“Wanna join me as a panelist for my book launch tour at NYWIFT?” Essentially that is what I heard when Naomi texted me back in February and if you know me, an invitation to play is all I need to get excited about you. Of course, I said yes. Now, I have been a fan of Naomi for a long time because of her full transparency and fearless approach to independent filmmaking so to convene with her here about her book, The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution To Dismantle The Gods of Hollywood, is an absolute treat.
What do you wish you could have included in this book that you feel you had to leave out?
As my amazing editor, Rakia Clark, will tell you, the first draft of The Wrong Kind of Woman was 170,000 words – which was more than twice the word count dictated in my publishing contract (80,000). Over the editing process, she and I had to carve almost an entire other book out of the original manuscript to arrive its svelte 259 published pages. In the end, though, I think all those cuts were necessary and for the better. The things we lost most were multiple illustrative examples for each of the various factors affecting women in the film industry that I describe in the book. Those personal anecdotes were pulled from the 100+ hours of interviews I did with women and men from all corners of the industry and each was more jaw-dropping than the last.
Ultimately, though, the final published book feels like me like a tight, lithe, laser-beam focused version of the narrative. The stripped down version is proving to be highly effective in pulling readers with momentum through the story of what is and has been happening to women throughout (nearly) the entire history of Hollywood. Almost every official press review and many of the online reader reviews have called the book a “page-turner,” which is something that never occurred to me was possible with this subject matter.
Can you tell me the moment you felt this was your path?
There are three moments that stick out in my mind as setting me irrevocably on this path. I’ll give each to you as a vignette. I’m a screenwriter, I can’t help myself:
In 2011, I was 24 and had set out to make my first feature film, having spent my first two years out of acting school disgusted by the roles available for women. I was sitting in a meeting with the owner of an independent production company, alongside my (female) producing partner. We were trying to convince him to help finance our film. He said, “Well, girls, you know you’re going to need to get a male producer on board at some point, just so that people will trust you with their money.” Later in the meeting, he repeated the same refrain we’d been hearing over and over for months by that point, “Look, there’s no market for films about women. Nobody wants to see them.” Even then, that idea made no sense to me on its face, given that women are 51% of the population and, as I would later discover, 52% of movie ticket buyers.
Three years later, in 2014, we had successfully made that feature film, Imagine I’m Beautiful (without the aid of a male producer), and it had gone on to win 12 awards on the film festival circuit and been picked up for a theatrical and digital distribution deal (beyond thrilling!). I was, nevertheless, by then apoplectic, bewildered, and lit on fire by the number of times during that journey we’d been brushed off, underestimated, and been on the receiving end of deeply sexist remarks by people who thought they were simply explaining to us the way the world worked. I could not believe that this level of systemic sexism still existed in Hollywood – that supposed bastion of liberal-thinking – much less that it was so acceptable that people just said those things out loud in meetings as if they were no big deal. Although I would later come to understand that some women were speaking out about this in some circles, none of that was reaching me. Rather, I felt like I’d discovered that we were living in The Matrix and no one was talking about it. Incensed, I began talking about what we’d experienced in Q&A sessions after screenings of Imagine I’m Beautiful. Every time I spoke about these realities to audience members or to fellow filmmakers and actors, the response was electric – outrage, disbelief, “This is terrible, what do we do to fix this?”
Within one year, I had quite quickly been handed a global speaking career on this subject. I was constantly traveling all to speak about these issues to audiences of both film audiences and of my acting and filmmaking peers. Again, each time, my talks would be met with, “This is terrible, what do we do to fix this?” In 2015, however, I was invited to a tony, exotic film festival to deliver my talk, yet again. That time, differently, I would be speaking alongside three other VIP speakers – all of whom were much further along in their careers than I was – two of them had multiple Oscars. To my delight, one of my fellow speakers was one of the most successful female indie film producers of all time. She had been one of my heroes for a number of years by then. After my talk, she walked up to me and said coldly, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to play the woman card. I’ve seen women lose their careers over a lot less than you’re saying.” She didn’t speak to me again for the duration of the festival (or since). That was the moment the penny finally dropped for me – the moment I realized that I had been an idiot to think I had somehow “discovered” the depth of sexism in the industry. I realized then that everyone in the highest echelons of Hollywood knew exactly what was happening to women and were entirely unwilling to stick their necks out to fix it.
