November 7, 2008

Interview with Amy Redford, director of The Guitar

The Guitar is a tour de force for English actress Saffron Burrows. She plays Melody Wilder, an unhappy woman who is invisible to most around her and is given a month to live with advanced cancer of the larynx. She abandons her life as she knew it, rents a loft and prepares for her demise by running up her credit cards and learning to play the guitar she had been dreaming about her whole life. Turns out that in changing everything about herself and her life she tricked her cancer into a full remission. Melody now how to deal with the consequences of her spending as well as the new life she has created for herself, full of creativity and on her own terms.

The film is a true character study. Burrows is alone for most of the film. She begins the film literally and figuratively with no voice as a person and as a woman and at the conclusion she is reborn and finds her true authentic voice.

The film opens today in NY and depending on box office the film could open in other cities. Both director Amy Redford and lead actress Saffron Burrows will be at the Sunshine Theatre for a Q&A following the 7:15pm shows tonight and tomorrow night.

Actress Amy Redford (yes, Robert's daughter) makes her directorial debut with The Guitar which premiered at the 2008 Sundance film festival. She answered questions for Women & Hollywood the morning after the Obama election.

W&H: In the beginning people just talk at Melody and the words seem to bounce off her. When she's alone and sick she finds her voice. It struck me that she found her voice with barely any words.

Amy Redford: I went through a period in my life in my 20s when I had chronic laryngitis for three years and I realize now that I was not my authentic self. I was shut off so I totally related to the condition of the character. There is a quality of the physical manifestation that I thought was fascinating. It was also important to me for the character that it's the scariest when she is left to be on her own without even the devices she brings in to the room. She goes through this journey of buying the things but ultimately it's an appetite that will never be sated because what it's really about is not what you buy, it's really about the quiet. So that moment when she found her voice is like a rebirth, powerful and joyous.
W&H: How did you get the script?
AR: I was introduced to Amos Poe (the screenwriter) by a friend who thought I would be right for the lead role. I heard the story that inspired the script and I was haunted by the premise. I kept firing myself from the part and hiring other actors in my head. I had been looking for a project to direct for while, I knew this was the one when the images started coming to me naturally.
W&H: Do you still want to act?
AR: My passion lies in directing but I don't want to totally quit acting because its important to stay flexible. It's easy to be dismissive about actors because sometimes they are high maintenance. But being able to use all my faculties is really satisfying so directing feel like an evolution for me.
W&H: Lots of women director also write their own stories. Are you a writer?
AR: I really love the collaborative process and working with writers. I think there is a bigger window for stories about women that there have been. The next project I am working on is called Face Value about the actress Hedy Lamar. It's an inspiring story about a multi faceted woman. The black page is daunting to me.
W&H: What's the message of this film?
AR: It's funny, I should be so good at answering this question. What you take away from it is such a personal experience. It's really about questioning whether you are using the currency of your life to the fullest capacity. That's different for everybody and what they would do in the face of mortality is different for everybody. This movie isn't meant to be a prescription, it's meant to be a conversation. It can be literal when you are facing an illness, or metaphorical when you hit a road block or a turning point in your life. I hope people take their own conclusions. I don't want to tell someone what to feel.
W&H: Do you think that women have a hard time finding their voice?
AR: I think it's easier for women to submerge their voice. I think that women innately have wonderful things to say but to accomodate others it's easier for us to put our own voice aside. Even the loudest women are loud for a reason because they can't be heard. I just had a daughter two months ago and I hope that whatever I do has positive influence on her chances of not having to fight so hard. This election has shown us a lot of different ways to be a woman. Like her or not, Sarah Palin made it to the table and there is something to be said for that. There is something to be said that the conversation was not that she was a woman but what kind of woman she was. On the other hand we have Hillary Clinton who is beloved by so many. It's an interesting time and the conversation is steering more towards substance.
W&H: This film was a real departure for Saffron Burrows. Were you nervous about having to make her look not as beautiful as she really is?
AR: I think it speaks to her sophistication emotionally. I learned a lot because I felt she was too beautiful and was worried that people were going to be alienated by her beauty. But then I realized I was perpetuating the same thing and I had to give myself a spanking. It was the realization that it's really about the light that you have inside and what you project. You can be a beautiful person but if you are shut down inside you are not going to attract people, and you can be unconventional looking and be projecting a kind of life force that people can't get enough of. She so completely understood what I meant that I knew she was right for the part. She was at the perfect moment in her life and her career. She had a lack of vanity that allowed her to be truthful which I appreciated. We shot the film chronologically so my job was to start her off in the right place, to begin the film in the right pitch and then go for the ride and see what happens.
W&H: Was it a small budget?
AR: The shoot was 21 days and the budget was really small. I can't even talk about it, but as it goes in the independent film business, one second you have the money and the next the union guys are knocking on your door and you come to work and people are like hello where's my paycheck which is horrifying. But at the same time people are generous.
W&H: This movie is really coming in under the radar screen with very little publicity. Is that frustrating?
AR: It can be frustrating but one of the things that makes it worth it is the letters I have received from people knowing I have made a difference. People struggling with cancer, people who had their own emotional rebirth. People are hungry for these kind of things. I can't control the other stuff. I just need to stay focused on what my job is. I learned a lot about film finance on this movie and I implore people, especially women filmmakers, to really go to school on budgets and money because that's the protection around the creative. You empower yourself. It's like the big lesson for women everywhere - money is your freedom.

