Award-Winning Actress & Director Highlights Hollywood’s Female Director Problem In New Project

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In an interview with ’60 Minutes’ in 201o actor Jeremy Renner and journalist Lesley Stahl had quite an interesting exchange in regard to ‘The Hurt Locker’, which to date is the only film directed by a woman to win the Best Director and Best Picture category at the Oscars.

Lesley talks about how incredible it is that a film with such violence, “macho-ness” could be directed by a woman (for those who haven’t seen it, the story follows Renner, who plays an Army explosives expert in Iraq who diffuses bombs for a living). Jeremy’s answer “What does having a set of ovaries have to do with directing a film. It’s through her eyes that she sees. Not through her mammaries or anything else that defines her as a woman.”

Who knew J-Ren was this woke! Sadly, his perspective is not the norm in Hollywood, and we can see this by the number of female directors in TV and film. A report looking at the biggest films over a period of 5 years showed that women made up only 4.7% of directors. In television, across broadcast, cable and streaming platforms over the past year the number is a little better – 11% combined for the 2015-16 period.

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In 2015, the ACLU launched a major industry-wide investigation into the discriminatory hiring practices of major Hollywood studios toward female directors, and part of that ongoing case involves the EEOC interviewing a number of directors, including some high profile names like Catherine Hardwicke, to share in depth how they have been discriminated against in a gendered way.

While the public may never get to witness those interviews being held behind closed doors, one filmmaker is giving audiences a direct view into the lives of female directors and the opposition they face every day. Cady McClain is a two time Emmy winner actress and has also written, directed and produced a number of award-winning short films. Despite her impressive credits, once she ventured into the directing world, she started to realize how difficult it was for women.

Over the past year she has been working on a new project, a 10-part docu-series called ‘Seeing is Believing’ (co-Executive Produced by ‘I Believe in Unicorns’ director Leah Meyerhoff), delving into the world of female directors. She has successfully raised money via an Indiegogo campaign and invested money of her own in order to travel the country and the world interviewing a number of well-known and acclaimed directors. Cady is gearing up for the film festival season and anticipates releasing the first episode in early 2017. We spoke to her about the series and her perspective on why there is still such a gendered push-back despite film being such a (supposedly) liberal industry.


What made you want to embark on this project?

I started production a little over a year ago. Previously, I had directed two short films. When I arrived into the festival atmosphere with those films I was surprised to find it felt very much like “a man’s world.”  The few women who were there were treated in a way that can best be described as awkward. In addition, many people expressed surprise that I had directed the shorts I had. It took me a while but I eventually realized that women are simply not seen as equal to men when it came to directing.

Then I started to see all the statistics about how few women were actually getting hired. Now I love directing, and knew this was a path I wanted to take, so being the practical gal I am, I decided the best way to find out if I could survive this business was to go and talk to women who were persevering despite the statistics. So far I’ve interviewed 52 subjects, both men and women, but mainly women. I never meant to interview so many people but I was so blown away by what I was hearing I just had to keep going until I was simply to exhausted to continue.

As they say in Hollywood, “this is not your first rodeo” – you are an Emmy Award-winning actress, an award-winning director, as well as an author. What made you want to focus on increasing the visibility and opportunity for female directors?

My upbringing strongly colored my life. My mom was a pretty dramatic single mom who did not believe women had a shot in hell of making a living after they were 40. She had a rough life, lots of heartbreak, and from her perspective didn’t see women as having a lot of opportunities. This really broke my heart.

It was really hard to see her lowering her standards for what life could offer. I became a person who had to prove her wrong, out of love for her but also out of a strong need. I couldn’t adopt her belief system. I can’t stand the idea of so many depressed women in this world. We deserve to be uplifted, enthused, inspired, and given hope for our careers and lives!

As an actor, it was pretty clear that men dominated the entertainment industry, and that didn’t feel good because I was rarely seen as a person with a brain. Soaps were at least a place where women as characters had some agency. I’m truly grateful for what they’ve given me, but they simply were not satisfying enough artistically day-in and day-out. As I began to really accept how much directing meant to me, I felt that there was no way I could truly pursue it professionally if I didn’t try and change the landscape that was being reflected back to me: that of limited opportunity. There cannot be only one voice on this issue. I think we need as many people working on it as we can get.

