For the last two years, women have won the Oscar for Best Director. But has the industry changed as much as they’d like us to believe? (Zero women nominated this year doesn’t inspire confidence.) And what does it even mean for the industry to truly change?
For us to look forward, we have to look back. And that’s why I’m so proud to share this interview with writer/director Annette Haywood-Carter. If you’re like me, you know Annette as the director of the 1996 film Foxfire, number 43 on our list of the Best Lesbian Movies of All Time. Adapted from the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, Foxfire is a singular vision of righteous rebellion and queer girl coming-of-age. Despite starring a young Angelina Jolie in a star-making performance, the film was granted little support upon its release and Annette was granted little support in her career.
Like so many women who made masterful films around that time, Annette was pushed aside and ignored. But she kept working and working — detours and frustrations included — and now she’s back with a new film. She’s ready to move beyond for-hire jobs to direct the personal, artful work she should have been making for decades.
Drew: I want to start from the beginning. Where did you grow up?
Annette: I grew up in the South. I had a unique upbringing because I was raised in faculty housing on college campuses. I started off in Mississippi — it’s where I was born and where my extended family is from — and then we went to New Orleans and then we went to Macon, Georgia. I was raised in this very liberal and tolerant community, but it was a bubble inside of the Deep South. And the family that I came from originally was very conservative. It was a valuable upbringing because I was always conscious of the conversations around me. My dad was very much a Civil Rights advocate and was fighting for the integration of schools. And my mother was the first female lawyer in our city. So all the cultural issues that we were going through in the 60s and 70s were right there in front of me and being discussed in my home. I’ve come to appreciate my upbringing as I’ve gotten older. I don’t think I appreciated it when I was young — I just wanted to get the hell out. (laughs)
Drew: (laughs) Well, I do understand that.
How did you become interested in movies and directing?
Annette: Even though I had that upbringing, movies were not something that was part of my life. Macon only had a small multiplex that played what I consider to be the worst of the Hollywood movies. I mean, there were those special movies that came to town — my mother took us to see The Sound of Music — but it wasn’t common. Then when I was 17 years old I went to college in Asheville, North Carolina and I discovered all sorts of movies at the arthouse theatre there. That’s what made me go, oh my god this is something I understand. It cracked me open in a way nothing else had and started me on this path. One weekend, there was an Ingmar Bergman festival and from Friday morning to Sunday night I watched like all his movies on the big screen. The last one was Persona—
Annette: And Persona just fucked me up. I don’t know how else to put it. It cracked me open — my mind, my heart, everything I had ever thought about. And I became obsessed with films that took a deep dive on identity — who am I, what am I. That was really the beginning. But it was several years before I acted on that impulse because I didn’t know anything about the industry. I didn’t know how one did that. I had to transition into it.
Drew: Persona is my favorite Bergman movie. That was also the one that blew my mind as a teenager.
Annette: Oh cool!
Drew: So how did you go from this experience seeing Persona to actually acting on the desire to be a filmmaker?
Annette: Well, in the late 70s, I was living in Athens, Georgia and I became friends with The B-52s and started shooting music videos for them. This was right before MTV and then MTV happened and the videos that I was shooting became a big deal. That was the point where I realized that this was actually a career, that being in the entertainment industry was something that people could actually do. The Bs, of course, went on to have this fabulous career, so it kind of normalized something that had never crossed my mind: I can make a living at this. It doesn’t have to be something I just play around with.
Drew: When you were first starting out were you aware of other women directors?
Annette: This is going to sound ridiculous, but I didn’t even think about it. I came up in an era where women didn’t get to do any of the things they wanted to do, so the expectation was that you would just do it anyway. When my mother became a lawyer, she was literally the first female lawyer in our city. It was like, oh okay you just have to work hard for it and prove that you’re good.