Interview with Shamim Sarif, Director of The World Unseen and I Can't Think Straight

Most directors dream of having one film released during any year but English director Shamim Sarif has pulled a Clint Eastwood and has two films coming out here in the US within two weeks of each other. Odd? Yes. Especially due to the fact that both films are about gay women and star the same women. The first film, The World Unseen opens today, in NY, LA and Toronto. (It opens in SF on Nov 14 and in Portland on Nov 21)

The World Unseen tells a very different story of 1950s apartheid South Africa. It's the story of two Indian women one, Amina, living a unconventional life as a cafe owner with a black business partner, and Miriam a very traditional woman trapped in a difficult marriage. Amina is independent, wears pants and bucks all the conventions. Miriam takes care of her husband and children but is miserable. Amina shows Miriam the possibilities of independence and personal freedom and gives her the tools to change her life, which leads unexpectedly to romance.

The film is a bit slow at times but the characters are really different and interesting. It's based on director Shamim Sarif's novel of the same name. Check out the trailer:

Shamim took some time to talk with Women & Hollywood about the craziness of opening two films within two weeks of each other (review of I Can't Think Straight when it opens)

Women & Hollywood: Two films, the same actresses, dealing with lesbian issues opening within two weeks of each other. Are you crazy?

Shamim Sarif: There was no reasoning behind this release pattern. It wasn't about a woman's story or a lesbian story or anything like that because I wasn't looking at it from a distribution point of view. I was looking at two strong stories and these two got financed. To be honest, my partner and I and the executive producers and the lead actresses never looked at it as oh, we're doing another lesbian film or anything like that. They looked at each one -- they are very different genres -- one is a period piece and one is a romantic comedy. They looked at the great, strong roles.
W&H: Which did you make first?
SS: I shot I Can't Think Straight first and it got stuck in limbo and then we did The World Unseen. Then I got back I Can't Think Straight and both were in post-production at the same time.
W&H: What do you mean by I got it back?
SS: We had a first investor, a guy who turned out to be a crook and we found out he hadn't been paying bills. He had the negative and we had the story rights because he never paid me. So it took us over a year to fight him in court. I was very tenacious about that but in the meantime we made The World Unseen. We literally finished them both about a month ago.
W&H: How did you not know the bills weren't being taken care of?
SS: The actors were paid so we didn't know what was happening until afterwards. A lot of stuff gets done on faith- you rent a location, they send you an invoice, they don't expect payment for 30 days. The movie took 25 days to shoot. Then you're sitting in a nightmare.
The happy story about this is that The World Unseen was a much better financed film purely by female financiers. They are not gay women, they are saavy business women who just loved the book and wanted to that vision onscreen. One of the investors crossed over to I Can't Think Straight and we got another one to come in and I was able to finish the movie.
W&H: How much were the budgets?
SS: Under $3 million for The World Unseen and less than $1 million for I Can't Think Straight.

