Director, producer, and writer Jodi Binstock is a true Hollywood helmer with a diverse filmography. She's perhaps most known in the genre-sphere for her work on the SYFY series Z Nation, which returns for Season 5 this month — but she's also contributed to film with movies like 2004's Call Waiting and this year's I'll Be Watching, currently airing on Lifetime starring Janel Parrish.
As part of our ongoing Female Filmmaker Friday series, SYFY FANGRRLS spoke with Binstock about how she got her start as a director, working with Lifetime on I'll Be Watching, how the TV industry can become more inclusive for women working behind the camera, and what fans can look forward to with Z Nation's return.
Some of your earliest directing work was in multi-camera comedy, most specifically Boy Meets World. What's the biggest difference between working on a multi-cam show versus a single-cam drama, where the format is different?
It's a huge difference. That was a great boon for me as an aspiring female director. Back in the day when that was happening, there were no female directors in single-camera. And multi-camera was one area that they were trying to give me, as a matter of fact, trying to open up the world. So I was fortunate enough to get the Disney Directing Fellowship. I was one of two women that got it in a year. Michael Jacobs was the first one to open it up.
I don't know how much has changed, even to this day because there are these fellowships and there are these female filmmaker programs that are an opportunity for female filmmakers to basically shadow on shows. The irony of that is, why should you have to shadow? Why aren't you just given a shot like the men are?
But it was a great opportunity back when I was doing it, and I had had some experience in theater and so that was more in line with what multi-cam is because it's proscenium and you have to stage things is a very flat two-dimensional space. The difference in single-camera from a director's standpoint [is] it's much more creatively fulfilling because you can use the camera to tell the story in a way that you can't with multi-camera. You can focus on a small closeup, on a hand twitching or a look in the eyes that you can never do on multi-cam.
Jumping forward a little, your latest film, I'll Be Watching, definitely takes a page from the thriller sub-genre but it has a great example of female empowerment in the lead character. What drew you to the project initially, and what was the most important part of the story that you wanted to bring across in your direction?
That was the first opportunity I've had to work with a female writer (Christi R. Walsh) and a female screenwriter (Sydney Walsh). [And] I liked that part about the character; she was never a weakling. She took her own challenge into her own hands. In the middle of the film, she actually leaves her protection in order to take care of herself and to take care of others and I found that it was iconic as a female empowerment story, that she wasn't just a victim.
I'm doing another film with the same writers this year. It is also about a strong woman. So that was what was the most attractive to me about it. And I wanted to do a thriller. I love that aspect a lot. That scary, keep-you-at-the-edge-of-your-seat, what's-gonna-happen-next vibe.
It isn't the first Lifetime movie that you've worked on, and I think they get a lot of unfairly gendered criticism in the way that they're perceived. What do you think some of the biggest misconceptions still are about the "Lifetime movie" from the general audience?
I think you hit the nail on the head. The two reviews that I've read about the movie so far echoed my own sentiments about it, which are that this is not a typical "the nanny killed the kids" kind of story. And I think Lifetime is trying to break out of that a little bit.
The truth is, if we're talking for Female Filmmaker Friday, there are not that many opportunities for female filmmakers. That has been one of the biggest challenges of being a female filmmaker, the opportunities. Directing isn't like other art forms. When you write, you get to sit in your apartment or your house and hammer away at your art. As a filmmaker, it's such a collaborative medium that it requires so many people to achieve what you want. It's the hardest part about being a director. And I would love opportunities to do major motion pictures, but that has not presented itself in my career.
This is something that I have recently come to start talking about as a woman, is that 12 years out of my career after Boy Meets World I directed a feature called Call Waiting, specifically to try and show the industry that I could do single camera.
That was right at the point where Who Wants to be a Millionaire? took over all the multi-camera opportunities anyway so it was a confluence of all those events. But then I got pregnant and I had a baby and this is the part that a lot of people, I don't find, talk about. I grew up on the heels of the Gloria Steinem feminist movement. We were told that we could have it all. I have personally not found that to be true. When I had a baby it took me right out of the market. It was a choice. With these kinds of hours, you can't do both. And I was a single mom, that's the other aspect. So there was a group of years that I wasn't able to work towards furthering my career.
