“I remember being told early on that women are great organizers. But other things require a bit more, you know, balls,” says Alexis Bloom (second from left). From left: Sarah Dowland, Bloom, Blair Foster, Stacey Offman, Caroline Suh and Alison Ellwood were photographed Aug. 28 at The Jane Hotel in New York.
“I remember being told early on that women are great organizers. But other things require a bit more, you know, balls,” says Alexis Bloom (second from left). From left: Sarah Dowland, Bloom, Blair Foster, Stacey Offman, Caroline Suh and Alison Ellwood were photographed Aug. 28 at The Jane Hotel in New York.
Mackenzie Stroh

It’s a Golden Age for Women Documentary Filmmakers. Or Is It?

by Marisa Guthrie
September 05, 2018, 8:00am PDT

The Hollywood Reporter gathers the female directors behind deep dives into such topics as Bill Clinton's impeachment, Roger Ailes and Julian Assange for a candid conversation about persistent gender bias, the new demand for nonfiction and how to corner cagey subjects: "We’re detectives."

When Blair Foster and Alex Gibney set out to make the definitive documentary about the historic impeachment of Bill Clinton, they knew they couldn't do it without Monica Lewinsky, whose life was turned upside down by the team of then-special counsel Ken Starr (which included current Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh). After some wooing by mutual friends, Lewinsky agreed to several candid on-camera interviews and, on Nov. 18, A&E will premiere the six-part The Impeachment of Bill Clinton (working title) about the whole impeachment saga — which takes on new relevance amid the current special counsel investigation.

The series, revealed here for the first time, also includes explosive never-before-seen footage of Bill Clinton (who did not participate) as well as new interviews with his accusers Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick. But in an episode screened by THR, it was Lewinsky, now 45, who emerged as the most compelling presence, especially in the wake of the culture's collective re-examination of the treatment of women in the workplace.

At a time when the market for nonfiction film and television is exploding, Foster is among an emerging group of prominent female directors making their mark. Several have come up at Gibney's Jigsaw Productions, known for investigative deep dives like the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and HBO's Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, as well docs on complicated figures like Robin Williams and Eliot Spitzer. "We're detectives," says Foster. "We're trying to find everything: photos, footage. We're trying to get people to reveal themselves." Alison Ellwood, who has directed several music and culture films at the company, including History of the Eagles and Magic Trip, which chronicled counterculture icon Ken Kesey's LSD-fueled 1964 road trip, also has a new film, about L.A.'s Laurel Canyon music scene of the late '60s and '70s that included Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Frank Zappa.

Meanwhile, fellow Jigsaw showrunner Sarah Dowland is working on a five-part series for Showtime based on Tim Weiner's book Enemies: A History of the FBI. The project, commissioned before the 2016 election, was originally going to include a look at whether presumptive president Hillary Clinton would fire FBI director James Comey given his handling of the inves­tigation into her emails. "We developed all of the creative around a very different series," notes Stacey Offman, who is Gibney's No. 2 and serves as the executive producer of all of the above films. But Trump's vituperative war of words with Comey and the intelligence community in general has given the project an urgency and resonance.

THR gathered Foster, Ellwood, Dowland and Offman, as well as Caroline Suh — who is directing the Netflix adaptation of Samin Nosrat's best-selling cooking manual Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (dropping in October) — and Alexis Bloom, whose Roger Ailes feature documentary, Divide and Conquer (from A&E IndieFilms), premieres Sept. 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival, for a candid conversation about filmmaking in the #MeToo era, the booming doc market and never taking no for an answer.

RELUCTANT SUBJECTS

How do you book those people who are less than willing to talk?

ALISON ELLWOOD For Casino Jack [the 2010 documentary about corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff], we had a very young producer go in to interview [former GOP House leader] Tom DeLay under the guise of a student film.

STACEY OFFMAN (To Bloom) You've shown up at people's doors unannounced. That's ballsy.

ALEXIS BLOOM I do that all the time. You have to find out people's habits. I was trying to get Jon Stewart for the Ailes story. Fox News was such a central part of Comedy Central's ire. And, in fact, Roger had called Jon into his office and they had this sort of showdown. I was curious to know what had happened. So Jon was at a screening for [the 2017 Miles Teller military drama] Thank You for Your Service, and he was doing a Q&A afterward. I cornered him, and we had a very charming chat, and he said no. He told me he does press for veterans and/or farm animals only. And I said, "What happens if I said Roger Ailes was a veteran or a farm animal?"

SARAH DOWLAND I actually found Reince Priebus at Harvard. I'm a master's student there and he was giving a talk to one of the classes. When he had finished, a lot of people were very eager to connect with him. But I just positioned myself so that he basically couldn't get to the door without speaking to me. He was very gracious and professional and polite and we had some email communications after that but, yeah, it didn't actually end up materializing, unfortunately.

BLOOM I feel like that's how reporters used to do it before email.

BLAIR FOSTER I'm a very nice, polite Southern lady, so I would never do anything like that. I go in the front door very proper. Ken Starr's daughter vetted me extensively [for the Clinton documentary] and then she gave me the thumbs-up. And then he vetted me.

Blair, what about the Clintons, who are not in your film? How hard did you work to try and get them?

OFFMAN Tirelessly.

FOSTER A lot of people close to the Clintons have agreed to interviews; Sid Blumenthal, James Carville, Joe Lockhart. So they'll be represented. They're certainly aware of the project. He has declined. I don't think she has formally declined.

Are you still trying to get Hillary?

FOSTER We always try to the very end. I'm still trying to get Linda Tripp — even though she's told me no three times.

DOWLAND We have tried numerous times to get Jim Comey [for Enemies]. I've heard that he is a runner and I'm a runner as well, so I have contemplated going to D.C. and running the same track.

