Without doubt, one of the must-see films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival: London is Amy Adrion’s debut feature documentary, Half the Picture, an insightful film that examines the lack of female film directors working in the Hollywood system – Our review is here to find out more.
With the documentary raising issues still at the forefront of our mind, we sat down with Amy to discuss the film, the challenges in getting it made and just what else needs to be done to improve the dismal statistics.
Hi Amy, congratulations on the film. Would you mind talking us through the statistics again briefly?
Yeah, so in the past ten to twenty years, women direct 4% of top feature films. The number goes up or down a little bit each year, but averaged out it works out as 96% men and 4% women. And women of colour in the US, around 19% of the population, they direct .006% of films, so not even half of 1%. So women’s voices are certainly marginalised and women of colour are basically erased.
And why is that?
That’s the big question. I think people have a vision in their minds of what a director looks like, what someone in that position of authority looks like. And largely it’s a white man, and it takes a lot of mental reconfiguration to visualise other people in that role. You look at the gender imbalance in the industry and it’s still very much a white male dominated hierarchy, whether that’s those who green light films, those who distribute films, film critics, it’s dominated by men. I’m sure they can see the value in stories by other people, but we all naturally connect to stories we connect to, and I think its a bit more of a lift for men to connect to some of those stories.
Do you think the imbalance in the film industry is reflective of society as a whole?
Well, certainly the issues women face in entertainment, they also face in politics or in the corporate world. It’s the difficulty people have accepting women in those leadership roles and these visionary roles. I think a lot of people in the general public don’t really understand perhaps why it’s important to have diversity behind the camera.
Most people assume Hollywood hires successful directors to make more films, and there’s not as much of an understanding of what a director does, and how that person’s life experience can affect what we see on the big screen. I think that’s changing a little bit now, but when you see the same kinds of stories told from the same perspective over and over again, it’s not representative of the people living in society, its the same slice of life you see over and over again.
I think when you look at the presidential election in the US, you just see so many examples of people finding it difficult to accept women in those leadership roles, and people for whatever reason had difficulty accepting Hilary Clinton – she was not as likeable and things like that, which I think come down to gender issues. I mean, there’s a lot of double standards that are prevalent and you see that in so many different fields. Trump gets judged by one standard, Clinton gets judged by another.
And certainly in Hollywood, people assume it’s a business, they want to make money, so they’re gonna hire people with a history of making money, but that’s not what happens. there are women who make huge hits and they still get seen as one-offs or anomalies, and they don’t get those next big opportunities. There’s no economic explanation for it.
There’s still a lot going on currently with the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, and a lot of this started whilst you were in post-production on Half the Picture. Did that change the direction the film was going in during the editing process?
Yeah, so we started filming in December 2015 and the Weinstein revelations came out in October 2017, so we were pretty far along in making the film. But in the beginning of the film originally, there was a director who mentions Harvey Weinstein, and we had short clips of people talking about how great the women directors in the film are, and in that short section, someone mentioned Harvey Weinstein. Jeffrey Tambor was in that section, Charlie Rose was in it, and so was Matt Lauer. So literally week by week, we cut those people out of the film because the whole point of the opening of the film was to celebrate female directors, so here’s Matt Lauer talking about how great this person is, here’s Charlie Rose interviewing Karyn Kusama, talking about how great Girlfight (2000) is.
But just the presence of these men made your mind go to the accusations and stuff like that, so we were cutting them out of the film by the day. So yeah, the revelations about this kind of harassment and criminal behaviour did affect the edit of our film. The conversation changed even since we started making the film – some of the women we interviewed talk about issues of sexual harassment in the film and they present them as stories of how they overcame it through their own wit or smarts, and I think these women would recount those stories a little bit differently now, given what has become known.
So how did you get all these great women on tape? Were they eager to discuss the subject?
Not really. I think these women all care about this issue, which is why they sat down with us. So many of them are incredibly busy – they were between feature film projects, they were in the editing room, they were promoting their work. So the fact they took time out of their schedules to speak to us about these issues is a testament as to how much they care about the lack of opportunities for women directors.
But it’s not that easy to get women to talk about these issues necessarily, because they want to keep working in the business, and so much of being a director is presenting yourself as this confident, successful person, and recounting these stories of being dismissed or being undermined, stories that none of us really want to talk about, it’s a risk. But I think these women understand that sharing these stories helps create a change where there women won’t have to deal with that as much.
Were there people you wanted to talk who you couldn’t get?
Yes. There are a couple of people who I pursued doggedly for years, and it was a little bit heartbreaking that we couldn’t get them to sit down with us. Some of them are just busy, and some don’t want to or feel like they need to speak on this subject, so I understand that as well.
