13 Short Films about Atomic Power: Interview (pt. I) with British filmmaker Vicki Lesley

Filmmaker VICKI LESLEY

BIO: Vicki Lesley is a 33-year old documentary producer from London. She has worked in the UK television industry for the last 11 years working on high profile single documentaries and documentary series for a variety of network and cable broadcasters including the BBC, Channel 4, Five, Sky One and Discovery. She is also an active campaigner on environmental and development issues campaigning in her spare time with Greenpeace, the World Development Movement and CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).  Vicki set up Tenner Films as a way of combining her twin passions for social and environmental justice, and engaging, thought-provoking documentary films.

Her Film: Explain if you would the significance of the word “Tenner” in Tenner Films.

Vicki Lesley: A tenner is British slang for a £10 note. When I first launched my nuclear documentary project in mid-2006, I worked out that if I could persuade 10,000 people to give me a tenner each that would give me a reasonable, if modest, budget for a feature documentary. And that’s how I hit on the name for the company!

I found out later that I’d had the very same ‘crowd-funding’ idea of that’s since taken off with sites like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter and successful docs like The Age of Stupid. I haven’t reached that £100K target yet – crowd-funding donations stand at more like £5K which is still a very respectable total I think – but the idea of involving many, many people at a grassroots level remains central to my approach.

HF: Your current project is a documentary series of 13 short films about atomic power.  What made you want to do this project, especially as a series instead of a feature?

VL: It is a feature! From the outset, this has always been conceived as a feature documentary but because nuclear power is such a complex and multi-faceted subject area, I needed a way to break it down into smaller, easily understandable chunks. I knew I didn’t want to use any kind of on-screen presenting figure, which would have been one way to structure the film. So I was working with the idea of small segments or chapters right from the start. It was just a question of how to hang them all together.

But after I went to the States to do the first bit of filming in 2007 – looking at the impact of uranium mining on the Navajo communities of Arizona and New Mexico – I decided to cut that together as a stand alone short documentary which I entered and subsequently screened at a number of festivals. That served as something of a calling card, helping me to gain further grant funding for the project. But it also sparked something creatively – the idea of compiling a number of discrete but thematically-related short films together into one full-length feature.

Of course, this isn’t a brand new idea – I particularly remembered a biopic from the early 90s about an Australian pianist 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould – but it is unusual and I liked the idea of being able to ‘curate’ my shorts to build up a nuanced picture of the nuclear power industry without having to spoon-feed the audience with a particular ‘line’. By choosing which subjects I would turn my camera on, creating individual, stand-alone segments and then playing those out one after the other, I felt that the juxtapositions would become as important as the content itself, allowing viewers to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions.

I’m now coming full circle again and re-visiting whether I should create some sort of overarching framework with short, interstitial content between each of the shorts to help tie them all together as one film. I’ve also come up with a new working title ‘Chain of Decay’ to help prevent confusion about the film’s form. I’d love to know what HerFilm readers think – interstitials or just ‘pure’ juxtaposition..?

As for my motivation in making a film on this subject, it was a combination of personal frustration and political timeliness. I started this project in 2006  when I was coming up to 30 and working in TV on documentary subjects that were fun (everything from au pairs to aliens) but pretty insubstantial. As someone who spends a lot of her non-work time campaigning on environmental and development issues, I felt like the broadcast work I was doing wasn’t entirely fulfilling my ambitions in terms of turning the spotlight on important issues and untold personal stories. So I decided to make my own film on a subject that would!

At the time, the UK government was consulting on whether they should sanction a new generation of nuclear power stations. It seemed (and still seems) a subject people know very little about and I felt that here was an area where I could perhaps add something to the conversation, using the skills I’d learnt in mainstream TV documentaries to make something more thoughtful, but still very watchable.

Looking back, I don’t think I really knew what I was getting into, trying to make a completely independent documentary outside of the TV structures I was familiar with. But I’m very glad I did it – and hopefully everyone else will be too when the full film is finally finished!

HF: You’ve involved a lot of major players within the field of nuclear energy oversight, organizations with a mission focused around nuclear power, etc.  Discuss how and why you approached these figures.  Have you been able to access everyone you’d like to involve in the project?

VL: My whole approach has always been driven by the personal stories I’ve been trying to tell so the organisations I’ve approached have been ones with a direct connection to particular stories, for example the Southwest Research & Information Centre in Albuquerque [New Mexico] who work with the Navajo Nation in their struggles with the government and companies involved in uranium mining in the area, or the Scottish Environment Protection Agency who are the regulators overseeing the clean-up of radioactive particles released onto the beach at the Dounreay nuclear site in Scotland.

