Directing is one of the hardest careers to break into in this industry. Think about it- for every film there is only 1 director. And, it is no secret that Hollywood is somewhat of a boys club with this coveted position being dominated by men. However, recently there has been a lot of media attention shedding a light on the lack of diversity and representation both in front and behind the camera. This has been a great movement, and will need to continue to equal the representation both in race and gender. The good news is, due to this media attention and the hard work of all of the women that paved the way in this field for the past 30-40 years, women are finally at a point where they are starting to compete with men to direct those top studio films. It is an exciting time for women as a gender breaking the glass ceiling of what positions we can hold. I sat down with three up and coming female directors, Shawn Tolleson, Denise Papas Meechan and Erica Robinson, to ask what inspires them, their biggest lessons, and of course their journey to get to that all powerful director’s chair. In this first part of our 2 part article, they discuss their beginnings.
What directors career or film inspired you to want to become a director?
DM: For me, it was pretty much every movie I had been watching was getting me angry because I felt the women in the movie were not real characters. That was my initiative to start writing, and hopefully start directing films so that I could show the point of view of a woman’s perspective. But I’d say every movie I’ve seen in the last 20 years has inspired me to make a movie thats the exact opposite.
ST: For me, my big filmmaking inspiration although I was already directing theater at the time was Jane Campions movie, The Piano. It was kind of what Denise was taking about. It was a female filmmaker writer/director making a movie about an unexpectingly powerful female character. And there were two-the mom and her daughter. I just remember not being able to move or leave the theater after the experience. It was so profound for me. It was so moving.
ER: Believe it or not, I was obsessed with court TV. I loved the real stories that they were trying to portray- everything from Montel Williams to Judge Judy. Because, when I watched movies those people didn’t seem like real people. I couldn’t relate to the people in the films-especially, the women. The show that really pushed me was Law and Order,SVU (Special Victims Unit) because of the lead character “Olivia Benson”. I related to her because she was a strong independent women. I could watch that show and use the knowledge in my own life. Im really interested in entertaining and educating people.
Thats really interesting because the common thread between all of you was either a lack of a female character or a female character that you wanted to see and represented more in film. How long did it take you to make your first project- feature, short or series?
ST: My first feature.hmm. I directed a lot of stuff before my first feature (which Im still working on- because festivals and distribution and deliverables are lengthy, lengthy, lengthy). I got my idea in 2008 and my rough draft in February 2009. And before that I had been endeavoring to get a feature made since 2004. So a long time. And by endeavoring I mean I had strong scripts and was trying to get money. The film that finally got made was my fourth script and third feature. I thought the other 2 were really good and still are good. They had a great cast, like Martin Sheen but they were too big to make for my first feature. Which I think has something to do with being female, and with budget, and has to do with the timings of those projects too. It was very pragmatic. It wasn’t creative at all. It was what size movie can I make that’s interesting to me that’s compelling. So, what can I write that’s interesting to me that I can write and get the money for and get made.
DM: It was pragmatic for me to make Freckles (my first short I directed). But, I had been working in TV for 15 years. It was kind of like gathering contacts. I had given everyone favors over the years so that I could ask them for favors later on. Since my film was low budget I was hoping karma would pay off. When I started writing I was being pragmatic. I thought, what’s the quickest shortest thing I could write, with the least locations, and I can do in a weekend, and still get something really good done. With that in mind it took 6 months of writing, editing and shooting. But I would say the 15 years before was all background work trying to get some future project that would come into my head at some point done. So in total 15 1/2 years.
ER: The first series took about 7 months and at the time I was a broke college student so I was working with a very tight budget. We did some crowd funding and took about a month to shoot a little less than an hour worth of footage. The hour of footage made 4 episodes.
What is the biggest obstacle when having the role of a director?
DM: I had a self confidence problem before going on set. Because there are two type of directors; there are actor directors and then technical directors, and I was more of an actor director. I don’t really know tech terms or what lenses that the crew is supposed to need. I had actually gone to a DCTV panel which had a director who did- documentaries and narrative films and he said something that was so profound to me.; “Your crew will make you look stupid on set, accept it but its still your vision. They are smarter because they know and went to school for those specific jobs”. So you don’t have to know what every lens is called. And for me, the biggest thing was overcoming that so I could get on set. But I don’t think that should intimidate someone on set because overall it is their vision, and their story and that’s the important part.
