This is the full, unedited transcript of the Los Angeles Times Women Directors' Roundtable at the Sundance Film Festival as moderated by staff writer John Horn.
John Horn : Well, congratulations for all being here, but I'm gonna start with a study that you may have seen that was published yesterday or two days ago. Here's what the study found. Just under 24 percent of all U.S. movies programmed for the Sundance Film Festival between 2002 and 2012 were directed by women. Women were much more likely to direct documentaries than narrative films. Thirty-four percent of U.S. documentaries shown at the festival last decade had female directors, while only 16.9 percent of U.S. narrative films did. And if you look closer at the data, in terms of submissions, in terms of narrative submissions, every woman who submits a film, there's six films submitted by a man. Every woman who submits a documentary, there's three documentaries submitted by a man. So it's not just the festival, in terms of what it's choosing and showing its bias. Women aren't making nearly as many movies as men are. And I'm curious if any of you have any ideas why that might be.
Liz Garcia: Yes.
Liz, go ahead.
Garcia: Well, I think that there is just a deep and abiding sexism that's part of your life from the moment that you're conscious as a female. And you are afraid to step into the idea that you could be an authority figure, that you could be a boss, that you have a vision that other people should listen to you on a set, for instance. And I think that you therefore don't allow yourself access to the dream of being a director. It took me a long time. Much longer than I was actually conscious of wanting to be a director.
Naomi Foner: Not as long as me.
Naomi, it's been how long?
Foner: Oh, I would say 30 years.
Now, has that been because you have tried and failed? I mean, do you think there's ...?
Foner:No. It was because I thought I needed to know more than I actually needed to know. Because I thought I needed to know what lens to tell the DP [director of photography] to put on. And I thought that there was a level of skill required that actually isn't required. What you need to have is a vision. And so I think we edit ourselves out of it. You know, we definitely decide something—it's fear. It's just as simple as that. And I think it's—
Hannah Fidell:But that's universal. I don't think that's specifically gender.
Foner: But the gender part of it I think comes along with the things you lose when you do it. The culture doesn't tell you out loud, but actually it does seem to go along with taking that kind of power. I mean, I thought for a long time about somebody like Willa Cather, who was a gay writer in the 1880s. I don't think she actually was gay. I think she was defined out of being a woman by a world of men because she was trying to do things that men do, and that's what was left to her. And, you know, that's something that may not actually be true. But in my mind, I think that you give up a lot. Unless you fight for it. And having kids is a full-time job. And I don't know any woman who isn't constantly fighting between the exquisite selfishness required to be an artist and this exquisite selflessness that's required to be a parent. Every minute when you have a child—
Are you guys parents? Hannah, do you have kids?
Fidell: No, I don't.
So, you were about to say something else. That it's true in every occupation? Is that what you mean, or in terms of barriers to entry?
Fidell: Barriers to entry, that fear that you're talking about, of knowing what lens to tell the DP, I think that is not specific to any gender.
Foner: I think the barrier to entry isn't made by someone else. We make it ourselves.
Foner: And that feels to me like a big difference between what happens between men and what we do. I think we censor ourselves....
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Men are also socialized to be more bold.
Cherien Dabis: So even if they don't know, they're willing to kind of take that risk, whereas women are socialized to sort of be the opposite. So we're gonna be less likely to take that. But the other thing I was gonna add was that, you know, I think that once we do make the decision to do that or once we do realize that we can achieve that, I think the next barrier is financing. Because I don't think that women are entrusted with the same kind of money and budgets that men are. That's where I feel like I've seen the most sort of um ...
Foner: Well, I've been a screenwriter. A fairly successful screenwriter with an Academy Award nomination, for years. And there are certain things no one will ask me to write.
Which is a slightly different question than what you're saying about money. Because they assume there's only one kind of movie you can make, or write? Is that what you're saying?
Foner: They're movies that are nurturing movies. They're not gonna ask me to make "Blade Runner." I can fight to make "Blade Runner." Because in order to write, all I need is a laptop. I can do it and give it to them. I can't do that with a movie. With a movie I have to have them first before I can do it.
Let me go back to this idea of financing. That men are gonna be more entrusted with just running the money. They're gonna hand over the money to men more easily than they're gonna hand it to women, which is a separate but related conversation to what we're talking about.
Cowperthwaite: I think that's true. But to kind of back up a little bit, but sort of stay even on that sort of producer subject, I did find—at least in documentary, which is the only thing I'm really very familiar with—that women are very easily relegated into a producer role. And I think it's because we are—as men are sort of encouraged to be bold—encouraged to be collaborators. And sort of make the deal. When the male director is sitting next to us with the dark glasses. And he gets to be that. Incredibly creative, very untouchable, and an artiste. And we're just—
Cowperthwaite: —spilling over ourselves to try to get the deal for him. You know? Try to make things work. And I think with directing, oftentimes it's not necessarily all that democratic. It's not all that collaborative. When you are trying to get a shot, you can't be pleasing everybody. You know? And it's very sort of odd 'cause I tend to be sort of collaborative and a bit of a pleaser. And when I'm directing, people just sort of call me Black Hat Gabriela. 'Cause suddenly they're like, "What happened to you?" Because I stop listening. I sort of have to. There's all these men telling me things, because they know I'm receptive as a person to things like that. Once I start directing, I sort of have to turn them off. And I feel strident. I feel rude. And I feel un-collaborative. And, you know, after the shoot I'm like, "Who was that?" You know? Like, "Am I really allowed to be that way? Is that okay? Am I a 'B'?" You know?
