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Programs Tue 8.11.2015

Amber Sealey on Building a Crew and Bridging the Gender Gap

Film Independent Fellow and Los Angeles Film Festival alum Amber Sealey has been garnering a lot of attention lately for her highly successful Indiegogo campaign raising funds for her third feature, No Light and No Land Anywhere. The film is about a 40-year-old woman who leaves behind her life in London to search for her father in Los Angeles.

What hasn’t been getting as much attention is Sealey’s decision to do her part to bridge the gender gap in the film industry by shooting the film with a crew made up almost entirely of women. We sat down with Sealey to talk about that decision, how it affected her set, and how she approaches crewing up on an indie budget.

When it comes to crewing up on little-to-no budget, how do you make sure you find the right people?
They’re all different, but for me, it starts with the idea and the visuals you have in your head. The visuals then dictate how you’re going to create the images. Is it going to be handheld? Are we going to be doing a lot of tripod? The way I like to work is almost documentary style. And I usually start with the DP because they are my biggest companion in terms of telling the story during production. And so I look at who has some doc experience, who has actual indie filmmaking experience—because if you think that a Julia Roberts indie movie is what indie is, that’s really different from true, true indie. With this movie, I knew I wanted to tell the story with Gemma [Brockis], the actress, and so I wrote the script for her. And then I knew it was going to be a very messy, guerilla-style sort of thing and so I needed a small-ish camera and I needed somebody who had doc experience and I needed somebody who didn’t want to have a completely planned shot list. I mean, we have a rough idea of what we’re going to get, but we certainly don’t have [every shot planned to perfection]. I wanted somebody who was willing to be a dance partner with me because production is almost like theater to me. I’m a character, the actors are characters, the camera person is a character, the sound person is a character and we’re all dancing around each other as we’re shooting.

What was behind your decision to crew the film with as many women as you could?
I’d been reading a lot, as we all have in these last two years, about the percentages in terms of gender diversity in the industry. And I always think, “Gosh, you know, it’s so terrible this situation, why doesn’t anybody do anything about it?” And I always perceived myself to be somebody who didn’t have any power and couldn’t really change anything because I’m just this little independent filmmaker. And then I suddenly thought, “Well actually my little vote counts. My little production counts. If I can staff my production with as many women as possible and as many people of color as possible, then that’s making one teeny, teeny, teeny little bit of difference.” It’s like recycling. We can all say, “Oh well, no one’s recycling so I’m not going to bother,” but we all have to just do it ourselves and then we all will be doing it. So that was the approach that I took.

I had worked with this DP, Catherine Goldschmidt, at the Film Independent Directing Lab. She was the second camera for me on that. And she and I just had a really good rapport. What was great about her was that we could clash and butt heads, and then let it go and everything was completely fine once we did. It was like zero grudge-holding, and also [I had] a sparring partner. I appreciated that about her. But she had moved to London after doing the Directing Lab. So I was like, “Well, I’ll just call her.” And in the back of my head, I was thinking maybe she’ll say she wants to do it. But she lives in London and this is for barely any money so she’ll probably say no. But I thought I’d ask her if she knew anybody who was just like her. And so I emailed her asking her that question. And she happily wrote back, “Actually, I’d be interested.” So I was excited. And then a lot of the other stuff really is about who you know. In my address book, I have groups of sound people and camera people and you just start reaching out. And with a lot of people, it’s about timing. It’s like putting together a puzzle and the different factors are like: Do you think they can do the job you want them to do? Do friends who have worked with them respect them and think that they do a good job? Are they available? Are they interested in taking this job? And when all those pieces fit neatly together, then you hopefully have a good fit.

You mentioned Gemma Brockis being the first collaborator who was on board. Why did the process start with her?
Gemma is a really old friend. I met her when I was in my early 20s in London. We both were living in London and were struggling to be performers. She had started what’s called an experimental, devised theater company with some friends of hers and they asked me to join. I worked with them for seven years as a performer. In that company, you act and direct and write. And so we all were doing different things. And Gemma and I just really connected on a performance level. We did a couple of—I guess you would call them performance art pieces—just a couple of sort of weird theater pieces. And then when I moved back to the States, she and I stayed really close and we just always said we wanted to do something together. And Gemma had always wanted to be in a film. She never had been and she thought what I was doing over here, making movies, was really exciting. And I guess I got the idea—Gemma’s dad died when she was quite young and we had talked a lot about her process of moving through life and becoming a woman without a father figure there. So I started having this idea: “Okay, Gemma’s coming over here. She’s coming to find this missing father…” And that’s where the story came from.