ER: The biggest obstacle was having so many people in one room, doing so many different jobs and being on a time constraint. Then falling behind on time. It is hard to balance the “being a bitch” and just telling people what to do. That’s something I personally struggled with. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t crossing the line with crew or actors. So I would take a lighter tone when asking people to do something. Sometimes people get distracted because they are having fun on set but you have to wheel them back in and do it in a way where you don’t ruin the energy. And you know when you’ve done it wrong. So the biggest obstacle for me was facing that personal question of am I being a bitch or not?
ST: It’s interesting because Im a little older than these ladies so I have had a chance to work through some of the things they are talking about. But what I will say is that it gets easier. Because I’m doing more director for hire jobs I think the biggest obstacle is really just about time. I was at this event for the DGC (Directors Guild of Canada) and I was having lunch with this 78 yr old director, and he’s pretty much retired, but he was saying if he could do it again he would be a DP (director of photography) not a director. The reason is the homework. And then he spelled out all the prep. I wished I turned record on my phone because he said it in 90 seconds. Its all circumscribed by time. Getting up and getting the first shot in the morning, getting the first shot after lunch, getting the shot right before lunch, having a meal penalty, do we have a meal penalty? Make sure at the end of the day you don’t have any over time and getting the scene done because we cant go back to this location. And, its that way even in prep. So, how many locations can we look at this afternoon to find the right location? How many meetings can we sandwich in so I can talk to every department head about their department? And then you go home and its like how much additional prep can I get in before I have to go to bed, since I have to get up in the morning and need enough sleep so I’m not a zombie? The biggest obstacle at every turn is time- there’s just never enough of it.
All of you have directed a few projects. What is the biggest lesson learned on your films that no matter how much prep you did you didn’t expect this one obstacle and it became your best lesson?
ST: I would say I had a difficult situation on my feature, well I had a few. But, this one particular situation was the hardest. I’m not going to get specific, but I chose the wrong department head and there were some red flags when we were moving into prep. It was like 8 days before we were going to shoot, out of LA in a very small town, and I thought okay well some things will be hard but it will be fundamentally ok. But it wasn’t ok. It was just really bad for the entire shoot. To the point where we discussed shutting down the shoot to replace this person. Sometimes we make a choice, we do the best we can and sometimes it’s the wrong choice. We’re human. We don’t bat 1000. I’m a pretty good judge of character and this person did a great job in several meetings, I don’t know if I would have made a different choice. But I couldn’t unwind that decision without jeapordizing the film and not getting the film made. So what I had to do was have this approach of the long game. I’m not in it to win the battle, I’m in it to win the war. Which meant I was going to lose almost every battle in order to win the war. And it literally was a moment to moment thing. I wanted this person to frame up a shot a certain way and I wouldn’t roll until the shot was made. And in that moment you want to yell- but you can’t. Because I can’t win if I do that. So it was a really important exercise in letting my ego go and really playing the long game, finding out what that actually means when its not going well and how hard it is.
DM: I have a story that I tell now because its funny but I do remember crying on the day. I was shooting a feature in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and it was a night shoot in a bar. We needed extras and being that it was a small town we asked the one local crew member if she could do a shout out on Facebook to friends and see if they wanted to be background in a movie. When we showed up to film at the bar there was a line of people out the door. We found out that instead of saying “be background in a film”, this crew member said “free pizza come to this bar tomorrow night at 10pm”. Every homeless person and person in town that just wanted free food came- with no idea there was a film shoot. We were scrambling to order more pizza and get someone to drive and pick it up. It killed our budget. We couldn’t use 90% of the people because they were either homeless or didn’t look like they would be at this bar. And since none of them had been on a film set before, they kept talking loud and wouldn’t stop walking in front of the camera to get to the food table. It was a complete nightmare.
ER: I just had this obstacle 2 months ago. We were already to go, all ready to shoot, 4 cameras set up and were in the bottom floor of an apartment. We hit record and we started hearing creeks above us. It honestly sounded like dancing elephants. And we couldn’t record because every time someone spoke you would hear the creeks. So we had to go upstairs and ask the neighbors to tip toe or be very still. My best lesson was definitely making sure you pick a place where you can shoot and know everything you planned will go smoothly.
“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.”
If you enjoyed this article, please check out the second part coming out next month!
For more information on our directors you can visit them and their films here:
Shawn Tolleson: Website, Film Facebook, Twitter
Denise Papas Meechan: Website, Film Website, Twitter, Instagram
Erica Robinson: Website, Facebook, Instagram
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(Photos courtesy of Shawn Tolleson, Denise Papas-Meechan, and Erica Robinson)