You raise a really interesting question, which is, do you have to become somebody you're not ordinarily to get the job? In other words, you have to take on behaviors, airs, characteristics, because just being who you are wouldn't be good enough. You think so, Hannah?
Fidell: I don't.
Fidell: I feel that, at least in my process, the way that I work is so collaborative. And I want people around to give me their input.
Foner: That's okay, as long as you have the final say.
Fidell: Oh, sure, of course.
Foner: And you can do that in independent film.
Naomi:You can't do that in Hollywood. There's always somebody who's gonna say no to you. And so if you really need something, you have to learn to do the dance the way they do it, which does require you to not be yourself. 'Cause they're not touchy-feely on the other side, at all. And that's a big difference between doing an indie film and doing a Hollywood film.
Well, you can probably speak more about Hollywood. There's a couple of women who run studios. DreamWorks and Sony are run by women. Hollywood likes to think of itself as a very progressive town. Very liberal. Very open-minded. But I think what you're suggesting is, you know, the actions don't necessarily back up the words?
Foner: Well, I think everything about being a woman in our culture these days has an insidious underbelly. I think legally we have all kinds of things that we're entitled for. I think, as I said before, we end up censoring ourselves. Because we know there are social consequences. And the social consequences are not—you know, nobody's gonna come in and arrest you. But you have to deal with what the results of the social consequences are. I can't tell you how many times I have heard women described as "tough" or "bitches" for doing what I know every single man doing the same job does.
Right. A man is determined or single-minded. A woman is a bitch, right? Even if they're doing exactly the same thing.
Dabis: Yeah. I've come to embrace that.
You have? "If that's the way it is, I'm gonna do that."
Dabis: I'm proud to be a bitch. You know, you're a strong woman. I can't even remember what movie that was in, but, "Sometimes all a woman has to hold on to is being a bitch." Do you remember that?
That's a good line. I guess.
Dabis: I didn't make it up. It's from a film.
But what do you mean by that? That you, rather than worry about how you're gonna be judged or what people are gonna call you, it's like, "If that's what I have to do or that's who I am, I'm gonna do it"?
Dabis: Yeah. I do think that we need to kind of fight the way that we're socialized to be and really find ourselves. Because that's not who we are either. You know? I find that I actually have a lot of masculine characteristics as a woman. And I actually really like that. So, you know, but I've also found a way not to be defensive about things that arise. And to be collaborative until a certain point. And then to say, "Thank you very much for your input. I've decided that this is what I want to do." But at first what happens is that we're so insecure about doing that, that we become defensive. So it just takes a little bit longer for us to find our way.
Garcia: It's true.
Foner: Well, you know, you're a different generation than I am. I'm older than you are. So I'm really glad to hear that this is so. Because in my generation, I think we're still struggling with, "Are we likable as we do this?" And what is likable? The biggest barrier in my mind is that you are redefined as not a woman when you take on these characteristics, because women are only one way.
Fidell: Or that if your vision or the way you present is particularly feminine, that the story you have to tell isn't valid, it isn't universal, it isn't worth a lot of money. You know, and that you should therefore go the other way. Should you present as more masculine, when you're not, to be taken seriously? Because essentially in our culture, to be masculine is to be powerful. Right. Worthy of trust.
Dabis: I totally understand what you're saying, too, though. That's definitely something that I think we fight, as women. I mean, I sort of intellectually have this idea, but then I will find myself wondering the same sort of thing. But I guess part of it is just being aware of that, you know?
Foner: But, you know, in practicality—I just did my first feature. I didn't have final cut. So I was constantly putting myself in a situation where I was trying to do—in the movie—a female point of view that the man I was working with didn't understand. And found it difficult. And he had the right to change. And did, in some cases, change.
Meaning they injected a point of view that wasn't necessarily yours, and also wasn't necessarily female?
Well, that leads very nicely to my next question. Which is, if audiences went into your films and didn't know who directed them—blank name, no credits—should they be able to detect that it was directed by a woman? And is that important? And do you wish it was neutral? Do you wish an audience would actually say, "It feels to me that this film was directed by a woman"? Who wants to tackle that question?
Cowperthwaite: It's funny. Everybody thinks that my documentaries, or at least my recent one, is a man. In its pacing. In its subject matter. It's "Blackfish." It's the killer whale that killed the Shamu trainer. And I think people come into it, if they know there's a woman director, they think it's gonna be sort of Enya, with just whale sounds.
Cowperthwaite: That's exactly right. And I knew that wasn't the film I was gonna make. I know there are films like that out there. But I knew that I wanted the pacing to be adrenaline-rushed and very hard-hitting. You know, and whether I think it's important that it felt like it was a man, I'm not sure that that's that important to me. But it is interesting that I sort of, you know, end up almost taking—I don't know if that's subconscious or not, but I'm making these choices in my films that are deliberately not necessarily always, you know, sweet or, you know, forthcoming or gentle.
