4 Chicago women answer 4 questions about “reel” life in male-dominated film industry.

Christine Wolf
Feb 22 · 12 min read

During the recent Polar Vortex, I moderated a panel discussion following the Chicagoland screening of two important movies made by women:

  1. An Acceptable Loss, producer Colleen Griffen’s new political thriller featuring Jamie Lee Curtis as the President of the United States and Tika Sumpter as her National Security Advisor, and
  2. Runner, actress Clare Cooney’s directorial debut. (Now available: https://youtu.be/0PKtGVJEpdg)
Jamie Lee Curtis and Tika Sumpter in An Acceptable Loss (IFC Films).
Clare Cooney in the award-winning, 12-minute short film, Runner — her directorial debut. (Shane Simmons)

Following our panel discussion, I wanted to learn more about why women are often iced out of key roles — behind and in front of the camera— and how they’re changing the face of this male-dominated industry.

So, for a down-to-earth take on how it really feels in film today, here’s some insight from four women with Midwestern roots: Producer Colleen Griffen, Actress Ali Burch, Director Clare Cooney and Documentary Film Director/Producer Sarah Moshman.

1. What’s been your overall experience as a woman in this industry, and what do you want girls to know about filmmaking?

Colleen Griffen (Elaine Suzanne Miller)

Producer Colleen Griffen, An Acceptable Loss:
I love collaborating. Starting with nothing. Less than a blank page, maybe just a thought and then when you are done you have a story and characters that are exist and even real. You can move people to tears, fears and laughter. And I really hope girls see this is another way for them to tell their stories. No constraints on their imagination.

Ali Burch (Brandon Dahlquist)

Actress Ali Burch, An Acceptable Loss:
I am very aware that my sense of belonging and empowerment walking onto my first film set is off the backs of older generations of women who have fought so hard for this. The fact that my first film wasn’t Naughty Grandpa 6: Spring Break in Cabo — but instead a nuanced political thriller with two female leads and an actress of color as our protagonist — speaks volumes.

As for girls, I hope they see that they belong. That their voices matter. That they deserve the space they take up in the world. If they don’t see themselves reflected on screen, it’s the industry’s fault, not theirs. And luckily, more and more actors I know are writing and creating their own work when they can’t find fulfilling roles.

Clare Cooney (Emma C. Meyer)

Actress/Director/Editor/Writer Clare Cooney, Runner:
My experience as a woman in film has changed so significantly in the last few years. Before making Runner, I was only an actress. While I love acting and it’s still my primary passion, it often feels like you have so little power. If something problematic happens at an audition, or on set, it is so, so very hard to speak up and say something about it, because as an unknown actress you are extremely replaceable, and the powers-that-be are still primarily men.

While making Runner, I grew so much as a person, as an actor, as a director, and as a filmmaker, and I got to really have a voice in this industry for the first time.

I’m excited to be a woman in film right now and be part of this industry at a time where women’s stories are building more momentum. And I hope girls know that it’s not just a man’s profession.

More and more everyday, it’s getting better. They can write women’s stories, direct women’s stories, and be a leader in the field. If girls don’t know that a future in filmmaking is possible for them…if they don’t see tons of good examples of women in film, then they won’t even try — and we need them to try.

Sarah Moshman (Ryan Morrison)

Documentary Film Director/Producer Sarah Moshman, Nevertheless:
Overall, as a woman in film, I’ve realized that creating your own opportunities is the best way to grow in this business. There’s so much unconscious and conscious bias on top of an already very competitive and difficult career path; if you can pave your own path, people can’t help but notice and will want to get involved with what you’re doing.

I hope girls know that filmmaking is such an incredible career path with so many skills to be developed. I’ve worn many hats and felt like an entrepreneur in many ways most days. I’ve taken a tiny seed of an idea with endless unknowns and turned that into a living breathing film that will live on forever and hopefully inspire millions of people. I feel really lucky to do what I do, and I hope many more girls and women join in!

2. What was the best part about working on your latest film?

Producer Colleen Griffen:
Finishing it and getting it out for the world to see.

Colleen Griffen (Elaine Suzanne Miller)

Actress Ali Burch:
The best part was working with the amazing leaders we had in Joe [Chappelle] and Colleen [Griffen], and the fact that my role was not as a wife or girlfriend or any kind of catalyst for a male story.

