Earlier this year the Girls Club hosted actress, producer, and author Naomi McDougall Jones to discuss her book, “The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood.” It’s a brutally honest look at the systemic exclusion of women in film — an industry with massive cultural influence — and how, in response, women are creating their own spaces in cinema.
Jones’ credits include “Bite Me” and “Imagine I’m Beautiful,” both of which she appeared in and wrote. Her TEDTalk, “What it’s Like to be a Woman in Hollywood,” has received over one million views.
During the Girls Club chat, we spoke to Jones about the harsh realities women face in Hollywood, and whether it makes more sense to try to fix the system, or create something new altogether. A community for women creatives, culture-changers, and storytellers, the Girls Club hosts live events and opportunities such as this every week. We are offering the first month free for those who are interested and identify as a woman. Please email email@example.com to receive an invitation and let us know a bit about who you are and what you do.
“The Wrong Kind of Women” is available to buy in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats.
This interview has been edited and condensed. It was transcribed by Sophie Willard.
W&H: Tell me about the title — what’s the wrong kind of woman?
NMJ: Basically, any woman is the wrong kind of woman for Hollywood — that’s the joke. I did over 100 interviews with women and men up and down the industry for this book, and what kept happening in the women’s interviews is they would say, if they were an actress, “Well, they tell me I just needed to be a little bit thinner, or have my teeth straightened, or my hair be less frizzy, or be whiter,” or whatever it was. If it was a writer, it was, “If you could just be a slightly different person than you are, then we could hire you.” What I realized was actually, the common thread is they just don’t like hiring women.
W&H: And that includes every position in Hollywood.
NMJ: Basically. Except hair, makeup, wardrobe.
W&H: In your book you talk about how your entry to the industry was as an actress. You went to school to be an actress, and then you were like, “Hi, world, I’m here, ready to work.” Talk about your own entry into the industry.
NMJ: Basically, my experience was what I just described. The reason I wanted to be in the industry is that I wanted to play interesting women, and women that represented the women I knew in the world, and tell stories that mattered to me. Yet, over and over again, I’d be in there with 300 other incredibly beautiful, talented women to play Naked Corpse No. 5, or the really supportive girlfriend. After a couple of years of this, I was like, “This is not why I came here.”
On top of this, they all kept saying, “If you just lose five pounds, straighten your teeth, make your hair less frizzy, just seem a little bit less intelligent than you are…” I just thought, “This is awful.” Naively, being a white lady from Colorado, raised by a feminist mother, I was just flabbergasted that this was happening. I couldn’t believe that the sexism not only existed to that extent still, but that it was so acceptable that people just said the inside things, outside, in meetings and auditions.
So then I thought, “Well, the problem must just be that people aren’t writing great roles for women. I could write great roles for women.” So then I became a screenwriter and a filmmaker, and then set out to make my first feature film with a team of female colleagues, which we didn’t think was a radical feminist act in and of itself.
W&H: Before you go into writing, I want to know what role models or images did you see of women in Hollywood that made you want to become an actress?
NMJ: For me, it was primarily Meryl Streep, like it is for so many women, because she was playing the kinds of roles that I wanted to play. What I later found is it was basically only Meryl Streep who gets to play those parts! [Laughs] There’s one! And everybody else plays the boring parts.
W&H: So you thought, because this is the world we live in, “Oh, my God, there’s so many roles for people like Meryl Streep out there.” And nobody told you otherwise because they were saying, “Come to our acting school.”
NMJ: Of course, and the other thing that they never talk to you about is how much harder it is to be an actress. I think we do such a grave disservice to actresses, and women in film school, by not being honest about the situation — and not in a discouraging way, but just to say: this is going to be way harder for you.
I did a highly loose mathematical equation in the course of writing the book, because we know that there are two men on screen for every one woman on screen, and I sort of figured out that there’s roughly two actresses auditioning for every role, for every one man auditioning for a role — it’s about 6.44 times harder for a random actress to get cast in a part, than it is for a random man.
W&H: And that’s white women, mostly. It’s even harder for women of color; there are fewer parts.
NMJ: Of course. That’s white women, right.