Foner: I don't think "sweet" is necessarily female. But I do think that women haven't had their perspective presented. So what I set out to do in my movie, which is a coming-of-age story, is to fill an empty space that I looked for when I was young, where I was identifying with men in movies. 'Cause except for Katharine Hepburn, I couldn't find anybody who I wanted to be.
Those movies didn't exist.
Foner: They didn't exist. And the movie I just made, I was very anxious to show what it felt like to be a young woman just discovering your sexuality. 'Cause we see all these movies from a man's point of view about that. And I had a lot of men between me and my end product. I hope some of it's still there. But in some ways some of them were offended by the perspective of what it's like from a woman's point of view.
In terms of the sexuality? In terms of gratification? In terms of what?
Foner: Well, just in terms of what the experience is.
They're uncomfortable or offended? Or both?
Foner: You know, I think they have this idea that girls in love with some guy are going, "Oh, oh, oh." You know, and there was a very sophisticated, kind of cool presentation of what it felt like for a smart girl to be stuck in the dilemma of what she was gonna do about this relationship with a guy. And, you know, when you show it to women, they respond with, "Oh, I get that." And when you show it to men they go, "She's really cold." And it's very interesting to me, because it never occurred to me that that was even something that existed. And the lack of sympathy for it is a lack of awareness. And I think, as in any other, not knowing who the other is, really, is a missing piece. And so what I went out to do is try to supply the missing piece, both for the people who have never seen themselves portrayed on screen and for people who have never seen what it's like to be inside that other. And, you know, I remember, you know, I started my career on "Sesame Street." The very beginning of "Sesame Street." The first year we did a test, in which we asked a bunch of 4-year-old black kids whether they would like to have one of two dolls. One was black and one was white. And the black children chose the white doll. After the show had been on the air for a year, they chose the black doll. Because just because they had seen themselves on this magic box, they had been validated in some way. And I think that there's a role for women directors to put ourselves—not exclusively, 'cause I might like to do a cowboy movie next. But there's something about just seeing yourself up there that validates your existence.
Garcia:I couldn't agree more.
In terms of "The Lifeguard," what would you say about...?
Garcia: Well, I mean, I agree with everything you're saying. First of all, I know very well the experience of getting the opportunity to direct and put your female story out there, and then the filter between you and the product are your male producers and your male financiers.
Foner: You got it.
Garcia: My film really deals with explicit female sexuality. I mean, there's cunnilingus in the movie. I think that tells you right there that this is a woman making the movie. And I'm really proud of that. But there were moments where we didn't see things the same way, and I was really concerned, particularly with the trajectory of the romance. I was looking for a slow burn, and they weren't. And I did read that along gender lines. I think it did have something to do with that. The issue of foreplay. Ultimately, I got what I wanted. But it made me realize, you know, this is just the first step. Being able to direct is the first step. But then, after that, you need final and you need female financiers, or at least financiers who aren't so steeped in corporate culture that they don't recognize the validity of a powerful woman or her voice. And I also want to say it is of critical importance to me that people sense, when they're watching "The Lifeguard," that this is a female voice. I don't think it's a traditional female voice. But as a young person, when I had the rare opportunity to watch a film that felt like there were women involved behind the scenes, it meant everything to me. Not just the roles, but—
Just in terms of the way you read the film?
Garcia:Well, I was a creative person. I wanted to be a writer. And I'm sort of love in with storytelling. I mean, your career has meant a lot to me, as a screenwriter. To know there are people out there who have a family, who have kids, and who are writing. I mean, "Bee Season" was a big deal for me, to read that. Because that's female, but it's not a romantic comedy, which is novel.
Cherien, what about your film? Do you think people should look at that and recognize that as being directed by a woman? And is that important to you, in terms of how you approached the material?
Dabis: No, I mean, I think that it's probably pretty obvious that it was directed by a woman. And, you know, I'm pretty proud of that. But it's not necessarily important to me. I mean, my films are cross-cultural. And they deal with not just women, but women of color. So that's sort of another layer that I'm sort of dealing with.
Why do you think it's obvious that your film is directed by a woman?
Dabis: Because my films always have very, very strong women. And mostly female-centered. This film in particular is a mother and her three daughters, and they're all very strong. And they're not women that you typically see on screen, I think. So, yeah, what's more important to me is that people think the movie is authentic. You know, authenticity is always one of my main concerns. So I feel like, if anything, they'll know that this is probably a Middle Eastern person who made this movie. Probably a Middle Eastern woman. Is what I would gather from people watching the film. I always find it so interesting when people—you know, just asking the question, "What does it feel like to be a female director?" I got that question recently and I was sort of like, "It feels great. I don't know what it would feel like to be anything other than that, so I like it."
Gabriela, what about with your film?
Cowperthwaite: It was important to me?
Yeah. I mean, I know you talked about what people might expect because it's directed by a woman. But in terms of what you bring to it as a director, do you think it would be any different if it were made by a man?
