Finishing up this week, here is the final installment of a three-part interview with the multi-hyphenate Hillary J. Walker — director-writer-star of ACTION!!!. Walker’s film is a mockumentary of the “real” behind the scenes happenings on a big-budget Hollywood picture.
Q: What are your goals as a filmmaker in terms of other topics, genres, etc.?
A: The next two films I want to make are both comedies that I’ve already written and that I mention as if I’ve already made them in ACTION!!! — Happy Acres and 101 Ways to Kill Your Boss. And of course, I want to make the film that ACTION!!! is based on MLM, which I haven’t finished writing yet, but it’s all in my head, so maybe this summer I’ll finally plunk it all down! I do like to pepper my films with messages. I feel that there are a couple in ACTION!!! And Happy Acres is actually rife with them, but I think people are more apt to enjoy a message if they are laughing at the time they hear it.
A couple years ago I was able to do something very cool with the improv troupe that I’d love to do again. We went around to area schools and did a substance abuse prevention show using improv comedy. We didn’t create scenes about controlled substances, rather we let the limitations the actors faced in the scenes serve as metaphors for the limitations controlled substances subject us to. The kids loved it. Yeah, they were learning and being taught to respect their bodies, but they were laughing and interacting the whole time.
I want my movies to do that. Sure, I might make some more serious films eventually, but as a cancer survivor I can honestly say laughter IS the best medicine. It’s what got me through nine grueling months of chemo and a very painful surgery. It’s what keeps me going even now. So maybe some people see comedy as frivolous or pointless or a waste. I don’t. I see it as a highly challenging and infinitely rewarding way of story-telling that has the astounding power of making people feel good.
The other genre I know I have to eventually tackle is the MUSICAL! As I’ve mentioned a couple times, I really love singing. According to my mom and grandma I could actually sing before I could talk. And my first experiences as a performer all involved music. I have a few ideas for musical films as well as stage musicals. I’m just hoping to find the right collaborative partners to make it all come together. Dang! I’m going to be busy for the next 20 years or so!
“[My mother] has told me my whole life that I can be whatever I wanted to be.”
Q: What people (filmmakers or otherwise) have influenced you as a filmmaker?
A: Other influences… let’s see… well picking back up with the musical thing — Stephen Sondheim — another great master of both language and intricate ensemble story telling. He was one of my earliest influences in writing actually. I did my Senior English Thesis on his work.
My family has been amazingly supportive. Not many mothers would encourage their 30-something daughters to just go full tilt following their dreams without a good financial contingency plan in place. It’s kind of embarrassing, but my mother has been serving as my financial contingency plan ever since my separation from the military. I do get some disability pay but it’s not remotely enough to live off of. But instead of insisting I get a real job right now, my mom just offers to help whenever I need it. Luckily, she is also an investor in the film, so she stands to make some decent money once we get distribution! She grew up during the women’s movement and has told me my whole life that I can be whatever I wanted to be. I know my grandpa was hoping that “whatever I wanted to be” would be a doctor or a lawyer, but hey, some of us look better under dramatic lighting!
My baby brother, who is a staff sergeant in the Army back from his third tour in Iraq has also been very supportive. He and his awesome wife also invested in the company to help us get the movie made.
Another huge influence was Shelly Thompson, my high school Performing Arts (and German) teacher. She really encouraged me but always made me accountable for my screw-ups. She helped me to learn to take responsibility for myself and my actions and gave me countless opportunities to grow and express myself as a performer. And then there was the multitude of people who didn’t believe in me. I’m a little bit feisty, so the naysayers definitely pushed me forward — whether they meant to or not!
Q: What advice might you give to women, specifically, who aspire to work in film or who are set to debut as a filmmaker?
A: Well first and foremost for all filmmakers, if you don’t believe in yourself nobody else will. But it always helps to know what you’re doing. Get some professional set experience even if it means working as a PA or a grip or a stand-in for a few months. See how the “big boys” do it and learn from the successes and mistakes of others.