W&H: So you weren’t getting these parts, and also thinking, “I don’t want to be Corpse No. 6 — if I want to stay in this business, I’m going to figure out how to create roles for myself so I can be ‘unnamed actress who has her own agency.’” So how did you make that decision and that transition?
NMJ: It was a mounting series of degrading and humiliating situations over two years, as an actress, but I reached the breaking point when I had done one of those pay-to-play auditions.
W&H: What does that mean?
NMJ: There are all these companies that are vaguely legal that allow you to pay, for example, $35 to essentially audition for an agent, or a manager, or a casting director, sort of under the guise of “classes” but usually you just go in for 15 minutes and do your monologue. So I had paid $35 to sit in front of this agent, and he was so uninterested from the moment I walked in the door. I started doing my monologue and he looked at his phone the entire time I was speaking, and did not look up one time. So of course, I was getting worse and worse as the monologue went on. Finally at the end, he looked up at me, sighed, and said, “Well, do you have any questions for me?”
He had not even looked at my headshot or resume. I said, “Well, I was just on ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ playing Screaming Secretary and I was wondering if that would make you more likely to want to work with me.”
He said, “Well, that’s the best credit on this resume but I need to see a lot more than that before considering working with you.” All of the water in my body came into my eyes, and I just stood up and went to the door, and right as I was about to leave, he said, “It’s really impressive that you got on ‘Boardwalk Empire’ without an agent.”
I turned around, and said, “Yes, it was.” And I just made a beeline for the elevator and started sobbing. It’s not the worst thing that happened to me by a long shot but that was the moment where I just couldn’t do it anymore.
W&H: So you hook up with friends and you decided to write. Did you know you were writers? Or did you just think, “I have to do this”?
NMJ: My mom is a novelist and I had written my first play in high school, a 10-minute play that won a local competition. That was not a high bar to leap over [laughs] but I had been writing plays during those first two years as an actress, just to have something to do and to keep my soul alive. They kept getting produced actually, but particularly at that time there was a real stigma around creating your own work. I had an agent during that time, and I told him that I was writing these plays that were getting produced, and he said, “Are you an actor or writer?”
He said, “Everybody will get very confused [if you try to be both]. You have to pick one and only do that.” So I ended up as an in-the-closet playwright for several years. Seven plays of mine were produced in New York and around the country, but I didn’t have that information on my website. I didn’t tell anybody in the industry about that.
So I had an idea I could write, we had no idea how to make a movie except that we had all acted on a lot of other people’s film sets, and we were just young enough to think, “Well, of course we can do this! All the men are doing it.”
W&H: You wrote in your book about purgatory. Can you elaborate on what purgatory is?
NMJ: Purgatory is like the layer of acting jobs that exist below all of these official jobs. It’s like the off-off-Broadway plays in New York, and the short films and student films, and the very micro-budget feature films.
It’s all the jobs that you do first in the industry as an actor, where there’s no oversight, no unions, no agents, and no casting directors. You’re fully at the mercy of whoever scraped together a couple of hundred dollars to make their project and seems like a god because they have the power to cast you or not.
W&H: That seems very unsafe.
NMJ: It’s very unsafe. That’s where a lot of the worst stories that happened to me — and to the other actresses that I interviewed — happened.
W&H: And in this new changing world that we’re living in, are any of those being regulated in any capacity?
W&H: Is there a place where we can post something and say, “Don’t do this”?
NMJ: [Laughs] I don’t know — is there, Melissa?
W&H: I’ll put it up, anywhere, anytime. I feel like this is the issue: we need to tell people that these things are not safe before they go in there. Was purgatory worth it? Did it get you to that next place?
NMJ: Generally, somehow, out of that ooze, the people who do succeed, get out. It’s hard to say. It’s not a linear process. There’s no other place to begin. People who aren’t in the industry say, “Why don’t you just get an agent?” And you can’t.
W&H: So even though Actors Equity now has rules saying you can’t take your shirt off in an audition, and don’t go to a hotel for an audition, people have gone through five years where all they’re doing is taking their shirt off.