That’s when I knew I needed to spend the rest of my career working to help make space for women’s voices in film and television.
If you could describe an alternative to the Hollywood machine, what would it look like to you?
I’m always in search of a system that removes altogether the power of gatekeepers to decide what audiences want to watch. The currently urgent problem is that those gatekeepers are overwhelmingly white men and are, therefore, consistently choosing, elevating, and recognizing greatness in stories predominantly by and about white men (with which they are more likely to resonate). The problem of gatekeepers, full stop, though is that they are human beings trying to evaluate art, which is fundamentally subjective. Any person looking at a piece of art will always evaluate it through their own perspective and biases. A better version of this current “machine,” as you put it, would be if the gatekeepers were a more diverse and representative group of people who would, ipso facto, be more likely to select a more diverse and representative group of stories. But, to me, that’s ultimately kind of a lateral move. Such a system still relies on hierarchy and is likely to maintain the kind of Inside/Outside clubby nature of the film/tv industry.
I believe that the internet has created the possibility for us to have an industry that is free from gatekeepers entirely. My ultimate goal is for the financing and distribution of films to be decided exclusively by the size and passion of the audience for that story. Crowdfunding is a perfect example of the type of system I’m talking about and will certainly be an important piece in a new ecosystem. The amount of money a filmmaker can raise via crowdfunding is directly proportional to how many audience members want to see that movie get made and/or how much that audience wants to see it (as tied to the dollar amount they’re willing to donate) – without every needing a gatekeeper to guess whether or not there’s an audience for that film. My dream would be a complete end-to-end ecosystem that uses similar methodology for both larger-scale financing and distribution models.
I also think a lot about culture with respect to the future we’re building. The culture of the current Hollywood machine is toxic, abusive, power-hungry, and elitist. There’s no reason that it has to be so – not for an industry that, at the end of the day, is meant to be telling stories and using those stories to build empathy between people. In envisioning a different future, I want to build a culture that is not only inclusive across intersectional identities, but is also just kinder, gentler, more welcoming. I believe that that would result in a better environment for the kind of risky creativity that leads to more brilliant work.
Who are some of your artistic influences?
I don’t have the impressive, fashionable sort of answer to this question. I think largely because there have been so few women who have gotten to make films with the resources and at the scale that I would like to make work, the real answer is that the work that has most resonated with me comes from a pretty eclectic spectrum. That spectrum includes (though is not limited to) Mary Harron, Dee Rees, Julie Dash, Richard Curtis, Deborah Kampmeier, Sarah Polley, Jane Campion, Jill Soloway, Shonda Rhimes, The Wizard of Oz, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, The Sound of Music, Monty Python, Mr. Bean, Charlotte Bronte, JK Rowling, Madeline Miller, Chloe Zhao, and Donna Tartt.
Ok, that Bite Me Joyful Vampire tour was so dang smart! What was the inspirational spark?
By the time we produced my second feature film, Bite Me, both my producing partner Sarah Wharton and I had had experiences with our previous feature films getting a traditional distribution deal and that resulting in very poor financial outcomes. Over and over we’d observe our colleagues throwing their films into the same old film festival / distribution system as though that was the only conceivable path available to us. Even the lucky few films that do get “chosen” by that system at all, rarely fared financially better than ours had.
Furthermore, it rarely seemed to be the case, in our observation, that the films selected by that system were necessarily the most commercially viable or accessible films. They were simply the films that a series of (overwhelmingly white and male) gatekeepers convinced each other were “worthy” – by some fairly alchemical metric.
Bite Me is a subversive romantic comedy about a real-life vampire and the IRS agent who audits her. From the beginning of making that film we knew we had a clear and specific audience and, therefore, significant commercial potential. We felt uninspired about throwing this film that we’d worked so hard on and knew was so good back into that same old distribution system that kept producing underwhelming outcomes. Instead, we decided to take the film on the road to bring it directly to the audiences we knew would want to see it. We rented an RV, put fangs on it, and did 51 eventized screenings in 40 cities in 90 days. It was bananas and also the most fun I have ever had in my life.
