct a tampon commercial?” But they’ve been doing it and it’s good work and men get those jobs and no one bats an eye.
I would say, also, I think men are just in the beginning stages of learning to put themselves in the positions of female protagonists and doing that kind of mental work of women and people of color and people who are outside the Hollywood system and who traditionally have not been represented as protagonists. We’re used to doing the mental gymnastics to imagine ourselves in the role of Duane “The Rock” Johnson or Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger or whomever is the hero of the story, so that we can identify with them.
I think, for a long time, people assumed that men and boys didn’t want to watch stories about girls and women. But I do think a lot of progress is being made on that front. I tell this story: I remember I was taking a flight back from Ireland a year ago, and on the plane, kind of next to me, was this very big, burly Irish guy. He had a big, red beard, red hair. He looked, I mean, he was a real Irish bluffs, mountain-cliff kind of guy. And he was watching Wonder Woman and he was bawling his eyes out. He was just silently crying. And I remember just looking over and being like, “He gets it, too.” And how wonderful for all of us that we’re being given these opportunities to connect to stories that aren’t our stories. There’s so much to be gained.
FLAHERTY: So, could you tell us one more thing that you want people to know about you, that they don’t know already?
ADRION: That’s so funny. OK, so you guys sent me an email that was, “We’re going to ask you this question.” I’m just going to tell everyone that I was given the heads-up and I still didn’t come up with anything, which is pathetic. I don’t know—I’m a sports lover. I love basketball. I’m working on a script about a high school girls’ basketball team that I’m really excited about. Yeah, I don’t know. What do other people say for that question? They say, “I’m a master at backgammon.” What do they say? You have to give me some examples. I have to listen to the other episodes and find out, maybe.
FLAHERTY: Maybe we’ll just cut this question in the future. It’s causing such stress.
ADRION: Yeah, no. I love it. I love it. I love it.
FLAHERTY: High school basketball team is an awesome answer right there.
FLAHERTY: I think that’s great.
ADRION: Okay, good.
FLAHERTY: So, filmmaker Amy Adrion, I look forward to seeing your next feature, which I hope comes very soon.
ADRION: Me, too.
FLAHERTY: Thank you very much for speaking with us today.
ADRION: Thank you so much. It was a lot of fun.
HOST: Thanks for listening to Tell Me More. Be sure to subscribe to listen to more episodes of the podcast, and please take a minute to rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, and Dave Nuscher. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Production support provided by 5 to 9 Media. Special thanks to Tufts Women in Filmmaking. Our songs are sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well!
Amy Adrion’s visit to Tufts was presented by Tufts Women in Filmmaking, with support of the Tufts Diversity Fund. The visit was co-sponsored by Film and Media Studies; the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies; the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies; Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development; the Department of Sociology; the Tisch College of Civic Life; Fletcher Gender Initiative; Tufts Women in Filmmaking Group; Five Sisters Productions; and Tisch Library.