Jen McGowan is a powerhouse; a veritable no-nonsense tour de force and breath of fresh air in an all-too-often white hetero male dominated film landscape. Her first feature film, KELLY & CAL, starring Juliette Lewis, Cybill Shepherd and Jonny Weston premiered at SXSW where she won the Gamechanger Award. It was released by IFC Films, opening to rave reviews. With a BFA from the prestigious NYU Tisch School of the Arts and an MFA in directing at USC in her toolkit, Jen is an active member of The Alliance of Women Directors and Film Fatales and most recently created filmpowered.com, an online skill-sharing site for women working in film and television. In its short existence, the site has already been featured in Indiewire and included in the Sundance Women’s Initiative Resource List.
H. Congratulations on KELLY & CAL. What was it like having your feature directorial debut premiere at SXSW? How was it working with Juliette Lewis? Actually how did you get to work with her?
J. Thank you! It was incredible. SXSW is a complete madhouse and it was a totally overwhelming experience. Juliette is amazing and working with her was the absolute best. I got to work with her because I had a great script, I had my shit together and because she is bad ass. She is an incredible woman who does absolutely what the fuck she wants with commitment, passion and bravery and that is how I got to work with her. I wish more women would take such risks, they would find more interesting roles to play if they did.
H. You’ve created a pretty amazing initiative with Film Powered. You’re a busy director and could easily just have that “Island Nation” tunnel vision; focusing on you and your career. But you’re consciously not doing that. What made you want to create Film Powered?
J. I am so thrilled that people are responding so positively to Film Powered. It’s exactly what I wanted. Your question is funny to me though because I don’t really see creating Film Powered as separate from my work as a director. Film Powered is just another expression of how I see the world and that is that I believe very strongly that I and other women have great contributions to offer to this industry that are being overlooked and under-monetized.
H. I’m glad that question was funny to you – that says a lot about you. Sometimes there’s an inherit belief in our culture that if you give and share you somehow lose. But really you gain so much. And you’re right, we are being overlooked and under-monitized and I feel it’s on us to shake that up. Now, there’s a credit system instead of paying for classes. It’s a unique form of currency. How did that come about?
J. The goal of Film Powered is two-fold. First, it is to increase the skill set of its members. Second, it is to strengthen the community of its members. They are both equally important to me. I wanted to create a system that incentivized participation and did not involve money. Credits seemed to do that and so far it’s working.
H. I got to attend a class and it was awesome – not just the knowledge but being with other women in a supportive professional space.
J. Oh I’m so glad! One of the things that makes me so excited about Film Powered is people are gaining from it when I don’t even know it’s happening. I really tried to set it up so it was self-perpetuating. And I’m super happy that was your experience because that was precisely my goal. Again, not dissimilar to making a film. You have an idea of the experience you want to give your audience and you go through a bunch of silliness in between and at the end you look at the audience’s faces and go “did it work?” And that feeling of putting something out there and having people experience what you hoped from an idea you had ages back is just magic. Magic.
H. Filmmaking is a collaborative art form yet our industry can be known for pettiness and competitiveness. It can easily divide women artists instead of bringing them together. Was this is in the back of your mind as an intention with Film Powered?
J. Ah fuck it. Just do your thing and try not to get bogged down. It’s a hard business because there’s money at stake in a creative field where most people don’t actually understand why something works or doesn’t or generally what the hell is going on. It’s really just the nature of the beast so there’s no point wasting energy worrying about it. Just do your thing.
H. I think that’s a solid piece of advice for women. I’m an activist and I know it’s really easy to get bogged down by all the negatives and when that happens it affects how you see and grab opportunity. I know we have a long ways to go, but it feels like we’re making a bit of headway – at least making more noise collectively. How do you feel about the action ACLU is making?
J. I think it’s great. Everyone has their role to play and I think what the ACLU is doing is good stuff. Will it work? Who knows. Will it work quickly? Unlikely. I am a filmmaker who is trying to work now so I need to function in the industry as it exists right now. I’m hopeful things will improve and I am very happy being vocal about what I think needs to happen but my first priority is my work. Always.
