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After filming her first feature Aquamarine on location in Australia in 2006, Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum went on to direct the family adventure Ramona and Beezus with then-breakout star Selena Gomez. This was followed by a slew of credits in television, intercut with teaching semester-long “failure seminars” to young filmmakers at USC in order to prepare them for the rejection and uncertainty that exists within every directing career.
In a discussion with The Hollywood Reporter, Rosenbaum gets candid about the complexity of juggling motherhood and directing, her experience of other women in the industry, and the ways she navigates her professional life with the firm understanding that risk and rejection are necessary parts of the challenge.
What motivated you to pursue a career behind the camera?
I had always been involved in theater and it was something I grew up around, so I started directing theater in New York — but I was so broke that I ended up seeing movies on the weekend because the plays were too expensive. It was hard to make a living and I realized that filmmaking was more democratic and more accessible. I had some friends who had moved out to LA for work, so I contacted them and became an assistant to producer Cary Woods, who at the time had a deal with Miramax, and later I assisted director Mikael Salomon.
Your first feature was made just five years after your graduate thesis film at USC. What led to its greenlight?
I had a short film that got a lot of attention and I immediately got an agent. [But] it’s hard to get a studio to write you a check for $15 million dollars, so I started writing — doing book adaptations and various different things — and to the studios, I became known that way. Once you’ve delivered scripts that people like and you’re in that world for a couple of years, I’ve found that there’s a trust level there. I was then in development on five or six different projects, but Aquamarine was the one that got the green light first.
Can you describe the changes in opportunities that became available for you after your first feature? How did you settle on Ramona and Beezus for your next feature?
My short film — that was my calling card — is a dark, gross-out dramedy with a bunch of guys beating the crap out of each other [it’s about wrestling] but there weren’t many young female directors in the industry, so almost everything I was sent had princesses or mermaids. The fact is that I love that audience, it’s receptive with a more fertile imagination in a lot of ways. I didn’t have a lot of competition so it wasn’t hard for me to get those jobs. My peers weren’t getting those offers because they were guys. That’s how I got my foot in the door, and once I was in that world I just got niched and it’s very hard to get out of it once you’re in it. Elizabeth Gabler, who was at Fox until a few weeks ago, was the one who greenlit Aquamarine and was really a mentor through the process. She even flew to Australia and spent some time on the set with us. The movie was very inexpensive and it did quite well in DVD sales, so then she offered me Ramona and Beezus a few years later. I tried to get a couple of edgy indie films made, but that game is very hard — you’re trying to get foreign financing — it’s such a long, tedious prospect. After a few blew up, I had revisited Elizabeth for some other projects and she had a book she’d been working on with [producer] Denise Di Novi, which just so happened to be one of my favorite childhood books [Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary] so naturally, that was a perfect fit.
Have you ever encountered sexism on the sets you’ve been on? If so, what is your strategy for dispelling it?
When I was first interviewing with agents and there were a couple who were courting me, there was this well respected, really nice guy, and he warned me. He said, as you enter the industry, you’re going to find that it’s the women who try to bring you down; there’s a cutthroat competitive quality to the women in this industry. I also had a woman who was pursuing representing me and I opted to go with her partially because of what he said — I chose not to believe that. And it’s proven to be quite the opposite, it’s the women who have been so supportive. I also have a mentor, Gary Fleder, who’s helped me every step of the way. I find that there’s a positivity and a generosity in this industry and there’s not that cutthroat, elbow each other out of the way quality that I had been warned about. Sometimes on sets, there will be one or two people on various different shows who would try to undermine my leadership ability, in an aggressive and competitive way, and I never quite understood why. This happened mostly when I was younger, I don’t experience it anymore, and there is also a heightened awareness now. It’s a nicer, easier climate. There’s also a reason I’m behind the camera — I remember getting home on my first few days of shooting Aquamarine and thinking, “God, this job is really for people who love the sound of their own voice.” Because you have to be so bombastic and the center of attention all day and I don’t like that at all. I find that when people are trying to be undermining while you’re in the midst of sticking your neck out like that, that’s when it’s really painful.
What has been the biggest uphill climb that you’ve had to traverse so far?
