J.J. Abrams Talks Inspiring Female Voices at Time's Up-Influenced Athena Film Festival

Lena Dunham and JJ Abrams - H Getty 2018
Kris Connor/Getty Images for Athena Film Festival

The organizers and honorees at the Barnard College-based celebration of women's leadership seemed encouraged that the #MeToo movement and success of films like 'Wonder Woman' and 'Lady Bird' would lead to increased gender diversity in Hollywood.

Roughly six weeks after Hollywood's Time's Up initiative inspired a sea of black dresses at this year's Golden Globe Awards, the movement designed to combat systemic inequality and injustice in the workplace took over the Athena Film Festival in New York on Friday night.

At the Barnard College-based eighth annual celebration of female leadership, organizers and honorees such as J.J. Abrams, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, writer-director Amma Asante and comedian Bridget Everett were wearing black and sporting Time's Up pins.

Abrams told The Hollywood Reporter that the accessory was simply a sign of his belief in the initiative, adding that he's "thrilled to represent."

Inside Friday night's awards ceremony, the filmmaker delivered a galvanizing speech in which he talked about being inspired by female voices and vowed to continue fighting for gender equity.

When asked earlier why he's often drawn to telling women's stories — as he's done in Felicity, Alias and The Force Awakens — Abrams said, "There's no strategy. I find myself drawn to different characters' voices and for some reason, those voices are often female," he told THR. "All I can do is respond to what I'm hearing."

Inside, noting that he's often asked similar questions about writing for women (but never about writing for men), Abrams said he often finds himself without an answer, but conceded, "The female point of view is arguably more interesting to me than, say, the dude's [perspective]."

But he also suggested that perhaps his attention to strong female voices is connected to the presence of a powerful woman in his own life — that of his wife, Katie McGrath.

"It's no accident that I wrote the pilot for the television series Felicity a thousand years ago, after meeting my wife Katie," Abrams said. "Not that that story was based on her, but I'd simply never met a more powerful, outspoken, decent, generous, capable, beautiful, tough or respectable person in my life. What blows my mind about Katie is not that she encourages those she knows, including her only slightly shorter husband, to do the right thing, it's how she constantly and innately knows what the right thing to do is. It's a superpower that she has. And rather through her inspiration or her coercion, most of the good I've done in my life to be considered for this award at all is a direct result of her."

He added, "Katie, of course, never asked me to write about women in Felicity or Alias or Star Wars, but I was inspired to because of the respect I have for who she is and how she sees the world and how she intrinsically identifies injustice and how she takes active, one might say obsessive steps to right that wrong."

Referring to the movement of women speaking out amid a wave of sexual misconduct claims in Hollywood and beyond, Abrams called it "a revolution" and said McGrath has "become increasingly electrified in this decisive moment — women unified, galvanized, sick of being unsafe, marginalized, unconsidered or unheard."

As he encouraged everyone to embrace the change sweeping through Hollywood, Abrams cited a quote from Franklin Leonard that McGrath has by her desk: "When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. It is not."

"That is a powerful idea. It helps explain the terror that some people are expressing at this empowerment of women, that somehow the fight for what is fair is somehow an assault against them, instead of an opportunity, creatively and professionally to be challenged to be better and actually make more money," Abrams said as he cited stats from McKinsey and Forbes to show that gender-diverse workplaces make more money and better decisions. "You all know the humiliating-for-everyone percentages of women who are hired to write, direct and produce in Hollywood. It's unfair and it needs to change. … There's no going backward. The genie is out of the bottle, and all of us, not just the women, should be thrilled about it, not just for the creative and economic opportunity but because who among us in 2018 doesn't want to fight for what is fair and what is right?"

Abrams was honored by friend Lena Dunham, making one of her first public appearances since she revealed she'd undergone a hysterectomy in her battle with endometriosis. Dunham, who appeared healthy and energetic, quickly showed that she hadn't lost her signature feminist voice.

"I think it's pretty generous you even agreed to let a dude in the building, all things considered, at this moment in time," Dunham said of Abrams' "Leading Man" honor from the female-focused festival. "In a year in which so many men have been called out for being fuckboys at best and despicable predators at worst, it is such an honor to support and recognize the man who has used his power and prestige to support and advocate for women in the entertainment industry."

Dunham, who called Abrams "one of the funniest, wisest and most noble men I've ever gotten to know," said she is "one of the women who has personally benefited from J.J.'s careful and kind attention as he has guided me through the treacherous waters of Hollywood." The Girls creator also cited the New York-set Felicity as "the reason so many of us chose to come and live in this hellhole of a city in the first place."

Ahead of the awards ceremony, Athena co-founders Melissa Silverstein and Kathryn Kolbert were optimistic that the #MeToo movement and Time's Up initiative would lead to increased gender diversity in Hollywood.

"I do believe that we're going to see change, and we've been here at the Athena Film Festival, pushing for this, for eight years," Silverstein said. "I think Time's Up and #MeToo has really made people aware of the inequity in the industry and how it must change."

Added Kolbert, "Enough is enough already. If we continued at the pace we're at, women would achieve leadership in 2120. It's way too long to wait, and I think the importance of Time's Up is that it emphasizes the immediacy of this effort and changing the power dynamics and begins to give us an opportunity to make change."

Belle and A United Kingdom director Asante, who was honored with the Athena Award, said the #MeToo movement encourages her to keep pushing.

"Many of us have been, in our own small ways, trying to bring change to try and bring difference and I think it's a multifaceted approach that we all have to continue in our own ways and I think this is just another part of the movement getting bigger, voice getting louder and we have no choice but to move with it because it's so important that change comes," she said. "So many of us have been trying for so long, and I think the fact it now feels like we're being listened to means we can't take our foot off the pedal, we have to keep going. So any opportunity here I think is important to remind the world that we're 51 percent of the population. We're relevant. We have voices that matter, and we have voices that have value, and it's important."

Kopple, who received the Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award, said she also was encouraged by the success of female-directed films like Wonder Woman and Lady Bird, as well as Lady Bird helmer Greta Gerwig's Oscar nomination.

"I think more and more female directors will be hired for feature films. We've proven every single time that we can make really beautiful and impactful films that people want to go see," she said.

The festival, which runs through Sunday, also announced the 2018 winners of its annual Athena List of unproduced screenplays with strong female protagonists.