The Good Eye: Crossing the (180-Degree) Line
Austin actresses go behind the camera
For the past month, I've been interviewing Austin screen actresses who feel confined to stereotypical, one-dimensional roles, often unnamed and written with about as much care as the screenwriter devoted to the scenery ("Tales From the Beauty Box," Feb. 20; "Tales From the Quirky Box," Feb. 27; "Tales From the Minority Box," March 6; "Tales From the Aging Box," March 13). Their boxes may look different, but they are all ready for a change. And, as Jessie Tilton said, "If you want something to change, you have to change it."
Many Austin actresses are doing just that: going behind the camera to write the roles they'd want to play and direct the films they'd love to be cast in. Some embarked on their acting careers with ambitions to write, direct, and produce; others have been driven to it out of desperation. All of them share a belief that the tide is turning for women in film, and they want to be a part of it.
Katie Folger (Zero Charisma) is one of them. Having studied acting at the University of Texas, she quickly got bored with the film scripts she was reading. "I was seeing the same characters over and over and over again. I was seeing these caricatures, these ideas of a sliver of womanhood, whether that be the girl next door, or the super-sexy woman, or the naïve virgin, or the victim. As a creative person and a woman, I found myself not just desiring to make movies, but feeling like I had a responsibility. The women I interact with in my daily life, the women that I know – I don't see those living, breathing, complex, hilarious, disgusting, beautiful, strong, impassioned women on paper."
Folger began teaching herself the ropes and researching the project she wanted to tackle first. Around the same time, she met recently graduated filmmaking twins Ashley and Leslie Saunders, who shared her views. In May of 2014, the three launched Austin Film Ladies, a loosely organized networking group that provides women in film of all experience levels with opportunities to mingle, screenwriting workshops, feedback on rough cuts, and whatever else members need.
"So often as women we're taught to be competitive, that there's only room for one woman to succeed in a certain field or profession," said Folger. It's easy to imagine how, among actresses, the scarcity of roles might feed this sense of competition. By contrast, the challenges associated with filmmaking seem to encourage women to band together.
Actresses of color, whose screen roles are the most limited both in terms of quantity and range, may feel they have nothing left to lose. "At some point I was like, I'm going to start writing," said Monique Straw of Dames in Film, a small, collaborative circle of actresses-turned-filmmakers, many of them minorities. "It was give up, or make your own stuff. I'm not giving up, I know that much."
The founding members of Dames in Film – Straw, Timeca Seretti, Christina Romero, Melanie René (Generation Me), and Leslie Langée (Jumping Off Bridges) – knew each other from acting classes and working together in the past, but it wasn't until last year's Austin Film Festival that they realized each would have a better chance of creating the specific projects she wanted by pooling their resources.
"We were talking about how we feel underrepresented sometimes, because many of us are minorities," René said. "So we began to chat about how we could pull together and make some good work that's meaningful, that's done well, that gives us a chance to portray characters we haven't had a chance to."
Seretti, whose first project for the group was a pilot about a woman who takes over her father's mafia business, came up with the name. "Deep down inside, I'm really old school – you know, old Hollywood glamour. Back then, they used to call women who were tough 'dames.'"
Having spent years in the industry both in front of the camera and behind it, the Dames in Film all had connections to bring to the table. "In the Austin filmmaking community it really is six degrees of separation," said René. "Once we got to talking, we realized, 'Oh, I have an awesome friend who's a really good D.P.,' or, 'I was just in a short film a few weeks back with a friend who has a Red Dragon camera.'"
That sense of connectedness can make all the difference for women in film. Langée, who trained as an actor, initially found the idea of directing intimidating. "Then I was in Kat Candler's film Jumping Off Bridges. I was so impressed with her, and all the women running the show. It was like, 'Wow, I could totally do this.'"
Langée wasn't the only woman to single out Candler, whose second feature, Hellion, debuted at Sundance last year. If just one successful female director in town has that kind of ripple effect, imagine what a baker's dozen could do. "From what I've observed and heard among other women, this is viral, this is contagious," said Folger. "I think we're going to see a huge shift in the coming years."
Watching these women light up like the Frost Bank Tower as they talk about their mission, it's easy to believe in that future. But today, the reality is still bleak. Despite the boom in women-helmed television and web series, and in defiance of box-office trends that say moviegoers will turn out in droves to see woman-centric films from The Hunger Games to Fifty Shades of Grey, the majority of independent and Hollywood films are still written and directed by white men to target an audience of teenage boys. And that means we can expect to see a lot more of every actress' favorite character, Drunk Girl #2.
"We can't sit around and wait for a man to do it," Straw said. "If they don't have to create a juicy role for a woman, why would they? Unless they give a shit, which is rare."
Next week, "The Good Eye" interviews Austin men and other industry allies who do give a shit!