There are many brilliant women filmmakers and producers making a significant impact in the film industry. We, at Virgil Films, are honored to work with a number of them. We asked several of these influential women their take on working in independent film and to share their experiences and advice on how to begin and maintain a career in filmmaking and/or producing.
Tell us your overall experience working in the film industry. Have you experienced any challenges? If so, how did you overcome/manage to solve the problems/issues?
JENNIFER SIEBEL NEWSOM- Director of Miss Representation: “My experiences and challenges as a woman in the film industry were ultimately what led me to become a filmmaker, rather than an actress. When I went into acting, my male agent at the time told me to lie about my age (I was 28), and take my Stanford MBA off of my resume. I didn’t do either but my confidence was really shaken as I realized that everything I had worked for and done in my life had no value in Hollywood. It didn’t make sense to me that I should be devaluing my accomplishments to achieve “success.” And remember that the entertainment industry not only informs American cultural values, but then exports the lowest common denominator of those values to the rest of the world.
When l I found out a few years later that I was pregnant with my first child – a girl – everything came into focus. Here I was, enmeshed in an entertainment industry where Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan were all tabloid fodder, and I couldn’t imagine how my daughter would grow up to be emotionally healthy and fulfilled given our culture’s disregard for, disrespect of, and extreme sexualization of women and girls. I realized then that I had the unique opportunity to combine my strengths as an artist and producer, with my newfound determination to create a better world for her – one that expanded the box so many women are put in. In essence, we had to rewrite the story for women. So I made the documentary Miss Representation to expose the media’s limiting portrayals of women and girls and address how media contributed to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.“
ROSEMARY RODRIGUEZ, Director of Acts of Worship, Silver Skies: “No doubt it’s a tough business to break into, especially for a female from New Hampshire with no connections whatsoever! I always tell people that say they want to be a director that if there’s ANYTHING else they can imagine themselves doing, then they should do that instead. It took me 8 years to make my first feature Acts of Worship. Then I got into Sundance, and then I was back at my day job! It took a couple more years before I was directing television, and 14 years to make my second feature Silver Skies. Lots of hustling in between. I spent most of my time hustling to get on set directing. I live my life just to be directing. Hard work, perseverance, really tough skin and a ton of patience is required to make a living in the film industry. I’m like the energizer bunny. I never stop. That’s how I problem solve: never give up. It’s not easy for anyone. Being a director is the most amazing experience. There’s nothing better.”
MICHELE JOSUE, Director of Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine: “As a Filipino-American female filmmaker working in a male-dominated industry, I am grateful for my unique point of view. The wide variety of culture and privilege I was exposed to growing up has vastly informed my identity as well as my perspective as a storyteller. I realize how fortunate I am, but I also know what it’s like to feel “different”—to sometimes feel shy or ashamed, to be constantly underestimated so you have to work that much harder. I feel an obligation to highlight and empower diverse voices and stories that differ from the mainstream yet speak to a universal truth about the human condition. This is what drives me.”
JUDY CHAIKIN, Director of The Girls in the Band: “In the early 80’s, the AFI started a program known as the Directing Workshop for Women and many talented women and I got their first shot at directing film. That program gave us the impetus to go out into the industry with our student film in hand and declare ourselves directors. Little did we know the brick wall we were about to face. Nobody wanted women directors. Once we accepted the reality and understood why there were no women directors we started to band together to change things…little did we realize how long a journey we were embarking on.
In the meantime, many other women and I turned to documentary filmmaking because in that world we were free to create our own projects. My first documentary, Legacy of the The Hollywood Blacklist was nominated for an EMMY and eventually lead me to directing work in television. While I was able to make a good living, I was never able to rise high enough in the ranks to direct the really big shows. That brick wall was still standing strong. Once again, I began to feel I was at a dead end.
Never one to be discouraged, I opened my own production company, ONE STEP PRODUCTIONS, and launched a successful career doing educational videos, industrial videos, music videos, short films, reality TV and anything I could get hired for. My answer to being shut out of the mainstream was to make my own career. My current film The Girls in the Band is a result of the circuitous route that I have taken.”
BETH HARRINGTON, Director of The Winding Stream: “I think in my younger days, it was difficult to be taken seriously by some of the men I worked with. But I think mostly my hard work and perseverance served me well. Joining a women’s media organization – Women in Film – and getting involved early in my career (I served on the board in New England and in Seattle and became President and VP respectively of these two chapters) was really empowering.
Working in documentary within the public television system was also empowering because lots of women move up the ranks within PBS and the various stations; it’s generally been a supportive environment for us.
But in more recent years, outside of public TV, I’ve noticed some issues have yet to be resolved about the place of women in film. The general statistics about us in this business – especially in narrative film – are bleak. That’s disturbing to me. Age also enters into, I’m finding out.”