Do you think this is because that now they finally have their success, they don’t want to comment on it for fear of hurting themselves professionally?
I think that’s been the case for a very long time. People have clawed their way through that open door, and they have been very reluctant to reach back. They think ‘I’m barely in this room, I’m not going to spend my political capital fighting for other women when I’m very insecure in my position here’.
But I think that really is changing, this idea that women have felt like they’ve been pitted against one another in the past and have been reluctant to help one another because there’s this idea that ‘she could take my spot’. People are realising that a rising tide lifts all boats, and if you have more then one woman in a room, you’re more secure in having your voice amplified, and it’s harder to be pushed out.
There’s an older generation of women directors who felt like ‘hey, I made it and its on you to figure it out for yourself, because I almost killed myself to get here’ and I think the next generation of women are thinking about that very differently. And that’s a significant change.
What did you personally take away from making the film?
All these women I admire so much faced a lot of the same challenges that I’ve faced and continue to face as a woman director. So many of the women said ‘you need to understand this system was not built for you, and you can’t expect it to embrace you. When you get rejected or when high profile actors don’t want to be in your film or when a festival rejects you or whatever, you cannot take it personally. Be tough, fake it till you make it, and keep on going’.
I look at that as, OK, if these women I admire so much and who are at the top of their game, if they’ve had to do that, then they’re not blessed with some special thing I don’t have. I just need to take that advice and keep going.
Did you face any challenges or rejections with this film during the process that tested that?
Yeah, of course. We applied for a bunch of grants for the film. We applied for fifteen and got one. But each time, you put your film or project out into the world, you say ‘Help us! Get behind this! Don’t you think this is great?’ and people say no, it’s discouraging, and you have to not lose confidence in the value of the project, yourself or your vision. Just keep going.
I was wondering why you didn’t go to the big studio executives and put the microphone to them on the matter?
A few reasons. One, I think if I’d interviewed the head of Warner Bros or the head of Paramount or the head of CAA or WME or Variety, I don’t think I would have got any enlightening answers. They would have talked about their diversity programmes and how committed they are to diversity and it would have been a lot of talking points that wouldn’t have been any use in the film.
Secondly, I think that so much of this conversation about women directors hasn’t centred on women director themselves. Its about statistics, or it’s about male allies who are giving women these opportunities and these names get spoken about more then the actual women. We haven’t really heard their stories that much, so I wanted to centre them and their experiences in the film. There are literally no men interviewed in the film at all.
I was inspired by a documentary called The Punk Singer about the feminist punk singer Kathleen Hanna, and she said in that film she didn’t want anyone from Rolling Stone or a music critic from the New York Times saying ‘this is why Kathleen Hanna is important because blah-blah-blah’ and really give it to a man to justify her significance. She said ‘I’m enough and these women talking about our experiences are enough’.
So we didn’t need Martin Scorsese talking about how great Kimberly Peirce is, and he would, because he’s a huge fan of hers but he and those other men already have enough space in our culture, so wanted to make space for these women to talk about their experiences.
Did you ever have the concern that this documentary would just be preaching to the choir? That the people who are going to see it already agree with you? How do you combat that to show it to those who need to be swayed?
We have so much footage which isn’t in the film, which is kind of heartbreaking. But we always wanted to make a entertaining, punchy, engaging 95 minute film that someone could find on TV or see in a theatre and be completely engaged by it, even if they knew nothing of this issue. That was the objective in making it.
Largely, this is going to be a film with a female audience, I would guess. I want it to reach everyone, and I think lots of people can appreciate it and be entertained by it. But I’m not bothered if it ends up being seen by a largely female audience, so long as they are inspired by the it. There a lots of films that have largely male audiences, and that’s not seen as a detriment, it just is what it is. I think women will get a lot out of it.
You also devote time in the movie to discuss the largely male community of film criticism. As critics and film journalists, what can we do to help the cause?
As with so many things, opening your hearts and minds to stories that may not be as familiar, and shouting out about great work by women directors and women filmmakers. Film reviewers are largely male, and I feel you hear the same names in the canon again and again when discussing geniuses in the field, and yes they are geniuses, but I feel the names of women directors fall off and you don’t hear those names as much any more. Part of the joy of this film for me was resurrecting the work of these amazing filmmakers and showing little scenes from Boys Don’t Cry or American Psycho or Selma or Love and Basketball. And you think ‘oh yeah, that was such a good movie’ and you don’t hear those names recounted as much.
Thanks to Amy Adrion for taking the time to speak to us. Half the Picture premieres at the Sundance Film Festival: London this weekend – buy tickets here.