Ali Burch (Brandon Dahlquist)

Actress/Director/Editor/Writer Clare Cooney:
Generally — The best part of working on Runner was the amount of support I received from my friends and colleagues in the field. Everyone on the film worked for free. These are all legit professionals who donated their time to tell this story I wrote because they believed in the film and they believed in me.

It was a crazy two days of filming (I don’t think I ever came up for air) but amidst the chaos and flurry of filming, I knew that everyone had my back. The people I brought on board were so capable and so talented that, though it felt overwhelming at moments, I could trust them to help me make something special.

Specifically — the best moment for me was the last thing we filmed on Day 1. It was Halloween 2016 and we’d been filming since 7:30am. This was a day in which we did all the stunts, all the running, and my panic-attack scene. It was 5pm and we’d just released the majority of the cast and crew. My producer Shane, my DP Jason, my AD Vincent and I crammed in my car and went to grab the final shot before the sun disappeared. In the shot, I was going to be sprinting as hard as I could along a boulevard in Logan Square while they drove alongside me. It was a tricky shot to get — this was all extremely low-budget and our gear was nothing fancy.

My legs were dead after sprinting all day long, and I was physically and emotionally exhausted. But I gave it one final push and, amazingly, all the stars aligned, the traffic behaved, I didn’t get hit by any cars, and we got the absolute perfect shot. It was the last thing we did that day and it is my favorite moment in the film. We had this idea of how we wanted it to look in our heads, and it came out looking even better. It looks like a shot out of a much more expensive movie.

Sometimes having a very indie film set & a skeleton film crew is a surprisingly great environment because it allows the space for spontaneity and flexibility. Necessity is the mother of invention, and those spontaneous moments are where the magic happens.

The day after Runner (Clare Cooney)

Documentary Film Director/Producer Sarah Moshman:
In making my documentary Losing Sight of Shore, I have never felt so inspired and encouraged that anything is possible as I had a front row seat to 4 incredible women rowing across the Pacific Ocean. Those feelings will stay with me and influence how I view the world. In making The Empowerment Project, it felt so freeing to drive across the US with 4 other female filmmakers to interview ordinary women doing extraordinary things, stories that no one had ever heard before. It taught me so much about shining a light on stories that matter even when no one else will.

Sarah Moshman (Alana Fickes), shooting Losing Sight of Shore

3. How has being in film impacted your life?

Producer Colleen Griffen:
In a good way. I love the work. I am my happiest when I am in a room of artists and we are discussing the aesthetics and logistics of a scene or film we want to create.

Producer Colleen Griffen’s An Acceptable Loss, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Tika Sumpter (IFC Films). As Casey Cipriani recently noted in Bustle, even “…the background faces and voices of the film are astoundingly female.”

Actress Ali Burch:
I am predominantly a theatre actor, so it’s wonderful to be in a film my friends and family who don’t live close to Chicago have access to seeing.

Ali Burch as “Dee” in An Acceptable Loss (IFC Films)

Actress/Director/Editor/Writer Clare Cooney:
Making Runner completely changed my life. I feel I have a greater voice now than I did before and I’ve grown so much. I’ve learned so many new skills, partially out of necessity. We filmed Runner for $900, which means I was wearing a lot of hats — writer, director, actor, editor, producer, publicist, you name it. This was my first film, so it was a bit like baptism by fire. I had to learn so much about so many aspects of filmmaking, fast. Runner allowed me to have confidence in my choices, my instincts, my communication, my leadership skills, and my taste level.

Clare Cooney (Windy City Film Festival)

Documentary Film Director/Producer Sarah Moshman:
I think being in film has impacted almost every facet of my life. I’ve been lucky enough to meet people I would never otherwise meet and walk a mile in their shoes. I have been able to travel all over the world to film and to screen my films and teach filmmaking, which is such a gift to step outside your world and appreciate how other people live and thrive. I think film is such a powerful medium to create change. And especially now that I’m a mother, I want to make the greatest impact I can so my daughter can grow up in a more equal world.