These organisations have generally been pleased to be able to draw attention to their work in the nuclear field and have been very co-operative in working with me on the film. Thus far, I’m glad to say no-one I’ve approached has been unwilling to take part.

HF: You also have used records of incidents and accidents at one nuclear power plant in England in the short Fifty Years.  Can you explain the process of accessing those records – were there any special restrictions placed upon you as a filmmaker?

VL: The records I used for Fifty Years were all already in the public domain. A British campaign group based near Sellafield, the power station in question, had compiled a list of accidents and incidents up to 1997 from Health & Safety Executive reports. I filled in the gaps from 1998 to 2005 by accessing the HSE reports for that period myself (they are readily available online). I’m not aware of any restrictions in reporting this information, which is basically what this short film does, albeit in an experimental style.

HF: Has there been any public or institutional reaction to your project?

VL: The reaction I’ve received from people who’ve seen any of the short films either online or at screenings has been overwhelmingly positive, although there have been one or two less complimentary comments on YouTube!

I’ve not had much in the way of a direct institutional reaction so far, apart from the now-defunct UK Atomic Energy Authority who were in charge of the decommissioning of the Dounreay site in Scotland when I filmed there in 2008 (the site has now been handed over to a private company). They told me they were very pleased with the way that short turned out, which I was really happy about, not least because the film is fairly unforgiving in its discussion of past safety lapses at the site. It was great to know that the industry considered that I’d presented a fair and honest account of events at Dounreay.

HF: How has your perspective on atomic power changed during the course of this project of making 13 short films?

VL: When I first started researching the film, I had a fairly stereotypical environmentalist’s suspicion of nuclear power, based chiefly on fears about radiation and the risk of accidents. Those fears have not been entirely allayed, although I’m now more informed on the research and statistics that underlie them. However, I now feel there are two issues that, above all others, count nuclear out as an attractive energy source going forward: the waste and the economics.

I find it shocking that over 50 years since nuclear power stations first started producing radioactive waste, the world has not found a satisfactory answer to disposing of it safely and reliably over the mind-blowing timescales concerned (this was very much the impulse behind Beyond, the stop-motion animation piece I produced about waste).

And economically, nuclear power to me just does not seem to make sense. I’m unconvinced by politicians and nuclear industry figures who say it can operate without government subsidy. Both the back-end costs of decommissioning and waste disposal and the costs of insuring against major accidents appear to be left out of most analyses of the costs of nuclear energy.  This seems to me both dishonest and morally unjustifiable – especially when there are other, renewable sources of electricity available that don’t come with these kinds of costs attached.

HF: What are the most pressing issues, in your opinion, regarding the use and production of nuclear energy?

VL: As mentioned above, the waste is probably the number one unsolved major problem. But I’m also worried about the proliferation risks of the world’s ever-growing stockpiles of nuclear material and the risk of a terror attack on a nuclear facility that could make 9-11 look like a minor event. Safety-wise, I also think nuclear energy presents a very unsatisfactory gamble for society. The chances of a major accident occurring are certainly very, very low. But the scale of the impact any accident would have if it did occur is potentially so catastrophic, I just can’t see how it can be justified.

HF: You have a list of links on your film’s site which includes artistic works with a nuclear-focus:  books, movies, songs, art. What do you find to be the most poignant arguments and concerns within the discussion/debate over nuclear energy?

VL: As I’ve discovered while making the film, the nuclear industry has a long and not very proud history of secrecy about its activities. This has meant that many of the human costs have not been very well known. Even where the human impact is widely known – such as with the victims of the accident at Chernobyl – this hasn’t stopped proponents advocating its continued use. I find the huge imbalance of power between the industry and the people on the ground affected by its actions to be very poignant – it’s what lies at the heart of my whole project.

HF: Where do developing nations fit within the larger discussion of nuclear power?

VL: A number of developing countries have begun to show an interest in nuclear energy and the multi-national companies involved in the global nuclear industry have been keen to encourage their ambitions. But it’s hard not to wonder whether these companies are motivated more by their own countries’ political and economic interests than by a genuine desire to help developing nations meet their  energy needs in the most appropriate way.

HF: On your website, you mention global injustice as an issue you want to address through your films, along with environmental degradation. How do you see global injustice playing out, on a regional or global scale, within the context of atomic power?

