Susan Sarandon Attributes Hollywood Sexism, Ageism, Racism to Industry's "Corporate Takeover"

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Susan Sarandon

The actress, who is heading the jury at Australia's short-film festival Tropfest, nodded to "braver, sexier, weirder" content on Netflix and other streaming platforms on a panel where filmmakers explored the challenges of adaptation.

A discussion about the unique burdens and rewards of adapting material for the screen gave way to sweeping commentary on the future of Hollywood at the Tropfest panel Adaptation: Bringing Stories to Life at Western Sydney University in Parramatta, Australia, on Friday.

Screen Time host Chris Taylor led the discussion with actress Susan Sarandon, Lion author and subject Saroo Brierley, Lion producer Angie Fielder, Balibo director Robert Connolly and Australian Film, Television and Radio School lecturer Marty Murphy that centered on the challenges of refashioning both fictional and non-fictional subjects for film and TV.

Sarandon, who is serving as head juror at the short-film festival, attributed Hollywood’s increasing dependence on reboots to a “lack of imagination," which she said feeds a larger problem of discrimination, along with the "corporate takeover of making films."

"This is why we have so much sexism and racism and ageism in Hollywood," she said. "There's a lot of businessmen that are making decisions, not people who necessarily love movies. This is where you get casting by how many followers you have on Instagram."

Sarandon praised small festivals and young filmmakers as "where our hope lies," later making special mention of Xavier Dolan, who directed her on the forthcoming The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, and Greta Gerwig.

Sarandon, who said she's now "on the outside of Hollywood," also noted the problem with movies trying to cater to a mass audience and becoming "incredibly watered down" in the process. Netflix and other streaming platforms, she said, are better able to focus on a narrow demographic.

"They don't need to appeal to everybody," said the actress. "So you're seeing braver, sexier, weirder, shocking things … which is really exciting."

On the challenges of adaptation, Sarandon recalled worrying about the reaction of Sister Helen, a real-life nun who counseled a death-row inmate, to seeing Sarandon’s Oscar-winning portrayal of her in 1995's Dead Man Walking.

"I was so nervous that when she saw it she would be emotionally upset," Sarandon said. "She watched the first thing, and I asked, 'Are you OK?' And she said, 'Yeah. Doing it myself was much harder, actually.' I thought … what a jerk I am, of course it's much harder to actually do it."

Brierley, however, admitted he cried within the first 10 minutes of watching his life play out in 2016's Lion, despite expecting to be "desensitized" to the narrative. 

"I just had tears coming down because I was so enchanted watching it," he said. "Like, wow, that's how it was in reality. They really got down to the bedrock."

Fielder said she believes the success of Lion, which follows Brierley getting lost in India as a 5-year-old to searching for his birth mom from Australia, can largely be attributed to director Garth Davis' linear storytelling.

"The conventional way to do it is to start in the present," she said. "You start with Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel, and then you go back. But Luke [Davies, the screenwriter] said, ‘I really think we have to be with Saroo on this journey. We have to be with him and not know where we're going. … That's why when you watch the film, it's this hugely emotional experience, because you are with Saroo feeling what he feels."

Fielder also shared some details of the casting process for young Saroo, played by Sunny Pawar in the film. “We did a big open casting call to all the NGO [non-governmental organization] schools we could find in Mumbai, Calcutta and Delhi,” she recalled, noting that they whittled about 2,000 tapes down to a few children that Davis met and auditioned in India.

“It wasn't just a process of just seeing who had the qualities of Saroo and who could take direction and act,” Fielder added. “We needed a child who had stamina and endurance and patience. We kept the children there all day. We made them wait for a long time. We really tried to recreate some of the stuff they'd have to put up with. We were so lucky with Sunny. He was an absolute trooper. I've never seen a kid so patient.”

Tropfest bills itself as the world's largest short-film festival, with filmmakers required to submit a piece no longer than seven minutes that contains a signature item as proof the work was created uniquely for the competition (this year's item is a rose). Sarandon will judge the 16 short-film finalists on Saturday.

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