The 2016 Valentine’s Day Filmmakers Manifesto
“The creative adult is the child who survived.” Banksy
In light of the increasing amount of ‘lack of diversity’ talks in the Hollywood film industry, and the bigger social issues in the US they also really represent, and in anticipation of the launch of my Facebook Group Queer Women Filmmakers Center, Los Angeles, I felt compelled to write down a few observations of my own. This is not a perfect piece or even a finished one but one that rushed out of me, of all days on Valentine’s Day, and so it’s called The 2016 Valentine’s Day Filmmakers Manifesto. Manifesto being a heavy word it is really more of an ode to filmmaking as genuine art, (not entertainment.)
The lack of diversity has primarily focused on people of color missing out on all kinds of opportunities for visibility and advancement, and has from another corner also heavily focused on the still dismal state of women in film, and in between a lot of opportunities got lost to recognize the common denominator between the two issues and successfully combine them to admit that people of color, and women, and so therefore in particular women of color are at the worst position in this white, male dominated industry. The subject of inter-sectioning identities, as this is known as, is mostly missing from the debate, and within that all the varying sexual and gender identities are also still sorely underrepresented.
There are so many areas I could tackle, starting with Ava DuVernay and ‘Selma’ in 2014 being the biggest Oscar snubs ever, (and I don’t think I personally ever completely reconciled with the fact that Gena Rowlands didn’t win for ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ in 1974, even though I was way too young experience that in real time*,) but I’ll just say a few things about my personal favorite this year, ‘Carol,’ which happens to be getting snubbed left and right in all categories at the various Guilds Awards.
All things withstanding about other films and their quality and importance I just don’t think it is a coincidence that a story centered on two women’s happiness, without the aide of a man in any way, is being “overlooked,” and despite rave reviews, despite the popular Patricia Highsmith novel ‘The Price of Salt’ it was based on, and despite two well known and popular and wonderful actresses in the leads.
Two actresses in the leads, which brings me to Rooney Mara in the Supporting Actress category instead of the lead one, next to Cate Blanchett, (and thankfully the Independent Spirit Awards got it right with both of them with Lead Actresses nominations,) which is a total misappropriation of the lesbian love story in which simply two women both lead. (Of course having both actresses in the lead category will automatically cancel one out for a potential win but that’s not the point here.)
Not to mention that Rooney Mara’s character is the one who’s point of view the story is told from, and that she is on-screen plenty, and that she actually is novelist Patricia Highsmith’s own alter ego. How does this possibly make for a supporting character?
Apparently only in some heteronormative, heterosexual, male mind would this make sense. And that of course comprises the body of the voting Academy, heteronormative, heterosexual, male minds, with no room and no respect for anyone else. I really don’t think it was the title, ‘Carol,’ since any heterosexual love story would not bump one of its’ partners down to supporting character over that.
The idea that a married woman could leave her husband, and without qualms, for a woman, a younger one no less, and even leave her child over her and her own need for love and happiness, is entirely too much for a lot of heterosexual men to swallow, and I even witnessed a few walk outs at the right moments when watching it at the Hollywood ArcLight several times. I just had to look over at who could leave this beautiful love story, and sure enough a few guys disappeared without returning. No women left, that I could tell anyway. Most of the audiences on all three nights seemed comprised of straight couples. A few lesbian couples were scattered throughout the theater, and I somehow felt like I was the only single lesbian in attendance each time.
But in 2016, where Planned Parenthood still stands the chance of being shut down, and every GOP presidential candidate is threatening to roll all LGBT rights advancement back upon presidency, this is really no coincidence at all. What’s even more sad is that 20 years of labor went into this project for its screenwriter Phyllis Nagy and it is not being recognized enough by the Guilds.
20 years! That means she started the first draft even before Bill Clinton signed the Defense Of Marriage Act into office in 1996, and she did not get the WGA Best Screenplay win in 2016, less than a year after DOMA has finally been shut down federally. Not that rewards are what it’s all about and I’m sure those 20 years didn’t go to waste one bit but it just isn’t right and I just had to say it.
