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Female Filmmaker Friday: A conversation with Half the Picture director Amy Adrion

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May 25, 2018

Welcome to Female Filmmaker Friday, a new series from SYFY FANGRRLS devoted to celebrating women in film in all of their various roles—both in front of and behind the camera! This week, we spoke to director Amy Adrion, whose documentary Half the Picture chronicles the struggle faced by female directors in Hollywood.

News that Ava DuVernay is directing a New Gods movie or that Star Wars hired their first female director, Victoria Mahoney, might make it seem like female directors are finally getting their share of the spotlight. But that's simply not the case. Opportunities for women in the film and television industry are still woefully disproportionate to men, and Amy Adrion's documentary Half the Picture details the exact struggle — from female directors, in their own words.

Set to screen at Sundance London, the film features interviews with Lena Dunham, Catherine Hardwicke, Gina Prince-Bythewood and dozens of other female directors who share their experiences with Adrion.

The filmmaker took time out ahead of the festival to speak with SYFY FANGRRLS about the film, its mission statement, and her own career in an industry which continues to be dominated by men.

How easy was it to get all the women on camera for an interview?

This is my first feature film so I'm not a filmmaker who was approaching these women with various Academy Awards in my back pocket, but I was very pleasantly surprised that all the women we reached out to said yes, they'd do it. I'm really grateful to Catherine Hardwicke, who was one of the first interviews we did and she's been outspoken about this issue for a long time since she made her first feature Thirteen. Getting her to sit down with me really opened the door to a lot of other women being willing to sit down with us. The women who took time out to speak to us were just really passionate about the issue, and that's why they did it.

When did you first conceive the idea for the documentary?

I was always aware of how few women directors there were. I remember growing up and being really fixated on Amy Heckerling. She was a woman director and she made high school movies that were fantastic, and she has the same name as me! When there is literally one or a couple of directors you can name growing up you're aware that there aren't that many of them. I went to graduate school for directing at UCLA and I after I graduated I was trying to get some of my own narrative projects going and I found it really hard, as did many of my female peers, and right around that time I just felt really assaulted by the daily sad news about women directors.

Every headline, every statistic, every report, or the research findings was just so discouraging. This was in 2015 and I just remember thinking, "am I trying to do something that is basically impossible? Is there no path for someone to have a career as a director, especially when you're not born to a Hollywood family?" So I thought, "I know some female directors, I've worked with some female directors, let me see if they will sit down with me and talk to me about how they broke through." 

The statistics since the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) got involved, as well as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), haven't seen really too much improvement for women. Why is that?

The EEOC is still in negotiations with studios as far as we know. They work confidentially, they don't talk about their work until a settlement has been resolved and apparently they are still talking to studios to come up with programs to address their systemic discrimination.

I don't understand why it's so hard for studios to make these changes!

Yeah! I've spoken to Melissa Goodman at the ACLU and she said it's not uncommon for it to take a very long time. And that's just one part of it, putting pressure on the studios, but another part is just increased public shaming and public awareness of how bad the numbers are for women directors.

But you're right, I think for television the number of women directing pilots has gone up a little bit from last year but the numbers for feature films have not even changed at all. Even given the fact that the federal government is investigating Hollywood, which I think just shows you how deeply entrenched these ways of working are. It's really hard to get them to think differently.

Do you think male directors are actually being the allies behind-the-scenes as they are in the headlines?

I think everyone can do more, but there are high profile examples of people like J.J. Abrams who was instrumental in getting Victoria Mahoney signed on as a second unit director for the next Star Wars movie. It's not the director of the movie, but it's a big step. So I think there are people in positions of power that are saying, "we need to hire a woman for this" or "you need to consider this project by this woman who I know is really talented."

Ultimately in Hollywood there are so many jobs, there are so many films that get made that I think everyone is in theory very supportive of diversity, of greater representation of women but when it actually comes down to a job that you're going to get or a job that a woman's going to get I'm sure the male directors want to keep working and getting those jobs. They are lucrative, high-profile and come with a lot of prestige — why would they want to give that up?

Gina Prince-Bythewood

Gina Prince-Bythewood was one of the female directors who took part in the documentary

What's been the response to the film from male industry figures?

Well it's interesting, pretty much everybody that I've encountered personally have been incredibly supportive and I have to say there is a mini-army of male colleagues and producers who found out about this project, and have introduced me to many of the women who I have interviewed in this film, so I owe a great deal to a lot of men who have helped me make connections.

Certainly, everyone in person has been supportive, but if you look at any article online that talks about representation, the call for more female directors, or asking for parity — the comments you will find on those articles reveal a great discomfort and fury that people are experiencing when these issues are brought up. Women are half the world and it's often presented as if we're trying to get special access or special treatment for our group. We are half the world and to fight for a seat at the table should not be a radical act, but it is.

Has the fact that you're female been used against you in your career so far?

I don't know if I've had that exact experience, but I think it's more a persistent and pernicious sense that women's stories are niche stories and are just essentially less commercial and less valuable than male stories. When women are centered in a story, if it's about "women's issues," there is a general devaluing that happens and that's in so many different fields. You look at the work that women traditionally tend to do, whether it's caring or teaching or those jobs that are less valued than traditionally male jobs, but I haven't had specifically egregious instances of that in my career, I think it's just a general sense.

Even if you look at Sundance this past year, which was an incredible festival for women and women's stories... there were a lot of films with strong, interesting, flawed female characters at the center and it was a really tough year for the sales of those films and I think distributors are still trying to figure out what to make of those stories. And that's not one specific instance of sexism or anything. It's women needing to fight for their stories being heard or valued.

Half the Picture makes the point that this issue is a civil rights issue. Do you think that because the industry is glamorous, people don't see it as being as pressing an issue as gender discrimination in medicine, business or politics?

Absolutely, and I think that's one of the many reasons why women haven't felt comfortable about speaking up about some of these issues for a very long time. People say, "Oh, you're living up in the Hollywood Hills, you get to direct movies and this kind of job is a privilege anyway, so why are you fighting for this when there are people working minimum wage jobs who are really struggling?" and "You all should be happy with what you've got." That's been an argument against movement on this issue for a long time, but I think you can't underestimate how powerful our media is.

People grow up watching TV shows, movies and listening to music and if you hear the same kind of messages, starting from when you're a little child to adulthood, about the kinds of people who matter in those stories the people who get to take action, who are the heroes, we learn a lot from our media. So the people who make that media need to be representative of the people that consume and that is far from the case currently.

How much impact can a documentary like this make on culture?

I think many of us are familiar with the statistics, we know that the numbers are bad and those numbers have been bad for a really long time. My hope is that this film makes the emotional argument for what the problem is and why it matters. You actually hear the stories from women directors themselves and what they've experienced and the challenges that they face and largely overcome. Once you connect with them as characters and you see how talented and funny and smart and incredible they are it's easier to really understand what the loss is, that these women have had it so tough and that they haven't been able to make the work that they've wanted to make at the same level as their male counterparts.

So I hope for general audiences they understand this emotional weight of what is lost when you bar certain people or put barriers in front of people who want to tell their stories and honestly I hope that an industry audience sees the film too. Producers and agents and studio executives and people in their day to day life and work can affect the business. I hope that they see the film, and I've been encouraged that many of them have seen it and said to me that they thought about things differently. I've had male film critics and festival programmers say they've thought about things a little differently after seeing the film and that's incredibly gratifying. 

Sundance Film Festival '18: London takes place from May 31 to June 3. Find out more ticket information here. You can find out more about Half the Picture's release schedule by going to HalfThePicture.com.