VL: There are obvious justice issues around mining for the nuclear industry – many of the world’s biggest uranium deposits are in places where the local population are poor and marginalised and/or where local governance is weak or prone to corruption (eg Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, Kazakhstan in the former Soviet Union and indigenous communities in the United States, Canada and Australia). You have to look at who is and isn’t benefiting, from uranium mining and from nuclear power production in general. It tends not to be the poorest people in the world…

Check out Vicki Lesley’s documentary at Tenner Films.

Join the Facebook group for Lesley’s film.

Follow the conversation about this film & atomic power on Twitter @TennerFilms.

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Part II of Vicki Lesley’s interview will drop in a few days… Stay tuned!

Staying True to Yourself: An Interview with Beginning Filmmaker Mahogany J. Slide

 

MJ Slide discusses a shot with Location Manager Stuart Sabin.

BIO: Mahogany J. Slide is a 17-year old independent filmmaker and native of Greenville, South Carolina, who  just recently embarked on her directorial career.  Inspired by a lifelong fascination with art, writing, and self expression, she took the plunge into the world of filmmaking, both feet forward. She’s a self proclaimed nerd, lover of classic and modern science fiction, and has a passion for quality filmmaking well beyond her years.

Her Film: Why do you love film?

Mahogany J. Slide: I love film simply because it unites my two favorite artistic mediums, photography and writing, like nothing else can.  At my essence, I’m a storyteller, just ask my parents.  I know in this generation there are so many more people who will watch a movie then read a book and so therefore I can reach those audiences with the same great stories and concepts through making films. I love the ability to express myself, experiment and constantly learn about people, myself, and the world that surrounds me.

HF: How long have you been writing and what are your goals as a new filmmaker?

MJS: I’ve been writing for a little over a decade now. The funny thing is before the age seven getting me to write was like pulling teeth.  It was a real challenge but my mom worked hard to build my passion for words.  She made me read – a lot – and then I started reading all by myself and realized I had stories of my own I wanted to tell, so I did.  I began with novels and short stories.  I didn’t really get into screenwriting until I was thirteen.  People kept reading my work and saying “it reads like a movie” and they were right.  It was as if I had been waiting for a writing format to come along that gelled with my minimalistic style, and screenwriting kinda fell in lap. My goal as filmmaker is to learn everything from the ground up, all the facets of production and be well rounded but true to myself as a writer.  I think like any writer our goal is to write what we get excited about, our passions, desires and our thoughts and perceptions of the world around us.

The Saving promo poster

“I love the ability to express myself, experiment and constantly learn about people…”

HF: Describe the process of writing and directing your debut film The Saving. Why is this story important for you to tell?

MJS: The inspiration for The Saving came from one line in one my favorite novels of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird.  The basic idea was there are many different ways of turning people into ghosts.  To me, that statement sinks into my mind like this:  people in general don’t have to be dead or in some form of limbo to be ghosts.  When we get so wrapped up in our troubles or tough situations that life throws our way we become only a shadow of who we really are, letting our problems define us.  We become ghosts.  It’s that concept that really is backbone of The Saving and then how does humanity remedy that?  Who’s our hero?  Who’s gonna save us?  Sometimes people ask why I decided to tackle such a heavy theme in what is my true debut short film and the reasoning behind it is simple — everyone on the planet has lost someone who’s been close to them or knows someone who has.  It’s a common experience for all mankind.  Our reactions are all very different but at our core we’re bound together. How do we handle it? What’s right and what’s wrong?  What is truth?  These are some of the questions I wanted address.

I wrote the first draft of the screenplay in a weekend and then let it sit for several weeks but it was never far from my thoughts.  I finally went back and decided this is a film I know I can make – it was as simple that.  I wanted to make the movie and I was gonna figure out how to make that happen.

HF: You’re very young — 17 yrs. old!  Who & what are your influences as a filmmaker?

MJS: Oh heavens, my influences are on all sides of the spectrum.  I pull a lot from classic American poetry and literature:  Shakespeare, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Cornelia Funke, C. S. Lewis, Phillip Pullman, and I’m also a diehard sci-fi fan, so Issac Asimov and Phillip K. Dick have a huge effect on the more science fiction areas of my writing.  For those who are not familiar with the indie filmmaking scene, my greatest mainstream influence is the shooting and directing in M. Night Shyamalan’s earlier films, barring The Happening and The Last Airbender.  It’s actually his film Signs that made me want to be a filmmaker. That was the “ah-ha!” moment for me as a beginner.  I love the fact he keeps his successful stories well contained (such as The Sixth Sense and Signs) and they’re not these vast, sprawling, epic films which I think anyone in the indie film biz can appreciate.  I also admire the fact of how little he cuts between angles in scene, he holds himself accountable for the shots that he takes, not allowing them to detract from the characters and what is going on in the story.  He doesn’t normally do things strictly for the shock and awe factor – every angle has a purpose.  Which brings to my one of my favorite films,  hands down.  No matter how cliché and overrated people think this film is, I love Citizen Kane.  Orson Welles had it all in that movie:  minimal cuts, powerful lighting, a stellar script, and an unrelenting passion that drove the whole storyline.  As far as writing goes, I liken my style to sci-fi guru Joss Whedon, at least in dialogue and pacing.