NMJ: Right, and by then, you’ve agreed to so many things and rationalized so many things to yourself that then you’re in Equity and somebody asks you to do that — are you going to say no? No, because it’s a real job now, you’re in Equity, and this seems to be a legitimate person!
But I do think, to your point, this is why this has to be taught in acting schools, because nobody ever talks about this. I feel like purgatory in general is sort of a layer of your career that everybody pretends doesn’t really exist. That you’ll get out of acting school, you’ll get an agent or start being seen by legitimate casting directors — and that’s just not the reality for most people. If you could at least explain to people what that is, and that that is a stage, and how to say no, and how to deal with these situations that you will be put in, it would be so helpful.
W&H: I feel like you should tease out the purgatory thing, and get it to, say, a trade, because I bet someone will write that, because that is the shit that nobody talks about. This is the brutal stuff that has to be talked about. Wow. Okay, talk about how you got that first movie made.
NMJ: We had all been to acting school; none of us had been to film school. We had acted on a lot of people’s sets, and honestly, I think the thing that gave us the confidence to think we could do it was that we had been on so many mediocre sets run by mediocre white guys that we thought, “We are so much more talented and organized than they are. This must be possible.” That was the thought that kept us going forward all the time. So we Googled every indie film producer in New York City that we could find, and made a spreadsheet of them, and we just started emailing them and cold calling them and asking if they would have coffee with us, and let us pick their brain about how to make a movie.
Of course, we didn’t hear back from most of them, but enough of them said yes — I don’t know why, but they did! We slowly figured out what the next steps were, we ran a crowdfunding campaign for $10,000, which we got.
W&H: Was that on Seed&Spark?
NMJ: No, they didn’t exist yet. It was on Indiegogo. So then we thought, “This is amazing — now we can go to investors, and say, ‘Hey, we’ve raised $10,000, look at all these people who are interested in the movie. Please give us more money.’”
Of course, that didn’t work for about eight months [laughs] and then we just set shoot dates and decided that we were just going to shoot six months from that point, even if we only had $10,000. Which, by the way, I think is the only way that indie films ever happen.
At that point, I think people finally took pity on us, and we got an investment of $2,000 here, and $1,000 there. We pieced together about $40,000 with the initial crowdfunding, then it was a month before we were set to go into production and we realized we really needed $20,000 more than we had, to get through production in the way that we wanted to.
We had no way of raising it — we had asked every person we had ever met to invest in the film at that point, and they either had or hadn’t. So with a month left until production, we decided that our only option was to run another crowdfunding campaign for the same project — which you’re never supposed to do — for $20,000, and just see what happened.
So we took a week to setup that campaign, to make the video and everything. Then we ran it for 30 days, during which we had to do pre-production also. It is not something I ever recommend: running a crowdfunding campaign and doing pre-production at same time. We didn’t know during that whole period if we would have the money we needed or not, we kept waking up every day and taking the next step. But we got our money two days before production. So we had one day off, and then we we shot.
W&H: That was “Imagine I’m Beautiful.” So what happened with that movie?
NMJ: It ended up getting into a lot of mid-to-low tier festivals. We played, I think, 11 festivals and won 12 awards, including a number of best picture awards, and we actually got a theatrical and digital distribution deal. We felt like Cinderella because nobody knew who we were, we had no-name actors in the film, and it was a $80,000 psychological drama about two women.
W&H: So you spent $80,000 on it. Did you make your money back?
NMJ: Nope. [Laughs] We won that lottery of getting a distribution deal with a real distribution company, and to date, I believe we’ve received slightly less than $5,000 from that distribution company.
W&H: Do you think that’s normal? Do you think that they were shady?
NMJ: No, they weren’t shady. They were incredibly respectful and transparent. I think that is extremely normal, and I do not think filmmakers are being honest with each other about what’s happening in film right now, and with distribution companies.
W&H: I want to come back to that but for now there are a couple of concepts that I like in the book that I want you to elaborate on further. Great male genius vision — that’s something I talk about a lot. Why was that important for you to include in the book?
