Women Directors Roundtable, Part 2

Shawn Tolleson directing her actors on film, "Saturn Returns"

Recently, I got the pleasure of interviewing three up and coming women directors; Shawn Tolleson, Denise Papas Meechan, and Erica Robinson, for my women directors roundtable. In the first part of the roundtable that came out last month we discussed and shared what inspires each director and their individual journeys’. In this article we discuss diversity in Hollywood and what it is like to be a women in sitting in a male dominated director’s chair.

Shawn Tolleson directing her actors on film, "Saturn Returns"
Shawn Tolleson directing her actors on film, “Saturn Returns”

There has been a lot of media centered around the lack of diversity and women among working directors in Hollywood. What is your take on that and has it effected you?

ST: First of all I think it’s a long time coming and really important. I personally haven’t been the recipient of particularly overt sexism. Some of the horror stories I hear I haven’t had it that way- and for that I am very grateful. I believe all of them- and I have seen enough to really get it. However, when I look back at my career I look back at my training and there was a lot of  institutional sexism; sexism, in the form of low expectations and not being taken particularly seriously. And that in some respects, and this is just my experience, in that respect it is almost worse. I mean I’ve dealt with overt sexism outside the work place. And that is really terrible when that happens, but that (type of sexism) at least you can kind of point to it. However, the sexism that is about not being taken seriously, being mildly condescended to, and having low expectations for me or other women is really hard to identify. It’s also a really pervasive demoralizing way to go through your life and try to pursue your goals. It sort of leaves one feeling hopeless, like it’s just not possible. And, it’s just not possible not because that person is an asshole but because of something I can’t even quite put my finger on.  It’s the same problem that was talked about when looking back to the earlier feminist movement of Betty Friedan and “The Feminine Mystique”. It’s the “problem that has no name”-the things that no one really talked about or really identified….the shitty little nasty hurtful thing. And now ‘it’s’ getting identified. There are people talking about “it”. People are feeling pressure. And people are finally feeling that they can finally talk about all of the ways that sexism and racism identified itself- that none of it is acceptable. It’s not just the guy thats hitting on you that is unacceptable. Its all of the ways we franchise men. I think that’s a state change, and I feel hopeful that things will actually change for the better. And now, soon, not in another decade, or two decades.

Would you say the sexism you have received isn’t the type of “well she can’t do that she’s a woman”, but “we are going to pair you up with someone more experienced” or “here let me help you do your job” when they wouldn’t do that to a man at the same point in his career?

ST: Yeah, I do think its very passive aggressive. For me, it has shown up in the form that I feel like “Oh, I don’t know if I can go for that because I haven’t done this and this and this”. But when I look at people, like men who are at my experience or less than my experience and they are not only able to do that, but are supported doing X, Y, and Z. No one has offered that to me. And I feel like that’s not even a conversation I can have, there’s no openness to that opportunity. It even manifested itself at my training program; there were two women and two men, and the two women weren’t asked to do certain things- we weren’t even included. That was really obvious. There were specific ways that I was tested and challenged, not to say that men aren’t tested and challenged, but I think its more prevalent, more often, more personal, nastier, just more of it for women. There is just more bullshit.

Denise Papas Meechan on set
Denise Papas Meechan (left) on set of film, “Freckles”

DM: I can tag onto what Shawn is saying. I call it the car salesman mentality. For example, when I’m on set and a question comes up that should come to me it goes to the man standing next to me. I’m supposed to get the question, I’m supposed to be in charge. But then someone goes up to the male AD or DP when they should have come to me with the question since it’s my decision, my call, or really should just be directed to me- because those questions go to the top. When a man is directing the questions always go to him. It’s that kind of sexism where people think you don’t know or don’t go directly to you because you’re a girl. It’s something I don’t see on sets that have a male director.

ER: Well I do a lot of corporate videos and deal with it a lot in those settings. A lot of the CEO’s or people in charge are men. Sometimes I will walk into a room with other men for a meeting and all of the men will get handshakes except for me. They don’t ask my name. They just say you can put the camera here- they don’t know my name or what I’m doing. So I take that opportunity to look them in the eye, put out my hand and introduce myself- “Hi, I’m Erica.” Because sometimes I feel like I don’t get the same respect. Unfortunately it’s not just men it’s women too- so I’m getting it from both genders. I have also been in situations on set where men like to cross that personal line, and I have to bring them back to that professional level. If we’re on set and about to role you don’t need to know if I’m married or if I have a boyfriend- you have no business knowing that information. We should both be talking on a professional level. I am not just a woman, I am a person who is trying to complete a goal. In a way, I love it because it gives me a chance to break that stereotype.