KERI PICKETT, Director of The Fabulous Ice Age: “My first career as an editorial photographer and author helped prepare me for my to move to motion pictures was a personal artistic decision that didn’t involve the filmmaking industry – it just involved me saying to myself – I am going to make a feature documentary film. Had I known when I started my first feature documentary The Fabulous Ice Age, about the history of Ice Follies, Ice Capades, Holiday on Ice and one man’s quest to save the history would take me over seven years to produce, I might not have this amazing experience of become a filmmaker. But the man saving the history was my uncle and so the process was a labor of love.”
JULIE STEVENS, Director of Life After Tomorrow: “My overall experience working in the film industry has been positive. As a female documentary filmmaker, I love to craft stories that are inspiring, enlightening and educational. Sometimes it can be challenging to have a strong opinion and feel unsupported, however, making films is a great way to share insights and opinions that are important to you.”
ELAINE MADSEN, Director of I Know A Woman Like That: “Most of my years in the film industry were spent as a freelance producer/director of documentaries. I experienced respect and acceptance and flexibility. My most satisfying experience was the devotion from crews. No matter the project, the hours, the location, they never give up or walked away. This made the breaking into the commercial corporate world was much more complicated and presented a more serious challenge.
In the end, I found it most satisfying to be able to work as a free-lancer, choose a subject about which I felt passionate and bring that to life. My career was therefore quieter and very difficult financially. But I was able to work with like-minded individuals who shared my passion for a particular story. Ultimately, as important as passion is — you must be able to protect your story and your passion by having funds in your pocket at the outset of the project. Passion will exhaust itself if not supported by solid planning, serious intention and funds.”
VIRGINIA MADSEN, Producer of I Know A Woman Like That: “I’m often asked about the challenges I face working in the entertainment industry. More specifically, how I’ve lasted for so long in a successful career. Well, I haven’t always had success. Careers for the most part in this business are a roller coaster at best and a train wreck at the worst. In order to ride it out, one must learn to have stamina. It’s always going to be an uphill climb. There’s no such thing as “making it.” That suggests that there’s an end game. We are working on artistic and endeavors inside of a business. Hence the title “show business.” So one must learn to be a good business person in order to protect the artist within. Perhaps we call ourselves craftsmen but we are nevertheless, trying to be creative story tellers while hoping to make a profit. Of course most of the time neither of those things happen. Does it stop us from trying again and again? No. It most certainly does not. For me, the times I spent being unemployed where the times I became the most determined, preparing myself for work. You must prepare because you must be ready when called upon. Nobody likes a sad story and when you are seen as struggling, people who are not move further away as if you have a condition that could be infectious. To present a strong and positive presence invites success. My acting teacher, Ted Liss, used to tell me, “Never walk in with your hat in your hand.” Words to live by for sure. Especially hard to do however when specifically looking for financing! The hunt for financing takes a particular talent. I hated it. I wasn’t good at it. But I learned a lot from those producers who were. That made it vitally important to put together a good team. This has served me well in life.
Surrounding myself with like-minded people has been nothing short of life saving. Speaking of like-minded, I find it important to seek the company of other women who share your dreams and values. Women who support other women are damn good company. My exchange of ideas and challenges with these women have helped me enormously. Contrary to popular beliefs, women bond and sometimes for life. They inspire me to be at my best. After all, we have much in common don’t we? Men have an innate sense of fraternity. So should we. I’ve seen the business change since I arrived in the mid-eighties. Most vividly when it comes to women in all aspects of the industry. For a very long time, I watched our numbers grown by leaps and bounds. Now, I see our numbers declining. Still, I see the glass half full. We are always climbing and this makes it even more important that we support one another. I see the division between men and women becoming a blurred line rather than a glass ceiling. But if you encounter this ceiling, smash away. So keep on and never stop. You may falter from time to time but you can get the job done. Because there should be no question that you will. Believing in yourself is truly a key to success.”
What lessons/experiences you have learned that ultimately helped you succeed in the film industry?
ROSEMARY RODRIGUEZ, Director of Acts of Worship, Silver Skies: “I believe that I have achieved the success that I have through collaboration and saying “thank you” to the hard-working, smart, creative people that I work alongside. Directing is one of those crafts that you cannot do alone. Other people have to be a part of creating my vision. On my films that I’ve written and directed, it’s amazing to have people supporting my vision, my dream, and my story. They make it better! I absolutely live for that collaboration. Often in TV, it gets tricky because I’m collaborating with people that are already on the show, people I sometimes haven’t ever met before. So the politics are established and I walk into a situation knowing that everyone works hard and does their very best to make that show great. I honor that from the first day of work. People in the film industry spend more time at work than with their own families. And that means that they are very special people who are storytellers and it’s in their blood to work hard and creative. It’s amazing to make a movie or TV show come alive from a piece of paper with ink on it. It’s really a miracle.”