I’d always been a tomboy — although that’s not a term I really like because I’ve come to understand my identity in a clearer way now — but I always ran with the boys. And had this expectation that I could do whatever I wanted to do. It really wasn’t until I went to LA — I just got in a car one day and drove across the country — that I discovered there were almost no women directors. I still expected to be able to do it though.
Also it was a time when using gender as the reason for something not working out for you was so not okay. I mean, you could never refer to yourself as a female director and when women started doing that many of us were like, well, I’m not a female director, I’m a director. It’s really only been in the past decade where it can be advantageous to identify that way.
Drew: What was the journey from music videos to coming to LA to The Foot Shooting Party to Foxfire?
Annette: I took a lot of dead end roads. I started out thinking that I would work as a cinematographer or in camera because that was my love and passion. But there were no women in camera. And then I thought, okay, well, I’ll be an AD. I didn’t go to film school and I didn’t really understand the different positions, so I just thought an assistant director sounded like a stepping stone into directing. But the women in the AD department were relegated to base camp and weren’t standing by the camera that often. There were a handful who were and I worked with some of the great ones but it wasn’t common. I finally made a calculated decision. The only position that women dominated on set was script supervising so I figured out what that job was and I started doing that. It turned out to be a godsend because I was attached at the hip to the director. I did 28 movies and it was my film school. In addition to learning how to direct from working Hollywood directors — which is really the best way to learn, in my opinion — I made a lot of personal relationships I could use in my career.
While working as a script supervisor, I was writing all the time and my scripts were being circulated. I got a meeting at Disney with a woman who read a script I wrote. She said, “Disney won’t make this movie, because it’s off-brand. But we really liked your writing so we wanted to meet you. And also I wanted to tell you that Jeffrey Katzenberg has initiated this program called the Discretionary Fund for creative execs to find new talent.wp_postsIt was a grant for $150,000 to make a short film. That sounds like a lot for a short but this was back in the day of film and when Avid took up a whole room. So basically she said, “We’re looking for new talent and your agent tells me you really want to be a director.” I said, “Yes, I’m a director.wp_postsI had this screenplay for The Foot Shooting Party in my bag because I was on my way to the post office after this meeting. I was sending it to a company in LA called Chanticleer that was making short films even though it was rare for short films to get made outside of film schools. So I said, “Oh I actually have something right here,wp_postsand I gave it to her. It wound up being the first film in this new program. I think they planned to make 22 shorts but canned the program after 12.
That whole experience and what came next was kind of extraordinary. But it was also the result of the work that I had been doing. I’d been script supervising on Amblin films — I’d done Casper and The Flintstones — and the projectionist and the producers at Amblin had seen The Foot Shooting Party. They were just determined that Spielberg would see it, so they asked me to leave the film in the screening room. One day Spielberg came on the set and he walked up to me and said, “Did I see your film last night?wp_postsAnd I said, “I don’t know. What did you see?wp_postsAnd he said, “The Foot Shooting Party.wp_postsAnd I said, “Yes, that’s my film.wp_postsAnd he gave me the biggest hug! And then started firing a bunch of questions at me about my directorial decisions. He told me that he wanted me to direct an episode of Seaquest, this TV series that he was producing for NBC. And that was how I got my break.
I directed the episode of Seaquest and then they offered me to come back and do another one because the lead actor Roy Scheider was very happy with my work. But in the 90s, directors couldn’t go back and forth between television and film like they can now. Film was the A Team and television was the B Team. If you were stuck in television it might be difficult to get to feature films and if you were in feature films you did not want to go to television. And I was also offered Foxfire. So I turned down the second episode to break into features.
Drew: Did you get offered Foxfire through your reps?
Annette: At the time I had a wonderful agent named Lee Keele at the Gersh Agency. She had been working as an assistant for one of the big agents and she was just getting off the desk and able to develop her own client list. Someone introduced us and she started representing me. She was the reason that I got Foxfire.
Drew: When you made Foxfire what was your relationship to your sexuality and identity?