And god bless The Asylum, they were the ones who gave me the opportunity with another Lifetime movie called A Snow Globe Christmas to direct for the first time after 10 years. That was the springboard that led me to Z Nation, which led me to I'll Be Watching, which led me to the next movie I'm doing. That, combined with the fact that there's this incredible women's movement happening right now, I have an extraordinary second chance at a career that I never thought would happen. And that's pretty cool. That part I'm pretty jazzed about.
What do you think are some of the changes that still need to take place in the television industry, specifically for female directors?
What actually changed the landscape for women — and I can see this so much clearer now than I've ever been able to — I think it's getting women that are producers, that are head of networks, that are head of studios, that are the green-light people, to start saying yes to other women. I think that is what's actually going to change it because I don't think it's going to change in the traditional model.
I think that there are a lot of good guys out there that are willing to give women a leg up but until we change it for ourselves, until we start getting into those positions, and I think it's happening right now, women have to start including more women.
I've done that on all my sets as when I've been producing. And we just had to hire new ADs and I made sure that they were female. I don't mean that at the exclusion of men, but there has to come a point where you have to look at that first, interview those people, see if they're qualified, but at least give them the shot. At least take a flyer on them. On episode four that I just directed of Z Nation, I asked to work with a female editor. I think that is what is going to make the difference. Eventually, like all pendulums, it will swing and there will be some equality but, in the interim, I think we may have to lean on the side of women hiring women for a time to start balancing the scales.
Speaking of Z Nation, is there anything you can tease about what's coming up in the new season?
I've been fortunate to be in the writers' room, and as the producer and a director, I know it intimately. We've always tried to do a little bit outside of the box working with regard to the genre. We've always tried to different things with zombies every year. Well this year, because of what happens with Warren at the end of last season, suddenly the zombies have become salient. They can talk. That changes the whole dynamic and that's what the entire season is about. I think it's going to be fantastic. If you wanna go a little deeper with it, it's a metaphor of what it's like to be different.
We introduced a new character this year, a new strong female young woman named George, who's played by Katy O'Brien, and she's just terrific and I think audiences are going to like her a lot. Is that a good tease?
How is Black Summer going to expand on what we've already seen on Z Nation and how does a platform like Netflix impact the stories that are being told within that universe?
Really, the only similarity between Z Nation and Black Summer is that the Black Summer is the first summer that Z Nation took place in. Z Nation, when it begins, is in year four of the zombie apocalypse. Black Summer is three months in; this is the first outbreak, this is when all the sh*t's hitting the fan. It's not tongue-in-cheek at all. It is as realistic as any television I've ever seen.
The creator, John Hines, along with Karl Schaefer, who's the creator of Z Nation, wanted to do something very different in the genre that is extremely popular. You stand the chance of, "Oh, that old trope, that old zombie thing, I'm done with zombies". They wanted to do something different. John's philosophy is that one realistic zombie is far more terrifying than a horde of them coming at you. There's also the realism of what would happen if your husband turned into a zombie, or your child turned into a zombie. It's the real grittiness of that, and that's what Black Summer is. The way it's being shot is extremely unique too, and Netflix allows you to do that. Z Nation is more of a PG show and I would say that Black Summer is much more of an R show.
Are there any other genre projects that you're currently working on or have in the early stages of development that you can talk about yet?
My producing partner Steve Graham is writing a genre Christmas movie, which is an interesting twist on the original. It's not a traditional Hallmark Christmas movie, it's more of a sci-fi Christmas movie. We have a couple of other projects that we are pitching to different companies that are genre, but we're also doing some other stuff that's not genre.
That the other project that I'm doing with the Walshes, the writer of I'll be Watching is ... right now it's called Blue Waters, I'm not sure what the title of it will end up being, but it's definitely a thriller suspense. That's something to look forward to, and we'll be shooting that, I believe, in February.
This interview has been edited and condensed.