For me, because I was so career driven, and also because I wasn’t going to take no for an answer, I [have learned to] consider it a challenge when I hear ‘no.’ A lot of my female comrades [USC classmates] get a little bit hurt when they hear ‘no’ too many times and they start to believe it. It certainly doesn’t feel great to get rejected day after day, but that’s what you have to do in this business whether you’re putting your neck out to get a job or trying to get an actor attached so something. You have to get used to that feeling and try not to take it personally and instead look at it as a fun challenge. Another big thing for me, because I was so career driven, was that I delayed having a family. I was in my mid-40s before I felt secure enough in my career to actually focus on that, and at that juncture, it was too late for me to actually have kids so I adopted four years ago. I had no idea, until having a child, what it takes [to be a parent in this industry] — if you have a sick child at night and then you have to get up after not sleeping and direct a hundred people and keep your wits about you. And also, I have the life of a gypsy. I just got a job yesterday and I have to be in Vancouver in a few days. How do you do that when you have a child and you need a nanny and you’re working 100 hours a week? For me, that’s been the biggest eye-opener. It’s not really discussed that much, but it’s really tricky. The first couple of jobs I did on television after I had him, I lost money doing those jobs. I was shooting a show in England and I had to pay for him and my nanny to get over to there, two extra bedrooms [at the hotel], all the living expenses of that for six weeks and over a hundred hours a week of paying a nanny. I was paying to do those jobs and that was something I just had no idea about. Often there are times when the show won’t give you a housing allowance instead — now, when they do, you can go and find Airbnb or something affordable within the budget, but if not, more often than I like to admit, I’ve turned my closet into a bedroom. I work such long hours, I need to be able to sneak in and not disturb him. That, to me, is the biggest hindrance, specifically for women. I don’t think any male producers have any idea what I’m having to do behind the scenes — because I do it very quietly and I don’t talk about it — to keep afloat and to be raising a child while doing this job.
In your teaching at USC and Cornell University, what is a key piece of advice or a word of warning that you give students to prepare them for this career?
I’m very transparent, I show them my ups and downs as I go through them. It is such a rollercoaster, and you have to be game for that. I could be so down about something one day and not have projects going that I really want, and suddenly the phone will ring and you’re off to a foreign country with a really interesting gig ahead. That can happen in a minute on any given day. You have to have a sense of adventure, and I always warn them about that. I have a soft spot for guiding young women and minorities through the process because I feel like it’s something I can offer, and with them I talk about the rejection and what’s it’s like to hear “no.” When I teach at USC I do this failure seminar, where, for the whole semester, they have to stick their neck out and come in every week talking about the rejections they got — and we applaud them. I don’t care if it’s asking someone you have a crush on out [on a date], or going for a scholarship, but every week we have to talk about what we failed at. Everyone has to get used to that and be proud of how they’re attempting to do things and take risks. For me, that’s a big part of how I try to retrain their brains a little bit. I think it’s really the difference between my friends who really did give up, the really talented peers of mine from USC, versus the ones who didn’t. It’s about resilience. When I was growing up in the ’80s, the guys were the aggressors, so It was programmed into women that they don’t stick their neck out and get rejected at the same level. Fortunately, there’s been a big shift.
The industry tends to separate directors into male and female, suggesting that their experience and path to a successful career requires tailored approaches. What is your view on this?
I’ve definitely benefited more than I have not, by being a woman. Because I was a commodity at a time when there weren’t very many of us. So, even though I got typecast which was frustrating, I had a leg up as far as getting my foot in the door in the studio system. To this day, I get jobs in the testosterone-fueled world in television — it feels good to prove myself. I can blow stuff up and stage provocative fights and it’s a fun challenge. I never would have gotten that, had there not been a wave of awareness [about women filmmakers.]
Is there a film by a lesser known female director that you feel deserves a shout out?
One show that got a fair amount of attention, but now it’s off the air, was Jessica Jones. The pilot, which was directed by a woman — I didn’t know that at first because she has a sneaky non-gender specific initial name [S.J. Clarkson] — was dynamic and aggressive and the character was unapologetic, it was so visual and charged. I got so excited about that show.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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