Also, I’m a firm believer in “The Secret” aka “The Law of Attraction” aka “good old fashioned faith.” Your beliefs truly do create your experience. Not your desires. Not your hopes. YOUR BELIEFS. If you think it will be hard, it will be hard. If you think you’ll meet the perfect people and everything will fall into place, guess what? That will happen, too. If you’re afraid you’re going to screw up and lose everything, stop what you’re doing until that fear is gone. (I really wish I could convince some of my friends of that one.) But you need to learn to be honest with yourself. I’ve known too many people who qualify their statements with things like, “I know what I’m doing, but nobody else believes in me.” Nope, not good enough. Buts are great in a nice pair of jeans, but leave them out of your belief system. Just say “I know what I’m doing.” And believe it! But don’t forget to see it all the way through to the end. NO ONE will be more committed to your project than you are. EVER. If you lose interest, how do you expect anyone else to really care? I think a lot of us are creative and we have great ideas, and we think, “well, I’m creative, I’m an idea person. It’s up to someone else to take care of the details.” Okay, that can work, as long as you assemble a competent team of individuals and delegate each detail in detail. This is why billions of people have ideas, millions of scripts are started thousands of movies are shot and only hundreds are ever seen. Sure it’s art, but Susan diRende [@BroadHumor] reminded all the Broads that it’s also a business. And the truth is, without the business skills to market your art, no one will ever see it.
To women specifically…
Learn the difference between story and back story, (my journalism training really helped me with that) and the difference between making artistic choices and wasting time on screen (again, journalism really keeps me on point with story telling.) Truly listen to suggestions and different opinions WITHOUT getting defensive (still working on that one.) If you do manage to assemble a fantastic, experienced team, for goodness sake listen to them, especially when they’re advising you about their area of expertise. Part of being a good leader is being able to alter course when it’s in the best interest of the project as a whole. It doesn’t negate your power — it amplifies it and empowers your crew to do their best work.
“Filmmaking should be like sex — if it’s not fun, you’re definitely doing it wrong!”
I think women are still to some degree socially programmed to feel threatened by people questioning their choices. This is perhaps our biggest stumbling block as a gender in leadership positions. People question men, too. The difference often comes in how we handle being questioned. Listen objectively, weigh the options and proceed with the best course of action. It might be yours or it might be theirs — the important thing is they are consulting you. If someone is constantly consulting you, make sure they’re doing it “off-line” and not in front of the rest of the crew. If they try that crap, make sure you have another “heavy” on your side around to deal with it until you can take care of it yourself.
Again, socially, women are more apt to respond emotionally in stressful situations. But in our society, a display of raw emotion by someone in power is frequently perceived as weakness. Building a “character” to get you through the stressful parts — a role or persona you can play — can help shield you from feeling of personally being attacked if you find you are extra sensitive to criticism.
No matter what genre you choose, learn to laugh at yourself and your art. Don’t take this so seriously that you forget to enjoy yourself in the process. Filmmaking should be like sex — if it’s not fun, you’re definitely doing it wrong!
And for the love of all that’s holy, DON’T MAKE EXCUSES. So it’s your first film. So you’re a chick. So you’re not invited in the “boy’s club.” So what? Make your own club! And when the boys see how much fun you’re having they’ll want to come hang out in yours. Being a woman is only a stumbling block when WE make it one. Sure, there are some men in power out there who won’t take you seriously. So work with the ones that DO. Or better yet – distract the good ol’ boys with your cleavage while you’re kicking their butts at the Oscars — The Hurt Locker anyone? (Not saying Kathryn Bigelow shows much cleavage, but she could if she wanted to!) Right now is an amazing time to be a woman in film and television. We have Tina Fey, Kathryn Bigelow, Oprah Winfrey, Betty White etc…. We’re still enough of a minority in the business that we can get press, recognition and funding that isn’t available to men, but attitudes are changing, doors are opening and 20 years from now all that special consideration that we’re getting won’t be available to our daughters because they won’t need it. But just like us, they’ll be able to do anything they want to!
Many thanks once again to Hillary J. Walker for her willingness to be interviewed about her work and her life.