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After a year of increased industry focus on issues relating to everything from equal representation to pay parity to confronting the looming problem of sexual harassment, the fourth annual Women In Entertainment Summit convened at Los Angeles’ Skirball Cultural Center for a free-flowing forum on the opportunities and challenges facing women working in all corners of Hollywood.
Leading the conversations at the Summit, well attended by a predominantly, but not exclusively, female audience, were an assembly of accomplished women — including actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal and Lauren Graham, writer-producer Marta Kauffman (Friends) and Marvel Studios’ Victoria Alonso — who shared their professional experiences and personal journeys in hopes of providing information and inspiration to those hoping to follow in their footsteps.
“It’s a really exciting moment — I think something has shifted,” Gyllenhaal told THR of her take on the current climate in the industry and elsewhere, in which career doors and storytelling avenues that had previously been extremely difficult for women to un-deadbolt are cracking open.
“I don’t think it’s entirely shifted: I think it’s the beginning of a shift and a change, and I feel really invigorated by what I see around me. And, I do, of course, get disappointed. There are setbacks all the time, like last week [with the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh amid accusations of sexual assault], but I still feel that there’s a sea change going on. I feel it in the world, not just in Hollywood — but I do also feel it in Hollywood.”
Gyllenhaal’s in the thick of another high point in her career, garnering rave reviews and awards buzz for her performances in both the Netflix film The Kindergarten Teacher and HBO’s The Deuce, and she’s adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter for her directorial debut. After a long filmography featuring many rich, challenging female stories, she’s surprised to hear herself referred to as an advocate for quality women-centered fare.
“That’s just who I am,” she said. “I’m a woman, and I’m interested in stories about women that feel real and human to me, and I always have been. And those are the movies that I like to watch, and those are the movies that I like to be a part of making. And, yeah, I guess I feel like they are really hard to make.”
On The Kindergarten Teacher, she recalls that despite budgetary shortfalls, she and the other female principals behind the scenes — including writer-director Sara Colangelo and a crew that was about 50 percent female — chose to roll up their sleeves to get the film made. “We were a group of women making it, and we were like, ‘We never expected to have enough money. We know how to do it. This is what we do.’ And so I wasn’t surprised by the energy that all of us put toward getting it made.”
“The thing that shifted in me is that I think, whereas, before, I was like, ‘Well, of course we won’t have enough money — we’ll compromise and cut corners and we’ll fight like hell.” But, now I think I would like to have enough money to make these movies,” she said. “It’s great that we have those muscles because we’re women who’ve done it for a while, but next time, I’d like to not be changing my clothes in the bathroom on the Staten Island Ferry.”
Along with concentrated efforts toward cast and crew parity, Gyllenhaal said, “I’m more interested in what are the stories that women want to tell? Like, what is an actual feminine film? What does that mean? I think we live in a masculine culture, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to ignore the fact that we live in a misogynistic culture, right? So, just because something is written by a woman or directed by a woman doesn’t necessarily make it feminine, because it’s very difficult to articulate a feminine experience on film, in a book, if it isn’t what you’ve seen before. So, when it does happen, what is that? And how do we help to create and encourage that?”
After sharing the story of her career path onstage — which includes the original run and recent revival of Gilmore Girls, and the sharper-edged but similarly beloved series Parenthood — Graham told THR that as she charts her next moves she’s enjoying opportunities like the summit to exchange ideas with other women in the industry.
“It sounds really super sappy, but I’m just in a time where my basic feelings are extreme gratitude for what I’ve been able to experience, and less interest in myself and more in others,” Graham said. “I’ve been in show business for 20 years. It doesn’t feel that different to me, in terms of how and to what degree women are represented. So let’s keep working on it!”
Graham said she’s also reached a point in her professional life where she’s encountering more and more young women in the industry who found inspiration in her work, or in the character of Lorelei Gilmore. “It was fairly unique for that time. We still had the first Murphy Brown getting in trouble for having a child with no marriage — it wasn’t that long ago! It means a lot to me that the show was inspiring and that it kind of lives on. It’s something that never occurred to me, just the way it never occurred to me making Bad Santa it would be on every Christmas, re-haunting my father.”
The actress said that because it remains challenging to find worthwhile roles for women of her own age, she hopes connecting with the incoming generation of creators will keep her in tune with the evolving landscape as she looks for a career second act, similar to Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her current triumphs with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
“There aren’t more 50-year-old women on television than there were when I was growing up,” she said. “I understand much better where an Amy Sherman-Palladino is, and look how long it even took her to find her second big shot. She wasn’t not trying to get stories told during that time between the two shows … I think the best I can do from where I sit is to connect with younger people. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do.”
Graham’s also increasingly pursuing writing opportunities after recently crafting a novel and a memoir — she’s currently writing a screenplay adaptation for Warner Bros. and has TV pilots in the works — but that’s neither a means to create material for herself to act in nor a move away from performing. “It makes me really upset when people are like, ‘Oh you’re transitioning.’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m not. Why would I be transitioning?’ Because I can do these two things. They are two sides of the same coin.”
As Marvel Studios’ producer and executive vp of production, Alonso told THR she was confident the Summit’s audience was well-steeped in her filmmaking output featuring the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and more. But she was eager to show them a woman behind the scenes who had a powerful influence on the superheroic epics.
