Meet Misty Talley, The First Female Director Of A Syfy Original Movie
By Heather L. Hughes
July: the month when fireworks, backyard barbecues, pool parties, and sharks reign supreme in America. Jaws was arguably the first movie to capitalize on a common human fear of the lethal ocean inhabitants, and 41 years later the fear and fascination are still going strong. In 2013, Syfy had a monster hit with Sharknado, an unapologetically low-budget and over-the-top TV movie that involved Los Angeles, hurricanes, helpless humans, and, yes, airborne sharks. The following year saw Sharknado 2 and the advent of “Sharknado Week,” a seven-day buffet of shark-themed movies made under the Syfy original-movie umbrella.
Among last year’s “Sharknado Week” offerings was Zombie Shark, whose bare-bones plot (sharks + diabolical experiment = menacing zombie sharks) wasn’t anything unusual for the franchise. What made Zombie Shark notable was its director, Misty Talley, the first woman to helm a Syfy original movie. This year, Talley is back with the tongue-firmly-in-cheek Ozark Sharks (Ozarks + sharks, duh), airing July 28, and she remains the only female director of a Syfy original movie.
That juxtaposition — first and woman — is a depressingly familiar one when it comes to directorial achievements. “My initial reaction was, ‘That’s a cool factoid,’” the 31-year-old director says. “And then after a second, I was like, ‘Well, there are hundreds of these [movies], so it’s kind of a bummer.’ And then after a minute, I was a little frustrated about it…like, ‘That’s kind of crazy.’ Out of a sample size of 200-some movies, only one of those is directed by a woman? That’s pretty staggering.” (As of June, the Syfy network was in more than 90 million homes; approximately 24 Syfy original movies are produced each year.)
The casual sexism of powerful men is something Talley routinely comes up against in the film industry. “The higher-ups that I’m negotiating with are always men,” she says. “I think if you asked any of them, they’re really liberal guys and they’d be like, ‘We wish there were more female directors.’ But whenever they have this large amount of money and they are about to invest it in something and they need to pick somebody to be at the helm for it and represent them, they look for somebody that’s the most like them. Unconsciously! They’re like, ‘I wish there were more female directors, but for this movie [made with] my money, I’m going to pick the guy that’s like me.’”
Talley is familiar with being the only woman in the room. One of her early jobs was as an assistant editor at a post-production house, where she was not only the sole woman but also the first woman the company had ever hired. Her ability to “hang with the guys” led to them becoming so comfortable around her that when they were considering hiring another woman for an assistant editor position, they expressed their reservations about adding a woman to their ranks right in front of Talley. As she recalls, the main concern was “‘What if we can’t talk like we want anymore?’ And I was like, ‘You guys! I’m standing right here!’” Her co-workers’ unease, Talley believes, was about the potential disruption to a small, close-knit group. Yet as she points out, “You could say that about bringing in any other guy. It’s interesting how that didn’t cross their minds: ‘We could hire a guy we don’t click with.’”
Talley’s experiences with one-on-one cringe-inducing chauvinistic interactions have been few, with only one that veered into “skeevy” territory. A particular executive producer would come into the editing room, shake hands with Talley’s male colleagues, and then proceed to greet Talley, the only woman in the room, with a kiss on the back of her head. She attempted to deflect the unwelcome greeting by swiveling around in her chair as he approached and thrusting her hand out for him to shake. The next time he entered the editing room and Talley turned to greet him, her arm draped on the back of her chair, he placed his hand on her arm…and kissed the top of her head.
Born in Lafayette, Talley has lived in southern Louisiana her whole life and has no intention of leaving anytime soon. “I’m a Cajun,” she says proudly. Further strengthening her ties to the state, Talley co-founded a production and “loan-out” company, Fable House, with producer Sam Claitor and cinematographer Matt Bell, both based in Baton Rouge. “We make a really strong tripod because of our abilities,” Talley says. “We cover the gamut of very important pieces of making a movie. Fable House lets us be stronger, together.”
With Holden, Louisiana, standing in for the Ozarks, and a beyond-tight, daylight-challenged shooting schedule (12 days in late December), Talley and her crew had to come up with on-the-fly fixes. A train coming through, with no time to pause filming and let it pass? “I was like, ‘You know what, it’s the Ozark Express. Let’s just keep shooting,’” Talley says. A ton of bamboo, and no time to change locations or to effectively mask the very un-Ozarks-like vegetation? “‘We can put a sign on a piece of bamboo that says Ozark National Bamboo Forest,’” Talley recalls. “As I said it, I was like, Whoa, that’s a really stupid idea, and they were like, ‘Perfect.’”
Tasked with coming up with a believable remote-control shark fin, Talley approached CFX, a special-effects company in Baton Rouge. Ozark Sharks’ executive producer was dismissive about the chances of the small company developing a lifelike fin when big-name firms had failed to do so. Two days before filming started, the fin was ready to be tested on location. When it was successfully launched, the producer “put his hands on his hips and was like, ‘Son of a bitch,’” Talley recalls. “And then he’s like, ‘Bring this to the shore. Take pictures of me in front of it.’” Talley laughs, not only at the big-city producer’s sudden conversion from doubter to believer, but also at the triumph of a small Southern company. “It’s the first working remote-control shark fin. And it’s in Ozark Sharks!”
Next up for Talley? “Some female thriller movies, if I want to take one.” Her passion, though, lies with sci-fi, horror (“I love, love, love working on monster movies”), and exploitation flicks. It’s those movies, with their limited budgets and fantastical narratives, that continue to challenge and excite her, for they bring out both the practical problem-solver and the creative child who was mesmerized by Jurassic Park. As Talley says, “What’s the point of making movies if you’re not having fun?”