Okay, onto the “Manifesto” part.
I’ll start with the two of the most well known lessons in screenwriting, two phrases I’ve always remembered from film school and screenwriting books anyway, “Write what you know,” and “If it isn’t on the page, it’s not going to be on the screen.”
This is where a lot of trouble starts already. If an actor or a director does not write their own material or bring their own source material to the table they will also most likely not be accurately portrayed in film.
I started out with writing myself, in the Netherlands, around 1989, my senior year in high school. I started with a journal, and also wrote short stories and poems, then plays, and I even attempted a couple of novels, (but finished only one.) Screenplays actually came last, since there were no books on screenwriting to be gotten in the Netherlands in the late 80s, and it even took me a while to figure out films were actually written first. There were no DVD commentaries and featurettes, and all people ever saw were the actors. I certainly didn’t question where the money came from to make films.
But the writing came naturally and there were simply no cameras around to get a hold of in those days, for I was plenty inspired by movies, and I spent a lot of time alone, due to being a gender nonconforming lesbian in a completely homophobic small town. So it’s always come completely natural to me to write myself what I’d (eventually) like to direct.
But this is often not the case with actors, and sometimes also not directors, and so the next best thing I would think to do if you for whatever reason cannot bring original material to produce, (and even if you haven’t written something in actual screenplay form it could still work as source material,) is to at least get very friendly with writers, even over directors. If you are a female actor, or of color, or both or whatever else, it would make sense to befriend writers who have similar identities to you, to collaborate with.
All our overall needs and dreams are relatively similar but our identities will largely determine how far ahead in those goals we will get. In order to create something meaningful it is not most important to have the money in place or even who you know in terms of status but who you truly relate to as people.
Stories will have to become more collaborative if you bring different identities in the picture. For novice and even seasoned artists the idea of collaboration can be threatening to one’s own point of view but if we want to see more diversity we can’t keep funding one person’s single view, or often fantasy, of the world.
I am not at all against the auteur theory, as a director, and as a solitary writer am even comfortable in this, but it is simply not good enough to give disproportionate importance to the role of director and minimize the role of the writer. Writers have always been dealt the worst card in Hollywood, no wonder then that the stories are lacking as well.
Ever since I discovered John Cassavetes in the early 90s I became a little torn between the image of the solitary writer in a room of one’s own and the completely collaborative nature of good filmmaking but I became a big fan of wearing as many hats as you can handle. So whereas I would suggest for actors to write I would also suggest for writers to tackle acting, to not get heady about their writing and stay realistic about actual human behavior, especially in interaction.
What I discovered from working as a script analysis intern of sorts at Samuel Goldwyn Films in 2002 was that the majority of scripts not only had horrible dialogue but even more horrible description, and the rule of the thumb always being that people don’t like to read description and focus on dialogue instead does not help either but I believe descriptions, however brief, are crucially important to what you eventually see on the screen.
It is simply terrible racist manners to not describe a person’s skin color when white, and then start adding in skin colors to describe usually secondary characters, who will either serve to help or hinder the protagonist. Especially since diversity is still a huge issue I suggest all skin colors are specifically written in, all genders are written in, and I don’t mean just male and female, but gender nonconforming people as well, all sexual orientations, including bi and poly and whatever else, ages, politics, religions and disabilities, etc., and regardless of whether they serve as plot points in the story. People are not just supposed to be aiding in plot points, drastic changes in the narrative, but just exist as people and should be written in that way to reflect day to day reality.
If a story takes place in a big city there will naturally be a wide variety of people at hand, write them in so they will appear on the screen. There is no such thing as Los Angeles, present day, crowd in the streets, or something. You should be accurate about your location’s demographics, and in terms of economics as well, different social statuses. People have financial problems, and lack education, and have shame issues attached to them on top. If characters never have financial issues they start becoming pure unrealistic fantasy really fast.
People also have different nationalities, even when living in the US, and often times even different legal statuses, and also criminal records that might but also might not have been so criminal in nature at all. And they also do realistic and mundane things like eating, and sometimes they spill food on themselves. It isn’t always vital to the ultimate plot but one needs to see realistic portrayals to be able to sympathize. All these little things add up and are enormously refreshing to see on screen, it makes us relate.
