May 9, 2008

A Previous Engagement- Written and Directed by Joan Carr-Wiggin

I met Joan and her husband and producer David Gordian over a year ago as they were struggling to get a distribution deal for their film A Previous Engagement starring Juliet Stevenson. We became friends and I have been working with them over the last couple of months to try and get the word out about this comedy, which is unique in this film climate, because at its center is a woman over 50.

Joan Carr-Wiggin answered some questions about her film and why its so hard to get women's stories made in the business.

Women & Hollywood: What made you decide to write this story?

Joan Carr-Wiggin: I really wanted to tell a story about an older woman taking control of her life. Not in a "she realizes taking care of her family is the most important thing when she becomes terminally ill" way. I see so many fascinating, funny, and complicated older women living great lives, but I don’t see women like that in films.
W&H: Did you know that you would be directing it when you wrote it?
JCW: Yes. That influenced the script. I don’t think I’d enjoy directing something too depressing. I write a wide range of scripts, I even wrote a sci fi one once which was a lot of fun, and I’ve written some very dramatic pieces, but I’m only interested in directing comedy. Preston Sturges is my favourite director, and I agree with the theme of his wonderful movie Sullivan’s Travels. Watching comedy makes life a little easier for people.
W&H: Most women filmmakers struggle to get financing for their films, but you seem to have had an easier time with it. Why do you think that's the case and what secrets can you share with other women looking for financing?
JCW: It's really hard to finance any kind of character-based film in Hollywood, not just one about women. One of our biggest advantages is that my husband David Gordian, who produced the film, raises our financing in Canada and Europe, which are much more welcoming of women directors and character-based films than the American system. And the less money you need to raise, the more freedom you have as a filmmaker. We’re only interested in doing smaller character driven films that feature performances rather than stunts and explosions. We have no desire to make a number one film at the box office. We just try to make a movie we’ll enjoy ourselves. But Hollywood always wants to maximize gross revenues, even if the budget and the advertising costs wipe out their profits. It’s a “bigger is better” mentality, and we just don’t share it at all.
W&H: The line that resonates the most in the film is: "if people really knew who their mothers really were the world would end." Why do you think it resonates so much?
JCW: It's one of those things everyone knows is true but no one ever talks about it. I think most of us, as we get older, start to glimpse that our mothers were much more complicated than we realized, and we often regret not getting to know the real woman underneath.
W&H: Why do you think it’s so difficult to get films about women over 40 made?
JCW: There's a tendency in Hollywood to see films that have a young and male sensibility as universal, and to see films that have an older and female sensibility as only appealing to a niche. But I’ve discovered that A Previous Engagement strikes a chord with a lot of men as well as women. So their premise just isn’t accurate. Part of the problem is that even when Hollywood does make a film about an older woman, it often ends up presenting an absurd caricature instead of a real woman, so of course the film fails. And then Hollywood uses its failure as an excuse not to finance interesting and promising films about older women. But I was an economist before I was a filmmaker, so I know there are many economic models which can allow films to be made and distributed. I think smart filmmakers should just turn their backs on Hollywood. It operates on a business model which functions, fairly efficiently, for the delivery of simplistic movies for the lowest common denominator. And sometimes I enjoy those movies myself. But usually I don’t, and I would never want to direct one.
W&H: Why do you think that the climate is so hostile to women directors?
JCW: Sexism is the short answer, and that explains a great deal of it. Women make up about 6% of film directors, so there are actually more women law partners, politicians and even astronauts proportionally than directors. The fact that Hollywood lags so far behind other industries helps to explain why they continue to make movies that don’t show women accurately. And they use absurd excuses to resist change, such as the myth that directing is a difficult job for mothers. Except for during the actual filming, which is a small part of the overall job, the hours are flexible and a lot of work can be done from home. And of course no one talks about directing being too demanding a job for fathers. But I’m optimistic that things will start to get better for women directors with the rise of digital cinema and the internet, which are both breaking down the entire economic model of the Hollywood production and distribution system. The world is changing in wonderful exciting ways, even if Hollywood isn’t.
W&H: What advice would you give to other women filmmakers?
JCW: Watch great movies, and remember that once you get past the financing struggles, actors and crew people are really accepting of women directors. A Previous Engagement was an absolute joy to make. And be persistent.

A Previous Engagement opens today in NY and LA.
A Previous Engagement