Annette: My relationship to my identity hasn’t changed, but what people have known me to be has changed. When I was in college, I identified as bisexual because that was the only word out there for people who were in relationships with men and women. Then I got into a relationship with a woman that lasted six years — it was a very committed relationship that I really consider to be my first marriage — and during that time I identified as a lesbian. But when I say I identified, I just mean that was the label that I gave myself. The labels never actually ever felt right to me.
And then when I married my husband — who I was with for many years and had two children with — that coincided with my move to LA. I had never been secret about my relationships when I was living in Atlanta and it had been very costly. To be honest, it cost me my family. But when I got to LA, I just didn’t talk about my personal life all that much. People just assumed that I was straight because I had a husband and children.
I was somebody who just never fit in. Even as a child, I didn’t fit in because people thought of me as a tomboy but I really just identified as a boy. I was a boy in girls clothing — that was my identity as a kid. So by the time I made Foxfire I was accustomed to whatever labels people wanted to put on me. They didn’t describe who I was, but I felt like it was kind of a non-issue at the time.
It’s been really interesting to me how my relationship to my queerness and my place in the queer community have evolved.
Drew: Do you want to talk about that evolution?
Annette: Yeah so a couple things happened. I’m going to start at the end of the story and go back.
The end of the story is a year ago the director’s guild started the LGBTQ+ committee and to be on this committee, you had to identify as LGBTQ+. I thought okay well I’m going to do that, but when I went in I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. Suddenly, I felt all of this physiological trauma that I realized I’d been carrying with me since I was young and in a relationship with a woman and had lost my family and all of that. It’s like PTSD, where you don’t know that you have something lurking until it’s triggered. I found that to be really, really interesting. Even talking about it now I still shake a little bit. There’s a lot of trauma from those early years. I’m talking ages 17 to 28. It wasn’t just a short period.
But backing up, I moved to LA, I had kids, I made Foxfire. And I did, of course, talk to the actors about my history and I probably talked to the producers about my history when I met for the job. But I remember thinking, oh my God the attitudes are just so out of date. Nobody thinks this way anymore! Hollywood was ten years behind the world as I knew it to be. For instance, there was a kiss in Foxfire that they made me take out. And I was like, really? Are you sure? Then, of course, a few years later they regretted it because lesbian kisses started appearing on national television. But, at the time, it was all from the position of marketing.
Anyway, then things started shifting in my personal life. First, I moved back to the South. I had to leave the industry briefly, because I wasn’t getting enough work to support my family, so I’d gone to teach in Savannah, Georgia. Then, my son at the age of 13 came out to me as gay. My first reaction to that was one of joy because I already knew and I was just really happy that my 13-year-old son felt comfortable enough and safe enough to come to me and tell me this. But then my second reaction was fear. It was just fear. I thought, “He’s going to get killed. He’s going to get murdered.wp_postsThere had been some high profile murders in the news of gay men around that time and I just completely glommed onto that. And he didn’t want me to tell anyone, because he was in a private school that was very conservative and people just weren’t out in that environment.
After several months, I wound up calling my friend, Bruce Cohen. He’s a producer who did Silver Linings Playbook and Milk — he’s a great great producer. I called him and said, “Bruce, I don’t think I know enough to be a good mother to a gay boy. Would you help me out with this?wp_postsAnd what Bruce said really calmed me down. He said, “First of all, the fact that your 13-year-old son felt safe enough to come and tell you means you’re already doing everything right.wp_postsSo that was the beginning of just sort of stepping back into that world and back into my queerness. I told my son my own history and it was the first time I shared that with my children. I needed him to know that I understood a lot of what he was experiencing. It’s different for a gay boy and a queer girl, but I understood the social implications and the implications within the family. Like my son never told his grandfather and it impacted their relationship all the way until his grandfather’s death last year.