Some of the best screenwriters have written some of the best descriptions about things but you will not “see it directly,” Frank Pierson wrote significant entries on various police departments behavior into the script of ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and it seems too disjointed on the screen to notice at first but after several viewings you get an idea of the order of authority even within authorities. Paul Schrader’s opening page of ‘Taxi Driver’ is practically poetry, (although I’m sort of cured of the ‘Taxi Driver’ nostalgia once I really started understanding Travis’ limited mind,) and all of Terrence Malick’s screenplays are just straight-out poetry, especially ‘The Tree Of Life.’ I cannot even as quickly name three female screenwriting examples, that’s how sorely lacking female screenwriters still are even from my reality.
Another thing I learned from reading a lot of scripts all day long is that characters can really just disappear, and since screen time often dictates importance, I would suggest upping the screen time of those characters that are really interesting but this is of course not always possible plot wise. It is therefore even more important to flesh out minor characters as full people, with a full range of emotions, rather than keeping not only their screen time brief but simplifying them to the point of becoming stereotypes.
A lot of this is still really surface stuff, to do with the dressing up of the characters and locations to include a great diversity of people. And I am not at all suggesting increasing the budget because of it, it should all just be in the details, or else the script is just too bland to begin with.
I am also focusing in on writing a whole lot but this simply has to do with the two screenwriting lessons described. There is a lot to be said about the whole process of filmmaking, and of financing and distribution of course. What I will say is that I think a lot of money can be spent a lot more wisely than how it is actually spent. In order to tackle the issue of diversity and of character at its root one has to write more honest portrayals of human beings, and less fluff around it to build the story up, because that is where a lot of the money is wasted.
To write more humanistic portrayals you have to be honest about a character’s deepest insecurities, even if they are unfounded. The US is hooked on sarcasm as a way to cover its insecurities but in order to write a good screenplay you cannot resort to sarcasm and cynicism to save the day, for they are just forms of hatred and not at all complex emotions.
John Cassavetes described his characters as wearing masks, which would inevitably come off during the journey, and he counted everyone’s need as valid, no matter how strange. You have to respect your characters, all their needs experienced as good and urgent, no matter how bad they can actually be.
I have read quite a few articles about inter-sectionality of identities and the lack thereof, and of something called white feminism. I could never get a complete grasp on it, and certainly no justification for it, until I saw the scene in ‘12 Years a Slave’ where the male slave owner is whipping the female slave, based on need of his wife. Her need was triggered by jealousy, as he was technically cheating of course and was generally making his wife’s life miserable, and white women simply were not equal to white men and were put in a peculiar dilemma of enslavement, wherein it was not clearly stipulated whether or not they were “above” black men or not, and so as women, had to fear black men, and also took their revenge out on them if it was allowed for somehow. I am surely not defending this stance but I had to see the psychological dynamics in action to really fully grasp the complexities of the problem of racism and sexism combined.
(To be honest, I don’t think I was familiar with the actual term “white feminism” before ‘12 Years a Slave’ came out but I was definitely aware of the rifts between feminists and feminist waves and the discrepancies even between heterosexual and lesbian feminists, and knew of racial problems surrounding them as well.)
In another John Ridley script, ‘Jimi: All Is by My Side,’ a light skin and darker skin woman are vying it out for the attention of Jimi Hendrix, the black woman “playing on” their racial commonalities as a reason to connect. When this woman later on in the story finds the white woman beaten up by Jimi she comes to her aid as a woman and they bond briefly as women, against men. The black woman tucks the white woman in to sleep, promising her some female alliance but the moment she is dozed off the woman goes out to spend the night with Jimi.
Thank you John Ridley for your complex portrayals of women, and of various colors, and their real problems with each other, themselves, men and the world. And to top it off none of his female portrayals are particularly likable and one could make the premature judgment to think he is misogynist, just like people have accused John Cassavetes of misogyny for portraying the full truth around male and female relations. But to delve so deeply into women’s issues that inevitably some negative emotions will surface as well does not make a misogynist at all, quite the opposite.