Cowperthwaite: Yes, I do.
Cowperthwaite: I think there are choices, in this film in particular, that I sort of had before me. And some of those choices are how graphic to show. You know, what kind of graphic footage can you show in this? There's maulings. There's a killing. And there's also autopsy reports that, you know, give you chills. And I was very—I don't know that this is particularly female; I think it is, probably—but I was incredibly sort of ethically sort of conscious about the fact that I was dealing with the death of people whose family have not yet healed. And, you know, them participating in the movie is the opposite of them healing. Them reading their daughter's autopsy reports, especially specific things in the autopsy reports about how long it took for her to die, I mean, these were decisions I have to live with for the rest of my life. And they would keep me up at night if I knew that family had to watch that. So I made the decision to take those out. If that's a worse movie or a less impactful adrenaline rush movie as a result, I'm willing to live with that. So in a way I feel like there's an empathy there maybe that we carry that's pretty powerful.
Hannah, what about your film?
Fidell: Well, I think our films have a somewhat similar premise, in that it's about an older woman, younger boy. A student, in my case. And I think that as a woman, I'm able to perhaps explore more of the negative sides of being a woman, in a way that men can't without being called misogynist, perhaps. And so as a woman, I'm given more of a free rein and full control over—you know, I don't have that kind of politically correct understanding of my film that I need to have out there that, "This is a woman. She's doing good," for instance.
Garcia: So you're saying that you were free to sort of create maybe an unlikable female character.
Fidell: Yes, exactly.
Garcia: That's so interesting. That's very modern.
Fidell: And I know my next film is also an unlikable female character.
Do you think you have more latitude to do that?
Okay. Latitude not just in the kind of macro sense, but in the micro sense, especially with your actors?
Fidell:What do you mean, exactly?
Is it a different conversation with an actor about how that character is gonna play that you can have as a woman that would be uncomfortable or maybe off-putting for an actor if a man was giving that woman the same direction?
Fidell: Oh, I don't think a guy director would be able to even understand. Perhaps.
Foner: There I might disagree with you.
Foner: I think there are guys who have the—you know, I'd say Richard LaGravenese is an honorary woman.
Dabis: Rodrigo Garcia writes amazing women.
Foner: Yeah, exactly. And I think there are—
Michael Bay, I'd put in there.
Foner: You know, I think these things are—to make them black and white is really—they're human beings who have the ability to do... But I understand what you're saying. Because I think a white director who's done a movie about black culture and has not really—is gonna be raked over the coals in a different way...
Fidell: Well, but we experience life differently. So I think that at the end of the day—at least this is my understanding—a male director doesn't come to situations the same way that a female director would.
Foner: See, unfortunately, that justifies their telling me I can't write "Blade Runner." Because it's saying, "You know, you don't know what it's like to be inside. You couldn't possibly pick that macho stuff up and be able to—"
Fidell: Well, okay. We can agree to disagree.
Dabis: Well, it just to me feels so much more nuanced and specific. Because it's like, we all come to experiences with something different. It's not gender-based. It's based on so many other things. And I tend to look at other things—rather than see gender as just sort of this black and white, there's so many shades of who we are in between in there. And I'd like to think of us all as having feminine and masculine traits that we hopefully have in some sort of balance. Unfortunately a lot of people don't. They're either super masculine or super feminine. But a lot of people do kind of nurture the other side and find that really interesting. And I actually find that in the filmmaking world, I do see that maybe more than in other places.
Fidell: I mean, at the same time, what my film is dealing with is obsession. And I think I just read in The New York Times a study where women keep overthinking. And that leads to depression.
Foner: Written by a man or a woman?
The study or the news story?
Foner: The study.
Fidell: But it's that overthinking that is so typically… Something that I know I experience, for sure. I'm sure men experience that as well. But I honestly believe that we are able to tell a different story. And why not use that to tell that kind of story?
Garcia:It's so complicated. Because we want to say our point of view is specific and it's valid, and we also want to say, "We don't have one point of view."
It's also universal. It's non-exclusionary.
Garcia: Yeah. It's universal. You know, and a lot of the discussions I've been having about this, and it's coming up here, which I think is so interesting, this idea that, you know, we're talking about sort of masculine traits or sort of being, like, powerful and owning the kind of masculine part of yourself. 'Cause I think an aspect of working in this business and living in this world as a woman is that you are at war with what is feminine about you. And the highest compliment that I got from someone watching me direct was like, "You're so feminine, and that helps everyone. Because you don't get sort of angry or territorial easily." My guys would sort of go at each other and have problems. And it would sort of come down to a lot of territory bs.
Dabis: Did you find yourself moderating or trying to make them feel better?
Garcia:I wouldn't moderate. I would just let them sort of exhaust themselves and then I would be like, "Here's the thing."
Foner: Somebody asked me and I said the biggest training I had towards being a director was being a mother.
Dabis: That's really funny. It's really true.
Garcia: That's really true. You have to be able to sort of treat everyone—I mean, it sounds weird to say "like they are a child," but let's just say like you are the parent. Compassion and strength and boundaries.
