by Sarah Bullion, Screenmancer Correspondent
An interview with Rachel Feldman – Veteran of the Hollywood Gender Wars – Two Women Who Direct Film & TV (updated) in a Candid Conversation about the State of the Business.
SARAH BULLION: You are a veteran filmmaker and vocal activist for women in Hollywood, how did you discover that voice?
RACHEL FELDMAN: Perhaps because I had grown up in a political household, I came to my view of injustice fairly organically. Unconscious gender bias is so ubiquitous – it was always shocking to me how little people talked about it.
I received my master’s degree in film directing and my graduate thesis film won over 25 major film festivals. I also began to write at that time and immediately sold my first scripts. In those “15 minutes of fame” I was signed by William Morris and attended a lot of meetings. I was making a living working for well established (male) directors on big studio movies, preparing their director notebooks and pre-viz plans, while getting grants and making my own indie films – but it became clear that none of the women in my class were getting directing jobs, just the guys – some of whom hadn’t even finished their thesis films. For 10 years, I was never hired to direct, until Steven Bochco saw one of my shorts and invited me to helm an episode of “Doogie Howser M.D.” He had a keen awareness that women directors were suffering and wanted to do something about it.
I sought out other directors like me at the Directors Guild of America but there were only a handful of women directing at the time and few of them attended meetings. Despite the incredible level of gender inequity all around us most women were very fearful of ruining their careers by speaking up. Even though it had only been 10-15 years since “The Original Six” motivated the DGA to go to court on behalf of women directors, causing a marked increase of employment for women, I felt quite alone.
We wanted our guild to fight for us, but their support came in the shape of “shadowing” programs that rarely led to jobs, having events that celebrated the handful of female celebrity directors, or to have “networking” events filled with executives who had zero mandate to hire us. It wasn’t until 2010 that I met other women at the DGA who felt brave enough to question the established patriarchy. We were tired of the same boilerplate responses to our lack of employment, it felt as if our own guild truly didn’t care about making things better for us.
In 2012 I was asked to run as co-chair of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee. My speech was an outspoken call for change and I won. I produced the 2013 Women of Action Summit, the first event in the guild’s 80-year history that focused exclusively on tackling gender inequity. The 250 female directors who attended were exhilarated, however the DGA actively thwarted our success. The year-long organizational process was tortuous with a punishing level of scrutiny and domination from the guild. And if that hadn’t stopped us, on the day of the event, a Guild administrator literally stole the single copy of email addresses our guests had given us requesting further contact with our coalition. This sabotage prevented us from using that event as the very catalyst for which we had created it in the first place. Then, in the final blow, adding insult to injury, soon after the event, the guild implemented a vote to change our by-laws, preventing our coalition’s most vocal members from running for office based on their lack of recent employment – caused by the very gender discrimination we face.
Though the DGA was effective in suppressing an uprising, I believe our efforts have been a tipping point in finally cracking open a new conversation with solutions now as a goal.
What makes one an activist?
Activism is bred from rage. Being a “have not” in an environment of riches is maddening. People continue to insist that the film business is a meritocracy, that the best and the brightest succeeded, but most are blind to the fact that without opportunity one cannot possibly rise. This is true regarding class, race, or gender. It’s this frustration and exclusion that sparks the flame of needing to fight back.
What is working and what isn’t?
We have to stop accepting the status quo. We say, “The future is female” but in Hollywood that all too often means having female executives or filming a female protagonist who just acts like a man. Until we have female creators using their voices and vision to offer fresh perspectives, it’s all pabulum.
In the past few weeks, The Venice Film Festival screened only a single film directed by a woman, The AFI Best 100 Movies lists not one movie directed by a woman. Out of 60 episodes why was only a single episode of “Game of Thrones” directed by a woman? And why, decade after decade, is it acceptable that the DGA’s own screening schedule is a sea of men’s faces? Unconscious bias is omnipresent and we must simply just keep calling it out over and over and over again in every facet of our industry until folks wake up.
Training programs are bullshit when there are already so many accomplished women directors, shadowing is downright disrespectful and ineffective. No other industry would put up with being present to simply observe others at work – with no pay and no actual plan to prepare for an actual job. Most women directors have either graduated film school or have made independent films, commercials, music videos, or worked in the industry as editors, AD’s etc. – so why are we treated as novices, viewed with suspicion, treated with disrespect? Why is this tolerated? Let’s find a route to feeding the hiring pipeline that’s equitable and sensible.
I have 25 years of high-level experience and yet I’m still called a “first time director” by feature producers and asked to shadow in television. Directing is hard and it requires a very specific set of skills, talents, and temperament but it is not molecular chemistry. Give women opportunities and they will deliver, big time. Do like Ryan Murphy and Ava DuVernay. JUST DO IT!
What would you like to see new or young activists doing and saying today?
Female filmmakers have gotten brave, even brazen. Younger women are fearless now in their calling out inequity and that helps. Women are helping, supporting, and lifting up other women and there’s an overall sense of sisterhood today that is very powerful. Women no longer want to be the only women in the room, we want our entire community to thrive and that generous sense is glorious.
Are you ever concerned that your outspokenness will injure your career?
I don’t believe that anyone’s activism will affect their career adversely. It’s not like there is a poisonous individual who’s the issue, it’s institutional culpability that is harming women’s careers in general.
What is the difference for a woman director on a feature film versus on TV?
The only difference is the way we have been treated, not the work itself. In television, the director steps into a fully formed, pre-established community. That group can be welcoming to new directors or downright hostile – and women can have a hard time with this. But in features, when the director is the one who leads the hiring of department heads she has a leadership role from the onset, which engenders automatic respect.