The next thing that was really impactful happened when I was on a committee for an international boarding school. They were trying to decide policy for their transgender students and it was a really interesting environment. There were 57 countries represented at the school so you’re dealing with a range of different cultural biases. They brought a lot of experts in and it was like a think tank. What do we do as a school to make sure everyone feels like they belong?
This was such an enlightening experience and it inspired me to start writing my script, A Precious Human Life. I felt this real need to make a movie where trans people were just treated as normal. It’s a story about a trans woman and her estranged father finding their way to forgiveness. And I wanted it to have an uplifting conclusion because this was six or seven years ago that I started working on it, and so many movies that had transgender leads ended in murder or suicide. I wanted to write a parent/child story that led with compassion and empathy and ultimately ended with reconciliation.
As a filmmaker, you think, what’s important to you? What do you want to put out in the world? I’ve always been attracted to and related to characters who are vulnerable, because I think any time something really matters to you, it makes you vulnerable. The question is, are you going to step up to that thing? The transgender youth I met were so vulnerable. And I just felt like I wanted to do whatever I could — in my life, in my art — to help them step up.
Around this time my son’s partner who we’d been introduced to as a gay man came to live with us because they weren’t safe in their home environment. I was talking about this script and my son’s partner began indicating that they were interested in transitioning. For my son’s partner to find that space within the confines of our home was very reaffirming for me. My conversations, my dialogue, were landing in the right places for them, which to me meant that I was on the right path.
Drew: It’s interesting because even though you had to cut the kiss from Foxfire, it’s so obviously a queer movie. It’s so intrinsically queer.
Annette: Oh, yes, yes.
Drew: I just think it’s so funny some straight producer being like if we cut a kiss then we’ve done it, then we can deny any sort of queerness to this very gay movie.
Drew: I also think it’s interesting what you’re talking about as far as labels changing and culture changing. I think about Angelina Jolie coming out as bisexual in the 90s and it very much being dismissed, especially once she had high profile relationships with men. People still forget about it. Her, Drew Barrymore, there are all these people who came out as bisexual and the industry decided to ignore that while still being obsessed with their private lives.
Annette: But if someone gets into a public queer relationship, then that’s who they are forever in a very limited way.
Drew: For sure.
Annette: What you’re really touching on here is the difficulty of labels. I think most of us want a label. We want to say this is what I am, because we live in a world of words defining things. But at the same time finding the right label can be so challenging. It’s only recently that I’ve stopped searching my mind for an answer every time I’m asked how I identify. It wasn’t really until the word queer became a more popular label. Pansexual felt fine except I reached an age where who I was sleeping with was really not what it was about and maybe never was what it was really about. That’s why for me queer is a bigger, more inclusive gestalt.
Drew: And it encompasses gender as well as sexuality. Regardless of whether someone identifies as cis or trans, a lot of people have queer relationships to their gender. There’s an expansiveness there as well.
Drew: So what was the initial reaction to Foxfire when it came out?
Annette: Well, at the time, the movie Twister was a big hit and they didn’t want to give up the screens for Foxfire. And because MGM was going through bankruptcy, they didn’t have any fighting powers. Foxfire wasn’t packaged with a big movie because MGM didn’t have a big movie. So it was shuttled into arthouse theatres which was not the goal. When I made the film I was very clear who my audience was — high school girls who go to the mall. High school girls who go to the mall do not frequent arthouse theatres. And then they dropped the advertising for it. I had friends from New York who were calling me like, “I thought your movie was opening this weekwp_postsand I had to tell them the theatres where it was playing.
Interestingly, the only advertising I got — and I wasn’t clever enough to use it — was from Howard Stern. He loved Foxfire. But I kind of loathed Howard Stern because he was so misogynistic. I had a friend who called me and said, “You need to call in! He won’t stop talking about the movie! He keeps saying, ‘Foxfire. The sexiest movie that’s ever been made.’wp_postsAnd I was like I’m not calling in to The Howard Stern Show! Are you kidding? Now I look back on it and if I had been smarter I would’ve called in. Because one week later the theatres dropped it.