These male directors spend so much time in getting their female characters right they inevitably do the same for their more easily relatable to themselves male counterparts. Virginia Woolf called this extraordinary capability to understand both men and women “psychological androgyny,” and while not all the same as being gender nonconforming, I can personally relate to this concept a lot.
I think what is super important is that especially in these white/black, male/female camps of enemies, (with all other races and genders stuck in between,) the portrayals of all characters as realistic as possible is so very vital to the real need to erase racism and sexism. You really have to understand all your characters’ motivations truly before you have them bash each other at all. The idea is not to continue any simplistic “battle of the sexes/races” but to give meaning to each character’s motivation, as human first, to then try to tackle overcoming racial and sexual issues.
If one truly believes in the equality of people one must tackle one’s subject matter with respect even for those things that are hard to accept.
Idealism with always a firm foot in reality is the right approach to stories, authenticity, honesty, vulnerability are the right approaches to getting character right, even if the characters themselves are struggling with this. This prevents something from becoming entirely unrealistic fantasy, and so not relatable the moment one knows it is an impossibility, and/or a sarcastic rant against all that opposes the main character, and so often not relatable because people don’t want to be all that bitter after all.
Just a few more general notes on filmmaking overall.
I think it is absolutely crucial to be relevant and urgent, to the times, and to be timeless even, (especially well detailed events will feel generally universally timeless.) But I really do believe that in this day and age and with the awareness that does exist around some of our human problems one has to be relevant and urgent in one’s story and message (without preaching though,) and hopefully offer not only the problems but maybe some solutions as well.
I always remember the opening of the 2003 filmmaking documentary ‘A Decade Under the Influence,’ in which the attitude of the studios in the late 60s is described as being completely out of touch with audiences’ demands during those turbulent times.
With politics leading so dangerously fast in the wrong direction in this country I think we are seeing somewhat of a repeat of this. I had long hoped for a repeat of more meaningful films as the answer to political turbulence, akin to the new Hollywood movement of the 70s, and had actually thought this would come in the aftermath of 9/11 and the following wars. What instead happened was a gradual popularity in documentary film, which is finally taking over to the point of becoming its own complete filmmaking category to be pursued by aspiring filmmakers. When I initially arrived in Los Angeles to be a filmmaker in 1992 this was a real stretch, and excellent documentaries were made, as they had been for a long time already, but they were hard to find and not a very glamorous goal to pursue at all, simply because it didn’t seem to pay off at all.
Documentary has exploded by 2016, though still not very profitable, but if this increase in popularity keeps going a profitable market will be created around it.
I simply think that younger people, in the age of the internet especially, simply don’t have much patience for two hour length feature narratives anymore. Not only because they are short on attention span but they simply can afford to get their needed information much quicker. Film is emotional information.
If feature filmmaking even wants to stay relevant, and clearly a lack in diversity proofs a lack in relevance, it needs to really step up its game.
Documentary film is gaining steadfast popularity over feature film because it is a more accurate reflection of reality in a time where not every one wants to escape the world’s social issues through fantasy anymore, (because it isn’t our fantasy necessarily and we, as certain minorities, are the social issues.)
And also very importantly, it is by nature a non-chronological art-form, (so no visual continuity is required,) and also does not require acting, (so no acting talent needed, and no big name actors to increase the likelihood to raise funds.) These latter two are enormously freeing, both creatively and financially.
And besides that, raising issues that really matter also makes one feel that one’s film has more importance and thereby is justified.
Narrative feature, even though it can also employ non-chronological structures and feature non-actors, is by nature more structured for clarity. Chronology exists to exemplify cause and effect. But because of other existing visual formats, like music videos and television, people have become accustomed to take in a lot of non-chronological information all at once. And cause and effect can indeed also be demonstrated through non-chronological structure.
Documentary can simply afford to feel less structured because it is already understood by the audience that attention needs to be paid to practical information, and is therefore somewhat less of an emotional journey, (even if they can be enormously emotionally compelling.)