( Li Lu, left, director of "There is a New World Somewhere" & Cady McClain, right, courtesy of Cady McClain)

( Li Lu, left, director of “There is a New World Somewhere” & Cady McClain, right, courtesy of Cady McClain)

 

A lot of the directors you feature have worked on major pieces of entertainment: ‘Suffragette’, ‘Pretty Little Liars’, ‘Equity’, ‘Homeland’ and more. Were their experiences a lot easier because of the shows/films they managed to book work on?

As with anyone’s life: the grass is always greener. Sarah Gavron (‘Suffragette’) made NINE short films before her last film at the National School broke out.  It was 20-30 years until Lesli Linka Glatter got to be EP and director of ‘Homeland’. Lesli told me about a time where she was almost thrown out of the industry simply for one unsuccessful project. Bethany Rooney (‘Pretty Little Liars’) started out as the secretary to Bruce Paltrow. It took over six years for her to get her first break, and then she got yelled at! She had to earn her place in the field over many, many years. So it’s tough no matter where you start or where you end up.

In your Indiegogo campaign video you feature a few men sharing their perspectives, why was it important to include them?

It was Joanna Kerns, actually, who said, “Are you interviewing any men?” It hadn’t crossed my mind. She pointed out that there are a lot of good guys, like John Wells who started the first diversity workshop in Los Angeles (on his own dime), or Mike Robin who does a lot at the DGA… guys who are trying to make more opportunities for women and who feel that women haven’t been given a fair shot in Hollywood.

Being that Hollywood and the attendant distribution world is in fact male dominated, I thought it was important to hear what these guys had to say. It’s been awesome, actually, because they lay it out really clearly: in this  current paradigm hiring strong women directors is the smart thing to do both creatively and economically. They don’t pull any punches and they give a lot of great advice, too.

(Naima Ramos-Chapman, director of "And Nothing Happened" left, & Cady McClain, right, courtesy of Cady McClain)

(Naima Ramos-Chapman, director of “And Nothing Happened” left, & Cady McClain, right, courtesy of Cady McClain)

 

Aside from showcasing the problem within the industry, your film also has a very positive and pro-active approach to changing the status quo. Can you tell us what ideas you want to share with viewers?

There’s an amazing study that says when women see other women acting in roles outside of the “norm,” it challenges their stereotypes. In other words: women have stereotypes for other women, tropes that we expect other women to fulfill. We can’t change this until we have challenged these ideas of what it means to be a woman. We also have to deal with being sold “What it Means to be a Woman” via advertisements, media, and institutions from an obnoxiously early age. (One person I interviewed pointed out how in hospitals the signs often say “He’s a Boy!” and “It’s a Girl!”) Add on to that decades of layered concepts of how we are supposed to dress and behave and walk and talk…  and it’s just a minefield of images and concepts we have to break down and address.

Here’s a good example of how deep the stereotype goes: when Kathryn Bigelow directed ‘The Hurt Locker,’ the main topic was “Can you believe a woman directed that movie?” Why not a woman? It makes me ask, “What are we thinking of women that we are surprised one made a great war movie?”

What has helped me personally through that minefield is what I think will help a lot of other women, and it’s pretty simple: seeing and hearing amazing women directors talking about what their lives and how they approach their work.  Focusing on the process and not the problem is strangely liberating.

We’re seeing an uprising of female collectives and organizations such as Film Fatales (founded by Leah Meyerhoff), The Director List, Alliance of Women Directors, and even smaller grass-roots groups aimed at supporting one another. How do you think these groups will disrupt and change the industry for the better?

These groups are essential. Leah Meyerhoff started the expression “peer to peer mentorship” which is what these groups provide. There are simply not enough people (men or women) mentoring all the women who want and need mentorship, so in these groups we get some semblance of that in access to information and encouragement of one another. When you have empowered women who aren’t isolated, that’s when a movement gets a hold. But it takes more than one group, it takes thousands all working with a common goal: more women doing more, better, and fiscally savvier work.