There had been reviews, because that’s how the machine worked. But the reviews were all over the map. There were reviews that were very, very complimentary of the movie and of me as a director. But then there were reviews that absolutely panned it. The review in Variety was so bad that a producer at Amblin called my agent and asked if I was this critic’s ex-girlfriend.
Annette: He said, “I’ve never seen him do this to a director ever.wp_postsSo the question is if it’s not personal about me then what is it about? And, of course, now we know. It was the queer undercurrent. It was the fact that this was a film about queer girls. It pissed off this straight guy.
Drew: What were your hopes for your career when you were making the movie?
Annette: Well, my expectation was that I would get offers and that I would just be working all the time. Because, again, I didn’t think about things from the standpoint of being a female director. When my mother became a lawyer, she very quickly moved up in the ranks of attorneys. She wasn’t held back. My expectation was that once I broke through I’d have the same experience as my director friends who were male. I didn’t have any director friends who were female and that’s another way the industry has changed. Women are really sticking together now. Back then they were not sticking together. Women saw other women as competition. Plus there was no forum really to meet each other even if we wanted to. So my only reference points were men. I’d have friends who’d graduate from AFI, have a nice student film, and then get a three picture deal at one of the studios. I was so far ahead of them and couldn’t get close to that!
David Gersh at the Gersh Agency said to me, “I’ve seen a lot of first films. This is lightyears ahead of a first film. This is really, really good.wp_postsAnd two or three years later, he said, “I thought it was going to be easy, because you just made this excellent first film. It never occurred to me that people wouldn’t be interested in you because you’re a woman.wp_postsSo I just found myself crashing and burning to be quite honest and with no understanding of why this was happening. It was a couple years before it happened to pretty much all of the women and we could then start to compare notes and realize, oh women don’t get a second movie.
Drew: So, Leonardo DiCaprio was the lead of The Foot Shooting Party before he became a star. And something I think about a lot are all the very famous male actors who worked with women early in their careers and then never worked with women again.
Ryan Gosling’s second feature was directed by Kari Skogland and then this year’s Barbie will be the first time he’s worked with a director who isn’t a cis straight white man since then. Adam Driver hasn’t worked with a woman director since Girls made him a star. Nicolas Cage’s first lead role was Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl and he hasn’t worked with a woman since then. And DiCaprio did your short in ‘94 and a feature with Agnieszka Holland in ‘95 and hasn’t worked with a woman since. Do you have thoughts about that?
Annette: Well, it’s interesting, because I don’t necessarily think it’s a reflection on these actors. It’s a reflection on the industry and what’s available. They’re looking for a role that excites them and pushes their career forward. And the industry isn’t offering them as many projects with women at the helm.
I also think about that recent interview with Jennifer Lawrence where she was saying that she wasn’t being brought certain scripts. Her agents just weren’t bringing her indie films. And that’s still where most women filmmakers are relegated. So where I think an actor can use their celebrity and power is to insist that other material be brought to them. Of course, agents would rather their clients do a one hundred million dollar movie than a three million or ten million dollar movie because their ten percent won’t be as much with indies.
But something worth remembering is anyone who comes forward with these kinds of projects is trying to squeeze their idea into say, a three million dollar budget, so they can get it made. Because very few people will make a movie with a woman director that’s thirty-five million. So the conversation needs to be about the budget, the vision, the idea. What’s the right budget for this idea? The right budget for A Precious Human Life is thirty-five million dollars. But I’ll never get that so I have it budgeted at six, nine, and fifteen. And I’m thinking, okay if I get fifteen I’ll be really, really lucky, but even that is less than half of what I actually need. And that’s giving the actors a nice salary but not ten million each, of course. So the actors need to be willing to work within the parameters of those other budgets in terms of their salary. If you’re getting twenty million dollars a movie, you can afford to get $250,000 every couple years. Especially because indie shooting schedules are so short. They’re not going to take you out of the game.
