There’s a lot of talk about women in filmmaking these days, and a lot of talk about large scale, systemic changes to help promote them. That’s a very good thing. But, as Tolstoy once wrote, “Everyone thinks about changing the world, and no one thinks about changing himself.” What can, and should, we as individual male filmmakers be doing to be an ally to our sister directors?
Speaking recently with Rachel Lambert, the director of the marvelous In the Radiant City, in theaters now, and to her Executive Producer Jeff Nichols, one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, a very clear and very obvious answer emerges. When I was at TIFF last year, I prioritized the film because I knew lead actor Michael Abbott Jr, and knew his excellent work. But I guarantee you, there were plenty of festivalgoers who prioritized it because of Nichols’ powerful name being attached. They saw a stunningly gorgeous, meditative, disquieting film with one of the festival’s best lead performances. But many of them might have missed it if not for that name in the Executive Producer slot.
It started with a phone call Nichols received from Abbott. “Michael and I worked together on Shotgun Stories,” Nichols remembers. “He also had a really small part in Mud. He and I went to college together and have been friends since the late 90s. Michael’s one of these guys that I just think is super talented that just hadn’t gotten a break. Hadn’t gotten a lead part. And unfortunately as my career started to, I don’t know, increase … the likelihood of me being able to put him in a lead role kind of got smaller and smaller. And he would always call me and be like, “Man what do you got for me?” It was like, “Man it has nothing to do with your level of talent. It’s just right now I have all these market forces working on me to put X, Y, Z together for these lead parts so you need to find a filmmaker, an up and coming filmmaker and you need to … I think that that’s the best thing you can do.”
At one point, one of those phone calls came at just the right time. Nichols had just read In the Radiant City, which Lambert had co-written and was raising funds to direct. When they got on the phone, Lambert was terrified. “I remember the first thought I had getting on the phone with him,” she says, “as I had this rush where I realized, ‘Oh my god what if…’ I didn’t know if he had read my look book where I had written this director’s statement. In this director’s statement, I talk about inspirations and his work specifically. And I had basically an essay about how his films colored my decision creatively in the making of this film, but also inspired me to even entertain the idea that I could even do it to begin with. I had this immediate panic when he started talking. I was like, ‘Oh God. Oh God he’s gonna know I’m a fan girl. This is the worst. Oh God.’”
Her fears proved unfounded, as Nichols responded strongly to her vision, and to her as an artist. The fact that she was a woman was almost beside the point at that moment. “I was just speaking,” says Nichols, “to an artist that creatively had something to say that resonated with me. That’s kind of first and foremost what’s happening there. She was going to help my friend. I don’t want to sound to magnanimous here. I had something I wanted out of this. This is the second film I’ve put my name on as producer that’s been directed by a woman. And the first being Kat Candler’s film Hellion, which I added my name to as an Executive Producer. It’s not lost on me and I’m proud of it. I can’t say it’s the reasoning behind getting involved but I can say that having been involved I’m really proud of it. It’s something I tell people because I’m proud of it. That means I’m proud of helping out two female directors and storytellers. Specifically. Not just proud of the films. Which I am.”
That support has made all the difference in the world for In the Radiant City. And now Lambert is starting to think about how to pay that support forward. “I hope that I can continue to protect my voice” she muses, “in such a way that I can be in a position to do the same kind of two prong guiding of creativity. Protecting the creativity of whoever would come after and have done the rigor that is required to protect myself creatively. And what I want to do. And to be audacious and relentless enough in my work. So that when hopefully it comes, I can be at a time in my life where I could do the same thing. If that person is even more unlike me, so much the better.”
So, my fellow male filmmakers, this is what we can do. No matter what level of achievement you’ve attained, find a female filmmaker, or a minority filmmaker, or even a female minority filmmaker, who has no yet reached that level of achievement. And offer them your help. However they want that help. Creative input, introductions to people that can help them, even to the point, if they want it, of putting your name on their film to help give it added credibility. It doesn’t matter what level you’ve attained so far; there is someone below you wishing they were there. If you just won an Oscar, help a woman who’s fallen just short of winning an Oscar. If you’ve done one short film as a student, find a woman who’s doing her first student film. Each one, reach one, and each one, teach one.
President Obama quoted Martin Luther King Jr (who was himself quoting) when he said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” And after a short pause, the president said perhaps the most insightful and challenging words of his entire presidency. “And it bends,” he says, “because we bend it.”
Boys? Let’s bend that arc.
Michael Dunaway is the Editor at Large of Paste and a New York Times award-winning filmmaker, and is currently Executive Producing four films directed by women.