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!


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)


One filmmaker’s homage on Horiwood

Tributes in the NZ Herald

Tribute on Ophelia Thinks Hard

TangataWhenua.com – Maori News & Indigenous Views