NMJ: We have this fetishization in the film industry — and arts in general but let’s talk about film — of the great, male genius who is always male, always white. The idea of this person’s vision and genius sweeps everything else under the rug: they can be abusive, they can be insane, they can torture people on set and it doesn’t matter because you’re serving his genius. If his movie doesn’t make money, it doesn’t matter — you give him another one, you give him a bigger budget. If he traumatizes an actress on set, it doesn’t matter — he’s a genius, you give him a next movie. But that same paradigm never gets applied to anybody who isn’t a white man.
Catherine Hardwicke makes a great point about this — she got labeled difficult as a director, and she’s like, “Wait a minute, Quentin Tarantino nearly smothered Uma Thurman while making ‘Kill Bill.’ Stanley Kubrick traumatized Shelley Duvall while making ‘The Shining.’ And I’m difficult because I’m trying to tell people what to do because I’m the director of the movie?”
So it’s a highly problematic idea that contributes to women not getting hired, and not getting hired back as directors.
W&H: Do you think one of the responses to this has been the ongoing and growing conversation about the female gaze?
NMJ: Absolutely, because everything that we understand about and have been told about what great cinema is, is actually what is great white male cinema. So we aren’t used to recognizing greatness in anything else or even validity in anything else. It’s not enough to say just, “You have to hire women.” We have to completely open our minds to: what else? What other kind of stories and what kind of storytelling might be different?
W&H: And how do you think this affects women of color?
NMJ: It’s absolutely worse for women of color because, first of all, they have been so absent visually from film to a way greater degree than white women, that they’ve been missing from even being objectified on screen — although when they do appear on screen, they’re even more objectified or more minimized, and they’re even further away in the hiring process. Comparing everybody to the white male paradigm, women of color are even a couple steps back from that paradigm, and are even less likely to be hired or less likely to be paid well, and are less likely to be recognized when they do get to make films.
W&H: So the food chain is is problematic at all levels, and I think one of the areas that is really problematic is distribution and marketing. What did you learn about?
NMJ: So the part that sucks, particularly for women, is if you have a female director, your film is likely to be screened in 25 percent fewer theaters; if it has a female protagonist, it’s less likely to get adequate marketing funds, same if it’s a female director. They’re the ways in which the distribution system as it exists contribute to this problem of minimizing and removing women’s stories.
But the fact that the distribution system sucks so much right now for everybody, and is so fundamentally broken, I think is where our real opportunity is to change this. What I was saying before about how I don’t think filmmakers are being honest about how little money they’re getting back for their movies — I think that’s true across the board. It’s probably worse for women, but I think it’s true everywhere, and these sales agents, and distribution companies, and aggregators — I think at this point now that there’s less and less revenue flowing into independent films in general — are basically eating up all of the profits, so that even if a film does make money or a little bit of money, there’s nothing on the other end when it comes down to the filmmakers.
There’s this whole system that has emerged: you finish your film, and then you spend an enormous amount of money submitting it to film festivals, and then maybe you get into some — but if you don’t get into one of the top five festivals, no major distribution company will even look at it. So if you get into one of the other ones, you might get a distribution deal but you’ve already had to pay money to go to the festival, you’ve had to pay money to market the film at the festival — on top of the festival fees themselves. By this time, maybe a distributor picks you up, but you’ve almost used up your core audience on the festival circuit when the festivals were keeping the ticket money. The whole thing is bad for filmmakers.
So I think what’s exciting is that we’re in this moment of great disruption, and everybody’s trying to figure out a new revenue model. Even the distributors, you talk to them, and they’re like, “We have no idea what works anymore.”
With my second film, “Bite Me,” we decided to basically bypass that whole system. We rented an RV, and we spent three months touring around the country with the film. We did 51 screenings in 40 cities, in 90 days. Our theory was that people do actually want to come to the theater, but you have to give them a real reason to leave their homes — you have to give them an experience that isn’t just watching a movie. I was at all the screenings, as we had the added benefit that I was in the movie and wrote it.
We also threw an event after every screening. The film is about real life vampires, and the IRS agent who audits them, it’s a funny film, it’s wacky, it’s about accepting outsiders and letting your freak flag fly. So after every screening, we threw a joyful vampire ball. We invited the audience to come to the screening in costume, dressed however made them feel most joyful. It turned out that a huge number of adults in America are just waiting for somebody to ask them to put on a costume and leave their homes. [Laughs] That worked very well, and that part of it was a huge success.