HF: You have an experienced crew and a production company.  Describe how you made contact with your crew and the biggest challenges you’ve faced as you make the film.

MJS: Three words:  Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo.  Social media was the way to go for what I needed for this film.  It’s a great way to establish your local and international contacts and simply to meet loads of creative people and build friendships with other in the arts. I found my mentor, Chris Jones, who is an author and a director shortlisted for an Academy Award, through twitter, along with my executive producer and composer, and my director of photography on facebook.  Social networking is not a piece of cake.  Like any good collaboration it’s gotta be built on a relationship which takes time and motivation.  My cast, crew and myself have poured all that in and it’s paying off, although a lot of people assume it hasn’t really been all that difficult to pull together a crew of professional because of my age.  It’s actually been a large part of my success.

Passion is contagious and I don’t think anyone could ever claim I’m not passionate about The Saving and the art of filmmaking.  It also helps that I have a pretty killer script. It won a lot of people over and for me, that’s how it should work.  It’s not about the money, it’s about the storyline – is it worth telling or not?  The biggest challenge I have and I am still facing is balancing my normal life while running a production company.  Finding the time to meet with my crew, work with my actors – it’s definitely a divide and conquer type situation.  My family have been real troopers throughout this whole experience and I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without their constant support.

The stars of the film, Patrick Hussion as "Paul Connel" and 16-year old Stephanie Ibboston as "Skye Mattheus."

HF: What are your hopes for The Saving (fests, distribution, etc.)?

MJS: My hopes for The Saving, well I wanna get it made for starters.  We’ve scheduled a release date for the film to premiere (hopefully) at a local theater that is partial to independent films, on February 5, 2011. Then if all goes well, we’ll ship it off to several film festivals within the area, just to test the audience.  Of course, every indie filmmaker dreams of Sundance or Slamdance and I won’t say I don’t have my eyes on those festivals, but I’m not gonna be totally heartbroken if The Saving isn’t accepted.

I plan on going for self-distribution through a website I set up for anyone interested in purchasing a DVD, but for the most part distribution isn’t a major point of focus.  Short films can’t really snag a major distro deal simply because…well…they’re short films.  People don’t generally want to pay twenty-something dollars for twelve minutes of movie and those who do are usually art house types (which is completely fine by me).  The whole point of making The Saving is for me to have the experience of directing a decent sized film, building my skills on all levels, and getting my name out there.

HF: What are you working on next?

MJS: I’ve actually got a few other short films in the works, most notably my In Protest of Twilight with the working title Bleeder.  It’s a vampire story but it’s not.  Feel free to be confused.  I’ve also got a feature script up my sleeve I’m in the process of writing entitled Jersey Noise. I’d describe it as The Great Depression meets X-Men.  Depending on how well The Saving is received,  I’d really like to bang my first feature before I’m 21. That’s the goal.

HF: How have you raised funds and how is the process working out for you as you prep for production?

MJS: All the money we’ve raised so far for The Saving‘s production budget as been through this really neat crowdfunding site called indieGoGo .   It took a lot of prep work to get the page set up, with the pitch, teaser trailer, backer incentives, etc., but as far a micro-crowdfunding goes, IndieGoGo is really working for us. We still need help to secure the $3,500 we need to shoot The Saving and we’ve got to raise $2,700 in less than three weeks.  We’re working all routes, both local and online to get the word out about this film. I had an interview just yesterday with our local newspaper and we’ve been plastering posters and handing out postcards all over the place in hopes of garnering more local interest and support for this production and the independent film scene in my home town.  It’s a lot of work but I truly feel it’s paying off.

Visit The Saving online.

Become a fan on Facebook.

Follow MJ Slide on twitter @MJ_Slide.

Read the blog at Junto Ink, MJ Slide’s production company.

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Thanks to MJ for doing this interview via twitter and email.

