Solving the Women In Film Problem: An Interview with Naomi McDougall Jones, Writer and Producer of Imagine I’m Beautiful
Interview by Danielle Winston
Copy Editing and Posting by Sabrina Hirsch
On a frosty January afternoon, I met with with writer/actress/producer, Naomi McDougall Jones. Our hangout, a little pie shop called Four & Twenty Blackbirds, was quirky enough to have been the backdrop for a Gilmore Girls scene if not for being around the corner from the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus Brooklyn. As we shared slices of buttery lemon blackout pie, Naomi, a self-possessed woman with crimson hair and natural confidence, spoke passionately about the female cinematic voice that has not been discovered yet, practical solutions to Hollywood’s “women in film problem,” the hidden subculture of people who believe they are vampires, and so much more.
You wrote, produced, and starred in the feature film, Imagine I’m Beautiful. How did you manage to wear so many hats and get a true perspective of your performance?
I’m going through this process again with my second film. I also wrote, acted in, and produced that one, but I’m not directing. Both times it’s been an intense and specific process finding a director for a project that’s mine in a lot of ways. It’s like finding someone to marry. You just have to find the right person who gets what you’re doing and hopefully brings a different filter to it. I feel excited about passing my story on to someone else’s filter. I think that makes it better than it would be than if it was just all me.
Imagine I’m Beautiful was done on a super low budget, received theatrical and digital distribution, and was well reviewed. How did the success of that film change your life as an actor and filmmaker?
Imagine I’m Beautiful had an all-female creative team and all our producers and lead investors were female, which was pretty interesting. And it’s a film about two women. Through that experience I learned that we have a giant “women in film” problem, which I didn’t know before that. It’s one of those things that we’re just so used to that’s there. I always say, “once you see it you can’t unsee it. But until you see it, it’s very easy not to see it.” Because everything we’ve grown up with is male in cinema. You don’t think of it as being male cinema. You just think of it as being cinema. Since I’ve discovered this I’ve been banging on ceaselessly about needing to fix the “women in film problem,” which is severe. And it’s insane that it’s as severe as it is in 2017. I’ve looked at this issue from many different angles. The really good news is that films by and about women make more money. The Washington Post released an article that was a 538.com study that showed that films that feature female characters make 23 cents more on the dollar than films that don’t, which is not insubstantial.
And for the film fund I’m working on, we commissioned a study, looking at all of the significant films made between 2011 and 2015, and significant was described as any film that got any kind of distribution. So it’s from the tiniest films up to the biggest films, comparing the return on investment if the producer, director, screenwriter, or lead actor was a man or a woman. And in every single category the ROI [return on investment] was higher if it was held by a woman.
So there’s a demonstrated financial argument for why you should make films by and about women. Leaving that aside, women buy 51 percent of all movie tickets and we are 51 percent of the population. Yet Hollywood only makes 18 percent of its films as “women films,” which are certainly not directed by women, but are what they think of as their “women films.” So there’s this huge under-tapped market. There’s money to be made. Films are not being made for half of the population. That’s the solution to the woman in film problem: We have to demonstrate and we have to continue to demonstrate that it’s a good fiscal proposition, in addition to being a good equal rights argument.
I heard you speak at a NYWIFT panel and you talked about how making a rubric helped clarify your goals. Can you describe that process?
Because I do so many things, I was having this career moment that happened for me after Imagine I’m Beautiful of suddenly projects coming to me. Suddenly I was fortunate enough that things were available to me. But I was still having this feeling of “I have to take absolutely everything that comes.” Not only was I taking too many things, I was racked with guilt over every decision about whether or not to take on a project; the whole thing was becoming overwhelming.
My wonderful manager, Joanne Zippel, is always so great about bringing me back to, “What do you want? What is the vision you have for your career?” So I did this exercise of creating a rubric for my life. Basically, I spent a lot of time in the park, sitting and thinking and figuring out exactly what I wanted from each of the things: from acting, writing, and producing. I basically came up with a set of rules for when I would or wouldn’t take a project in each of these capacities. If there’s an incoming project, I can just look at this rubric and if it doesn’t follow these set of rules I can just say no and I don’t feel bad about it. If it does fit,then I know that it’s something I want to do.
Some of the rules had to do with money, like I would not produce someone else’s work without being paid, because producing is not something that brings me any joy in itself. I would not write for other people’s projects without getting paid. But I would act without getting paid. For each category there were a set of rules like that and I found it incredibly helpful.
