Sometimes, when everyone is talking about a particular issue, it takes a few key voices to point out that the conversation itself is not enough—that it is, in fact, a symptom or a reflection of the very problem it seeks to resolve. Talking about women directors and how we desperately need more of them can be as useless as talking about how desperately we need more black actors to get Oscar-worthy roles. Discourse, as Foucault taught us long ago, is far more complicated than buzz, or, in this case, the repetition of the word “diversity.” And Lexi Alexander is one of few women directors making a similar argument. Tonight, Alexander’s highly-anticipated episode of Supergirl (“Truth, Justice and the American Way”) airs on CBS, and Paste caught up with the Palestinian and German filmmaker to talk about her work on the show, choreographing fight scenes for women and the truth about the long-term effects of sexism in Hollywood—particularly among women.
Paste Magazine: A couple of years ago I got to interview actor and stunt double Zoë Bell and I was just so fascinated with the kind of work people do when they are so in tuned with their bodies and their own physicality. How does your life as a fighter inform your style or your experiences as a director?
Lexi Alexander: I love Zoë! She’s my friend. And this is an excellent and interesting question. First of all, this episode of Supergirl happens to be my first time directing actions scenes with a female lead. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I had created all of these fight scenes—choreographed them, or directed them, or both—and they were all for dudes! And a woman’s fight is often really badly choreographed. Like, she’ll punch a guy who’s 220 pounds and her wrist will be bent down, and I’ll think, “Well, if she’d really punched him like that, she would have broken her hand.” So there’s a lot of laziness in some of this choreography. Perhaps the people around don’t really care about how the woman looks, or maybe in their minds, this is how a woman looks in a fight. I get frustrated.
I often think about it, and I probably wouldn’t be directing if I wasn’t a fighter. At some point I was on an all-male team in Europe, and I think it taught me to deal with the boys club. I’m not someone who throws the towel in, although I think there are many times when I could have and should have thrown the towel in, and nobody would have thought any worse of me.
Paste: I was re-reading your blog about fake activism in Hollywood, and I so loved your metaphor of the “wildcard” fighting system. In the time since you wrote that, do you find that people in the industry are being more honest about the realities for women directors?
Alexander: People are trying a little bit more—the smart ones. You have to be an idiot at this point to think that there isn’t a problem. The EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] has begun an official government investigation. So people know it’s there. But my fear is that we’re fixing it in a very shallow manner. We’re not fixing the fires that manifest. We have to go much deeper into why this is even happening for us to really heal and fix this, and not just put a band-aid on it.
Paste: Your Supergirl episode is coming up. Can you talk a little about working on the show? How was this different from your past TV directing experiences?
Alexander: What’s really amazing is that the showrunner who really got me my start in TV is Andrew Kreisberg. He brought me on to Arrow and he tracked me down because he was a fan of Punisher. And [co-showrunner] Greg Berlanti kind of gave orders that they would not be the kind of company that has no women directors.
When I started on Supergirl, the massive difference was that Andrew had made such a big deal vocally about how big of a fan he is, and how much he trusts me. So he would come on set on the day of a fight sequence—and he did that purposely—and he’d say it in a funny way, but he’d say, “Make sure she gets everything she wants, because that’s why I hired her.” But he said it like, “If you’re fucking with her, you’re fucking with me.” (laughs) So he set the tone that I was someone he believed in. And it’s like, my God, if we’re talking about the difference between a “diversity hire” and “inclusion”—I’d tweeted this thing a while ago where I said that diversity is hiring people from different backgrounds, but inclusion means that you’re creating an environment where they can succeed. And I had that environment. I wasn’t a diversity hire, I was like a star hire! And it made me a million times better. That’s why I think I did my best work on the show. Because, when you don’t have to prove anything, it makes things so much easier.
Paste: I’m getting ready to head out to LA and meet Jill Soloway for the first time, on the set of Transparent. Are you feeling a shift in energy among the women in Hollywood, even if their male counterparts are still hesitant about speaking up, and even if—as you said—there’s a problematic “band-aid” approach at work sometimes?
Alexander: Unfortunately, I don’t. Whenever there’s oppression and you have a group that’s being locked out, it’s almost [human] nature that people turn into vultures, because it’s also about survival. My friend Maria Giese—the ACLU thing—she was the one to really shepherd that project. She went and knocked on doors, and begged to get people involved, almost all by herself. And she’s now a total outsider, a kind of persona non grata. She’s gotten a little bit of attention, but people look at her like she’s a little bit nuts—even while they’re holding lunches to honor the ACLU. There was a brunch the other day to honor the ACLU’s involvement, but Maria wasn’t invited. Now that there is a government investigation you see more women talking about it, but before we were all looked at as if we were nuts. And that hasn’t been healed. There’s always rumors about each other, but I think a lot of that is a result of people being oppressed and being discriminated against. But it would be nice to start that healing process as well, because, potentially, we’re just doing what men have done to us.
Of course, for example, Jill Soloway is someone who hires a lot of women. Whenever I go on a job interview, I always recommend Rachel Talalay. I love her. So it’s not like we all don’t like each other. I guess there’s this sense that we haven’t overcome this feeling of being pitted against each other. We’re still in that mind space, where, if I recommend another woman, they might not hire me because they’ll only have a couple of women. I’m now making a conscious effort to get beyond that.
Paste: That’s not an easy mindset to push beyond.
Alexander: It’s super difficult! Especially when many of us were broke in director’s chairs! We weren’t rich women sitting in our pool houses. People assume that because we’re talking Hollywood it’s so different, but many of us couldn’t pay rent, ran out of unemployment and struggled very deeply.
Paste: Yes, we assume that talking about inclusion in Hollywood is a First World problems kind of thing. What’s next for you? Are there any other projects we should know about?
Alexander: I just arrived here in New York to direct Limitless, which I’m very excited about because it has no fight scenes (laughs). Which means people are just hiring me now as a great director.
Paste: I’m looking forward to seeing more of your work everywhere. Thanks so much for this!
Alexander: Thank you.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.