The brilliant filmmaker Kiwi Callahan also made a week-by-week docu-series about the whole thing and we committed to a policy of radical transparency about all our numbers, triumphs, and lessons. If you want to come on the ride with us, laugh until you cry, learn as much as we did, and see what’s happening in the middle of America, you can check out The Joyful Vampire Tour of America docu-series on YouTube:
What was your favorite moment during your tour?
It’s really a collection of moments. Thematically, Bite Me is about the experience of being an outsider to society (in a variety of ways); how terrifying it is for all of us to present authentically as ourselves each day and trust the world to accept us in all of our complexity; and how, in the end, every single one of us is just a big, giant weirdo trying to get through our lives in the best way we know how.
When we were working on planning these eventized screenings for the Bite Me tour, then, in addition to the Q&A, we wanted to give the audience an experience that enhanced those same themes. We decided to invite the audience to come to every screening in costume, if they chose – dressed in whatever way made them feel most joyful. Then, after the Q&A, I would lead people in a very simple Buddhist metta meditation that first invited people to offer gifts of loving kindness to themselves and then to a member of the audience whom they had never met before. After that, with our hearts and heads in the space of abundance, generosity, and openness, we would invite everyone to join us for a Joyful Vampire Ball – part costume-party and part-community-building event.
The whole of every screening we did felt infinitely special to me, but those moments of the meditation together felt so precious. Audience members would routinely weep and/or beam with smiles through that part – transformed and uplifted by the simple profundity of offering kindness to themselves and a stranger.
How would you describe your artistic process?
I am what I can only describe as a binge writer. An idea for a film generally rolls around in my brain for a long time – sometimes years – before I start writing it. In that pleasant place of not really thinking about it, characters, plot elements, and themes will stick themselves together for awhile, then stay or fall away. Eventually, the idea will hit a point of firmness where I know it’s ready to come out. Then, I’ll clear my schedule fully for a week (ideally) and do what I call my “vomit draft.” I commit to the fact that it’s going to be terrible. If there comes a place where I know what comes before and what comes next, but can’t figure out the present moment, I’ll just write a bad bridge between the two, knowing I’ll change it all later anyway. I’ll write 8-10 hours a day during that time, with my brain just fully plugged into the characters and world.
Following that, I’ll print the vomit draft out and hide it somewhere in my office for a couple of weeks. When I’m feeling brave enough, I’ll take it out and read it, hate absolutely every word I’ve written, have a complete existential meltdown about my lack of worth and skill as an artist, cry a lot, and put it back in a drawer for another week. Then I’ll go back and begin the first of many, many rewrites. Each re-write is usually in a similar binge-writey fashion – happening over the course of an intensive 4-5 days – with long stretches of not looking at it in between. In this fashion, I rewrote my first feature film, Imagine I’m Beautiful, 52 times before we went into production, and my second feature film, Bite Me, 48 times. I’m on the 11th draft of my third film, Hammond Castle, now and I actually think I may be only about 4-10 drafts away from a shooting script, so maybe I’m finally becoming an efficient writer.
Feedback from other trusted readers, particularly when I’m in the stretches of the greatest self-loathing and ready to give up on my life as a writer altogether, are necessary and invaluable.
You have been hosting a series of panels during your book tour of The Wrong Kind of Women, what kinds of discussions are cropping up in these places? PS: thank you for including me during the @nywift one in NYC. I’m still reeling from the incredible energy in that room!
It’s been exciting! Most us who have been women in this business for any length of time have been a loootttt of “women in film panels” over the years. What has generally frustrated me (and I think a lot of us) about them has been that often those conversations focus almost entirely on a series of panelists arguing over whether or not there even is a problem, to what extent the problem still exists, and vague, non-specific discussions about what might possibly work to fix the situation (if the panel has agreed that there even is one).