Celebrities could drive this conversation a little bit better. They could ask their managers, if not their agents, to find them the diamond in the rough, that beautiful screenplay that’s being circulated to equity financiers and not to them. But I don’t look at someone like Leonardo DiCaprio and think oh you haven’t been good to women directors. He’s doing the movies that make sense for him as an actor.
Drew: I think that’s a really good point. There are things individuals can do, but ultimately it’s about the industry needing a more comprehensive shift.
Annette: Yeah, it’s structural.
Drew: So what actually did happen after Foxfire?
Annette: Well, fortunately, I was a writer. And I was able to support my family and keep myself in the game by working as a script doctor. I got hired to do a lot of script rewrites. And occasionally I’d get a directing job — like a Lifetime movie or an episode of a show that nobody has ever heard about. But reality TV was a tsunami that wiped movies of the week off the map for a while and that’s where a lot of my work had been. I lost the ability to support myself and had to leave the industry.
I do like to talk about teaching in a positive way. I teach directing and I absolutely love it. Teaching something makes you better at it. And I have so much joy over the students finding their voices as directors. I also kept writing, and kept writing, and eventually something did work out. But the other thing that’s different for women directors is the kinds of jobs and projects we can get.
If I was offered a bunch of movies, I wouldn’t have chosen Savannah. It’s a very conservative, southern men’s story. I wouldn’t have done that. But I hadn’t been offered anything in eight years at that point, so I certainly wasn’t going to turn it down. I was asked to write the screenplay and I managed to write a screenplay that I actually loved. But one of the things I think is super important for the industry and for readers to understand is if you go to IMDb and you see what a woman has directed, it doesn’t necessarily define that person. Foxfire defined me. Foxfire was the kind of movie I wanted to make. That was my heart and soul, you know? I was this edgy person who had a contemporary style.
As a woman, if you don’t make a film that’s perfect, you won’t get another one. And Savannah had a lot of problems that came from a producing situation where I was forced to change the screenplay. This was after having cast some of the greatest actors out there — like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sam Shepard — who came on board because of the script. But then the script was changed and the film wasn’t good enough. By my standards the film wasn’t good enough. And the industry was like, well you got your second shot — ten years after the first shot mind you — and you didn’t do good enough, so nope you don’t get to do it again.
All I could do was just continue writing. I’ve wanted to direct big movies. That’s always been my goal and what I have always wanted to do. I want all those toys, all those tools. But I have to say I’m not sure I’d be where I am now with this script, A Precious Human Life, if I hadn’t been on this journey.
Drew: Thank you so much for saying all of that. You’re touching upon something I wish we talked about more in the industry.
Someone I think about a lot is Kasi Lemmons. As far as I’m concerned, Eve’s Bayou is one of the greatest movies of all time. It took four years for her second film, The Caveman’s Valentine, to come out. That’s another really unique film that feels squarely in her voice. But then it’s six whole years before she’s back with Talk to Me, which is a fine movie, kind of just a biopic. And then six years after that Black Nativity which feels more in her voice again. That was 2013. The last few years she’s directed Harriet, Self-Made, and the Whitney Houston biopic and I’m so excited she’s getting work! If anyone deserves to get work, it’s her. But these projects feel far more in line with Talk to Me than Eve’s Bayou or even Black Nativity. And I just wonder what kind of work she’d be making if she had the creative freedom granted to the white men who made movies in the 90s, work far less interesting and accomplished than Eve’s Bayou.
It’s great that women are getting directing opportunities, especially women who should’ve been getting them for the last twenty, thirty years. But my question is, what opportunities? From an employment standpoint things are getting better and that’s great. But what about the artistic voices? How often are these artists actually being trusted?
