For the first time in the 90-year history of USC's School of Cinematic Arts, a senior thesis is being produced by an all-female and gender-nonconforming crew — although it wasn't entirely on purpose.
"It happened very organically," says Ella Harris, 21, director of the musical Spit It Out, Margot!. "We met with every single person who reached out to us. We only had one man reach out, and he had a very different idea of where to go with the film."
Once Harris and the film's producers — Caroline Quien, 22, and Madison Holbrook, 22 — learned that their non-male production would be an undergrad first at USC (graduate student Florence Heller directed a film in 2018 whose crew was 100 percent female), they made a conscious decision to keep the project that way, although initially they had some concerns. "Would we find enough people that were talented?" Harris remembers thinking. Ultimately, the problem solved itself. "We all got into the same film school with a 1 percent acceptance rate," she says. "We knew that anybody accepted at such a prestigious level can adapt to any position."
One of four projects slated for spring in SCA's 480 class — where seniors pitch microbudgeted short films to a faculty greenlighting panel — the musical film follows Margot, a young girl with a stutter, who falls in love with her nonbinary speech therapist. “It’s kind of this poetic phenomenon,” Quien says about the crew and the subject matter. “It’s about a girl finding her voice, but it’s also us giving a voice to filmmakers who are often overlooked and underestimated.”
Of the four 480 projects this semester, theirs is the only one with a non-male director (three of four in fall 2019 were directed by men as well). “If you look at the numbers, there’s more women in our cohort than men, yet we only get 25 percent of the opportunity," explains Harris. "So, what we’re trying to do with this project is give the women and gender-nonconforming people in our cohort the opportunity to try a position that they normally wouldn’t have the confidence for. I’m so excited to say that our entire camera department is women and gender non-conforming people, because that is the rarest department you see [them] in.”
With a large chunk of development finished, the project will start filming at the beginning of the new semester, and the group is excited for the dynamic on set. “I’ve never had that chance on set to talk and be open and be transparent. I think we’ve all felt that way,” says Holbrook. “We really want to take this opportunity to do the things that we never could, and to really create that sense of family.”
Adds Quien: “We just want our environment to be different from past set environments, letting people learn and feeling like it’s OK to ask questions and not know all the answers.”
Professor Brenda Goodman, who leads the team of professors that teach the class, is excited about the progress this crew symbolizes. “There’s finally a recognition that women can do it all,” she says. “There were certainly moments early in my career where there was not another woman on set.”
Goodman sees the project as a step in the right direction and hopes to see more diversity in 480 films going forward. “I think the way that we can encourage diversity is in the projects that we select,” she says. “We were keenly aware of this project’s subject matter. The people that came in to present to us were women. We can encourage diversity of thought and opinion in what we talk about and what we reference.”
Alongside the film, the group will also be making a documentary about the process. “We really feel like this project is so much more than just the film. It’s an opportunity to do a case study on having an all-female crew,” says Quien.
“Part of it is just because we’re trying to throw ourselves into this amazing, fun world,” Harris says of the documentary. “We’re trying to show people what it’s like when you really do get lost in your work, because it is fun, and it is exciting, and it’s entertainment. We’re trying to create a lot of joy with this project."
Spit It Out, Margot! will premiere May 14, just ahead of USC’s graduation.
Jan.7, 2:40 p.m. Updated to clarify that this article is referring to the SCA's undergraduate film program.
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story stated that the 480 program finances features, not short films.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.