W&H: Did you write both scripts?
SS: I Can't Think Straight started as a novel and I got stuck and then I wrote it as a script to help myself with the structure. But I wanted it to be lighter than a novel so I worked with a good friend Kelly Moss who has a fantastic sense of humor. She really helped with the funny parts of the movie.
W&H: Is it based on your life?
SS: Kind of. It's slightly autobiographical.
W&H: Hollywood doesn't think that women's stories are universal. We are still seen as the other, as a niche. What was your experience with that?
SS: It didn't occur to me that it wouldn't be financially viable to write a woman's story. It's just what came to me. These strong characters. For The World Unseen I wanted to write about integrity and about finding your voice which is something women traditionally need to do especially at the time and place the movie is focused on. For me, the whole journey of the movie was Miriam's, finding her independence and finding her voice and the person who helps her do that is someone who has already found her voice. I had a strong vision for the novel and having strong material to start with was crucial because people will respond, or not, to the quality of the story. In the indie world the quality of the story is paramount.
W&H: How did you wind up with the same actresses starring in both films?
SS: I knew I wanted to work with Lisa (Ray) again. She had always been in my mind for The World Unseen. I did look at other actresses for Amina only because I didn't want to go back to what was comfortable for the wrong reasons. In the end I thought Sheetal Sheth had the combination of vulnerability and strength that I wanted for the role.
W&H: I Can't Think Straight is chock full of stereotypes and you really open up the conversation about culture and respect while challenging the stereotypes. Was that your intention?
SS: Definitely. I wanted to set it within an Arab family. First of all I don't think we get many depictions of upper class, well educated Arabs, and having been a part of the world for a while through my partner I was frankly horrified at what was said behind closed doors from people. I wasn't hearing that anywhere so I wanted to explore it a little bit. It's an issue for me that Palestine is not free and that they can't come to some kind of resolution on the situation. Both sides need to come to the table.
W&H: You worked with many women on your film which is quite unique.
SS: There was a big difference between The World Unseen and I Can't Think Straight which had a very male centric team around that first investor.
W&H: Was there a different experience on the sets?
SS: I Can't Think Straight was not a good experience. Not because there were mostly men but because they were just very chauvinistic. They were not remotely supportive of the vision. They seemed more interested in setting up their own projects instead of setting up the camera. It was a mess except for the director of photography.
W&H: Do you think they didn't respect you because you were a woman or a new director or both?
SS: I think so because they were "those kind of guys." There were a few exceptions but were mostly not supportive. It was very different on the second film where everybody was pulling together.
W&H: I read that The World Unseen is partially based on your grandmother?
SS: It's not actually my grandmother. The Miriam character is closer to my grandmother in terms of the isolated life but she never had the "opening up" experience, certainly not sexually. Amina was based on a real character at that time. All I kept hearing about is that she wore trousers, never got married and drove taxis for a living. I thought how does someone like this exist at that time? That was how I came up with the backstory of her grandmother who was raped on her way from S. Africa to India and raised Amina to be self sufficient so she didn't go through the same thing. Also, Amina's father doesn't care what people say and I think the combination together with her natural character gave her the strength to live her own life.
I didn't want to make it a big issue that she is gay and in fact that's what tips her relationship with Miriam into romance. It's not about Amina's sexuality it's about Miriam's journey to independence. I thought it would be nice to have movie where a character is gay and it not be the be all and end all.
W&H: You have a production company with your partner. What do you have in development?
SS: We have a bunch of projects at different stages all with strong female characters. The next film is based on my second book Despite the Falling Snow and is set in Cold War Russia. It's a story of love and betrayal.
W&H: Why do you think that we have such a hard time with films that star female protagonists?
SS: In Europe, especially in France, they have strong women. I don't know because its unfathomable to me. I love women, I love female characters. I like good make characters too but women hold a special place for me and I am starving for good strong female characters.
Film opens today in NY at the Quad and in LA at Laemmle's Beverly Hills.

November 6, 2008

The Bradley Effect is no More -- For Politics or Movies

Before the historic election of Barack Obama the political establishment wondered whether white folks would pull the lever for a black man. Done. Over.

At the same time Hollywood folks were also worried about whether white women would go to see a film about black women. See earlier piece: Will the Secret Life of Bees Suffer the Bradley Effect? We can put to rest that myth. Done. Over.

