Supporting creative work by women
Naomi McDougall Jones is a producer, writer and actor. She’s also a firebrand with revolution on her brain. Her recent TEDxBeaconStreet Talk – The Women in Film Revolution Begins With You (also embedded below) – is a must see for anyone concerned about the dearth of films made by women. In under 18 minutes, she elegantly breaks down the problem and offers a four-point plan for turning the tide.
Naomi spoke with Works by Women about what she learned from giving the TEDx Talk, how a film fund for female filmmakers is in the works and what’s the latest on her next film Bite Me.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Great TEDx Talk. So moving and inspiring. What was the response from the audience on site?
NAOMI MCDOUGALL JONES: Thanks so much! The reaction from the audience in the building that day was so exciting, electric. The most thrilling responses, both that day and after, though, have been when people say that they’re going to make an active effort to seek out more films by female creators; that they’re going to invest in films by women; that they’re a female filmmaker who has been afraid of or hesitant to make her own work and now feels empowered to just do it; or even just that the talk made them understand something new and that they’re going to start watching films in a more critical way. Getting reactions like that feels like I’ve managed to move the needle on this even just a little bit and that’s everything.
WBW: What did you take away from the other talks you heard that weekend?
NMJ: So many things. I got to watch so many phenomenal talks over both days of the conference that weekend! Special shout-outs to Cheyenne Cochrane, Crystal Emery, Laura Ingalls, and Sarah Beaulieu whose speeches particularly grabbed me. I think more than anything, I was filled with a great hope. The conference happened two weeks after the [presidential] election and things had been feeling terribly dark and that the world was headed in a very terrifying direction. But listening to these amazing 75 speakers speak about the ways in which their ideas and actions are changing their corners of the world, I felt like maybe things would be okay after all. That’s the gorgeous idea at the core of TEDx: that the simple and profound act of spreading ideas can truly change the world. I was overwhelmingly grateful to get to be a part of that weekend, both as a speaker and an audience member.
WBW: You covered a lot in your talk, but there’s probably more data to share and even more than four points for the revolution. Is there something else you’d like to say about what we can do to create a paradigm shift?
NMJ: There is certainly so much more to say. Eighteen minutes sounds long, but most of the process of writing the speech was in winnowing down three-plus years of talking (pretty much non-stop) about this complicated issue into its most essential core message. I have previously written a number of articles delving further into my ideas around this (you can find them on my website), and I plan to write a series more in the wake of the TED Talk coming out, so if you really want to go deep on this with me, follow me somehow (Twitter: @NaomiMcDougallJ; Facebook: Naomi McDougall Jones; My Newsletter: sign up on my website) and I’ll be posting articles/data/information as I write and find them. The revolution is just beginning and there’s a great deal more to say, but, most importantly, let’s turn that talk to action.
WBW: You’re in the process of creating a film fund dedicated to financing films written, directed and produced by women. Tell me what you can about it and the response in the film industry to it.
NMJ: I am! We’re not quite ready to go to the press with this yet, but if you go to www.the51fund.com and sign up for our General Interest or Filmmaker updates, you will be the very first to know when we have further details to announce. What I can say is that I am unbelievably excited about the potential of this fund to truly move the dial on gender parity in the industry by giving a substantial number of female filmmakers the chance to make their work above the micro-budget level. The response from the film industry has so far been amazingly enthusiastic (at least by and large – I have, so far, gotten yelled at by a couple of old, white men, but, there we are). I hope very much that that initial enthusiasm will continue on in material support and help as we wrest this giant moon shot of a dream into reality.
WBW: Every filmmaker I meet talks about how difficult it is to produce independent films and/or films $5million and under at this particular moment in time. And with the changing distribution platforms (VOD etc.), no one knows what to predict for the future. How do you see the market shaking out? What does the future hold?
NMJ: The exciting thing about all of this is that the breakdown of the old system is also bringing down traditional power structures in the industry in a way that I’ve certainly never seen in my lifetime. That is leaving all sorts of gaps and openings for us indie filmmakers to rise up and take control of our careers minus the usual valves of the gatekeepers. I don’t know what the new models will be, but what is clear to me that figuring out these new models and solving the women in film problem will go hand in hand. The more innovative we can be, as women, to find fresh ways of making and delivering our content, the more we will be in control of shaping the new models and, then…well, then we’ll just be in charge and we can let the men come play with us when we feel like it.
Naomi McDougall Jones and Lucas Salvagno in Imagine I’m Beautiful
WBW: What else can women filmmakers do to support one another and bring change to this inequality problem? How can women filmmakers be their best advocates:
NMJ: Like I say in my TEDx Talk, I think it is a mistake to pour too much energy into yelling at the current system to let us female filmmakers in. That system is crumbling anyway. We need to put our energy, resources, and wildly creative brains into figuring out new and better systems for making our movies and delivering them to viewers. There is a giant and vastly under-served audience for female work out there waiting to be tapped. We, as female filmmakers/actors/producers, need to reach out to them and find ways to galvanize them around watching and investing our work. Hollywood and traditional indie film are ignoring them so let’s go find them. They and we will be happier.
Aside from that, we must constantly find ways to keep making our movies, in large numbers, absolutely however we can, acknowledging that it will be harder for us, but doing it anyway.