W&H: So give me the numbers on “Bite Me” — how much did it cost to make?
NMJ: We made that one for half a million.
W&H: And how much money did you make from your distribution?
NMJ: From the whole tour thing, we made about $58,000 dollars, which is not our budget, but a hell of a lot more than the $5,000 we made through a distribution company. Then in a surprise twist, we ended up getting six offers from sales agents and distributors as a result of the tour. Six months before we did the tour, we first approached sales agents and distributors with the movie and they said, “We love it, but we have no idea what to do with it.” And we got no offers.
But we knew there was an audience for the film because it was so clear to us who they were, and we knew where they lived. So we did the tour and we collected testimonials, we collected click through rates on our Facebook ads — which were very high — we had this email list, we had all these things that demonstrated that there was an audience for the film.
So then after the tour, we got six offers from these companies that hadn’t known what to do with the film before, based on that evidence. So now we’re working with a sales agent who I think is really good. All of the filmmakers we talked to who had worked with her before actually said that they wanted to bring their next films to her, which is very rare, so it seems possible that we’ll now recoup more money through that avenue.
W&H: So a better experience this time?
NMJ: A way better experience.
W&H: So all the time you’re doing this, you’re making movies, and you decide you’re going to start this fund. People say that I do a lot! So you start this fund to raise money to support women’s films?
NMJ: Yeah. This happened to me by accident because I travel a lot and talk about this stuff — as do you — and I got invited to speak to a roomful of women, C-suite level women and other industries, and one of them came up to me afterwards, and said, “This is terrible, I had no idea that this was going on in film. But you’ve convinced me. What do we do?”
I said, “Basically, we need money to make our movies.”
She said, “Well, I’m the former CFO of the city of Chicago. If I help you start a fund, will you start it with me?” You can’t say no to that, so I said yes. So thus began a very long journey of trying to start that fund. We were going to announce our very first film, which was a big, big deal, going into production on April 1, and we’re waiting now to hear what is going to happen with that [due to the COVID-19 related shutdown].
W&H: So you didn’t raise a pool of money?
NMJ: The idea was to raise a pool of money to then be able to finance whatever films we wanted by female directors. We spent four years running into all the walls that women always trying to raise money in any venue, run in to. But we got so close so many times, with these big financial institutions, with stacks of people.
W&H: Until you get to the man at the top and he says no.
NMJ: It would always be like, “Yes, yes, yes,” and then the very last person would say no. So this has been four years of our lives. So finally we decided we can’t wait anymore for that yes, we just have to start financing movies as one-offs.
W&H: What do you think is going to happen now that everything is beyond fucked up?
NMJ: The anarchist in me is thinking this moment is our time. Everything is going to have to restructure and reset after this, and we have to make sure that it restructures in a way that is best for us.
W&H: There are two thoughts I have on this. One thought is that people are going to say, “Fuck off, all you girls with your need for diversity. We have no money, we have no movies. Come back to us in five years again.” So it is incumbent upon us to make sure that that is not something anybody can do when they get back up to business, thinking, “This is a great excuse to get rid of everybody who runs the inclusion area at my business because I have to cut my business.” Because those are always the first people to go.
NMJ: Oh yeah, and this will be what they try to do. But, again, thinking about different distribution models, thinking about different content creation models, I think we have to seize this moment to try everything, experiment, and share results with each other, and keep pushing more than ever.
W&H: That’s what we want to do with the Girls Club: really get people to talk to each other, communicate, and use everyone’s different skillsets so that we can be not alone in this process. I have a couple of quotes that I want you to react to before we go to people’s questions. “When I first learned the woeful statistics for women in film, I was shocked to find out that there were so few women behind the camera. After writing this book, I have come to feel that the truly astonishing thing is that there are any at all. … But let’s be clear, there is not a single woman in the film industry today or ever who has achieved the kind of career she would have had if she were a man. Not a single one of us.” I don’t think you have to elaborate on that much, but it was really one of those things that made me pause.
NMJ: I had already been really deep into this subject by the time I got the opportunity to write the book but even still, there was so much I learned that knocked me over all over again while writing it and doing the interviews.
