Women Share Film Experience During Festvial

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Women Share Film Experience During Festvial
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(Photos: Fritz Olenberger)

By Jaquelynn Tesch and Cat LaVarre

Sunday morning, Lobero Theatre opened its doors to long lines of Santa Barbara International Film Festival attendees, coming to watch an engaging women’s panel filled with ten influential leaders in their fields. Madelyn Hammond, president and founder of Madelyn Hammond & Associates., moderated the talk, skillfully blending seriousness and levity with discussions of gender inequality, the art of filmmaking, and personal anecdotes. 

Each of the nine impressive leaders’ clips came on screen as follows:

Domee Shi: Bao- Director/Story Artist/Writer, Pixar animated short follows a mother’s journey while her literal dumpling baby grows up.

Nina Hartstone: Bohemian Rhapsody- Supervising Dialogue/ADR Editor (Sound), Anthem-filled story of the band Queen.

Hannah Beachler: Black Panther- Production Designer, The heir of the African fictitious country Wakanda must lead his country and the world into the future.

Ai-Ling Lee: First Man- Supervising Sound Editor/Re-recording Mixer/Sound Designer, The life and space mission of Neil Armstrong. Lee’s other well-known works include La La Land, the Maze Runner films, Deadpool, and Tangled.

Louise Bagnall: Late Afternoon- Director/Writer/Animator, Animated Short visually representing an Irish woman’s struggle with dementia.

Betsy West: RBG- Producer/Director, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career.

Lynette Howell: A Star is Born-Producer, The antithesis between an aging, alcoholic musician in a diminishing career, and the young singer he helps rise to fame.

Rayka Zehtabchi: Period. End of Sentence.- Director/Producer, Documentary recording women fighting back in an Indian village against the public shaming of menstruation.

Marina de Tavira: Roma- Mexican actress. Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this role,  Follows the life of a maid in 1970s Mexico City. Made in honor of the director and writer Alfonso’s Cuarón’s memories of the two women who raised him.

Madelyn Hammon asked each of these women questions tailored specifically to their career and background. Each expert told their story as follows.

Ai-Ling Lee (Sound Designer)- From Singapore to First Man:

Lee’s father in Singapore owned only a few movies and Lee as a child watched them over and over again. She became fascinated with how the film’s sound immersed the viewer in the world of the film.

Deciding sound design was what she wanted to do, she sent many unsolicited letters to studios in L.A., asking for the opportunity to come, observe, and learn the business. She received positive responses, and with her mother in support of her, and an initially adverse but currently more supportive father, she left for L.A. She tenaciously pursued her occupation, and ultimately achieved the career she holds today.

Whenever she prepares for a film, Lee reads the script, decides on what she calls the “sound palette,” and coordinates with a team of sound editors. She describes her job in sound editing as creating and building the world of the movie, while sound mixing consists more of the later touches: where to put the focus, where to highlight, and so on. All in all she made her occupation seem natural and simple, although no doubt it’s anything but.

Regarding her involvement in First Man, she, slightly ironically, described the silence of the moon landing scene. She explained the idea from higher up was to allow for a sort of “sensory overload” initially, to be replaced in this scene with silence during the actual landing. The silence by contrast becomes almost oppressive and contains a force of its own. Another fun tidbit was, after researching how the space team couldn’t open the doors initially due to air pressure, the main sound in that scene comes with the dramatic woosh of high-flowing air to reflect that. Clearly, a sound designer has to think about all the effects of her work: both the sounds, and the silences.

Hannah Beachler (Production Designer)- From an Ever-Changing House to Black Panther:

Beachler grew up with an architect mother and a designer mother, and her child-hood home was in a constant state of creative development. Growing up she tried her hand at a few different lines of work, studying English literature and fashion, making a music video, etc. Eventually she settled on production design, and essentially thanks to her, the world of Wakanda came to be. She traveled through Africa, to different villages, trying to discover what the stories were, to hear them from different perspectives, and generally gain some sort of background for the purpose of designing Wakanda. A main question for her personally in this was defining her ancestry/heritage; where did she fit into all this? Many black people in today’s United States cannot know their own history before slaves were being brought to the U.S. What’s wonderful about Wakanda is that its an entire complex civilization, with nods to other cultures and other Wakandan interpretations, but also with an entire, complete, recorded history. Beachler had to think through it all: how Wankanda dealt with transportation, crime, economy, etc. Something particularly fun she mentioned was her explanation for the two rounded buildings flanking the Wakandan palace. She told us they were records halls. As she said, no Wakandan would ever have to live with being unable to know their own history.

Rayka Zehtabchi (Director/Producer)- University, Then High School, Then India?

Just after coming out of USC film school Zehtabchi got a call about the documentary highlighted in the panel, and though she’d never directed a documentary before, she jumped at the chance. What followed was a meeting at a high school where she met… her fifteen-year-old producers. Yes, you read correctly, Period. End of Sentence. was essentially a class project. These highschool girls together formed a club and were looking into the hardships that face many women in India who are not provided with the proper menstrual hygiene products we take for granted in the U.S. Many of these women drop out of school due to this problem, and generally suffer under a public stigma for the natural, biological process of menstruation. The highschool girls wanted to 1. Send a machine that could produce pads to help a few of these struggling women India 2. Make a film documenting the hardships they faced. Together with members of the film industry, including Rayka Zehtabchi, they made it happen.

