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Jessica Chastain and Sarah Jessica Parker on Saturday joined the presidents of their production companies — Kelly Carmichael and Alison Benson, respectively — at the Producers Guild of America’s Produced By Conference NY for a panel about the ways that they’ve tried to increase the representation of women both behind and in front of the camera.
The data-driven discussion also included PGA president Lori McCreary — who spoke about her own work behind the scenes through her production company Revelations Entertainment, with Morgan Freeman — and was moderated by Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the media, diversity & social change initiative at USC Annenberg.
While many of the women on the panel have crossed paths with Harvey Weinstein and Chastain has frequently spoken out against the disgraced mogul over the past three weeks, the talk largely avoided the topic of sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood. Still, Chastain began her remarks about her work as a producer by saying that she started her company, Freckle Films, because she felt like she was part of a problematic industry.
“Sometimes I think with anything that’s happening, we don’t acknowledge the fact that we’re complicit in our inaction — that goes across many areas,” she said.
Chastain also argued that she and her fellow producers needed to dig deep to find ways to move beyond the status quo for hiring directors, writers and below-the-line talent in Hollywood in order to increase the representation of women in those positions.
For instance, she argued, “If we’re asking for a list of directors and a list of writers from an agency, in most cases you get a list and it’s all men and you have to kind of go beyond that. … Men traditionally are paid more than women, and agents make more money when someone that has a higher quote gets a job. So we need to go beyond what the agents submit and find the artists because they are out there.”
This idea of ways to move beyond the traditional list and find more, perhaps lesser-known, female writers and directors was a recurring topic during the panel.
“It’s all about the research and the outreach and opening ourselves up to say, ‘This is our mandate.’ And, ‘Who are the writers in New York? Who are the directors in New York?’ Bring ’em in, let me sit down with them and having that openness, I think is really important,” said Carmichael, Freckle Films’ president of production and development. “It’s up to us to say we’re going to put our power behind this person because we believe in them. And you have to lock arms, because otherwise that same cycle will just continue.”
Instead of agency lists, Benson, president at Parker’s Pretty Matches Productions, said she relies heavily on word of mouth from other women in the industry, including fellow female producers, people they’ve worked with and even people operating outside of the entertainment industry (like authors and comedians) in New York. And she shares those names with others.
Chastain explained that she found out about one of the women who is directing a movie for Freckle Films, Laura Terruso, from seeing her name in the credits as the co-screenwriter for Hello, My Name Is Doris and then researching her work.
Benson, meanwhile, said that for HBO’s Divorce, on which she serves as an executive producer alongside Parker, she’s tried to exceed their mandates for women on set.
“This year on Divorce we had more female than male directors. It was incredibly female behind the scenes in terms of the writers room and department heads,” Benson said. “It’s not just about filling the minimum of those mandates. It’s about exceeding that expectation.”
And both Chastain and Parker’s companies are trying to increase the diversity in their projects to include underrepresented women, specifically stories of indigenous women in Chastain’s case, with Carmichael pointing out that their company isn’t necessarily trying to find material for Chastain but to acquire books and produce other stories for an audience that’s underserved, like minorities or women of a certain age.
As for the characters she plays, Chastain said she always wants “to move away from a stereotype, an old-fashioned idea of what a woman is.”
“I’m really interested in finding well-written female characters that I see in my everyday life,” she continued. “I’m very interested in women in history [who have been forgotten]. I want young girls to know that there were many before them and it’s our destiny to widen the paths for those in the future.”
Chastain also wants to get rid of superficial qualifiers next to the characters (i.e., “beautiful, 5’2″, 110 pounds”).
“These are things that are normal in scripts when they describe a woman in terms of something that’s not important at all,” she said. “If you read the script, you have an idea of who the woman is. So we’re removing all of that stuff.”
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Tracee Ellis Ross