Words & Actions from New Zealand: Strategies for helping women filmmakers, the Compostela Declaration and the Writing of a Biopic

As you may know, Her Film is a sister blog to the New Zealand-based blog Wellywoodwoman by Kiwi writer/filmmaker/cultural activist Marian Evans who this year earned the first Ph.D. in Creative Writing ever awarded in New Zealand.  Marian is making a film called Development about women filmmakers and the people who love them.  She’s using an alternative financing model that does not depend on the national film commission or other state-based film funds as many other Kiwi films do.  Inspired by Sally Potter‘s production model for The Gold Diggers, Marian and her production team are also tackling the larger issue:  gender parity within New Zealand filmmaking, working toward the goal of Kiwi women directing 50% of all Kiwi-made films.  Her doctoral thesis focused on women in the filmmaking industry and issues of gender parity, and the script for Development arose from that research.  It’s a global movement rapidly gaining traction but up against many obstacles.

Marian recently blogged about how women are helping other women to gain opportunities to participate in making films:

“There are so many strategies available to support women’s participation in feature filmmaking. I love them all.

Some people record, analyse and write about the numbers, provide the evidence…

Some women experiment with funding structures and new ways of distribution…

Some women illuminate the diverse—and often poorly understood—structures some women use when they write scripts…

…their effects are enhanced every time a distinguished member of the international film-making community speaks out about the issues—Jane Campion and Meryl Streep are the outstanding examples.”


The Compostela Declaration is part of this larger movement to bring about gender parity within filmmaking.  Generated by CIMA — Asociacion de Mujeres Cineastas y de los Medios Audiovisuales (Association of Women Filmmakers and Women in Audiovisual Communications), or Women in Audiovisual Europe.  (Use google to search the association’s Spanish  name for an option to translate the page.)  A major CIMA meeting was held in May of this year in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  In reference to CIMA and its Compostela Declaration about women’s participation in film and media, gender parity and the “voicelessness” resulting from the current imbalance, Marian stated that it was:

“…the first time I’ve read about women using terminology that embraces the contemporary screen media convergence.”

(The declaration is included in Marian’s post for those who’d like to read it.)

And here’s a bit of her newest post which really made me jump for joy as it was “ballsy” in what seems to be a very Marian way, at least from the eight months or so that I’ve known her — one of my favorite things about her.  What I like to call a “modest proposal,” Marian takes on the topic of Sony Pictures looking for a woman screenwriter for the new project by producers Amy Pascal and Elizabeth Cantillon.  Based on Sheila Weller’s book GIRLS LIKE US, the film is a biopic of the lives of singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon.  And Marian says:

” ‘OH, I thought: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon– Then, ‘I can do this. And I want to.’ “


GO FOR IT, Marian!

READ MORE of Marian Evans’ incredible blog at Wellywoodwoman: For Women Who Want to Make Movies, and for the People Who Love Them, and check out her site for her new film Development (currently in production).  Join the Development page on Facebook and read Marian’s tweets @devt.  Start a dialogue!

The trilogy concludes: Part III of interview w/Hillary J. Walker, filmmaker

Hillary J. Walker. Photo courtesy of James Bok.

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.

Hillary J. Walker tweets @Hillary_J and blogs at Altering Reality: The 2010 Project.  Click on any of the ACTION!!! links below to visit her film’s website.

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!

Hillary J. Walker (second from left) at the Broad Humor Festival in Venice, CA, with fellow winners. Photo courtesy of James Bok.

“[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!

Hillary J. Walker on the green carpet at Dances With Films with Adam Richardson, Executive Producer of ACTION!!! and also cast member. Photo courtesy of James Bok.

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.

Living the dream. Hillary J. Walker in Hollywood (2010). Photo courtesy of James Bok.

“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!

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Many thanks once again to Hillary J. Walker for her willingness to be interviewed about her work and her life.

Merata Mita

I’d be remiss if I didn’t post something about the late filmmaker, Merata Mita, a true pioneer, a force within the New Zealand film industry and the second Maori woman to direct a feature.  She died on May 31, 2010, in Auckland, New Zealand.  Mita was co-producer of the recently released film, Boy (Taika Waititi, dir.), the highest-grossing New Zealand film to date.  It played at Sundance 2010.

Biography by NZ On Screen

Patu! (documentary by Merata Mita – watch online)

Boy

One filmmaker’s homage on Horiwood

Tributes in the NZ Herald

Tribute on Ophelia Thinks Hard

TangataWhenua.com – Maori News & Indigenous Views

IMDb