H. Lobbying and lawsuits aside, what do us women – both within the industry and as audience members (aka consumers) need to do to create change?
J. Everyone needs to do exactly what it is they can do. If you’re comfortable being a loud voice, do it. If you can start a fund, do it. If you can afford to buy tickets to women’s films on the first day they open, do it. I do not agree that everyone needs to support causes in the same way. I do feel very strongly that everyone (men and women) can do something. And if they’re not? I have no time for them. They’re not my people.
H. Who is welcome to join Film Powered? Do you need any special qualifications?
J. So this is a little bit of a thing right now. Keep in mind my goal was to create a site for women filmmakers and also I am just one person running this whole thing. So at the moment you must be a member of one of four other groups in order to get approved to use Film Powered. You may be a member of the Alliance of Women Directors, Film Fatales or WIMPs. Or you may be a female fellow (not a general member) of Film Independent.
I’m catching a bit of shit for this right now because lots more people want to join and I’ve had to turn people away. I hope people will understand a few things. First, this is super new and I’m figuring it out as I go. Second, I want to keep the quality of the membership high and I know the membership requirements of those groups so it cuts down on my time having to validate everyone. And also I don’t want to be judging people. Not my thing.
However, the demand has been so massive that I am working to create a less exclusive, more open version of the site. So I hope everyone will please be patient because it’s going to be awesome.
H. Ah, well, shit happens. What’s important is that you’re doing something. And it’s an evolving process, for sure. But if ladies can’t attend classes, are there other ways they can be involved or support the initiative?
J. Well, most women in the biz should qualify for one of those groups and be able to take classes. And it’s not just Los Angeles. So far LA has been the most active but we can accommodate virtual classes and classes in other physical locations. You just need enough people in your area to get involved and LA has a ton of very active and very experienced women filmmakers.
They can spread the word about it. They can support the site financially through a link on the site or sponsorship. (God lord please because not only am I doing this myself I’m paying for it myself too!)
H. How has it been going so far? Have there been any surprising classes?
J. I’m pretty over the moon about it. There have been some really cool classes. I actually just went to one myself last night! It was a class called The Director’s Notebook taught by a wonderful director, Rachel Feldman, who has directed more than 50 hours of fiction TV. She talked us through her prep process. Our first ever class, Choreography & Filming of Action Sequences, was taught by Emily Dell and she brought in a group of professional stunt people to work with for a few hours. Super cool, right?
Upcoming we’ve got everything from Social Media 101 to Commercial Directing to Ask a 1st AD with AD’s from AVATAR, MILLION DOLLAR BABY and Lost. And new classes are being added every day.
H. Yeah I missed the Choreography class. I was so disappointed! Where do you want to see this go – or where do you see it going?
J. It’s going to be freakin’ massive. Just imagine this – free film school for all, worldwide. Not a bad goal, eh? I’m just starting to raise finance now and have had hugely positive responses from investors so far.
H. Women are so powerful but (sometimes) have a tendency to underestimate their skills and abilities. I think it’s great this platform exists not just as a sharing tool but as a personal empowerment tool as well.
J. I just want all of us to get out there and make shit happen in each of our own ways. It’s our industry. It will only be as good as we make it.
H. So when you’re not running Film Powered, what are you working on? Any projects you can share with us?
J. Oh you know, same as everyone really. I’ve got a few projects that I’m pushing forward at various stages. I’ve got a really cool sports drama called HARD EDGE that I’m casting right now. And then I have a few projects that I own and am working hard to get made – a lovely film called MILLIE TO THE MOON written by Lynn Hamilton with which my producer, Alexandra Johnes, and I just went through the Film Independent Fast Track program and a hysterical comedy called BLUE BALL, PA written by C.C. Webster. We’ll see. These things take time but I’m very excited about these films. The scripts are great and that’s the best place to start.
H. Well I’m excited to see it all come about. Thanks for creating this space, Jen, and thanks for your time. I need to go post a class myself – I need to earn some more credits!
J. Thank you for helping us get the word out about it! And yes, you do! Get on it lady!