KATIE CLEARY, Producer of Give Me Shelter: “I have learned many lessons that have helped me accomplish completing my first film Give Me Shelter along with my best friend and director Kristin Rizzo. I believe getting the advice from filmmakers who have already done similar documentaries is key, and to always have duplicates of everything in case one of your hard drives goes bad. That’s probably #1. Other filmmakers that have passion projects similar to ours always seems to self-fund their first film. That’s what I did that Give Me Shelter. For your second film, it’s important to find funding from an investor to help get the project off the ground.”
ALISON THOMPSON, Director of The Third Wave:“I was three weeks out of film school when I directed High Times’ Potluck film and we were in the urgent need for a stunt coordinator. The best one available in NYC at the time was way above our pay grade but he accepted our offer to meet in our film production office in Times Square. My office was way in the back and I walked out to the front room and recognized the stunt coordinator from IMDB, sitting on the couch waiting. I told him my name and said hello and sat next to him asking questions about his ideas for the film. After a few minutes, he became agitated with my presence and finally exclaimed rudely. “Listen lady, I don’t have time to talk to you. I’m waiting for a meeting with the film director.” I calmly told him that I was the film’s director and the meeting proceeded with his red face finally coming back to its original color. I hired him because we needed him but stereotypical moments like this one glide past my radar as a stream of ‘unconscious gender role conditioning’ from a long history of ‘male’ dominated positions in the film industry. Being a ‘female’ director is in their heads, not mine.”
KRISTIN FAIRWEATHER, Producer of Future Weather: “Trust your gut. Don’t be a jerk. Show up for people. Be trustworthy.
These are valuable rules to follow in life, and certainly in order to succeed in the film business. Show business feels enormous, but it’s ultimately a close community. Good reputations precede you just like the not-so-good ones. As a filmmaker you will contribute your creativity, hard work, finances, sweat, tears and endless sacrifices into your work – take seriously the time and talent that everyone on your team is also giving to your project (from the PAs to the lead actors). You will attract intelligent and compassionate collaborators and your work and life will be better for it.”
What advice do you give other aspiring female director and/or producers?
DEBORAH WALLACE, Producer of Blood on the Mountain: “You are needed now more than ever, there is no time to spare, so please get to work. Integrity, both in your work and as a human being will serve you better than anything else. Be willing to stand up for your rights and your values and those of the film and people under your care. You do not need to save the world, you only need to see it. If your work is truthful, the world will take it and save itself.”
ELAINE MADSEN, Director of I Know A Woman Like That: “The best advice I ever got was being reminded that there can be only one vision infusing a project. Don’t bend the story to please somebody who offers money in exchange for “just changing this “one little” thing. The second thing is always remember that passion is a powerful ingredient, you must always have a passion at the heart of your story, but it isn’t enough. Pragmatism, and being able to pay your crew is mandatory! They have lives!”
MICHELE JOSUE, Director of Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine:“My advice to aspiring female filmmakers is to work hard, be true to your voice, and to not be discouraged or overly concerned by what other people think. Instead, surround yourself with like-minded people who inspire, nurture, and support your vision. Be tenacious and don’t ever wait around for someone else to give you permission to tell your story. There’s no one else in the world who can tell a story in the unique way you can.”
ROSEMARY RODRIGUEZ, Director of Acts of Worship, Silver Skies: “My advice to aspiring female filmmakers/producers is to BE BOLD. Find your voice quickly and be fearless in expressing it. I think sometimes I spent a lot of those years making my first movie just building confidence in myself because I didn’t feel like I had the right to call myself a director. I had a dream, a desire, but I lacked a sense of entitlement, a sense of owning my dream. Make movies. Tell stories from your heart. And be bold and fearless every single day. No one is going to hand you anything.”
JENNIFER SIEBEL NEWSOM, Director of Miss Representation: “Having the confidence to know you belong here and an attitude of never giving up is critical to aspiring filmmakers. When I started making Miss Representation, I ran into many obstacles. Because the film challenged the limiting norms perpetuated by the entertainment industry, I couldn’t find a female director to direct Miss Representation for fear of being blacklisted. Further, there were many people who told me the film had been made before and that we didn’t need another one. And once I decided to direct it myself, I had a chauvinist male graphics designer who challenged my vision and my ability to execute the film! The lesson and my advice to others is that no matter what you do, there will be challenges. Perseverance and belief in yourself are of critical importance, especially for women.