You’ve heard the stirring speeches, read the shocking statistics, and witnessed the demonstrations tackling gender inequality in Hollywood—now, hear women directors share their experiences of hardship and defiance in their own words. In Half the Picture, a new documentary from director Amy Adrion, 40 filmmakers including Ava DuVernay and Miranda July try to address the age-old question: Why are so few women being hired to direct films?
It’s a question that Adrion says she found herself constantly confronting in the summer of 2015, when she was having a difficult time getting her film financed and “kept reading all these headlines about the horrible statistics of working women directors in Hollywood.”
“Any way you looked at or sliced the numbers, it was discouraging,” she told Broadly over the phone. “I mean, women have shorter timelines of careers in the business; the ages that they wind up working in the business are so much shorter than men. First time television directors are still 85% men—people who have never directed a TV episode before. Women working in studio films—those numbers are terrible. Women working in tentpole films—those numbers are terrible. Women being nominated for awards, Academy Awards—those numbers are pathetic. I felt I was just being kind of assaulted by all this really discouraging information as I was trying to get my work made and I just began thinking like: Am I trying to do something that’s impossible?”
Around the same time, the ACLU began investigating systemic discrimination practices in Hollywood, and Adrion says it finally felt as if women in the entertainment industry had “powerful allies who are taking these issues seriously.”
“But I think a lot of people just assume Hollywood is a business, that directors who make the most money keep getting jobs, it’s competitive, women shouldn’t get special consideration, or that they’re asking for an advantage over men and that’s not fair,” Adrion says, describing a common misconception used to dismiss the concerns of women filmmakers. “And they’re just not aware of the fact that women directors have incredibly successful films, and they still just continue to not get those next opportunities, which is not indicative of an economic reality, but is indicative of a cultural unease we have with the idea of women leaders.”
Broadly spoke with Adrion about making a movie where she let women tell their own stories, and what her fellow directors taught her about defiance and resilience.
BROADLY: You made a distinct choice with the formatting of the film, in which women sat squarely in front of the camera to give their testimonies. Can you talk about that decision?
AMY ADRION: I think people are becoming more aware of the numbers, and our mission with this film was very much to present the emotional argument for why this matters. You get to meet actual women directors who are the center of the film. Their experiences are the film. And you really connect with them as characters, and they are so talented and smart and funny and sharp and passionate that, I think, the hope is that you really feel what a loss it is that all of them have had such a hard road.
And hopefully, then you realize what a loss it is for our culture that these incredibly talented women have not been given the opportunity to make more work. And have not been given the opportunities that their male counterparts have been given. So that was definitely key for the film. So much of this conversation about women directors, I feel people wind up talking about diversity programs, or shadowing, or male allies who are supportive of women directors, which are great, you know,—thank you to the male allies. But the women who are the center of this story often are not actually the focus of what is talked about. So that is absolutely what we wanted this film to be. Like, here are 30 of the women who are the center of what we’re talking about, and they’re gonna tell you about their experiences. And it’s not gonna be an established male director explaining why these women are talented, or what the problem is, or even like a male executive giving some gobbledygook about the diversity programs at their studio. It’s: Here are the women telling their stories in their own words.
I’m sure many of the stories you heard were relatable as a filmmaker—but were there any anecdotes that stood out as surprising, or perhaps highlighted something new for you?
I would say two things: One is that the conversation has really evolved since Me Too and most of the interviews that we filmed were before Me Too and that whole movement. You know, I wasn’t shocked, but I was disturbed to find out that many women in the film have had issues of sexual harassment and worse. Now that we all know what we know, it’s not that surprising. But you just think, it’s hard enough to have a career in this business, and to have guys like, literally ripping your clothes off—I can’t believe you have to deal with that shit.
Even knowing what we know/having read many Me Too stories, it’s almost surprising how surprised we still are by new news.
But also something else—I don’t know that I would say I was necessarily surprised, but maybe I was a little surprised and learned a lot from the women, and I’m trying to implement in my own life and career, is just how defiant they have had to be to continue to keep working. All of these women have been rejected by major film festivals and have applied for awards and been denied and tried to get financing and went after big actors, and basically have faced a lot of rejection in their careers and they’ve really had to develop this thick skin and be completely defiant and say: all of these rejections are not a reflection of my talents and the value of my work. And that assertion has been essential for their success.
And that has been very instructive for me, and I hope it is for other filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers who see the film—that you need to think that way. And many of us don’t naturally think that way: you get rejected and you think, oh, maybe I’m not as talented as I thought, or maybe my film isn’t as good. You lose enthusiasm for the thing that you’re working on. When powers that be tell you it’s no good or it’s not what they’re looking for, or whatever. And whether it’s Ava or Jill or Lena or Gina, all of those women have had to say, “I’m gonna take your no and I’m just gonna keep going because I’m not going to let that define me or discourage me.”
What has it been like for you to promote this movie in the wake of Me Too?
Well, I would say that even though our film is about women directors face and we do explore issues of sexual harassment in the film, even though it’s quite a small part of the film, this film is a celebration of female artistry, of female excellence, of filmmaking, and I said to people, if you feel discouraged by all the headlines that are so depressing about pay inequality, and #MeToo and sexual harassment, and how hard it is for women in the business—I actually feel like our film is kind of an antidote to a lot of those stories. First of all, the focus is not on men, men behaving badly. The focus is on these women who have made incredible work despite these challenges, and this is a celebration of them. I think a lot of people are—you know, I read all the articles, too—and you begin to feel just beaten down by how much bad news there is out there. It was really important for me to make a film that acknowledges the challenges, but that’s not ultimately what the film is. It’s a celebration of movie-making.
I hope this is a glimmer of hope for exposing some of this to the public and telling these stories for others to hear.
Thank you, and I think this is an exciting time actually, and this issue of women directors has waxed and waned in the media for as long as I can remember. But I have to say that this time does feel different. You have really high profile directors, who have a lot to lose, who are still speaking up about these issues. You have high profile actresses who used to never speak about this stuff, because they’re at the mercy of the studios, producers, and production companies for their next gig. You see these really courageous stands by Jessica Chastain and Natalie Portman are taking in support of greater representation. And that’s really new! And really exciting. I feel like systemic change is possible at this moment. That said, I think you also cannot underestimate how entrenched these ways of working are, and the people who have power and who have been running things for a long time are certainly not looking for anyone to tell them how they should do their job. And they are certainly not looking to share power with anyone else. There are a lot of powerful forces who are very happy with the status quo. So you just can’t underestimate that either.