And we have to support each other and lift each other up, both when we have no power, as well as in those instances when a few of us rise up and do attain a position of power or leverage. Especially at those later times, we must remember to reach down behind us and keep that door open. I think our generation already gets this. All around me, I see women filmmakers (and women in general) reaching out for each other and realizing that we are far stronger when we rise together. The boys are, in part, so successful in maintaining power because of their “good old boys club.” We need a women’s club to match.
WBW: You have another feature in the pipeline, Bite Me. Tell me about getting that off the ground.
NMJ: I do! If the film gods don’t smite us down in a moment of whimsy, we will be shooting Bite Me in March/April 2017! This has been a profound learning experience (I think probably any time you make a feature it is a refining journey of self and external exploration). We made my first film, Imagine I’m Beautiful, for $80,000 knowing only what we had managed to glean from taking anyone to coffee who would have coffee with us. We had an entirely wonderful, but unknown cast, ditto the crew and production team. We were all young and hungry and ambitious and nobody set foot on that project who didn’t care deeply about getting to do the work (Why would they? With a budget of $80,000, nobody was getting paid beans). The budget had its limitations in certain ways, but in, other ways, it was this glorious, messy, free creative experience. The beauty of an $80,000 film is that, other than the practical realities of having no money, there are no other gods you have to answer to.
With Bite Me, with the attachment of the incomparably wonderful producer Jack Lechner, this project became something much larger. That has been such a gift in so many ways, but it has also been a learning experience to feel the ways in which this whole other swirling vortex of factors and opinions and politics and risk as the amounts of money get larger come into play with a larger budget. That is a thrilling thing to contend with, but it is a undoubtedly process to learn how to navigate that for yourself and as a creative team – my sisters in this have been our wonderful director, Hannah Cheesman, and my producer, Sarah Wharton, both of whom are also experiencing a budget of this size for the first time in these roles. In the center of all of that, you have to learn as a team how to hang onto the core of the film you want to make. Jack has been such a godsend in that process. He is such a grounded, smart, and sensible producer and every so often we get ourselves all tangled up with a decision and we call Jack in a panic and say, “Well, here’s the thing we really want creatively, but this person said that thing, and we think maybe this thing is the right thing to do politically…” and Jack, to his eternal credit, almost always just very calmly and kindly says, “You just have to make the very best movie. You know how to do that. Make that decision.”
Truly, I couldn’t have ever hoped or dreamed for better, kinder, or weirder collaborators (when you see the film, you’ll understand how crucial that is). I’m in love and in debt to them.
I am beyond excited to get to make this movie. After Imagine, of which I am epically proud, but is a very dark and twisty film. I knew that, while it’s a good trick to make people cry, it takes greater skill yet to make them laugh, to lift them out of their lives for a few hours and instill them with joy.
To that end…Bite Me is a subversive romantic comedy about a real-life vampire and the IRS agent who audits her. It’s a glimpse into the real life (real, real life) subculture of people who believe that they’re vampires (they believe that they need to drink human blood to stay healthy), which is intensely fascinating. But, beyond that, it’s a rom-com in the joyous, goofy, freewheeling lineage of the 80s-90s films in that genre, but updated for our times. I’m interested in my generation’s relationship to faith. We came of age right as 9/11 plunged the world into a dark, scary spiral of terror. We were brought up clinging to the comfortable certainty of facts and science and having all the answers. But, of course, we don’t have all the answers. It is monumentally arrogant to assume that our current science understands anything more than an infinitesimal fraction of the workings of the universe, or even our own minds. I’m fascinated by the tension of interjecting the idea of faith into our current world that so rejects it. And what greater act of faith is there than the radical, terrifying act of falling in love?
And it’s fun. And it’s a story about genuine weirdos who get to keep their glasses on at the end of the movie.
I’m obviously incredibly keyed up to share this story with audiences. You can find out more and follow the project on our website, Facebook, and/or Twitter. Also pray for us that the film gods smile and we’re on set in a few short months!
WBW: What female filmmaker has had the most influence on your career?
NMJ: Ava DuVernay is a goddess. I admire infinitely, not only the way that she so doggedly fought her way up and built the career she wanted and knew she deserved, but also the way in which she has, with such consistency, used her newfound power and position to specifically and actively bring other women and filmmakers of color up with her. She is a warrior queen, and she gives me courage, faith, and inspiration.
I also take draw great heart and inspiration from female creators like Miranda July, Tina Fey, and Lena Dunham who have tapped so specifically into their own voice and style and then found a way to build a career and an audience out of that specificity. They have broken the ground before us and for us.
WBW: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
NMJ: When I first started working with my current manager, Joanne Zippel, she asked me to go away and write: 1) An artist’s statement 2) A specific outline of what I wanted my life and career to look like (in DETAIL!) and 3) Lists of every filmmaker, actor, writer, director, producer at any and all levels that I was creatively inspired by and wanted to work with. It seems like such a confoundingly obvious exercise, but those three pieces of writing completely changed the way I thought about my career. Having started as an actor (but also because the industry reinforces a general feeling of worthlessness whenever you’re starting out in it), I had spent years up until that point with only a vague notion of what distant dream I was struggling towards and just gratefully accepting whatever morsel of work or connection someone threw me. Somehow Joanne’s exercise flipped some switch in my brain, and I began to really understand that I was a critical participant in all of this – that until I knew specifically who and what and how I wanted it, that it would, of course, never happen. At that moment, I got back into the drivers seat of my career, where I have been significantly happier and more fulfilled.