In this day and age where the idea of theatrical distribution has lost a lot of its’ romantic appeal, and people are perfectly entertained by creating things on social media themselves, and which gives them instant visibility and connectedness to others, it is much harder to sell a two hour, intensive emotional journey, (that actually requires one to stay off of Facebook for a couple of hours,) than a documentary, which can also employ the acts structure of screenplays, but which actually feels more like a Facebook newsfeed or a YouTube video.
People are increasingly aware of their need for equal rights and self-identity and visibility and all kinds of social issues, in part because of the internet’s speed and vastness of information, and they simply want to get to their place of happiness faster.
For narrative film to stay relevant, and very importantly affordable, it should not try to compete by cramping in a much as possible to keep up with documentary, (and hybrids between the two can exist as well,) but simply go deep into human behavior again, more like live theater. This is the only realistic way a more diverse slate of narrative films can exist.
There has to be a return to smaller budget, independent films, and also narrative film techniques can be made more practical to ensure costs are kept lower, and so more films and work opportunities can actually be created.
If you are going to employ actors as part of your storytelling technique then you must focus on them more as integral parts of storytelling. Not only does a more diverse slate of actors need to be hired, and women employed in important creative roles, but actors need to be more respected overall, (as actors that is, not as celebrities!)
Actors must be allowed to act, and the structure of film does not necessarily lend itself to that. Shots, and shot lists to be followed, should be largely replaced by actual scenes, (in longer takes that is,) and film shoots should include good old fashioned rehearsal time, a concept completely missing from Hollywood filmmaking anymore but actually essential to many actors and to the nature of acting as collaboration itself.
Instead of setting up and lighting a vast array of shots, lighting can be left much more general, (in documentary artificial lighting is not necessary at all and in many cases simply impossible, and locations are also much looser, all contributing to lower production costs, and so increase of actual production.)
While film may be a story told in pictures, actors are still human beings and not props to be used for a larger purpose only.
Instead of continuously interrupting the actors’ emotional performances in favor of shot lists for story structure, and so for the editor, the actors must be allowed to carry more of the emotional weight of the story, rather than letting the visuals dictate the mood. I just know for a fact that this would free a lot of actors up, and it simply forces the writers and directors to be better at their jobs as well.
Instead of cutting up the actors’ performances to fit story structure, and having them languish in trailers waiting for camera set up changes, one should find a way to more accurately capture the performances themselves, through not more takes from different angles but through simply more acting, (including the room to make mistakes, without losing a fortune,) and with multiple cameras rolling simultaneously to catch it all.
This will surely make for happier actors, and I think happier and smoother film productions.
On a final note, general audiences are mostly not aware of the Oscars’ importance in relation to general distribution and so have a lopsided idea of it being just some self-congratulatory vanity fest, (as if congratulating one on artistic accomplishments is such a bad thing anyway. No one would think of the Olympics that way.) But there is still an actual theatrical distribution clause in place to secure an Oscar nomination. This limits an artist’s plan to shoot with exclusively other distribution options in mind, if they also want to qualify for an Oscar.
Since the importance of theatrical exhibition has enormously diminished in order to secure a successful run of a film anymore, simply because it has been replaced by direct to DVD and online streaming options, the role of theatrical exhibition as essential to secure an Oscar nomination qualifier should also be scratched.
(I was only made aware of this by now outdated loophole through working in movie theater exhibition at the Laemmle Theatres for years myself, and screening short films for general paying audiences at the theater was a requirement for Oscar nomination qualification of those shorts.)
- Gena Rowlands received an Honorary Oscar in November 2015.
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Gender-Binary System notes (2016)
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My name is Gabriella Bregman, I am a Hollywood-based writer, filmmaker, producer, currently in post-production of a feature documentary called ‘The Queer Case for Individual Rights,’ through my film production company ‘Bregman Films.’
You can find me mostly on Facebook for right now, (facebook.com/gabriellabregman,) where I also maintain a Facebook Group called ‘Queer Women Filmmakers and Writers - Los Angeles’