The thing that got me in the gut the most was when I was looking into the Oscar statistics, looking back at how many women had ever been nominated for best writer, best director, etc. I was looking at the best director category, and of course, there are only five women who have ever been nominated for best director, only one has ever won. I was looking at the most recent three, who have been nominated in the last 25 years, which we can say is the modern film industry. It’s Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation,” Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker,” and Greta Gerwig for “Lady Bird.”
So I was looking at how did those women break through, how did that happen? What are the commonalities? Well, they’re all white, straight cis, able-bodied, obviously — and talented, incredibly talented — but then I realized: actually, the main thing that connects them is that every single one of them is either the wife, romantic partner, or daughter of a man who had already won or been nominated for an Oscar at the time that she received her nomination. So Sofia Coppola is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola — it helps that he’s a living icon, that’s really useful. Kathryn Bigelow is the ex-wife of James Cameron, and Greta Gerwig[‘s partner is] Noah Baumbach.
So in that moment, I was like, “Oh my God.” It’s not hard; if you have been a female director in the last 25 years, and you have been white, straight, cis, able-bodied, talented, but also not directly related to a man who had already won an Oscar, it was impossible. It has been impossible for you to even be nominated for a best director Oscar. I think that’s when I wrote that paragraph because [I realized] that nobody escapes this. I think there’s a feeling often of women who are trying to succeed within the system of, “It’s only five percent of us who get through, it’s only 10 percent. If I just keep my head down and don’t say anything and just play nice, then maybe I can be one of that 10 percent.” A really important point to reinforce is: no, nobody is having the career they should have.
W&H: Right. Okay, one last quote before we go to questions. “Four decades later, it’s taken #OscarsSoWhite, Harvey Weinstein’s penis, and the ensuing #MeToo movement to spur another corrective moment. But we find ourselves now at a critical danger point. Only as the public conversation around sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the film industry fades away will we find out for sure whether all of this inclusion was yet again a short-term change resulting from Hollywood wanting to stop the bleeding of some bad press, or whether Hollywood is finally committed to the far harder, longer, and less sexy work of cleaning and healing the actual wound.” What do you think? Do you think Hollywood is committed to cleaning the wound?
NMJ: I have a lot of personal skepticism about that, which I think you share. We’ve had so many panels and conversations about this issue that I feel like it’s taken on this quantum physics level of complexity in people’s minds, as if it was insanely difficult to fix — and it actually isn’t. If the people who are in charge just decided to fix this, they could. I think there are examples like John Landgraf, at FX, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes — people who just have decided to do it, and then it’s been possible.
I think the fact that that is not what we’ve seen — we haven’t seen the hiring numbers move very much but there are all these inclusion programs, and training programs, and diversity programs — those are signals to me that they actually don’t want to fix it; they would just like us to stop yelling at them.
W&H: Donna Langley at Universal does hire women, but I think the problem for people in charge is social media — they’re never going to be able to get away with it. They can’t just close themselves off anymore, even though they would want to.
NMJ: Right. But I think what’s important is that everybody understands that these things that feel like change are not because otherwise people will turn away, they’ll stop posting on social media, and they will be able to slide back.
W&H: The problem is that people get a lot of really good press when they make the announcement, and then there’s no follow through. The key is we have to do the follow through.
NMJ: Right, and read beyond the headline. There was this amazing example — I think it was 20th Century Fox, maybe after #OscarsSoWhite, who put out this press release that said “Fox Solves Its Women Problem,” or something. Then you would read the article, and realize actually they’re going to have a competition where women can apply and they’re going to finance one short film for one woman to direct.
W&H: The trades are also so problematic because they shill for the industry, and everybody shills for each other. The awards season is all shilling for advertising for the trades — it’s all a fucking conspiracy. So here are some good questions from our awesome Girls Club members: “I love that the titles of your chapters are all movies directed by women — Eliza Hittman! Ana Lily Amirpour! How did that idea come about?”