The Secret Life of Bees -- a small film made for only $11 million-- is a big fat hit with a gross as of November 4th of $26 million. The film has done better than the other two recent black themed films The Express and the Miracle at St. Anna's (Spike Lee's film) combined.

People (by people I mean Hollywood talkers) constantly complain about the failure of women's films but then never acknowledge the successes. Since they won't, I will.

AND for even more perspective, the Leonardo DiCaprio/Russell Crowe starrer Body of Lies with a $70 million budget opened a week before Bees and has grossed $34 million.

Looks like the Bees women will be eclipsing the big stars. This just continues to prove my point about the women's market -- we are here, we see films. Keep making them and please don't release them all on the same weekend.

From an LA Times piece

"The movie is playing in two parallel realms," says Stephen Gilula, the co-chief operating officer of "The Secret Life of Bees" maker and distributor Fox Searchlight. "It's playing as an African American film, and it's playing as a mainstream female film."

The audience for the film, adapted from Sue Monk Kidd's bestselling novel, is as much as 70% female, Gilula says.

As often happens with films attracting black audiences, "Bees" opened strongly in theaters frequented by African Americans but fell sharply in its second weekend. The film's grosses at AMC Southlake Pavilion 24 in Morrow, Ga., for example, fell more than 61% over the Oct. 24-26 weekend.
Congrats to the filmmakers and to the folks at Fox Searchlight for their great marketing campaign.
Buzz for ‘Bees’ is black and white (LA Times)

Pop Culture Effects Behavior

We all know there is a ton of sex on TV. That's not news to anyone who watches TV regularly. We also know that tons of kids are having sex (what they hell do you think they are doing after school?) Many shows revolve around the sex lives of the characters. The reality is we like to watch people have sex on TV with hardly any consequences. It's rare, if ever, that you see anyone discuss practicing safe sex, let alone practicing safe sex. That's one reason why Hollywood is called la la land.

I'm not one that blames TV for its effect on our lives, I just acknowledge that TV and other forms of entertainment does effect real life.

Looks like that effect is finally quantified in a new study from the Rand Corporation which links sexual content on TV to teen pregnancy.

Researchers at the nonprofit organization found that adolescents with a high level of exposure to television shows with sexual content are twice as likely to get pregnant or impregnate someone as those who saw fewer programs of this kind over a period of three years.
This is a clear clarion call for TV producers to be more responsible about how they handle teen sex and sexuality. Throw a couple of condoms on the bedside table, show a hand reaching for one. That's a start.

Dr. Yolanda Wimberly, an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the Morehouse School of Medicine and the medical director for the Center for Excellence in Sexual Health said it best:

"You cannot expect to have a sexually saturated society with all of your media outlets, but then, at the same time, be surprised when this influences people and their behaviors," she said. "If you're going to do it, then you need to make sure you follow it up with education that people need to make responsible decisions."

Study links sexual content on TV to teen pregnancy (CNN)

November 5, 2008

Lioness Tonight on PBS at 9:30pm in NYC

This is a repost from last spring when I saw Lioness at the Tribeca Film Festival.

I've been going to Tribeca for a couple of years now and one of the strongest parts of the festival has been the documentaries. Each year I manage to see a couple that I can't get out of my head. This year one of the films was Lioness, a film about women soldiers on the front lines in the war in Iraq. Yes, women soldiers are on the front lines in Iraq. Just like the farce of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the policy that prohibits women in combat does not reflect the reality of this war. Team Lioness was created out of necessity on the ground in Iraq in 2003 to diffuse tensions with women civilians and children during raids and operations where soldiers were on the hunt for insurgents.

This film focuses on five of the earliest Lionesses, their lack of training for the missions, (because women are not in combat so, of course, the can't be trained for the combat they won't be seeing) their experiences in battle, and what it was like to come back home to a world that doesn't acknowledge or understand your contribution to the war effort. The most moving story for me was that of Shannon Morgan, a young woman who joined up in the wake of 9-11 in order to get money for college. Shannon knew how to shoot and was so tough that the guys requested her to be attached to their missions. Shannon was sent out on the most potentially volatile missions. She got caught in a firefight and had to kill in order to not be killed herself. Killing screws up everyone and when Shannon came back from Iraq with PTSD needing therapy there were no services available for a woman soldier who has done what she has done. The therapists don't have any context or training to help her.

