While Cady McClain and I first met as potential (and then actual) collaborators, I’m happy to say that I now consider her to be a good friend. With that disclaimer out of the way, I have to also say that I was genuinely thrilled to hear about the new documentary she has coming out, “Seeing Is Believer: Women Direct.”
My interview with her makes up the bulk of this article, but before we get to that I’d like to offer a few words that are entirely my own. It seems to me that we are living at a seminal moment in the history of American gender relations. The most obvious reason is the impending election of America’s first female president, Hillary Clinton, although I’d argue the unprecedented and blatant misogyny displayed by her chief opponent Donald Trump is equally momentous (albeit in a negative way). That said, we’re also seeing a cresting in Third Wave feminism, one that is drawing attention to diverse issues from rape on college campuses to the intersection of race and other social justice issues with the feminist cause. Naturally, this trickles into our entertainment and artistic cultures as well, which explains why I thought it was important to draw attention to the issues that McClain discusses below. Because it would be presumptuous to insert my own perspective excessively into an experience that is manifestly not my own, I allow her words to speak for themselves. Aside from correcting a few typos, the transcript is completely unedited.
1. What inspired you to make this documentary (in terms of your own career?)
So many moments. It’s kind of a culmination of them that all came to a head one day.
I studied directing in the early ’90’s with the artistic director of EST (Ensemble Studio Theater) in NYC. It was revelatory. I loved it so much I went to my mom and said, “Mom, I want to quit acting and direct. I really love it.” I recall the moment clearly. We were sitting on the lawn, and looking out at a little lake in the distance. She took a moment, then said, “Please don’t. I’m dying.”
Now she really had me with that one. What could I say? She was struggling with cancer, after all, and the income from my work on soaps was what was paying the bills. Still, it was crushing. I was 23 years old and had quit high school to take care of us up until then. Clearly, my life would not be my own until she passed.
After she died (I was 25) I wrote a play. I was going to co-direct it with a female friend of mine, but I got shy and decided it would seem too much to be acting, writing, directing, AND producing it. So I gave her the directing credit. She did NOT direct the piece alone, mind you. The entire concept was mine. About six months after we closed I discovered she had taken the concept and got a grant to do her version of the piece. This just crushed me. A friend, a female friend at that, had taken advantage of me in a deep and painful way. It turned me away from directing and writing for a while. A long while.
Almost 20 years later, the man who became my husband and some friends started pushing me to direct a short film I had written. The script was something that just tickled me. I wasn’t working as much as an actor and I love to make myself laugh. When I got this idea, it felt so right. So I did it. I produced and directed what was to become Flip Fantasia. I remember distinctly sitting at a cafe in SOHO after a days shoot in the streets and saying to my husband, “THIS is what I was meant to do. THIS is where my talents lie. I love this more than any other kind of work I have ever done.”
On the plane ride home, to Los Angeles, I immediately started writing another script. I drew it, actually, in storyboards. It was a short film with almost no dialogue about a man who falls in love with a balloon. We shot it three months later, back in NYC. I was thrilled and on a roll.
When I finished editing “Flip” I was told “THIS is a festival film. They are going to LOVE it!” My hopes were high. The reality was, the festivals didn’t love it. It was too long, too weird, too surreal. The one festival it played at, Macon, had the audiences roaring with laughter. THEY got it. I couldn’t figure it out. What was going on?
Then “FUH” started getting some festival traction. When I attended, I heard “Who’s the director?” When I told them I was, most people seemed shocked. I couldn’t figure out why. Was it because I was an actress? Was it because I was over 40? What was going on? I started looking around at the directors at these festivals and discovered… “OMG. They are almost all men.”
Granted there were some women. I saw a student filmmaker and a documentarian who were both directors. I saw some female producers. I did NOT see a whole lot of women directors.
At one festival they literally gave me my tag that said, “Producer Only.” Did they not read the credits when they accepted the film? What the heck was going on?
I didn’t stay stuck on these thoughts. I just thought, “I really love directing. And I think I could do it. I am mature enough. I have a vision. I love actors and understand them. I spent my entire upbringing studying art with my mother who was an artist, and my entire adult life haunting the small cinemas and underground video stores of New York City.” I realized I had been unconsciously prepping for the job my entire life.
But I didn’t know any women directors. When I went to the video store in L.A., the ratio of “Great Women Directors” to great male directors was almost 9 to 1. It stumped me. Why weren’t there more? How could I possibly have a career in this business if women barely existed in it? I realized I needed to talk to the women that DID exists and HAD succeeded despite the odds.
And that is how I got the idea to do a doc on women directors.
Lastly, I told this idea to a woman who had been working in the business since “TAXI.” She had worked her way up until she had been a producer on Seinfeld. I watched her face as I talked about how this might be my next project. It took on a kind of intensity, a fixed stare. She literally held me with her eyes and said, “DO IT.”
It landed. I got the weight of her entire history, of how important this was to her. I thought of my mother, and all the fears she had about women striking out as professionals. All her words telling me to “play it safe” in my career, as if men were not to be trusted.
I could not listen to her again. So I bought a camera and taught myself how to use it. I started with a woman I’d known for years who was an AD on soaps and directed some beautiful Japanese theater, Penny Bergman. Then people just started connecting me with this person, then that. And a year later, I’ve interviewed 50 people.
2. What are the main lessons you believe viewers should glean from the documentary?
First of all, I think audiences will see that “women” do not all fall into one category. They are as varied as men in their vision and style. That said, there are some similarities that we share, the main one being the amount of crap we get for being leaders who just so happen to have a different physical makeup than men. It’s not a fun thing to have in common. However, there is no “male bashing” in it. I am including the perspectives of good guys who support women because they are essential and growing in number. This does not make me an “apologist” for men who behave badly because I am most certainly not. I just think those guys get enough attention as it is. I’d rather focus on the guys who are awesome because we all need to work together. Directing is hugely collaborative.
If you are interested in the process of how great art is made, or how great stories come together, I think you will find this fascinating and gain an enormous amount of insight into the process. Additionally, I want women who are directors, or girls who are thinking about going into the field, to not only get a sense of being seen, supported, and cared about from this doc, but discover tools to help them in their careers. There is always something new to learn. Women not only need access to these tools but encouragement to stick it out, because we tend to get shouted down. We can lose when we shout back, so it’s a tough bit of diplomacy we have to manage. Seeing how other women do it is really helpful.
3. Where do you plan on going with your professional career from this point?
I love being behind the camera and making the magic happen. I love the process and making sure it’s joyous and wildly creative. It’s really the best thing ever.
I do want to make sure this doc gets seen and seen as widely as possible. I hope to be able to connect it with workshops, conferences, and festivals that have a proactive, do-able element to their schedules. It’s really important we start giving women the tools they might be missing, everything from leadership skills to technical details, so that there is no reason anyone can say they aren’t as capable or more so.
As a director and producer I’m directing for “Venice the Series,” and producing a short film with a female director and writer, called “Butterflies.” I also have an idea for a crime thriller web series which combines a comic book element with Noir detective fiction. I also love female superheroes, the really dark ones, so I may start developing something along those lines. I’ve started a one day diversity film festival here in L.A., have a short film on feminism I need to finish editing, and Suzy F Homemaker is awaiting a return… I’ve got a million ideas but it’s all about timing. So what happens next will be a fascinating road!
Photo: Courtney Lindberg as photographer