What differences have you seen on sets with more women represented?
Gender is not the answer. Awareness is. Men can be great feminists and working with enlightened men who respect and love working in a team is amazing. I will say that good news is on the horizon. Just this week I had a conversation with the studio executive who is producing a pilot of mine and when I suggested that we hire women directors he opened his laptop and already had compiled an extensive list! I was thrilled! Also many celebrated female actors are now talking about how much they enjoy working with women directors and want to support us. It’s happening.
There’s lots of talk about nurturing new talent but why is the industry not seeking out all the experienced women directors who’ve been struggling all these years, in television and in features? How can they be found?
There can be no more excuses about not being able to find female directors. Producers simply have to realize that they cannot rely on literary agencies or the guild, who promote those whose careers are already thriving. There are many organizations such as The Alliance of Women Directors, Film Fatales, and at The Director List, where filmmaker Destri Martino has amassed searchable database of over 1000 women directors. There are over 1300 female directors in the DGA alone!
When Ava DuVernay wanted to hire women directors of color she put out the word and found great talent. When Ryan Murphy wanted change he and Tanase Popa created the Half Initiative, creating his own gateway. Where there is a will…
And hey, calling JJ Abrams – where are you in this?! We need powerful voices to fight for us.
What’s your personal experience with agents and managers – representation?
I’ve directed over 60 episodes of television, but each job was as hard to get as the next and I’ve never had solid representation. It’s tricky for me. I came up at a time when no one was talking about these issues and we few women had little support. So now I’m neither a newbie – full of promise, nor a celebrity name -who will easily slide onto a roster. I’m a client that requires a narrative and that’s a hurdle many reps find challenging.
Talent doesn’t go away. I think it’s actually a good thing if a director is also a writer, an editor, had children, cared for dying parents, or sailed around the world. These experiences make us stronger storytellers, not weaker ones. But the industry perceives these life waves as “gaps” and that becomes just another excuse for resistance.
How do we get more people (from agents to producers) involved in the groundswell?
It’s happening, I think people really do care, but we need to continue to call out the established practices that have not been effective, and take bold steps until change happens.
Did your activism influence your passion to bring Lilly Ledbetter’s story to the screen in FAIR FIGHT?
Absolutely! Lilly was cheated out of half her salary by a company she had dedicated her career to, just because she was a woman. Her challenges and her fight spoke to me deeply on a personal level. FAIR FIGHT is a thriller about a real life super hero. Lilly had virulent antagonists who wanted to silence her demand for equity and she wouldn’t give up, no matter the stakes.
Lilly may be the voice and face of “fair pay” but it’s gender justice, in every aspect of life, that’s the heart of our message. Women in Hollywood are cheated out of careers because of their gender, girls and women around the globe are undervalued, demeaned, and abused just because they were born one gender and all of this is outrageous and must end.
Do you think FAIR FIGHT can change things?
Movies are effective propaganda and our media is one of the U.S.’s most impactful exports. The stories, images, and concepts we illuminate have a global effect and girls and women, men and boys, will understand Lilly’s bravery in the face of terrible odds. This is the human story that one single person can and must speak out against tyranny and subjugation, and that the unique character who can withstand tremendous obstacles and obstruction is a super hero in the flesh. That story needs to be told over and over, especially with women at the helm.
I’m eager to conduct a cinematic symphony and this is it – to take all the skill and craft I’ve developed over a lifetime and use it to create a big, beautiful, dare I say important, story that takes an audience on a huge emotional journey. But for the world, for the zeitgeist, I hope the message will be very powerful.
What would your ideal career look like?
What a fun question! I’ve become a very facile storyteller. It would be amazing to be able to use the skills I’ve developed and finally put them all to use. I would love to have my own production company and a pod deal, getting paid to do what I do now every day on spec. I’d like to be directing my projects and other’s, writing all kinds of movies and TV series, and working with other writers creating a broad range of projects.
I’d love to set up writer’s rooms and bring my projects to life with those like the brilliantly talented students, mentees, and colleagues I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years.
I started out in advertising so I’d also love to work with brands to create what I call “advertainment.” I long to work with a product line and web series where the characters and plot are integrated with the merchandize in a truly organic fashion. Not product placement! But a show that sells a lifestyle from top to bottom. I really want to do this!
What are you currently working on?
My producers Jenette Kahn and Adam Richman at Double Nickel Entertainment are currently out to actors with FAIR FIGHT. In addition, I recently won the 2017 WGA Writer’s Access Project, run by Glen Mazzara, with my pilot KINKS, then sold that pilot to AJ Mendez at Pillar Segan who have a deal at eOne TV. We’re preparing to take the project to buyers with talent.
I just completed a new short film, HERE NOW, starring the amazing Amy Brenneman, shot by Nancy Schreiber, the brilliant cinematographer who won the coveted 2017 ASC President’s award and we’ve recently been accepted to a couple of Oscar qualifying festivals. I was jonesing to make a movie! We shot it in my house over 2 days and many lifelong friends came in with freebies and favors including Panavision, Technicolor, Cine Lease, Legion VFX, and even the incredible Bruce’s Catering. The rest of the budget I raised with a Seed & Spark fundraising campaign of $10,000.
Like most filmmakers I’m in constant development. I write every single day. It’s making movies in my head and on paper; it keeps my imagination limber and my slate strong.
Sarah Bullion is a LA-based director and writer, interested in the intersection of cinema and activism. She is the Treasurer of the Board of Alliance of Women Directors and is currently completing her MFA in Screenwriting at Stephens College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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