I was reminded by something you said the other day, Liz, but also what happened at the CAA party the other night. Did you guys read about this? Where CAA brought in female strippers with dildos to perform? With strap-ons.
Foner: I was there.
You were there?
Foner: I mean, I was there when the pole dancing was going on.
Were you offended by that?
Foner: Deeply. I said to my agent, "Is this how you want to brand yourself? Pole dancers? Really?" I didn't know what that was about.
Fidell: And they're not apologizing.
They apologized because they were caught.
Foner:The dildos, I missed. I would have been much more verbal if I had seen that. But, you know, I was like, "Really? Why?"
Well, "Why?" is my question. Liz, you talked about the male gaze. The way in which men shoot women in movies. The way they objectify them or the way the camera lingers over them. And I'm curious, consciously—or subconsciously—when you're making your movies—it's a little different with a documentary—when you're photographing, is there something intentional in your mind about how you want women to be shot that is not the way they're typically shot? That is not a vestige of, "Wouldn't it be great to have strippers with strap-ons doing entertainment?"
Foner:Well, I'll give you an example. And it's a little touchy. I have in my movie a first sexual experience. And I from the beginning wanted to do this—because it's iconic for everybody, male and female—from the point of view of the women to whom it was happening. Which meant immediately we weren't looking at it from here, watching two bodies over there. I wanted to do it so we were inside her head when it was happening. And I shot and edited this whole sequence. And I showed it to the producers and the people. And they were deeply offended by it. They said that it looked aggressive. You know, 'cause it was from a point of view of somebody having sex. You see this face and—
So it was her face and her body?
Foner:No, it's her seeing—
Fidell: The viewer was being penetrated.
I see. It's her point of view.
Foner:Yes. And it looked very aggressive. They didn't like it. And, in fact, there was a struggle about how much of it is still in the movie. There is not as much of it in, 'cause I didn't have the control to keep it all in.
Why did you want to shoot it that way?
Foner: Because I wanted it to be real. I wanted it to feel like what it really feels like. A woman experiencing sex is literally sort of opening herself up. And what you see when it's happening is not this male idea of what you see in pornography, which is body parts. You can't see any body parts when you're having sex. You see ears and hair and eyes. And I wanted that to be what you saw. And to me that seemed like an extremely unusual, very female perspective.
But completely genuine.
Foner:Yeah, totally real.
Fidell:I made a short film that had an extended rape scene in it, and shot it very close up on her face during it. And I think that was the longest take of the whole film.
Foner:Well, I wanted to see what she was seeing. Not her face. I wanted to see his face.
Fidell: Sure. Yeah, I understand that. Yeah.
Cowperthwaite: You wanted to put the audience in the character's point of view, in a woman's experience of sex.
Right. Which is what you're doing, just from a different—and you think that's largely missing from films. And you're talking about the emotional, physical act of sex. So you think that's generally missing, like, how sex is depicted?
Foner: From a female point of view, it is. And what was so interesting to me is that what the male viewer is looking at, they saw it as angry and aggressive and negative in some way. And it was—
Cowperthwaite: Because it wasn't flattering to them.
Foner: In some way.
Cowperthwaite: They don't want to see themselves that way. They want to see that as being transformative to the woman.
Foner: And they don't want to see that that's what we see.
Cowperthwaite: Or that that's what we experience. That it does feel perhaps aggressive.
They'd rather see the woman smiling and ecstatic?
Cowperthwaite: In ecstasy, yeah.
Foner:They'd rather see two people over there, body view.
Cowperthwaite: Perfect bodies.
Dabis: Yeah, yeah.
What about you, Liz? Was there an intentional way in which you shot women and shot sex? I mean, there's a pretty good sex scene in your film.
Garcia:Yeah. There's a lot of sex in—
I mean in a good way.
Garcia: No, it's good. I think.
Authentic. How about that?
Garcia: I was very conscious, both because I didn't want to, as I said, participate in the sort of the tradition of the male gaze, but also because I was depicting an underage kid, I was very conscious of how I shot the actor Dave Lambert, who plays Kristen Bell's underage love interest. And he took off all of his clothes, and he's totally gorgeous. And so there was ample opportunity to kind of pick him apart. But I only used her subjective POV of him for two shots. And it was his arm and the side of his face. And I just sort of karmically didn't feel right doing it the other way. And I, in fact, had a scene that was much more—I mean, it wasn't graphic. Because, believe me, what's in there is very graphic. But it was tracking in on Kristen as she's watching him, and then tracking in on him. Like a low-angle sort of Michael Bay. And he's gorgeous and he looks gorgeous. And I was like, "This isn't me. This isn't the film." And I had to take it out.
But you were consciously trying to break a habit that you thought, "This is how you shoot this. This is how you shoot the guy?"
Garcia: I thought, first of all, it's too easy. Yeah. It's just too easy. I mean, I thought it led the viewer too much, but also it didn't go with the rest of the film where I was trying to just let people exist in the space. Male and female. And not necessarily lead the viewer with the camera to see people as sexual.
Cherien, talk about how you shot women and I guess yourself in your film.