Sarah Moshman and her daughter. (Ryan Morrison)

4. What’s the biggest obstacle you face as a woman in film — and do you see a way to address it?

Clare Cooney, Colleen Griffen, Ali Burch (Jason Rosenholtz-Witt)

Producer Colleen Griffen:
I have always felt marginalized. I have a voice to a certain extent. Then someone with more power pushes me to the side and I am only able to watch. This did not happen on An Acceptable Loss, though. It seems the only answer is to make critically and financially successful films so your voice has more weight.

Actress Ali Burch:
Although it has the best of intentions, I absolutely loathe the term “strong women” when writing female characters. I don’t want strong women. I want women to be written for what they are: human beings with their personal package of hypocritical contradictions. I want more LBTGQ+ characters as leads. To address it, our industry has to reflect on the rooms we walk into. If they are not diverse, then our world view will continue to be very narrow. And what’s the fun in that?

Actress/Director/Editor/Writer Clare Cooney:
Two big issues stick out to me:
a) Women are still largely underestimated when it comes to being leaders in filmmaking. When I’m at a filmmaking event with a man, people still assume that he is the director and that I’m the actress. Men still have the tendency to shake the other man’s hand first, and look men square in the eye while barely glancing at the woman next to him (or if they look at me, it’s to ogle a bit or flirt, rather than to listen and engage).

Clare Cooney, shooting Runner (Shane Simmons)

The industry continues to make excuses for why they pass over women for leadership roles or why they can’t hire a female director for a project — they’ll say “we can’t hire first-time feature director. We need someone with real experience.” And then they’ll hire a guy. But they don’t have that same dilemma when it comes to hiring a man who’s never made a feature. The bottom line is, everyone has to make a first feature at some point in their life.

At some point, the industry needs to take a chance on up-and-coming female filmmakers and invest in their work and in their potential. That’s the only way for things to change. More female-led stories, more female leaders in the field, more female thinkers on the teams, a more feminist filming environment, more, more, more. We’re so far behind and I’m excited for us to all keep pushing.

b) The concept of “strong female characters” or “strong female stories” is being misinterpreted and is counterproductive. When we talk about “strong female characters” we don’t mean that she has to be wonder woman or some morally-perfect, super-verbal, kick-your-ass kinda gal. We just mean she needs to be a fully-realized, complex, three-dimensional human being. She can and should be complete with major flaws, insecurities, and weaknesses — just like nearly every male character ever written.

I’m not particularly interested in the perfect woman or even the fast-talking, no-BS sassy lawyer chick who comes across as “strong.” My film’s heroine is a character who, at points, is “weak.” She’s flawed, and she’s not supergirl.

I’ve had people accuse my film of being problematic or “not feminist enough” for that reason — which is absurd. We need to relearn what “strong female character” really means and banish the idea that feminist characters need to be perfect. They don’t. They just need to be equally as important and complex as male characters.

The best way to accomplish this is to have a plethora of different types of female characters in movies from now on. More female characters, more female stories, more films made by women. More, more, more.

Documentary Film Director/Producer Sarah Moshman:
I would say fundraising is my biggest obstacle to get any project off the ground, but that’s true for any filmmaker no matter their gender, race or age.

Additionally, I feel like I always have to prove myself and it’s hard for me to get “picked” to direct a project based on my resume or past projects.

Sarah Moshman (Coco Knudson)

I think that’s changing, but there is always a feeling of impostor syndrome. That might not be specific to women either, but I often see the pattern of people saying they want to be more inclusive and hire more women and people of color, but then when the time comes to do the hiring, there’s often an excuse as to why that woman isn’t qualified when compared to her male counterpart.

And some of that is systematic — she might not have had the same opportunities throughout her entire career. It’s up to all of us to be better and hire more women, believing that the more diverse voices we have at the table, the better our art will be.

Colleen Griffen/Ali Burch
An Acceptable Loss (available on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, and other sites.)

Sarah Moshman
Nevertheless — in process
Losing Sight of Shore (Netflix)
The Empowerment Project (iTunes and Amazon)

Clare Cooney
Runner (https://youtu.be/0PKtGVJEpdg)

Christine Wolf

Written by

Award-winning columnist, author, essayist and literary coach from Chicago, writing about the human condition. www.christinewolf.com @tinywolf1

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