No matter how you feel about war, especially this war, this film illuminates an important issue that needs way more attention. But the defense department can't bring the issue to the Congress or to the public's attention because women in the military is still such a hot button issue they can't afford to be told to pull women out. Women make up 15% of the force in Iraq and with a force stretched thin, losing necessary soldiers is not something that can be contemplated. So again, here we have another story of women being invisible and denied rights and services for political expediency. What else is new?

Directors Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers answered a few questions about the film.

Women & Hollywood: What interested you in making this movie and how did you find out about the Lioness program?

Daria Sommers: Like many Americans we watched the war unfold over the first year and we began to get a sense as a footnote that women were engaged and involved in the war in a way that marked a historic shift in the role that women were playing especially in the army. So we took that as a point of departure and decided to investigate and ask questions to find out what was going on.
W&H: Were you surprised that the Army agreed to work with you?
Meg McLagan: I think we were initially surprised because like many people we had a pretty uninformed understanding of how the military works and how decentralized it is. It's not as monolithic as it appears from the outside. We wrote a letter stating our interest in exploring the issue of women in combat and in talking to female soldiers who have come back from Iraq. They gave us permission and facilitated our visits to a couple of bases. At that point we were starting to learn about the Lioness program and identified names and individuals.

DS: Because the Lioness program happened below the radar and on the ground in Iraq and it wasn't a formalized program, in a way we knew more about the story than the army did here.
W&H: Do you think they keep themselves in the dark because of the controversy regarding women in combat. Is there a disconnect between the reality of the battlefield and the political conversation?
MM: The question is who is having those conversations here. Those conversations and policies are driven by congress and the folks in congress, like Duncan Hunter, who felt strongly about pulling women back from certain roles in 2005 are civilian politicians. They don't have day-to-day working knowledge of what is going on in Iraq. I think the army does know but they can't afford another big debate and they can't afford for Congress to say you need to pull them back.

DS: The whole issue of women in combat is one that is uncomfortable in the culture. It does reflect a disconnect because on the one hand there are people who might respond well, fine, ok. But there are factions in the country for whom this is really an uncomfortable subject.
W&H: In your material you say that the program is still publicly denied and they are not properly trained. There was one woman in your movie Shannon who really doesn’t have the services she needs and by publicly denying the program, and by not providing services it is another way of keeping the women invisible.
MM: We are hoping that people will see this film as not about Iraq but about the women soldiers and their experiences. Our interest is in telling the story from their point of view and putting it out there for people to respond to and talk about. We want to acknowledge what they have been doing and to hopefully move the conversation along to bridge this disconnect between the policy and reality. It allows them to be taken seriously in political terms, it allows them to come to the table politically.
W&H: I've seen a bunch of the Iraq movies both fiction and non-fiction and your movie feels different. Those films overwhelm you with the battles and this seems to be more about the human aspects of war.
DS: Even though the events that trigger our narrative are in Iraq our goal was to create a film that reflects back more to our own culture. In some ways its less about Iraq but it is about the "gray zone" that these women have had to occupy where they are not officially trained to go into combat and as a result, they don’t get the specific kinds of services that they need because they are all created on a male model.

MM: We were really interested in their qualities, their competences, their abilities to overcome the challenges they faced both on the battlefield and then at home to have to take care of sick parents and children. We wanted to look into their multifaceted lives.
W&H: You mentioned that people come up to you thinking that women have been in combat because some Hollywood movies (Courage Under Fire, GI Jane) have portrayed women on the battlefield. That seems to be another disconnect between what movies teach us and what really exists. How do you have that conversation?
MM: We see the film as educating people. Most people say either I had no idea or I saw that film with Meg Ryan and I thought women have always been doing this. For us its been interesting because its been either one reaction or the other. We see this film as educating people in addition to telling a compelling story. We are educating people about something very few people know about.
W&H: When did you start working on this movie?
DS: About three years ago.
W&H: And you just finished it?
DS: Yes.
W&H: Have you worked together before?
MM: No, this was our first project together.
W&H: How did the work relationship come about?
MM: We were friends through the writers room and we were talking about the war and were noticing that women were there but were never reported on in and significant way except for the Jessica Lynch incident. It was a very organic friendship and collaboration. It took us time for us to decide what we wanted to do and then to raise the money and do all the research.
Check it out tonight at 9:30pm on PBS in NYC. Airs nationally, Thursday November 13th at 9pm.
More info: Lioness

