The Cinema Siren herself, Leslie Combemale, brought a panel of women directors and writers to Comic-Con on Saturday under the banner of “Women Rocking Hollywood.”
Tina Mabry (Mississippi Damned and Dear White People), Angela Robinson (new biopic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women), Rosemary Rodriguez (Jessica Jones, The Walking Dead and, most recently, The Tick), Victoria Mahoney (Gypsy, Claws and Power), Aurora Guerrero (Queen Sugar), Women in Film L.A. executive director Kirsten Schaffer and Gina Prince-Bythewood all joined moderator Combemale for a wide-ranging discussion on just how far Hollywood has come, and how much farther it needs to go, with female representation.
Before the panel, Combemale described the success of her relatively young endeavor, remembering that it was “the only panel in all of Comic-Con last year that had someone representing DC and Marvel”: Deborah Snyder, producer of Wonder Woman (and now Justice League) and Victoria Alonso (the head of physical production at Marvel) on the same panel as Katherine Hardwicke, among others.
“To me it’s about the fans,” she said, describing the success of her panel. “Once you get the fans to Tweet and Facebook and use social media and really get behind it, then the studios listen.” Amplification, she implied, is what will move the industry—and amplify is what she’s trying to do.
She continued, “Ava Duvernay is trying to make a difference, and she is…but until we get a large swath of people, fandom, to make noise about it, then [one person] is not gonna change enough.”
“There are 361 movies with a budget of over $100 million,” Combemale said, “and only four of those have been made by women.” She’s referring to Kathryn Bigelow and Patty Jenkins, as well as to Niki Caro, who’s set to direct the live-action Mulan, and DuVernay with the upcoming A Wrinkle in Time (as the first African-American woman to helm a film with a budget over $100 million). Combemale also made sure to mention the big-budget work of the Wachowskis, two trans women.
Someone who may join that too-exclusive group is director Prince-Bythewood, who will be the first African-American woman to lead a superhero movie with upcoming Silver & Black, about the Marvel Universe’s Silver Sable and Black Cat, two women often aligned with Spider-Man and whose tragic pasts lead them to lives of vigilante justice.
Paste’s Keri Lumm was able to sit down with Prince-Bythewood following Combemale’s panel to discuss what it’s like to take on a comic book film and what it takes to be a woman devoting oneself to filmmaking in the first place.
Paste Magazine: “Women Rocking Hollywood” is the name of the panel today. Tell me about breaking into that industry as a woman: How do you get through those gatekeepers who are sometimes closing the doors?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: It is really about overcoming them. I learned that very early on in my career, with UCLA film school, where I applied and didn’t get in. Which was a huge shock to me and very, very tough, because I knew this was the only thing I wanted to do. But I ended up appealing the decision and writing a letter to the head of the film school, [who] shockingly was a woman, which was great, and she let me in based on that letter. So, as I said, I learned early on about overcoming and fighting for what you believe in.
This industry and telling stories, it is really all I want to do, so it’s worth the fight. And also being an athlete my whole life, it absolutely taught me the things that help me succeed today: Go all out; work harder than the next person; aggression is good; leave it all on the floor.
And stamina—that’s what it takes as well. Half the women in my class at film school were female. What happens [between] film school and these abysmal numbers [of female Hollywood directors] of 4% and 7% of directors per year? I think part of it is stamina as well, because it is extremely tough. And you are going to get told “no” a thousand times. So how do you get back up off the floor? And I think again that sports taught me a lot about that.
Paste: I’ve always said that you can be the prettiest, the most talented—the whatever—but if you can outwork people then a lot of times it turns the situation into a “yes.”
Prince-Bythewood: Coupled with that: You have to do really good work. Some people don’t understand that. You can’t go out with your first draft. You have to keep working on it, working on it, working on it—until…if you had to put it up on the screen today: This is it. Some people get tired of it or bored with it or impatient, just want it out. “This is good enough.” It can’t be good enough—it has to be great. Because there are too many people putting content out there as well. Your work is your calling card; people don’t know you, but they know your work. So make sure your work is great.
Paste: Tell me about doing Silver & Black. As a mother of sons, what is it like to do something that can be stereotypically male-oriented and head the ship?
Prince-Bythewood: It’s really cool. Honestly—it’s very cool. My family, we go see every one of these movies and we sit in the theater and we love it and we talk about it after. My younger son, his room is covered in comic books and it’s really fun to talk to him about these characters, to talk to him about villains. It’s a really cool thing that they are going to be sitting in the theater watching a superhero film by their mother.
It’s about respect. You have to respect the story, have to respect the characters. You could ask my son about any character and he’ll start talking about their origin—I mean, people care. Yes, there’ll be some changes that need to happen, but you have to respect the comic, respect the audience because they are passionate about it.
Paste: Being here at Comic-Con, you can definitely see that people are serious about their characters.
Prince-Bythewood: That’s what attracted me: Silver Sable, she’s an incredible character with an incredible story. And that’s exciting as a writer/director to delve into that kind of psyche, of a woman who’s a mercenary who lost both of her parents right in front of her. What does that do to you? And Black Cat, her origin as well: They’re both incredibly damaged women who are also badass. That’s exciting, to put these two women together in a very cool story.
Paste: To go back to what it takes to break into this industry, I feel like everybody knows the same people…that it’s a cycle of knowing the right people. You’ve broken through, and so now you can hire the people you want to hire. But otherwise, how do you break that cycle?
Prince-Bythewood: I’ve been fortunate with the people I’ve met who’ve been very supportive, like J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson. And it’s interesting to be able to have access to these guys who are in such positions, who are incredibly smart, such good filmmakers—and supportive. I know Ava [DuVernay] has the same kinds of relationships, and it’s helpful because [these men] are in it, and they can help navigate. And the hope is that when more of us are in the room then we reach back and help pull in others.
Tiny Mabry, I saw her film and was so blown away by it that I reached out. Victoria [Mahoney], I’m so excited to see what’s happening for her. So it’s about supporting each other, but also getting in a position where it’s not even about hiring but about being able to help others navigate, to answer questions, get people in touch with people who may be able to help them.
Just expand the collective.