“I’m not sure they know specifically it’s me,” she said, believing that her identity as a Latin woman, a gay woman and a mother would also resonate with the attendees — “all the things that hit home with a lot of women that are trying to make it into Hollywood … but if they don’t know it, that’s OK too, as long as they see themselves represented in our films. So it’s like you feel included either way, by the people that make it, or by the people that show you who the characters are.”
In its ensemble films, Marvel has earned praise for introducing an array of empowered, capable female characters that function with agency, beyond love interests and distressed damsels. And with the films Captain Marvel and Black Widow around the corner, female heroes will be taking center stage.
“The stories are unique to those characters and I think as women, we see things and lift things in a different manner,” Alonso says of the upcoming films. “But so many things are very similar. We all want happiness. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. We all want fairness. We all have integrity. We all want to have a partner. We all mourn the loss of a friend. You see it through the female lens, but the core issues continue to be what I call the ‘superhero’ issues, in trying to survive the day. In this world, I think we’re all superheroes.”
She’s pleased that Scarlett Johansson’s reported payday for Black Widow was on par with the male lead actors for other solo Marvel films — “It’s always important that you feel like you’re being compensated in a fair manner,” she said — and while she doesn’t see herself as making dramatic changes in the way things are done, she does hope to, as she sees it, make a difference.
“It’s the sum of all of our differences that will eventually will make a change,” said Alonso. “So change is too big, it’s too global, it’s humongous. It’s like the ocean versus the little pothole that has water. On a daily basis, if the choice becomes a man or a woman, and they’re both as talented, I always ask, ‘Why not her?’ Just by making that comment, then the conversation begins.
“The same way with characters that are historically male, because they were written in the ’60s and everything was written as male,” she adds. “And you look at them today, and you go, ‘Does he have to be a man? Does it have to be a white man? Can it be a black man? Could it be a Latin guy? Could it be a Muslim guy? Could it be a black woman? Could it be an Asian woman?’ Those conversations are very, very much in our rooms, and it happens every day, multiple, multiple times a day.”
As Captain Marvel, Marvel’s first female-led film, inches closer to release, Alonso is keeping her expectations about effecting a sea change conservative, even as another of the studio’s efforts, Black Panther, had a transformative effect on the industry in terms of black-led films, black filmmakers and the untapped box office power of largely black audiences.
“I have no anticipation — I have a huge level of responsibility to do it right,” she said. “So until we finish, I can’t even begin to think about what it’s going to be, after we’re done. But I am proud to say it’ll be the first premiere I’m going to take my daughter to, so that gives you an idea of what it means to me. I’ve been waiting, because she’s not of age to be there for the whole night. But I am hoping it’s received with the same abundant love and attention that it’s being put together.”
As the co-creator and executive producer of Friends, one of network TV’s last humongous pop cultural phenomena before cable and streaming radically changed the viewing landscape, Kauffman regaled the Summit audience with tales from the television trenches of a less enlightened era, recounting how she and her writing staff had to subvert persistent slut-shaming by a network executive reacting to a storyline in which Monica slept with a crush on the first date.
In another anecdote, her off-the-record comments about a network president imported from the sports division and his manly-man indifferent attitude toward women’s concerns were unexpectedly printed and created a rift — one she ultimately repaired with humor, sending the exec a gift basket filled with items to help him “get in touch with his feminine side” — a move that disarmed and amused her boss without recanting her sentiment.
As the executive producer of Netflix’s popular Grace and Frankie, Kauffman is now considered a bit of a sage among female creators in television (“That’s a shame,” she says with a laugh). And as someone who strives to employ women at her production company, she told THR she’s seen a shift in the attitudes and expectations of women entering the industry today, including a different sense of what they’re willing to sacrifice at home for career accomplishments.
“Many of the younger generation had working mothers, and not all, but many of the younger generation doesn’t want to work as hard as their mothers did. And what we do is hard, and it takes a lot of hours, but there is [the thought] ‘My mother worked that hard — I’m not sure I want to work that hard. I can see what she missed. Do I want to do that?’ Even though they’re working.”
Long frustrated that female writers’ ideas in the writing room are glossed over only to be celebrated when re-presented by a man, Kauffman has consistently encouraged the women she works with to “be noisy” to break through the din. “I try very, very hard to not let it happen,” she said. “If a woman says something, and then a man says the same thing and listened to her, I will say, ‘Julie just said that a second ago,’ hoping that people will start listening better, but it still happens,” she said. “I just try to bring it back what really happened in the moment, and give the women the credit where credit is due.”
Kauffman said she’s enjoyed seeing the women she’s mentored and created opportunities for step into their own successes. “It feels awesome!” she exclaimed. “I feel that I knew them when they were a baby — ‘I knew you when they were this tall!’ It’s a little bit like that. You watch a person grow when they work for you, and then you just see that they’ve become these amazing showrunners and writers, and it’s thrilling, it’s thrilling. I can’t say I take ownership, but I do have pride.”
In terms of what the Summit attendees might take away from their audience with Kauffman and her peers, she boiled it down to a simple desire. “I hope that they’re learning that collaboration is key,” she said. “You need to hear from all sorts of voices. If what you ultimately want to be is a leader, you have to learn to listen, but I also think it’s to tell the female stories. Find a way to tell them. If you have to do it with only women doing it and women funding it, tell female-driven stories.”
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