You talk about the market for women’s films being largely overlooked, and potentially very lucrative. Tell us about that and how you’d like to grow your role in producing/writing/acting in the future?
I started off as an actor and pretty quickly fell into writing. I have found that I really enjoy making my owns films, which for me means writing and producing them and acting in them when I feel like it. I very much hope to continue to do that for the rest of my life and to act and write for other people as artistic collaborations come up in those ways on the side. Because films take forever, there’ll be time in between my own projects to do that.
I also hope to throw as many bricks through the window of the women in film issue as I possibly can. A lot of women say, “I don’t want to be a woman filmmaker, I just want to be a filmmaker.” And I am totally with you. However, I don’t think we live in a time where we have the luxury of saying that. And I think to just say, “Oh well, we just want to make our movies” is great but the reality is that the system will not let you. Or will let only a very tiny percentage of us do it until it changes.
And it’s not showing any actual signs of changing either. Despite two years of really fervent conversation in the media about this, Paramount and Fox just released their slates for films through 2018: Of the 47 films that they are collectively releasing, not a single one will be directed by a woman. It’s insane. This just came out, so the dial isn’t moving. And what I’m worried about is, because there’s been so much conversation, we’ll be lulled into a false sense of security that the dial is moving. And it is NOT. I think not only do we have to make our movies—which of course we do—there’s a certain obligation I feel as a female filmmaker to try to make this better for those who come after us, and hopefully for us too.
Tell us about the film fund you’re creating for women. How is it different from other production companies or funding initiatives? What are your visions for its growth?
I, with three other women, am in the process of creating a fund that will finance films by women. The idea is that there is a fiscal argument for films by women. So with this fund we hope to demonstrate with a significant amount of projects by women that if you make films by women you will make money. Not only will we give financing to a significant amount of films over a three-year period, but we will then hope to use that to demonstrate to the larger film industry why that is a good idea.
The hurdle that we still have to get over—which is insane that we have to get over—is to make people believe that, yes, women can make films with as much artistic and commercial viability as men. And I believe that to my core. Of course we can. With this fund we hope to put our money where our mouth is and do that.
Two of my co-creators are serious financial heavyweights. They are mid-career, incredibly successful women; one, Lois Scott, is the former CFO of Chicago. She’s spent her life in wealth advisement and management. The other one is Sona Wang, a 20-plus-year venture capitalist with vast experience putting together funds. Neither of them had been involved in the film industry at all prior to this endeavor.
Lois Scott had heard me speak at a women’s conference, about women in film, and came up to me afterward and said, “This is terrible. I didn’t know anything about this. What do we do about it?” And I said, “Well, basically, we need money to make our movies.” And she said, “Then you need an investment fund to do that. And if I do it, will you do it with me?” And I said, “Absolutely.”
So out of this ten-minute conversation came this idea. And that was in March 2016. But it’s come together so quickly. The momentum behind this idea … I don’t think I’ve ever had an idea with so much internal momentum of its own. As soon as we said it, the universe sort of conspired to make it happen. There’s such a need for female filmmakers, certainly for something like this, but also a need within the industry. As I’ve been talking to people in the industry about it, what’s clear is that everybody knows that this is what has to happen to change it. Because someone needs to be the one to demonstrate the fiscal benefits of this. Gamechanger began this work. We hope to expand and continue it.
In your Ted Talk, you spoke about growing up with a feminist mother. Do you consider yourself a feminist and if so, how has your mother and feminism colored your life so far?
I do consider myself a feminist. Except that I think it was Maisie Williams who said this first … feminism shouldn’t be a thing. It should just be that if you’re NOT a feminist then you’re a misogynist. Do you believe that women should be treated equally? Great, then you’re a feminist. You’re also just a good human. But yes, of course, I’m a feminist. The end goal is that feminism should not be necessary.
My mother is a raging feminist. I think I was raised with the absolute expectation that I would be treated equally and fairly and that there would never be anything I’m prevented from doing because I’m a woman. So I think the really shocking thing for me was, it wasn’t until I ran face first into it in the middle of Imagine I’m Beautiful that I even realized it was still even a problem. And I was so incredulous when that happened. I was like, “Really? What year are we in?”
Where would you like to see the future of women-driven films go?