For this film, you didn’t script all of the dialogue, instead working from a detailed outline. Does that affect the way you choose your crew?
I love working that way. I’m a big believer in improv and, like I mentioned earlier, that feeling that it’s like theater. Production to me is very theatrical. We’re all playing a role, and we’re all doing this dance together. And it feels alive to me when you leave stuff open. I hire people that I think are smart and interesting and because I think that they might have better ideas than I might have. And so I want their ideas. I come to the table with my own ideas of how I think things should be, but I’m very open to them having a better idea than me. For instance, I have an idea of who this character should be, and then Gemma comes to the table and she has an idea of who it should be. And I could spend all my time forcing her to be who I think the character should be, or I could let her be who she is and shift things based on what she’s giving me. And I’m a believer in that. I guess it comes from improv. It’s a “yes and” kind of thing. I really like it when someone offers something and I’m able to go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, and what if we also try…” When you give actors the freedom to fully be in a moment and be making their own choices on what their character would do, you get so much from them.

How do you think having a crew that was primarily women affected the dynamic on set? How did you see the difference from past shoots or from other shoots you’ve been on?
It’s funny. I’ve asked people that same question before. My answer is it’s not any different. You have men, you have women—it doesn’t feel any different. The difference is when you look at the numbers and how many talented female crew people are not working each day in this industry vs. how many men are. But the act of working with someone, it doesn’t feel different at all whether they are a man or a woman. Everybody was just working, just doing their jobs. People did comment on it. The women particularly would say, “Wow there are so many women. This is so cool.” I’m a feminist. I believe in feminism. It’s a big part of my life philosophy. So I’ve always chosen to surround myself with women—strong, smart women. So it didn’t feel unusual to be in this pool of women. Everyone’s just doing a job. It doesn’t matter if you’re a female dentist or a male dentist, you’re still fixing teeth. What matters is that we are all trying to make the statistics a little more equal for everyone.

Since you were telling the story of a woman, did it help to have so many women around?
Definitely with the sex scenes. I think I chose [to hire as many women as possible] in the beginning, but then it wasn’t really a big part of the discussion as we were shooting it. It wasn’t like when the DP and I were talking about what angle we should shoot from, I was like, “Well, because I’m a woman…” But the sex scenes were another story because usually in a sex scene, the woman is getting completely naked and the guy’s got, like, a sock on his penis. I’ve been a woman in those scenes, so I know what it feels like, taking all of your clothes off, surrounded by a larger crew that is 95 percent men. And it’s intense. You’re on display anyway as an actor. Everybody’s watching you and pointing the lights and the camera at you. And so it was important to me that for the sex scenes that they felt like the playing field was level, that we were all equals, that we all were comfortable. So having more women around for those scenes helped, particularly for Gemma and her stuff. The sex scenes are very intense emotionally, and I wanted her to just feel really strong and really confident. Had she been in a room full of men, it would have been a different feeling.

Do you think there’s something that you used to think was important on previous films that now is no longer much of a concern?
No. I think people think that having a lot of equipment and a lot of people helping is really important. And I didn’t think that was true early in my career, and I still don’t think that’s true. I think what’s really important is—not to sound too California-y—but the vibe and the energy that you create on set and everybody’s commitment to being there and the quality of the workmanship. That’s what’s most important. And ultimately, I think everyone is there to serve the performance of the actor. So that’s more important than anything else to me. If you watch a movie and there’s crappy lighting, but it’s a fucking stunning performance, you’re going to be hooked because of that performance. So to me, I feel like, yeah, all of that other stuff is great icing. For this style of work, it’s really just about people and real life and human emotions. I always thought that it could be done small and rough and dirty, and I still think that.

Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger

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