Do you think that women and men directors have a similar experience when making a film? Or are there very big differences that you have noticed when looking at male colleagues careers and the opportunities they are getting compared to you?

ST: I would say, in regards to career, I think it’s hard to get projects off the ground. If you’re not rich or know rich people it’s hard for everybody. It’s hard to get movies made- period. It’s hard, but then things start to flow and come back to you. So I don’t begrudge men and their success, because I know how hard it is for a feature to get made. That being said, I think men have more opportunity both historically and now. I do think there are aspects and components of making a feature that are easier for them (men). It might be more of what we said earlier. The quiet passive thing that brings you down that doesn’t happen to men. They don’t have to deal with sexism so that’s what’s easier.

DM: As far as making a film – in general I think being a director is really really fricken’ hard. Just the job itself and all of it’s moving parts.

Erica Robinson directing on set.
Erica Robinson directing on set (right)

Do you think that the set atmosphere on a female led production is different than a male led production?

ST: I think atmospheres on set are less about the gender of the director and more about who that person is. I mean some people are yellers and screamers, some people are consensus builders, and some people don’t talk to anybody. I was in commercials and music videos a long time as a producer. So I was on set with a lot of different directors-almost exclusively male. But I think that women just by being woman and their nature are more consensus builders and inclusive. I think, and this is a gender stereotype certainly-but I think there is some truth to it; we tend to be warmer, more nurturing, and all of that stuff. You know even when we have our shit kickers on.  And I think that’s a distinction of having a female director versus a male director. That piece aside, I think how sets are run are just a matter of the personality of the people running them.

ER: I want to say its more of a personality thing. I was afraid to cross that boundary of being too bossy. But I don’t think it depends on your gender. If you’re a go-getter, work hard, and don’t take no for an answer than you are going to get it. Women have come so far in this industry because they were pushing and they weren’t taking no for an answer. And I think that needs to be recycled so that more women can do more for other people.

DM: I agree with what Erica said about towing this line of getting it done, getting it done right, and not being a monster on set. I think we do have the same obstacles on set as men. I think the mood of the set would be the same whether man or woman it’s just personality.

If there is one piece of advice you could give to all of our up and coming directors who will read this article what would that be?

Denise Papas Meechan at her film, "Freckles" premiere at Cannes.
Denise Papas Meechan at her film, “Freckles” premiere at Cannes.

ST:  If you really want it, if you have a vision, if there’s a story you have to tell, and if you can’t see yourself being happy doing something else than go for it. If you can see yourself being happy doing anything else than do it, because this is freaken’ hard. But just don’t give up. You’ll just end up being in purgatory. The people that win are the people that don’t give up. They finish the race.

DM: Be nice, and pay it forward. This is a community whether man or woman, full of artists that need help at some point. The best part you can do is be part of the community and help because then it will come back.

ER: In the end, no matter how many boundaries or walls you break down it comes back to you. If you do not respect yourself no one will respect you. If you do not believe in your abilities than no one else will. If you will take no for an answer than that’s it you’re stuck. You have to keep pushing. No one else can get you there so you have to keep working. You have to build your self respect and your comfort in your own skin. You have to be secure in being a female director because if you’re not you’ll be eaten up and thrown out. Be willing to put yourself out there, be confident and back up what you say.


“Don’t give up. You’re going to get kicked in the teeth. A lot. Learn to take a hit, then pick yourself up off the floor. Resilience is the true key to success.”

 – Melissa Rosenberg


For more information on our directors you can visit them and their films here:
Shawn Tolleson: Website, Film FacebookTwitter
Denise Papas Meechan:  Website,  Film WebsiteTwitterInstagram
Erica Robinson: WebsiteFacebookInstagram

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(Photos courtesy of Shawn Tolleson, Denise Papas-Meechan, and Erica Robinson)

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