I think there’s a female cinematic voice that has not been discovered yet. Because I think the entire history of cinema is male. There has never in the history of cinema been a time—except in the very very beginning—where a lot of women have had a chance to make films at the same time and inspire each other and push each other and push boundaries and explore their own voices. I think so many things we take for granted to be true about film is actually a male way of thinking. Think about the basic plot structure as we understand it.There’s the situation. A problems arises. And you identify the problem. And you solve it. Isn’t that actually a very male way of thinking? Women don’t want to fix problems. They want to swim around in them for a while before fixing them. I feel like there’s the opportunity to have this whole new kind of cinema that can be unleashed in women. I feel hopeful that I’ll see that in my lifetime and get to participate in it and that’s really exciting. And hopefully, we’ll stop calling it “female-driven cinema.” But as I said, I don’t think we’re there yet.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on a bunch of things as usual. Bite Me, my second feature film, is going into production in April in New York. It’s a subversive romantic comedy about the real-life subculture of people who believe that they’re vampires, which is a real thing. They believe that they need to drink blood to stay healthy. So the lead female character is a vampire and she lives in an apartment with other vampires. And they get audited by the IRS because they are a registered church. She ends up falling in love with her auditor. It’s really a film about the nature of faith and belief and where my generation sits with that right now. Because most of us were brought up without any faith or religion and we came of age right as 9/11 happened and the world got really cynical and scary and dark and facts became really important.
I think we’re in an age where if you believe in anything that you can’t prove you’re considered a nutcase. But love is actually the ultimate act of faith. Because you’re trusting somebody to love you forever and not hurt you, which is an insane thing to believe, actually, and requires a huge amount of faith. The film is looking at what context does my generation have to take that leap of faith when we have no faith in general. The lead, Sarah, played by me, believes she’s a vampire, but she is very mistrustful of love and has a really hard time buying into that. And the IRS agent, James, can believe in love very easily but has a hard time with the vampire thing. So it’s about how to they find each other through that fear and faith and love.
The other thing I’m working on is a podcast called Fear(ful)-less: Filmmaking from the Edge, and it will be on iTunes this month. It’s me opening the journey of my life at this moment to other people.
There’s this thing that I find really irritating about celebrity memoirs … this period of time that they usually leave out—7 to 10 years—I’ve been tracking this. They go in great depth about the beginning of their struggle, when they’re in the fun, cute phase of the struggle, and then jump to the moment when they make it.
There’s that moment in time when you’ve been in a while and you’ve achieved a certain level of success but the tide hasn’t quite turned for you yet. I think that’s the most important part for other artists to hear about. How do you make it through that time when you’re just still really really poor and it’s unclear if it’s all headed anywhere and you just have to stick in there? And so that’s what the podcast is about. And also interviewing other people about this. How do you make it as an indie filmmaker now? How do you make a living with this whole shifting landscape? In this age of piracy and streaming, how do you do it? I understand the impulse to gloss over it. It’s not a very glamorous period to talk about because it’s just hard. I would love to hear other people to talk about it.
What advice would you give to women directors, yet to make their first feature who are struggling to get funding?
You just have to find a way to make it happen come hell or high water. Don’t wait for somebody to pick you. Don’t wait for permission. Because the industry will just not give it to you. You just have to find a way to make it happen. Make it for $10,000. Make it for $80,000. Make it on your iPhone. It doesn’t matter. You just have to make it. Because until you’ve made that first feature film, it’s really hard to move forward. And just statistically, it’s very unlikely to happen for you through traditional channels. And that sucks but it’s the reality so we just have to do it anyway. I know viscerally how hard it is, but you just have to do it.
Here’s an interesting thing. There’s another study that we commissioned when we were putting together this fund. We know women are directing 5 percent of studio films, which is terrible, but I wanted to know how it broke down below that. Because 50 percent of film school graduates are women, so where are we losing them? My assumption was at the million dollar mark. Because the microbudget space should be a fairly even playing field. Not the case. In the $1–5 million range women directed 12 percent. In the microbudget space, we are only directing 18 percent of all films and that is on us to fix. So the biggest attrition rate is between film school and the micro-budget first feature.
I think part of it is that women have been conditioned to wait to for permission before they believe that their idea is good enough to do. I think men have an entitlement that any idea is good enough to do. That’s why you just have to believe that it’s good enough. The other thing is, you will be told over and over again that people don’t want to see films about women. And you have to not believe them, and that’s hard. But they’re wrong, so don’t believe them.