NMJ: It was actually my editor’s idea — I have to give her credit for that but I loved it immediately. I started writing down a list of all of my favorite films by women, which was way longer than the number of chapters I had. One of my favorite films by a female director, “American Psycho,” which seemed like such a perfect descriptor of so many things but I couldn’t figure out a chapter that it worked for. But that’s my one big regret.
W&H: Are there women that you met on this journey that still don’t get it? Is it generational? I meet some people where I’m like, “Where have you been?”
NMJ: Yeah, totally. I feel like every speech I give about this, there are still people in the room who say, “You know, I never thought about this, oh, my God.” We’re basically trapped in this white male matrix, so often until somebody points it out to you, you don’t notice because it just feels normal, it doesn’t feel like a thing.
I feel like our job is to just keep flicking the switches in people’s brains, because I do think once you see it, you can’t really unsee it. The other thing I want to point out on that front is that I think we’ve done a very bad job generally of managing to reach the general public with this information. I give a lot of speeches to civilians and they’re always more stunned than anybody, even post #MeToo — they’ve heard about sexual abuse, but they still aren’t really understanding for the most part that so much of the content they see is coming only from the white male perspective.
W&H: Next question: “How can film festivals better support indie filmmakers? Is the film festival system hurting indie filmmakers?”
NMJ: I don’t want to put all film festivals into the same bucket because I think they vary widely in terms of how much they help or hurt indie filmmakers. I think there are certainly festivals that do an amazing job of supporting them and bringing real value. But I think there are a lot of film festivals that don’t, and it’s really problematic that it costs so much to apply — in most film festivals you have to pay your own way to go — that you often have to pay to market, and that the film festival keeps the ticket money. I understand that film festivals need to stay in business, but so do filmmakers.
I think one thing that film festivals could do that would be so easy would be to at least give the filmmakers the email addresses of everybody who buys a ticket to their movie, so at least the filmmakers can be gathering an audience even if they can’t have the money. I also think they could be more flexible about, for example, letting filmmakers sell DVDs or online copies of the film to people at film festivals, or selling merchandise at film festivals. I think we have to have a broader conversation about how is this financially benefiting filmmakers, given that the reality is that most filmmakers won’t get a distribution deal out of these film festivals?
W&H: “How about for those of us that care, if they — the industry — doesn’t want minorities, why not band together and create our own? Hollywood started somewhere…”
NMJ: I’m basically in that camp at this point, and writing this book is one of the things that radicalized my thinking in that way. I believe at a cellular level that the existing industry was built to keep us out, and I think it is really, really hard to change the DNA of a system that big and entrenched, and this is why — as terrifying as this moment is, and as terrifying as the whole distribution shitshow that existed before this moment is — I think there is a real opportunity that we have, to reinvent something else. The path that Hollywood has committed to in terms of this global film market is not going to work for them for very long.
W&H: It doesn’t work now.
NMJ: Well, they’re making money hand over fist on the shitty movies they’re making, but domestic audiences hate those movies, and very quickly, other countries are saying, “Wait a minute, why are we watching all these films about white people from Los Angeles?” And making their own movies.
I think Hollywood is committed to a path that isn’t sustainable, and so I do think there’s a real opportunity for us to swoop in and take advantage of that vacuum of content that they’ve left domestically for grown up, smart, interesting, fresh movies that we can make so much more cheaply now. But solving the distribution model is key to that.
W&H: Yep, I think it’s going to be sending it to people at their houses. Another comment: “My heart bled after reading the five harassment scenarios you describe on pages 12-13, having experienced most of them while in the academic and corporate world. Women need to know these to recognize the dangers!”
NMJ: I agree. I think it is criminal that film schools and acting schools don’t teach you this stuff. What I observed in the interviews I did for the book is that every woman went through the same process of getting out, thinking that it would be fine, thinking that she could do whatever she was talented enough to do, and then slowly experiencing all these horrible things, blaming herself, thinking she wasn’t good enough. There’s this 10-year process at least that we all go through, and sometimes way longer. If they had just said, “Here’s the situation, it is so unfair, but this is what we’re dealing with, here are some tools to get around it, here’s how you think about it, here’s what to say, here are support networks,” that would help enormously. And teaching the young white men what they are —
W&H: That they’re not the kings of the world.