It makes me so angry. Look, I’ve seen Foxfire multiple times and I just rewatched it before this interview. I love it so dearly. To think about the first features that came out in the 90s directed by white men that were so… fine. Bottle Rocket, Hard Eight, Slacker. They show promise for sure, but these directors made names for themselves because they immediately got to make another movie of their choosing right after and then another movie of their choosing right after that. Foxfire is so much better than these other first movies! I want to see what you would’ve made two years after that and what you would’ve made two years after that. And, as you said, what happened to you happened to so many women. All Over Me is another queer teen drama I love and Alex Sichel didn’t get to make another movie until she was on her deathbed two decades later. I mean, Daughters of the Dust!! How does Julie Dash get fewer opportunities than every white man who happened to pick up a camera?
There were so many incredible films from this era that should’ve led to incredible careers. It’s so frustrating to think of all the art that was kept from us.
Drew: Okay so I have a few questions. How did Daughter of the Bride come about? Where are you at with A Precious Human Life? And are you feeling optimistic with where the industry is now? Do you think you’ll be able to not only get work but get the opportunity to make more films that feel really true to your voice?
Annette: These questions really speak to what’s going on right now in the industry. I got Daughter of the Bride because the Directors Guild Women Steering Committee decided that they needed to help mid-career women. There are programs and opportunities out there for first time directors, women early in their career. But there are a bunch of women who have managed to hold on if they’re my age or if they’re younger than me are working but not enough to support themselves and not enough to make choices. I really appreciate that you talked about the filmmaker as an artist. Who are you as a filmmaker and do you get to do projects that reflect your sensibilities and your aesthetics? Ultimately, it is an art.
So the Women Steering Committee formed a subcommittee called The Squad and what they did was take ten women directors at a time and pair them with a mentor, another working director, who then says, “What do you need? What would get your career to the next level?”
I was in the inaugural group and I said, “I need a movie. I just need to direct a movie.wp_postsEveryone in the group was directing television, because in the meantime the television renaissance had happened so there’s great quality work out there. But I said I needed to direct a movie because that’s my superpower, that’s my talent. Not that I wouldn’t be happy and have fun making episodes. But when you make a movie, as the director you are the king of the castle. You cast, you crew, you oversee the rewrites, all of the things that make the work yours happens in movies and not as much in television if you’re just hired on for an episode. So my mentor got me into a room at MarVista as a writer/director to discuss projects that I have. And at the end of the meeting, I said, “I really just need a movie. Do you have anything that’s getting ready to shoot that you haven’t hired a director for?wp_postsAnd she was like, “Well, we have this one thing. I don’t know if you’d want to do it because it’s a romcom.wp_postsAnd I said, “I love it. Give me a romcom.”
So Daughter of the Bride happened and it was so much fun! The people that I was working with, the producers were fantastic. You know, I’d say they brought me on to make a movie and then dropped me on a television assembly line. The way they made this movie was like a movie for television. But with the exception that they were very, very respectful of me and my choices. And so it was just a really positive experience.
Look, almost nobody is talking to me about directing projects. No one is calling me about an open directing assignment. And I don’t have a manager or an agent anymore. I let my agent go a few years ago and I was not smart enough to get another one before I left. I’m very honest and didn’t want to go find someone behind their backs and I wound up kind of screwing myself. So right now I’m just kind of pounding the pavement trying to get into meetings.
But what is happening for me is a producer/actress brought me a romcom and really wants me to direct her. I have a reputation for performance and for casting. Both for working with seasoned actors and for working with young actors before they’ve had their break. So she came to me and said, “Can I attach you? Will you direct this?wp_postsAnd she’s really sharp and is getting this project to companies. So I’m hopeful that will work out.
And also I wrote a limited series that a UK producer is taking out and we have some pretty high end interest. It’s a very expensive show and I’m attached to direct all of the episodes. I was very smart about it when the producer came on board and when I agreed to write it. I said I’d only do it if I retained ownership of the screenplay and was attached to direct. And, I mean, this is a two hundred million dollar series. I would never get to direct it, if it was an option for them to hire someone else. So that’s what’s going on in the commercial zone.