OFFMAN We're very tenacious. Sometimes after a locked picture there is still an opportunity to open up a film.

ELLWOOD I interviewed Joe Walsh for History of the Eagles. He came to see the rough cut and he's like, "Shit, these guys [his bandmates] were much more honest than I was. I want to redo my interview." So he gave up a lot more.

Alexis, what about Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly for the Ailes film?

BLOOM We tried with Gretchen. She can't talk about what happened at Fox and I didn't really want to talk to her about things outside of Fox. Megyn was back and forth about it for a very long period. But she has her own considerations at NBC and is trying to move on. And there you run into this issue with documentary filmmaking, which is that some people seem to be very out there in public with their story, like James Comey or Megyn Kelly, but actually it's all on their terms.

DOWLAND It's very scripted, yes.

BLOOM When you go into a documentary situation, you become vulnerable. People are like, "Oh, you didn't get access to so-and-so," and you go, "Well, no, because we wouldn't give them editorial control; we were going to ask the tough questions."

GENDER TRAPS

Stacey and Caroline, you made The 4%: Film's Gender Problem, about the dearth of female directors, in 2016, well before the #MeToo movement.

CAROLINE SUH I had wanted to do that idea for a very long time because as I went through my career, I noticed that there were very few female filmmakers around me. I think people were reticent then to talk about the issue, especially women directors and actresses. They didn't want to go out on a limb and take a stand on something that wasn't fully in public view at that point. Then we were kind of on the cusp and it was just becoming more of a conversation. And then last year it just exploded.

BLOOM I was just sent a proposal for a story about serial sexual abuse and the whole team was male, and they asked me whether I would want to be a consultant. So I think it still happens all the time.

OFFMAN It's not just gender. Sometimes there is reticence to bring on filmmakers who maybe haven't been nominated for an Academy Award. It's often just a business decision: How can I put that person's name on a poster? But I do think there has been a shift. Studio heads are recognizing that diversity and gender are key and you can't step out into the world without certain people in those senior positions.

ELLWOOD It goes both ways, too. I started as an editor, and it was my own decision to step up and say I really want to [direct]. We need someone willing to have the faith that we can pull it off. But a lot of it has to do with us, too. We have to take the first step and take the initiative.

BLOOM I remember being told early on that women are great organizers, that I was a great [associate producer, which is a junior position in the industry]. But other things require a bit more, you know, balls.

FOSTER I've trained a lot of young producers over the years, and when I train women in particular, I'm like, "Don't expect anyone to invite you to do anything. You have to ask; and often it's asking in a way that's really telling. And there's an art to it. But you are going to have to make this happen for yourself." It took me a long time to figure that out.

THE LANDSCAPE

How has Peak TV affected the market for documentary?

FOSTER Everyone wants docuseries. I have mostly done features, and that's how I think of [the Clinton] series. But, no, it's actually six separate episodes. But the rise of the docuseries is huge.

OFFMAN The Jinx and Making a Murderer and our series Dirty Money were among the first. Audiences are turning up in droves, so there is a huge demand.

SUH You don't have to go to Film Forum or any other art house theater to see a doc now.

ELLWOOD Sometimes, though, the whole series idea has a downside too. If you've got a really good idea that warrants a feature documentary but not a series, it's much more difficult now. Like Laurel Canyon has taken two years [to get off the ground]. Everybody wants series.

OFFMAN The financing mechanism is different. A series can be commissioned at one network and features often have to be parsed together with multiple financiers.

Michael Moore has a new film premiering at Toronto. He appears in his films. Morgan Spurlock also was known for this. Why do think that it's men who do these kinds of films?

OFFMAN Yeah, that's interesting. I can't think of one example with a woman. It's like stunt filmmaking.

SUH But there are only a handful of men who are well known for that. It's not like there is a huge amount of them.

BLOOM If you're a woman, you have to be like drop-dead attractive to do that, otherwise nobody is going to watch you.

What has been Moore's influence on documentary?

OFFMAN He's certainly a rabble-rouser. He's tapping into anger or fear.

SUH And his first films were the first films like that, so he was a pioneer. And I have to say, having interviewed him for The 4%, everything he said was an amazing sound bite. He does have a charisma that really pops.

OFFMAN He's a big supporter of female filmmakers. Many of the films in his Traverse City Film Festival are female-directed docs. He describes himself as a feminist. He was running women across the border getting abortions back in the day.

Did it ever occur to any of you to insert yourself into a film?

ELLWOOD It's a certain type of ego that wants that.

SUH I'd rather kill myself.

ABSURD NOTES

Without naming names, tell me the worst note you've ever received.

BLOOM I remember filming about New Guinea and sending a tape back to the production company in the West Village and the executive there saying, "Could we find people with better teeth? Because the American audience isn't going to like their teeth."

FOSTER I work on many projects with high-end talent, and the amount of money I've had to spend making them look the way they want to look … it's a lot of money. Those are the notes I remember, but I can't talk about any of them.

OFFMAN I remember from way back [an executive] had written, "What is broll?" Which is B-roll, which is just a very ubiquitous term in documentary filmmaking.

SUH We were following an Oscar-winning director for three days, kind of like slice-of-life, and he already won the Oscar. The network asked us to have him pretend he hadn't yet won the Oscar and speak with great anticipation about his excitement about the upcoming Oscars. And we just said, "We really can't do that."

DOWLAND Does a FOIA [request] qualify as a note? Because on Zero Days [about the Stuxnet virus that crippled Iran's nuclear program], a long time after the film had premiered we finally got a response to a FOIA [request]. It was a thick document and every single thing in it was redacted — like every single thing.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.