When you exclude women from creating media you are cutting out a significant voice from the very medium that is supposed to reflect who we are as a society. As it stands today, the world population of females is 49%. If we are equal in numbers it would make sense that we should be equal in other things too. This week I spoke to a film and television director whose activism for gender parity is reflected in her work.
Rachel Feldman is a veteran director & screenwriter in film & television, with over 75 credits in movies and episodic television. Her passion project is a feature film based on the life of fair pay activist Lilly Ledbetter that she hopes to soon be directing.
I asked her what sparked the desire to become a director in the first place. “I was a professional child actor. I was also a highly visual kid, always drawing or shooting pictures, with a very active imagination.” She said, “It wasn’t until I was graduating from college that it occurred to me that I could be a director, even though I’d been on sets my entire young life. I went for an MFA in directing from NYU where I made many short films and my graduate thesis film became a festival darling. After that, I won several prestigious grants and made more films. I thought it would be easy. Boy, was I wrong.”
Part of what made things difficult for Rachel was the clear discrimination against women in the industry. “I moved from New York to LA, after I’d worked as a storyboard artist for well-known directors on big studio movies. I was ready to launch my own career as a director but I couldn’t land a job. I was told crews didn’t like women directors, or the stars didn’t like women at the helm” Rachel said. After about a decade of struggling to find a job a personal connection got her an interview with well known producer Steven Bochco that eventually led to the gig which launched her career as a director and began to form her list of credits. “But even after I had a good resume, the gender exclusion continued big time, with years when I couldn’t get a job or secure an agent. I also have two children, eight years apart, and taking time to raise them, also taking time off to care for my mother when she was dying, created additional questions for producers about the ‘gaps’ in my career. “
Yet even with these blockages Rachel has been working for seven years on a personal project of hers, a drama about the plaintiff in the famous American employment discrimination case, Lilly Ledbetter. I asked what about Lilly’s story in particular drew Rachel to wanting to make a film about her? “Because whether you are a factory worker in Alabama or a film director in Hollywood, gender discrimination is the same everywhere. Lilly dedicated her life to justice, was willing to take personal hits for the sake of changing a law to help others. She is a true American hero and an extraordinary woman. Her story is important and incredibly emotional, this can be a game changing movie for women around the globe” she said.
There is a saying that it can take 10 years to get a feature film made and Feldman noted that she feels that as times have changed and evolved so has the capacity for the film to be made. “Lilly has been very patient with me. I have won numerous, prestigious awards for the screenplay… a few years ago producers would tell me that it was a beautiful script but no one wanted to make a film with a female protagonist or feminist political issues.” Rachel explained, “I had an Oscar winning producer sign on but she told me that she couldn’t get the film made with any woman director, I’d have to hire a man. Now we have gotten past those issues, and though now there is so much talk about hiring women directors, the obstacles become about celebrity directors, and the truth is how many women directors have big, bankable names?” With 30 years experience and 75 hours of film and television credits you’d think Rachel would be more than qualified to direct her own feature film. But she is heartened that the times have changed and that her film will come together very soon . “I personally believe that things will change when the woman actors who have power in Hollywood make a pact to star in films of women directors they may not have yet heard of” Rachel said.
A big part of what Rachel does involves activism for gender equality. As someone who has experienced the discrimination firsthand it only makes sense that this would be something she is campaigning for. “When we change the lens through which we see, when millions of viewers digest that perspective, we change global culture.” She said, “When the film is mine from the onset I can create worlds that inspire a variety of behaviours that don’t default to conventions that are harmful to women. When I direct for hire, an episode of television for instance, my control is less but I can still affect casting, language, behaviour, and costume choices that male producers or writers might not have considered.”
In closing she said, “There are two reasons why gender parity is important. The first is simple fairness. We are half the population, we should half the job opportunities. The second is because women’s points of view are of paramount importance.”
For more information on Rachel’s film Lilly you can visit her website.