'Tomboy' Filmmakers on Power of Female Drummers, SXSW Cancellation

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"I started working on this film five years ago. But I had been wanting to do this movie since I saw a woman drum live for the first time," says director Lindsay Lindenbaum.

Documentary Tomboy was one of the many independent features scheduled to premiere at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this month, but the event's abrupt cancellation because of the novel coronavirus pandemic led the filmmakers to scramble to figure out new plans to get their film onto screens.

Lindsay Lindenbaum's documentary, an in-depth look at the experience of professional female drummers, was slated to debut in the film festival's 24 Beats Per Second category, which spotlights work about music and musicians.

Other festivals where Tomboy was set to screen have been canceled or postponed, and planned screenings in New York and Los Angeles had to be called off as those cities issued shelter-in-place orders.

SXSW festival organizers shifted the film competition online after the City of Austin canceled the main event, giving Tomboy a new chance to be seen by industry professionals, film critics and press. With the traditional avenues taken by independent filmmakers no longer available amid the pandemic, Lindebaum and Tomboy producer Eleanor Emptage are working to figure out what comes next.

Shortly after the March 6 festival cancellation, THR talked to the filmmakers about the making of Tomboy and their hopes for the project.

Where did the idea for Tomboy come from?

Lindsay Lindenbaum: I started working on this film five years ago. But I had been wanting to do this movie since I saw a woman drum live for the first time, which was a few years before that and it was Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, seeing her so fierce and loud and unafraid to take up space as a woman, which is such a powerful image. In a five year journey, I traveled across the country interviewing and filming dozens of women drummers. I always knew I wanted the film to say something more universal about the female experience that went beyond the drum world. It became about women having to prove themselves in any male-dominated field. I think that right now there is such an urgency to make these women that are pushing boundaries — whether its in music or science or film or politics — more visible so that the next regeneration of girls get a more expansive picture about what they can become.

Did you know you wanted to spend five years tracking the drummers?

Lindenbaum: Going into it I didn't know it was going to take five years. I knew it was going to take some time if I wanted to do justice to their stories, which meant I would have to follow them for more than a year. I wanted to make sure that I was spending enough time with them to make sure that things were unfolding in their lives. You need several years to let things happen. In the past year it felt right like the film was coming to an end.

What was it like finding out that the festival would not be going on as planned?

Lindenbaum: It was disappointing, especially after five years of making this film and being so close to the finish line where we would be bringing it to audiences and screening it for the characters in the film, who would be coming together to watch it for the first time. SXSW has always been such a great platform but especially for music docs. To be able to screen it in a place where there was synergy between music and film just made it the perfect place to premiere. There were so many things we were looking forward to for the film. We, of course, knew it was the right decision to put public safety first.

Eleanor Emptage: What we were going to show at SXSW is our festival cut, and we still have a little of work left to do on the film. We were going to use it as a launchpad to generate the finishing funds we need, as well as looking for distribution partners. Without that platform, we need to work hard at figuring out other opportunities we can create ourselves.

From a filmmaker's perspective, what is lost when these movies can't screen at festivals?

Lindenbaum: To be able to be in the room and see how an audience is reacting to your film is really special. For this film, there is something that is so visceral about a woman playing the drums. It's an energy that is felt and would be special to see in a theater setting.

Emptage: It is wonderful that we are in a position to share things digitally, and we are able to connect with audiences in a different way. Given the situation, it is fantastic to have that as an option.

With the path forward still unclear, what are your hopes for Tomboy?

Emptage: We would hope that we are able to get the industry exposure that would lead to the finishing funds to get the film ready to share on a wider level. We are working with Women Make Movies and are trying to raise money.

Lindenbaum: Ideally, we would love after a festival — if any festivals will be happening this year — we would love to screen it in theaters and on VOD. We just want as many girls and women to see it as possible. Whether they are inspired to pick up drum sticks or have the courage or confidence to do anything that is seen as stereotypically masculine.