Dabis: You know, I mean, I think that you said it when you were like, "The most important thing is for it to feel real." And to feel authentic to the experience of the characters. Or the female characters. You know, I'm always aware of like, okay, there's a shower scene. There's no need for anything gratuitous. The scene is not about seeing anyone's body. You know, this scene is about, there's no more water left. What is this scene about? And I feel like that's something I'm always very conscious of. Women in swimsuits. I want the women to feel comfortable in what they're wearing. If they want to wear a cover-up. I think it's maybe being more sensitive to the women you're working with and to making sure that they feel comfortable and to making sure that everything that's shot just feels real and authentic to the story and the characters and that there's nothing that's sort extraneous or unnecessary. But what's interesting—and I'm just gonna throw this out there—having, you know, put myself in the movie, I notice that there's a lot of comments on the way I look on camera. And I just have to pose the question. If I were a male director writing, directing, and acting in my own film...
Dabis: ...would people be commenting so much on the way I look on screen?
Dabis: And I have to say, it has really, really bothered me. Because I end up feeling quite—again—it's sort of objectified. Like, I didn't put myself on camera for that purpose. But I walk away from these comments, just wondering, "Why is that important?"
Garcia: I can only imagine they're positive comments. Which is just to say that, for whatever reason, I think when you're an attractive female trying to, I don't know, have a leadership position or something in the business or making yourself visible by being an actor in the movie, people I think are quick to assign you, let's say, vanity or to—I don't know. It's a dilemma because on the one hand, you know, you should be proud that you're beautiful. On the other hand, you don't want that to be an excuse for people to undermine your authority.
Foner: This is another thing. And it's a whole other subject, but very related to this. Many years ago, my ex-husband made a movie in which Barbara Hershey appeared and had to pick a body double. At the time, she was getting close to 50. She picked a 23-year-old body double. And I was a producer of the movie. I had a conniption fit. I said, "This cannot happen. Women in America cannot believe that when an almost-50-year-old woman takes off her clothes, she looks like that." And it ended up that we used that body double. And I think that this happens also all the time. And the only way that's gonna go away is if we stop doing it. And the only way that's gonna go away is if women make that happen.
You know, it happened on Up In the Air. Who played opposite George Clooney in that movie?
Foner: Vera Farmiga.
Yeah. Total body double. I mean, she'd just had a kid. But it was like, mature, younger, and just—not that she's unattractive at all.
Foner:But we go to the movies to have ourselves reflected back. And we are—
I absolutely think very few people see it that way. I mean, I think you do. But I think if you asked a studio executive, "Do you go to the movies to see yourself reflected back?" they'd say, "What are you smoking?"
Foner:First of all, have you ever heard a studio executive talk about women? Or about an actress who's getting to the point where they're not perfect?
I've not. What do they say?
Garcia: No, because they're not making movies with them.
Foner: They stop. And they say—in much cruder terms—"She's not hot anymore. We don't want to use her," for whatever reason. And have you noticed that there's a gap between women in the movies between 45 and 65? They can come back and be 65 again as somebody's grandmother. But they can't be this age in which male fantasy does not allow women to exist.
Well, I don't want to pick on Robert Redford, 'cause we're at Sundance, but there was a period in the '90s where every woman opposite him was 25 years his junior. I mean, it was like you could just—
Foner: What's the movie that Helen Hunt was in with—
Foner: No, no, no. Not now.
All: Jack Nicholson.
Foner:I remember the scene in which she's standing up at the window—
"As Good As It Gets."
Foner: —and her husband is up there, and he's down there calling to her. And I actually saw the movie in a theater—in which the mother and Helen are standing up there. And somebody yelled to the mother, "You go down. You're his age."
Hannah, we didn't get to talk about how you shot women. If there was an intentional idea in your mind about what you did and did not want to do in "A Teacher."
Fidell: Sure. I wanted to flip that male gaze around and I very intentionally did that, by objectifying the young boy. But the first film that I made was an experiment in the male gaze and creating a real female-centered film. And I wrote it and I directed it. And I had a female producer, a female DP. It was a female protagonist. And a female editor. And I wanted to explore how that shaped the film. It turned out that the film wasn't any good. Not because of that. Because it was my first film. But maybe it's just a fact that, for me at that time, and for a lot of the young women that I was working with, we just grew up on the male gaze so it was so hard for us to disassociate ourselves from that. But it gets to Michael Bay. He's one of my favorite directors. And I think "Bad Boys II" is in the top five greatest films ever made.
Garcia:I would love for you to have a little sit-down with him. I would love to see of you go toe to toe.
Dabis: I'm forgetting my own movie. I actually just realized a male gaze is actually in my film. The idea that these women in the Middle East are actually being stared at by men on the streets. That is something that is depicted throughout the movie. So that experience is something that we wanted—
But you're using it to make a political point.
Dabis: To make a point. Right.
You're not using it as, "This is the way I'm gonna shoot this film." It's intentional and it's saying, "Look how women are seen."
Garcia: But I feel like I want to say that it's important that women should be able to embrace being sexual. Not just romantic, but sexual. With the camera, with their vision. We're talking about the male gaze. That's obviously a significant idea that I think theoretically
we're all sort of playing with. But, like, what's the female gaze? If there is something that's kind of similarly carnal, there's no reason to shy away from that. I mean, the answer is not to go to sort of an asexual vision.
