Breaking Into the Boys’ Club : A Unique Program Is Giving 20 Young Women a Shot at Filmmaking


Twenty women, age 18-23, were all desperately seeking to break into filmmaking. So they took out a full-page ad in the May 13 issue of Entertainment Weekly that read: “Please, please, please, please, please, can we have some money to finish our film? Before you say no, picture this: Twenty ethnically diverse young women with vision, passion, and absolutely no money.”

Sponsors such as Kodak, Panavision and Skywalker Sound responded with equipment loans, while some last-minute funding came from the benefit premiere of Allison Anders’ “Mi Vida Loca,” giving these young women the chance to complete “Copper Women,” a 35-millimeter short they hope to show at January’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Just two months after the ad ran (donated by the magazine), they were on location with a $25,000 budget and a nine-day shooting schedule.


A visit to the set is almost jarring, a flurry of female activity rare in Hollywood, or anywhere else for that matter. As director Guillermina (Gisha) Zabala, 23, struggles to bring in her film on time, she and Salwa Raphael, 19, the screenwriter, sit huddled in intense script consultation. Angel Singleton, 21, and Liz Brown, 22, put down duct tape on the kitchen floor to help the actors find their marks, while assistant director Heather Grierson, 22, speaks into her headset, coordinating the search for more film stock. Grierson’s parents look on, relatively calm considering it’s their Van Nuys home the film crew is draping in tarp and littering with heavy equipment.


The cast includes 10 professional actors with speaking parts, but the camera crew is semi-pro, while the rest have never worked on anything as ambitious as a short feature. Virtually none of them, in fact, have ever shot a 35-millimeter film. Aside from working with more complex and sensitive equipment, the crew was also asked to handle a lot of location shooting--from Van Nuys to Venice Beach--learning firsthand the nightmares wreaked by capricious weather. But after shooting for a week, the initial bewilderment and frustration has melted away, and confidence has emerged in its place.

“It’s funny,” Zabala says in Venice, after finally wrapping a shot that the wind ruined about a half dozen times. “You have to make all the decisions in the beginning. I felt really responsible if stuff went wrong, if we ran out of film stock or whatever. Then I realized that there were certain things I couldn’t control and that everybody is learning--I’m learning too!”

The film crew members weren’t the only ones learning as they went along, for this is the first film produced under the aegis of Independent Feature Project/West (IFP/West), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the support and promotion of independent film. IFP/West set up its own in-house production company, Project: Involve Productions, specifically to offer this hands-on filmmaking experience to women who were “representative of the cultural diversity in Los Angeles.”

“It was originally intended as a 10-minute video,” says Shainee Gabel, herself only 25, who as director of programming at IFP/West, engineered the project from genesis to production, “and this is where we ended up.”



Raphael’s script, based on a Native American myth, follows a young woman after a nearly fatal car crash. Upon returning from the hospital, the young woman sees her family as cold and distant. Realizing that she needs something more, she runs away and finds a spiritual connection with a jewelry maker in Venice Beach, who has recently lost her own daughter.

But there was more to the program than just producing a film.

“The whole point was to not only open up the film world and see all of its possibilities, but to offer these women an entree they might not otherwise have gotten,” says Gabel, who acted as producer of “Copper Women.”


After getting the go-ahead from IFP/West, Gabel initially received help from the James Irvine Foundation, and she started posting flyers at local high schools and colleges with media arts programs. Within a few months, she had received about 100 applications. She sorted through them for women who, as she puts it, had a “predilection for and a commitment to film, who had participated in some sort of media arts already.”

Gabel ended up interviewing about 50 women for 20 spots, eventually matching these 20 with a mentor from a film profession of their choice. “IFP had developed all these great relationships with people in town,” Gabel explains, “and we hadn’t used any of them to make a film.”

Writer-directors such as Anders and Quentin Tarantino agreed to be followed around on the job, as did other film veterans, including production managers, production designers and script supervisors, all providing experience that couldn’t be learned inside a classroom.

The six months of filmmaking boot camp also included workshops on everything from gaffing and post-production sound to obtaining music rights.


But it was the mentoring program that provided some of the women with the most benefits. “I’ve gotten so much further in a couple of months than I would have even in five years, in terms of the people I know now--and the things I know--that I didn’t know before,” says aspiring producer Sherri Smith, 22, who worked at Sony Pictures with her mentor, Stephanie Allain, the company’s senior vice president of production.

Smith got to see everything Allain did, even visiting the set of John Singleton’s latest project, “Higher Learning,” and watching the dailies of films currently in production.

And for Allain, who is currently the highest-ranking African American female executive at a major studio, the venture came virtually risk-free. “It’s not that much of a time commitment,” she says, “and you have someone helping you who’s really smart.” It also helped her usher some women into a world she characterizes as “still a boys’ club.”

Regarding the mentoring, editor-director Anne Goursaud, who edited “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and worked with Zabala, says, “It’s like being a friend, but a professional one, one she can ask questions of.”


Goursaud wishes she’d had something like Project: Involve during her start in the business 20 years ago. “I felt very isolated,” she recalls. “There weren’t very many opportunities, and there weren’t as many women out there trying to nourish us. It’s so important . . . you do need support, you need other women.”

Gabel hopes that one day this first crop of filmmakers will recall the boost it got and return to Project: Involve as mentors. But more urgently, she hopes to lure more funding for next year, because without sponsors, “Copper Women” may be the program’s final film.

“I think if we could do it again it would be a lot more rewarding, the process would be smoother, and we would be able to reach out further,” Gabel says. “In a short amount of time, we’ve earned a lot of respect within the industry, and if we could keep it going, it could be a point of reference for young women interested in filmmaking. It could give them something to look forward to.”