The great gift of getting to collate so much research (both mine and other people’s), as well as collecting and analyzing the information from the 100+ interviews, is that The Wrong Kind of Women defines the problem more thoroughly and comprehensively than, I believe, has ever been done before in one place. Since I was able to so clearly define the shape of the situation in the research and writing, it then became possible to project out to clear solutions and offer to readers clear, defined action items that all of us (man or woman, inside or outside of the industry) can take to be part of creating real and lasting change.
On the book tour, then, because we’ve had the opportunity to ground the talks and panels in that depth of collected research and knowledge, the discussions have been far more sophisticated, mature, and solution-focused. My experience on tour has been of traveling from room to room in New York and Los Angeles setting brush fires inside of people. It feels like those people, armed with new levels of information, leave the room ready to stand up, stop believing in those gods of Hollywood, and fight for a future of storytelling that represents the full brilliance of the human experience.
For you, what is the one thing our readers can do to help move the needle forward when it comes to gender and race parity in entertainment?
I have a whole lot to say on the subject of what can be done to create the real and lasting change that we are not currently seeing. All of Chapter 10 in the book is dedicated to offering specific action items that we can each take no matter who you are and whether or not you work in the industry.
I have two relevant messages, I’ll share in this space, however. First, if you are a female storyteller (or a storyteller from any historically silenced community), you must never give the systems of Hollywood the power to determine your worth as an artist or the value of your stories. It is critically important that you understand that their systems were designed to recognize and elevate the work and stories of white, straight, cis-, able-bodied men above everyone else.
In spite of that, audiences all over the world are actually desperate to see stories from different and broader perspectives. This is demonstrated in the financial data that films by and about women actually make more money per dollar spent than films by and about men. Audiences want these stories, Hollywood just isn’t making them. To that end, and considering the influence stories have on our real-world behaviors and culture, it is your civic, moral, and personal responsibility to find a way to tell your stories and deliver them to those audiences who are so hungry for them. You must do this by any means necessary, with or without the approval of Hollywood.
If you are a viewer of movies and television shows, I would urge start being part of the change by just paying attention to the perspective of the content you are watching. Who are the leading characters? Who isn’t? What is the story subtly telling you about who is good and bad? Important or inconsequential? Which characters are getting to make decisions that affect the outcome of the plot? Who is wearing clothes and who isn’t? Notice, too, the gender identity of the director, writer, producer of the content. Think about how that is informing the story. Once you start noticing, understand that you are continually “voting” with your dollars and eyeballs with every film or television show you choose to watch. That is true every time you buy a movie theater ticket, pay $2.99 to rent a film on iTunes, or stream it as part of your Netflix subscription. Once you have started paying attention, then, if you are unhappy with the kind of content you are being offered, stop voting for it. Vote for different content instead. Consider a commitment to watch at least one film by a female director per month. If you need help finding such movies, there are a number of great resources listed on my website to help you: https://www.naomimcdougalljones.com/women-in-film-resources
What is next for you?
Pulling The Wrong Kind of Women into existence and to this moment has felt very much like a pregnancy and birth (if pregnancy lasted roughly two years), so, honestly, now that I’m freshly back home from book tour, my first order of business is to sleep for about a week.
Then, I’m going to get back to work on my third feature film, Hammond Castle, which is a magical realism piece about a 7-month pregnant woman who gets locked overnight in a castle full of famous ghosts. It’s being directed by Nat & Veronica Moonhill and produced by Jack Lechner (Blue Valentine). I’m on draft 11 of that script and we’ll start looking more seriously towards casting and production in the coming months.
I’ve also got a project cooking to help further the women in film revolution by offering classes, mentorship, and community to filmmakers (particularly women and those from other historically underrepresented communities) who are looking to make their work and need practical knowledge on everything from financing to distribution. I’ll be rolling that out in phases over the next few months, so if you want to be notified, you can sign up for my newsletter at: https://www.naomimcdougalljones.com/newsletter
So fellow MiTB readers, please gift yourself this book. Read it or listen to it on Audible like I did. If you are anything like me, it will get you all kinds of fired up to change the system. Now is literally the time to do it.
Thank you for the years of making this outlet possible. It has been a pleasure to write for you and I can’t wait to see what comes next!
Ms. In The Biz Contributing Writer and Wrong Kind of Woman