Foner: No. But I can't remember where we've seen the female gaze, which is what I want to do.
We've talked about your work and about Hollywood. I want to talk a little about the audience. Because the audience does play a role in this. And women drive genre films. I mean, the slasher movies where women are getting, you know, raped and cut up to pieces, 70 percent of the audience is women. Women are buying Cosmopolitan, fitness magazines, with these artificially beautiful women on the cover. So does the audience have a role in deciding whether or not the kinds of movies you want to make are accepted, or have they been conditioned to accept—you know, is there some sort of larger cultural hegemony that is saying, "You have to like these kinds of movies and this is what you should embrace"? In other words, does the audience play a role in helping people like you make the movies you want to make?
Foner: I don't think they've been given a choice before. I don't think there's been anything out there. That's exactly the point that I was hoping to fix, you know, by becoming a director. I don't think there's an alternative. My friend Jamie Lee Curtis did a cover on Allure Magazine, in which she said, "This is me after I've been touched up and made up and done this, and this is me before. I look just like you." And I thought that was one of the bravest things I've ever seen. And really to an end. And I think some version of just having real women doing real things the way they actually experience them will counter that. You know, my movie's a first movie. It's far from a masterpiece. It's a beginner's movie in many ways. But what I'm proud of is that when we screen it for people, they have a "Oh, yeah. That's me" kind of attachment to it, which is exactly what I was hoping for.
Fidell: Across gender lines?
Foner: No. Women.
Fidell: Oh, women. I'm sorry. Yeah.
Foner:Women. And in fact, in some ways men are, as I described to you, somewhat a little bit offended by some of it. You know, there are things about it that they're surprised by. 'Cause they're not used to seeing. It's not in any way revolutionary or radical. It's very small and very simple. But it has—if it works at all—a certain truthfulness about the experience of being a woman. Which I collaborated on with the actresses. And that touches women watching it.
Anybody else want to talk about the audience and its responsibility? Go ahead, Hannah.
Fidell:So far I've had a pretty divisive audience reaction, where men and women see the film very differently. Men have a very hard time relating to my film, in the way that I had intended. But they still get something out of it because it speaks to their hot-for-teacher fantasy. So, that's fine. They can get whatever they want out of it. But it's interesting. I have yet to hear or read a negative thing about my film from a woman. Which is interesting.
But men have?
Garcia:Yeah. For me too.
Really, Liz? Whatever problems they have with "The Lifeguard," it's—
Garcia: Yeah, just the scant, very rare bad review, it's been from a dude.
Same way for you?
Dabis: Well, funny enough, I do get men who actually really love the film. But I think that generally it's seen as more relatable to women.
Garcia: Yeah. And that's, like, okay. You know, there are a lot of films that I don't get, because they don't mean anything to me, 'cause they're about men. And in fact, they might actively annoy me. Because this is a male vision that—maybe this is an aspect of the male personality that I find harder to deal with. And that's okay. I mean, I remember, you know, when I was in film school and we were studying Scorsese. He was a big part of my senior year at Wesleyan. And we would talk about how he feels about women. And at a certain point it's like, "Okay, it's fine. He's just not interested in women. He's interested in the world of men. That's great. I'm interested in the world of women." There's room for all of us, right?
I remember early in his career, John Singleton tried to have all-black crews on his films. It was very hard. Because there weren't department heads that he could pick from. When you are putting together your crews, and say it's equal—for sound department there's a man and a woman, totally equal skill set—will you put a finger on the scale of the woman? In other words, will you try to actively find women and surround yourself with women on your crew and try to promote other women, so that you can kinda create some kinda groundswell of women who are working in the business?
Foner:I had an experience when I worked at the Children's Television Workshop, where there was an open job for some executive that they wanted to fill with a black American. And they hired somebody, who was completely unqualified. And it was to me the worst kind of racism. And in the end, the person failed, and the job had to be replaced with somebody else. I think hiring people just because they're anything is a mistake. I think when I find qualified, great women—this room is filled with such amazing women; I mean, just the conversation level is so extraordinary—yes.
Right. I said they were equally competent. I said finger on the scale. That was my question. That you weren't gonna hire somebody who was lame.
Foner:Absolutely. And the reason absolutely is because there's so few women in most possible job categories
Cowperthwaite: I completely agree. I was just thinking as you were asking that question. 'Cause I was like, "Well, of course." It's equal, and you know, if a woman has ambition. Especially I'm thinking camera, which is so clutch for documentary. It's embarrassing to admit, but I was just thinking to myself, you know, there's so much lugging for cinematography for a documentary. You just don't have a crew. You don't have a crew. So it's really her and maybe at best an AC [assistant camera], but that AC has enough to do on their own. So we're just going—
Just the physical requirements of the job are—
Cowperthwaite: to Iraq where we're Marines. It's horrendous. And it's like, "Oh, great. There's already me." You know? Now all of a sudden I have—it's not that I don't think that she can carry stuff, but I'm just like, when push comes to shove and the [crap] hits the fan, can I be like, "You know, can you go do that? Just go do it"? Just for a second there I was like—I speak to women differently. I tend to speak more softly. I don't want to offend. You know, I'm more cautious about how I speak to them because I imagine they're gonna be more sensitive. Whereas with a guy I could be like, "Wow, wow, wow, we gotta go. We gotta go." You know? And I don't know. And it just occurred to me that that was going through my head. Now if she were a great cinematographer, it wouldn't matter. I'm just saying that thought would come into my mind.
