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Programs Tue 10.27.2015

Lynn Shelton on Discovering What It Means to be a Female Director

“The weirdest question I ever was asked was ‘What does it feel like to be a woman director?’” said writer-director Lynn Shelton, speaking at the 2015 Film Independent Forum. “I have nothing to compare it to. I have no idea what it feels like to be a male director so I don’t know. It feels like me, directing.”

Shelton was in conversation with actress Illeana Douglas, host of TCM’s Trailblazing Women series, who had asked her if she thinks of herself as a female director or just a director.

The two-time Film Independent Spirit Award winner (My Effortless Brilliance won the Someone To Watch Award in 2008 and Humpday won the John Cassavetes Award in 2009) said that working primarily in her hometown of Seattle may have something to do with why she found the question strange.

“It’s a very female-driven industry up there,” said Shelton. “So if you’re a male DP, for instance, and you have a problem with women in authority, you’re not going to work.”

Shelton said that the micro-budget “pick up a camera and go” mode in which she started making films also contributed to her not feeling like she had any obstacles. It wasn’t until she was speaking on a panel at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Alabama a few years back that she finally understood what that strange question meant.

‘There were a couple of women filmmakers [on the panel] and they had these horror stories. This one woman said she had to transform herself into a raging bitch, basically, to get any respect,” said Shelton. “And it was so mortifying to me and it made me really realize: Okay, I understand the question, ‘What does it feel like to be a woman filmmaker?’ She knew what that meant because she saw her male counterparts not having the same problems. I feel incredibly grateful that I never had that. I never felt being a woman was a hindrance.”

But more and more she’s noticed the disparity.

“My friend Barry Jenkins, who is an African-American filmmaker, and I both had films at this festival in Boston and we went to a shorts program. There were 10 or 12 shorts, and all of the filmmakers were there. And afterward they all came up and they were all between 22 and 27 and they were all white and they were all men. We looked at each other like, ‘Oh, that’s why people make a big deal out of the fact that we’re here too.’”

Shelton, whose breakout Sundance hit Humpday, is a buddy comedy about two straight men who challenge each other to make an amateur porn film together, likes to quote British writer-director Mike Leigh when it comes to questions of gender in film. When asked why he’s able to write so many fantastic roles for women, Leigh said, “I’m interested in people.”

Recently, Shelton was able to see first-hand what her female perspective brought to Humpday when the film was adapted into a French-language feature by a male director.

Shelton said the director warned her that he was making some changes to the story, and that they were a result of his being French. “When I saw it, I was like, ‘No, I think it’s because you’re a guy. Some of the changes you’re making are distinctly male,’” said Shelton.

So Shelton said issues of representation do weigh on her. “Acknowledging the diversity issue is important,” she said. “I’m becoming more aware that there are less female protagonists in the world and I’m feeling like I should focus more in that direction just because of the dearth. But I’m fascinated endlessly by humans.”

Watch the full conversation:

Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger

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