(left, Cady McClain, courtesy of Soho International Film Festival, right, Leah Meyerhoff, courtesy of Danielle Lurie)

(left, Cady McClain, courtesy of Soho International Film Festival, right, Leah Meyerhoff, courtesy of Danielle Lurie)

 

In a recent interview, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said they do want to look for a female director for ‘Star Wars’ but that they can’t have a woman with “no experience”. (Which seems ironic because Star Wars was George Lucas’ third feature film ever and Colin Trevorrow had only directed shorts before being handed ‘Jurassic Park’ and the next ‘Star Wars’ film…we could keep going). How are women supposed to push past roadblocks like this?

Here’s what I think she was referring to: studio films and television are big business.  They are also hugely technical operations that few people are brought into the process of learning. No matter that some men have been given opportunities to helm a major picture, the truth is it takes years to understand all the elements behind the making of a major motion picture or even a large scale television show.

It isn’t like the old days when a maverick director will be gambled on time and again. The risk factor grows higher as the platforms for viewing grow more varied and the big money film game becomes more tenuous. However, in this particular situation, men are still mentoring other men to be groomed to step into these roles of high responsibility, and given chances to helm a new franchise under the watchful eye of a master. Women aren’t getting these mentored options. WHY?

Is it because women have to take time off to have kids and (generally) men often do not? I think it’s possible this is the underlying assumption, and why women aren’t being “risked” on.  Sometimes when a woman has a child, she wants years off.  In this consideration, a director is someone a studio invests in. For that director to stop a career mid-stream, for whatever reason, it could potentially be conceived as a financial risk from the investors point of view. The argument from movie business could be that it “can’t afford” the time women need to take away. It’s simply not financially feasible.

(courtesy of Xaviera Lopez)

(courtesy of Xaviera Lopez)

 

Now this argument is not just lingering in the movie business, it can be found across every field: academia, banking, art, business… you name it. “You’re going to have a kid and leave. Why should we invest in your future?” It’s maddening. It’s enough to make some women chose career over children. But that is not sociologically feasible.

I don’t know how to change this mindset that seems to endlessly linger under the surface, but I know it exists. On soaps, you had to have the plague to not show up for work. And that’s an interesting point. Many of the leading women who worked on soaps had kids, and they managed just fine. The bosses didn’t let them out early so they could pick up the kids from school. Somehow, they made it work, and the business did not suffer. So clearly, it’s more a old world mindset than a “risk” reality.

You interviewed women in different countries as well as the United States, how different was the problem around the world for female directors?

Russian Glurjidze from the country of Georgia said now there are more women directors than men in her country as a result of a 20 year war. Many people died, men and women, and those who were left ended up being really strong. She called them a “woman’s mafia,” jokingly, but I think it must be awesome to have such a strong female presence across the societal map.

South America is a different story, and Asia yet another story. Women are still fighting for their voices there. France is much more supportive of women; The Netherlands have parity in the government support for women filmmakers (this is pretty recent); and Canada is also fighting for parity among filmmakers. Germany, I hear, is very much an “insider” culture. It doesn’t matter so much what sex you are as to whom you are related to!

(courtesy of Alex di Suvero)

(courtesy of Alex di Suvero)

 

What do you think it will take for us to get to a place where we don’t even need to use the world “female” in front of “director” anymore?

We can stop doing it right now. We just have to all agree to stop.

Words are so trendy now, don’t you think? The new slang is over before we’ve learned it so perhaps the phrase “women director” will simply pass from our lexicon. On the other hand, people love to categorize so it may be a while.

“Diverse” is not a great word, either. It seems to suggest that “we in the diverse category” are somehow not “the norm” and therefore, “not normal,” based not on our experiences but on our physical makeup. Which is ridiculous if you think about 1) the actual population numbers (women are 50-51% of the population, therefore just as “norm” as men and 2) how human beings react to things. Shock is shock. Pain is pain. Joy is joy.  You don’t have different shock because you are a man or from a different culture.

I think “diversity based on physical makeup” is simply a lie we all have to stop agreeing to believe.  What is really interesting to me is not so much diversity in our makeup, but diversity in experience. And what’s  even wonderful and strange is that talking about our unique experiences is where we realize how much we all have in common as human beings.

So… if you are a woman who is a director, just call yourself a director. We don’t say “Woman Doctor,” or “Woman Accountant” right? We’re directors. Period.


You can lean more about Cady McClain on her website and also keep up to date with news about ‘Seeing Is Believing’. You can see a sneak preview of the series below:

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