W&H: I agree. Here’s another question: “In the time that has passed since you started on this journey leaving purgatory, what changes — if any! — within the industry have you been encouraged by and think genuinely point to progress?”
NMJ: The thing I feel most hopeful about is that I think the experience of the last five years particularly has unleashed in women. I think we have fewer and fewer fucks to give, and I think that is the thing that will ultimately change this, because what we’re talking about, there are only two actual ways this can change.
Either the people in power can decide to do the right thing and give away some of that power — which, again, I have a lot of skepticism about. There are very few historical examples of people holding that much power and money and prestige and fame ever giving it away.
Or the other option is full-blown insurrection and revolution on the part of the people for whom the system isn’t working, which is why the word “revolution” is in the title of my book. That is the thing that I know is way more likely to work but what is required is for us to stop believing in the gods of Hollywood, to say, “Actually, your value system is made up. Actually, your whole system is made up, and it’s only helping you. We are going to go to this other thing. We’re not going to keep saying yes, we’re gonna start saying no, and there are more of us.” Because we’re not just talking about women, either. White men are about 30 percent of the US population right now.
W&H: And there are a lot of white men who don’t like this either.
NMJ: Right! So there is at least 70 percent of us for whom this system is not working, if we all said, “No, we’re choosing a different system,” then what could they do?
W&H: What was your best festival experience as a filmmaker, and why?
NMJ: I think my best festival experience was my first one, which was a festival called RxSM in Austin, Texas, which actually doesn’t exist anymore, but it was trying to do for SXSW what Slamdance does for Sundance. And so it would show true indie small films in theaters in Austin while SXSW was happening. They were a particularly great and supportive festival, and we did actually get our distribution deal for that first film out of that festival, specifically because the distributor was in Austin for SXSW, and we were able to convince him to come to our theater.
W&H: “Writing from Switzerland, I find younger women refuse to believe that discrimination exists, probably for many reasons — don’t want to be a victim, have not hit glass ceiling or glass wall. Do you find that to be true? How do you get them engaged? Because they will realize.”
NMJ: I think it’s mostly due to a lack of education. I feel like generationally we just go through this thing where young women don’t know, then they learn and they go through the 10 years that I was talking about, then they become us. But I actually have found that touring with my book I’ve gotten to speak to a lot of film school undergraduate classes and acting school undergraduate classes, and those have actually been the most exciting rooms for me to be in.
I think if you actually come at them with this level of data and facts and not in a discouraging way, because I think that’s the other thing: it can often feel like getting smacked down like, “You shouldn’t be so hopeful,” or “You don’t know how hard it is.” But to say “Whoa, this system is fucked, but here are some ideas here” — I found that to be very effective in getting them fired up.
W&H: The people who give zero fucks when I go and talk are the 25-year-olds. Naomi, do you want to share any other stuff with people? Are there any final thoughts that you wanted to share with the crew before I close?
NMJ: Yeah, two things, quickly. I just saw this comment by Amyana, who says, “I personally want nothing to do with the toxic industry which is why a re-creation is key. We just have to make sure we don’t sabotage ourselves and each other.” I just want to say how true that is. We have to understand the extent to which we have been raised in a sexist and racist society also, and that our brains have also been formed by that sexism and racism, and we actually have to work to actively deprogram ourselves in order to be able to move forward in a better way.
Also, I think, the toxicity of the current industry is just stupid. We’re telling stories — there’s no reason why we have to be horrible to each other while we’re doing that. So I encourage everybody to think a lot about as we think about creating this whole new industry — which I’m totally in favor of — how can we create a culture of abundance and generosity and kindness, and that’s just generally better and less toxic, not only more inclusive.
W&H: Agreed. My end goal with the Girls Club in a couple years is to have our own thing, because I’m done. I’m tired. D-O-N-E! We need to help and empower women, and women have to work together because also part of the brainwashing is that women don’t support each other, we’ve been indoctrinated to that. You wanted to say one more thing?
NMJ: Yes, in the spirit of that sharing of information and support, and in the spirit of the fact that Coronavirus has left many of us with time and no income, I’m offering a series of classes [on indie film development, and screenwriting, with pay-what-you-can slots available].