Dabis: That you take those things into consideration.
Cowperthwaite: Correct. Not in terms of making the decision, but it would just enter my mind. Whereas with a big burly guy, I'm like, "He's gonna carry everything. He's gonna be fine if we're ten degrees below zero." Is that strange?
Foner: As a woman, I think I'd be likely to say—I would actually say out loud what was making me hesitate. I feel like—
You'd be more candid.
Foner:I'd be more candid. I would say—
Cowperthwaite: "You're gonna have to carry. This is gonna be—are you okay with that?" That's a good solution. But, yeah. I've never not hired a woman because of that, but wow. The fact that it enters my head is making me uncomfortable.
Dabis:Part of what you touched on and part of what I sort of really picked up on in what you were saying is I feel like I strive for a certain level of balance. One of the things that you said was, you know, you're already a woman. And so is there a perspective that can be brought to the table that could add something that you're making not seeing as a woman? And that's, I think, something that I sometimes think about in various roles. So it's not just about someone being as competent. I think it's about what perspective they bring, what the particular project is and the requirements of the project, and a number of just those types of factors.
Foner: don't think I'd want an all-woman crew.
Dabis:Yeah. I don't know that I would. I think also it's really about how you connect with someone. You know? So that's so important. You're really in the trenches with these people. And sometimes you connect more with a man. You never know.
I promised everybody we'd be out at 10, so I want to end with this. We've talked a lot about some really disturbing statistics. We've talked about strap-ons and pole dancers. We've talked about body doubles. I'm curious, from each person maybe quickly, what are you most hopeful about? What gives you optimism? And what makes you feel good about being a woman making movies in Hollywood right now? Naomi, I'll start with you.
Foner: I feel very hopeful that we—well, just in this room. This is some of the smartest, most interesting, thoughtful people I have spoken to in a very long time. I'm delighted.
Garcia:Yeah. I feel very hopeful about women in the industry, because of Lena Dunham. She is an auteur. She is young. She does not fit in the Hollywood obsession with beauty. She's courageous. And I know she's not on network television, i.e. she hasn't been embraced by many of the corporate mainstream. But what she means to me is that she is inspiring people. She's inspiring me, and I'm 10 years older. And she's therefore inspiring girls who are younger. And I also feel very hopeful about digital media. Because I was afraid to spend money. I used the excuse of, "I'll have to ask my parents for $6,000" to not make a senior film in college. And had it been free, you know, had I been able to shoot on, like, the Canon or something, I might not have had the excuse.
That the barriers to entry are lower, meaning it's more open.
Dabis:I'm super excited by the conversation. You know, we had the women's brunch yesterday where the results of this study were presented. And it's an historic study. Just for us to be able to take in that information and really kind of band together. And I feel like there's a growing sense of community. And there are firsts and things that are happening that are really kind of creating change for us. So it's sort of giving us something for us to kind of go on. I find it really inspiring.
Foner:And by the way, it's not just young people. I'm a grandmother. And Maggie [Gyllenhaal] said to me, "Maybe you're the first grandmother who's made her first feature film."
Could be. That could be.
Fidell: That's awesome.
That's very nice. Gabriela?
Cowperthwaite: That's very powerful. Being a mother myself and thinking how long could I do this? How long could I stay in this? But I think overall, I think it's just the conversations I've had since arriving here—the ones with women—are, I guess, beyond my expectations, in terms of support. You know, "Oh, my god, I can't wait to see your movie. And let's switch tickets." And so supportive and collaborative. And it feels like non-competitive. It feels like, "I can't wait to see what you put on your screen." And I think that is probably a female characteristic. And if we can sort of carry this on to the directorial role and make this sort of part of this industry and how we come about this industry, how much better will our art be? If we can openly sort of share ideas, work together, be excited about each other's films? What if we sort of take this whole director, you know, cool guy with the glasses, what if we take that and put a new stamp on it? You know?
We're almost done. And Hannah, up to you to end it.
Fidell:I just feel like the world is our oyster. And that it's an amazing feeling. I grew up knowing that my mother is a journalist and was one of the first bureau chiefs I think ever at The New York Times. And to know about that story and how hard it was to break into journalism—she's been a journalist, working for the paper, for 30, 40 years now, which is crazy. But hearing these stories of how hard it was for her, and yet knowing how easy it is for me right now is just remarkable.
Foner: For me the hopefulness is to hear that you guys expect to have what you have. And you don't double-think it. You don't for a minute think that there's any reason you shouldn't. So I feel like my generation has done something, if that's where you begin.
Garcia:Oh, god, absolutely.
Dabis:That's great. Yeah.
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