The way I’m spending my time is focusing on A Precious Human Life. I finished the script during the pandemic and I got involved with a producer who was taking it to companies. The script is not traditional. To me, this is my Bergman film. (laughs)
Annette: This is my art film. I became a filmmaker at the age of 17 after seeing Persona. And it’s like I’ve been planning to make this movie for decades now. Finally, I have a script that I’ve written that is that piece. The very first thing I say to people when they come onboard is that the screenplay is locked. If there’s something about it that they don’t think is good then I want them to tell me and if I think they’re right then that’s great. But if I don’t agree with them, I’m not changing it. I went about two or three months with a producer who agreed to that but then backed off that promise when she started talking to people about financing.
So where I am now is I have Hari Nef attached in the lead, and I made the decision that this would have to be done with equity financing, even though I kind of hate making movies with equity financing because then you have to get it distributed and that can take forever. But I finally decided that I had to have creative control. That had to be my priority. And, ultimately, this film is going to live or die on the lead actress. And, I mean, I say Hari is attached but, of course, until you actually have shooting dates and deals in place it’s a soft attachment. But that relationship is critical to this movie working. As is my relationship to a composer, to a visual effects team, and to a sound designer, because I have this thing I call the psychological landscape of this character. The best way to describe it is The Tree of Life. It’s not that, but it’s unconventional in that way. And so I’m just trying to protect my vision for this work of art and protect the relationships. I can’t have someone coming in and telling me who my cast is. I cannot have that.
So that’s where my hopes and dreams lie right now. I’m not sure about my expectations. But my hopes and dreams are that I will get the money that’s necessary to do it well. Because that’s another thing — the way I’ve envisioned this piece, it can’t be done in the world of three million dollars. It can’t be done in the world of no money. If I get to make this movie, I’m going to make something that’s a really high quality piece. I want to work with my composer before pre-production! Because the score is so integral to the emotional landscape. It’s a collaboration, it’s a process. I had several meetings with Hari and getting to know her mind — she’s brilliant, she’s just brilliant — it gave me an idea. There’s this thing in the movie she really connected with that’s the character sitting in a black box talking to the camera. And in the meetings with Hari, I realized we just need to have this black box on the set all the time. And pre-lit wherever we are so that when it either strikes Hari or me, she can go into the black box and start talking. So that’s the kind of film that I want to make and that is so not a Hollywood experience.
But I do think the world is ready for it. I think it can be made at a higher budget and earn its money back because people want a movie like this. I think there might even be a hunger for it. And I feel a responsibility to make this movie with the onslaught of political attacks right now on transgender youth. I don’t usually approach art this way, but I do think there has to be positive messaging out there. There just has to be. And I don’t mind giving away the fact that this movie has a beautiful, positive ending. Because for too long the expectation when we see trans people on-screen, is that it’s going to end in trauma.
Drew: I mean, I think about Foxfire. And, yes, homophobia and sexism led to the response, but I also think specifically it’s because those characters fight back.
It doesn’t have a happy ending per se, but it’s not a traumatic ending. They aren’t punished for their autonomy or for their sexuality or even for their righteous violence. And I think this is all cyclical so maybe where representations of cis queer people were in the 90s, representations of trans people are now. And, yes, there’s historically been too much trauma, but there’s also just been a lack of artfulness. Everything you’re saying is so exciting to me. Sure, about it not ending in trauma. But even more so that it’s capital A Art. I want movies about trans people that are allowed to be more than a teaching tool. Because ultimately I think the better the art, the more it actually does act as a teaching tool, because people are connecting to it emotionally rather than feeling like they’re being lectured.
I really hope you get to make this movie.
Annette: Thank you. I do too. I’m actually submitting it tomorrow to a finance company in New York who I pitched it to so fingers crossed that they want to do it.
Drew: My fingers are crossed!