(Women in photo: L to R: Specialist Shannon Morgan, Major Kate Guttormsen, Specialist Rebecca Nava - photo credit: Yori Irisawa)

November 4, 2008

Women's Voices in the Film Blogosphere

There will be a bunch of different posts on this, but I was in LA this past weekend at the Women in Film Entertainment Forum and moderated a panel on Women's Voices in the Film Blogosphere.

I had some great panelists participating including: (please read them regularly)
Anne Thompson - Variety
Jen Yamato- Rotten Tomatoes
Dara Nai- AfterEllen
Kim Voynar- Movie City News

Feedback was great. People thought the panel was the most honest and interesting of the weekend. We're going to transcribe it, and then I'll give you some nuts and bolts. The panel got a brief mention in a story in The Guardian.

picture IDs L to R: Anne Thompson, Jen Yamato, Me, Kim Voynar, Dara Nai

ABC Freaks Out About Gay Grey's Storyline

I am thoroughly shocked that I just read that ABC has fired Brooke Smith from Grey's Anatomy. They brought her in full time last year as a high profile female cardiac thoracic surgeon who happened to fall in love with another woman played by Sara Ramirez. I loved the storyline for so many reasons, especially because neither Smith nor Ramirez were stick thin.

But it seems that ABC has freaked out about the character and the direction the story was taking and from reports forced Shonda Rhimes to let her go.

This is bad on so many levels. First, they are firing her the week after she made a very heartfelt coming out speech. (Thanks to AfterEllen for the transcription)

Erica: No. When I was a kid, I would get these headaches. And I went to the doctor and they said that I needed glasses. I didn't understand that. It didn't make sense to me because I could see fine. And then, I get the glasses and I put them on. And I'm in the car on the way home, and suddenly, I yell. Because the big green blobs that I've been staring at my whole life? They weren't big green blobs – they were leaves… on trees. I could see the leaves.
Erica: And I didn't even know that I was missing the leaves. I didn't even know leaves existed. And then… leaves! You are glasses. I am so gay. I am so, so, so gay. I am extremely gay!
Second, she is reportedly going to get in her car THIS WEEK and just disappear which will signal the arrival of Mary McDonnell for a several week arc as a cardiac thoracic surgeon. LAME!!!

Here's what Brooke Smith told EW's Michael Ausiello about her firing:
I found out in mid-September soon after shooting the monologue that aired last week where Erica has the revelation that she's gay. They even came down and told me it was a great scene -- one of the best they ever shot on the show. So I was really, really shocked. I was floored when they told me [I was being let go]. It was the last thing I expected. In fact, when they told me I asked, "When is this happening?" And they said, "The [next episode] is your last," which is the one that airs this Thursday. So it was very sudden.
And to top it all off Melissa George who will be arriving shortly as a new intern was supposed to have had a past relationship with Meredith but that has been shelved.

What's up with the gay panic?

I thought we were beyond this panic especially on ABC where Kevin on Brothers & Sisters is so gay in every thought and every line he says. Is it a woman thing? Did they get nervous about real women having a relationship? Is it ok when it's a fantasy, but not ok when it's an actual relationship. And the timing is quite suspect. Remember the term from the West Wing "taking out the trash?" That's when they dump news on a day when nobody will notice. Me thinks ABC did some trash dumping last night.

Shonda Rhimes issued a pretty lame statement (in my opinion) "Brooke Smith was obviously not fired for playing a lesbian. Clearly it's not an issue as we have a lesbian character on the show – Calliope Torres. Sara Ramirez is an incredible comedic and dramatic actress and we wanted to be able to play up her magic..."

Huh? Callie has been fighting being gay all along. Don't buy it at all. Think the whole thing is irresponsible and they need to come up with better answers.

Complain to ABC here

Critic's Notebook: Brooke Smith's firing is bad for 'Grey's Anatomy,' and the world (LA Times)
Exclusive: 'Grey's Anatomy' Discharges Dr. Hahn (EW)