Louise Bagnall (Director/Writer/Animator) Late Afternoon- What is it?

Bagnall, as an Irish writer, told the story of an Irish woman who struggles with dementia and continually relives her past. The genre is animated short, and the simplicity of the art and the emotions is striking. She claimed herself a personal preference for simplicity, looking to draw in the audience and have them meet the character halfway. Additionally, the simple depictions of the memories are meant to hint that the full picture is not represented, containing the sense and feeling of a memory, not the current experience of everyday life. The muted colors illustrate the protagonists current life as an older woman, while the memories are brought to life with bright, punchy colors. One fun comment was that she actually did the voice of the protagonist as an adult, but still young, woman. She was just glad she didn’t have to change her Irish accent!

Betsy West (Producer/Director)RBG and The 4% Challenge

West expressed that RBG is all about Justice Ginsburg and her life as a woman’s rights litigator, which was a radical idea to be involved in the 1970’s like she was. However, getting Justice Ginsburg to agree to be a part of the film was not easy. She responded that she would not be ready for an interview for at least two years, despite being 82 years old at the time. She then mentioned that the documentary was completely filled by women in its major roles, something that she challenged other filmmakers to do in something called the 4% challenge. Women in power in the film industry is extremely rare, thus the 4% challenge was born. 4% was the chosen name for this challenge because 4% is the amount of women in the film industry who have the title of being a director.

Lynette Howell (Producer): Taking the 4% Challenge, Founding Your Own Company, and A Star is Born

Howell mentioned that she took West’s 4% challenge, but it was rather easy for her since she works with a lot of amazing women in the industry already in spite of the industry being male-dominated. She also mentioned that being a producer she has the power to make diversity happen, which is what the audiences want to see. Her company 51 Entertainment, named as a nod to women being the majority of the world’s population, is working in a way similar to the 4% challenge, by working towards more diverse, inclusive, and gender equal world for individuals working in the film industry. As for A Star is Born, Howell was asked specifically to be a part of the movie by Bradley Cooper who was very collaborative with everyone on set and that it was more than a pleasure to be working with him again. She even said now Lady Gaga is the most famous person that she has in her contacts in her phone.

Marina de Tavira (Actress): What is Roma about and how was it being a part of that experience?

De Tavira described Roma as a film depicting the year in the life of a woman who has just gone through a divorce and is left with the responsibility of raising her children on her own. She mentioned that her co-star, Yalitza Aparicio, was an absolute natural despite having no acting experience and was wonderful to work with. In fact, De Tavira was the only trained actress in the entire movie and they worked without a script. She had not been told what the movie was about or who was directing the film until the day before meeting Alfonso Cuarón himself. De Tavira was thankful for that ignorance as she felt it gave her the ability to act more like herself and not to try too hard, which might have come off as fake or less genuine. She was also thankful for the opportunity to be in such a film.

Nina Hartstone (supervising Dialogue/ADR (Sound) Editor): From Tea to Sound

Hartstone started off humbly as someone who made tea for those working in the studio. She was desperate to learn how to use their equipment and do the work that she was consistently watching others do in front of her, mostly men. She already had her degree from University; however, she did not share this bit of information with those she worked with, in fear of not being able to get the few opportunities she did to help work on a project here and there. Eventually she was trusted in her abilities and moved up to a position in which she consistently worked on sound. She eventually worked up to a supervising position and continues to impress audiences with her amazing abilities.

Domee Shi (Director/Writer): My Mother and Pixar

Shi’s animated short Bao was inspired by her childhood. Shi described her own mother as helicoptering over her own little “dumpling.” She talked also about growing up as an only child and as an immigrant kid. She remembered the differences between herself and her parents growing up, and the way they grew apart and then closer together as an adult. Food was also a love language for her growing up. She entered her idea for Bao as a pitch to Pixar. Luckily, Pete Docter, director of Inside Out, which Shi also worked on, liked it. Shi’s pitch won and although food is especially hard for animators to pull off realistically, the project came through and it was placed as the introductory short before Incredibles 2.

The women also answered a few random questions, responding to the moderator, Madelyn Hammond. This time she started with Rayka, asking her about her biggest accomplishment. Rayka gave a very personal response describing how, during her first year at USC Film School, her father died. She could have very easily taken time off of school due to the death of her father, but decided to return to school shortly after. From there she made a short film that opened a lot of doors for her. She concluded teary-eyed with, “I hope I made my dad proud.” There is no doubt that she did. This magnificent young lady, only the ripe age of 25, graduated 2 years ago from USC, and is the Youngest Oscar Nominee as stated during the panel.

Betsy was asked about where she was when she found out she was nominated, and humbly said she ate breakfast with her partner producer and each of their husbands then watched the nominations.

Marina said she would work with Ingmar Bergman if she could work with any director, given if he was still alive.

Domee touched on mistakes that beginners make namely that they think they have to know everything and that they do not realize that there are a lot of talented people to collaborate with to make a vision come to life. You never have to do anything alone.

Ai-Ling was asked about the biggest hurdle that she has had to face and she honestly stated it was working in a male dominated industry. Due to this, she tries to show as much interest and work as hard as she can in order for her to seem like she belongs.

Lynette was asked about the best advice she had ever received. She mentioned that the best advice she gets is to trust your instincts. She mentioned that her husband, a great cheerleader and co-parent, reminds her of this every day and she finds is very helpful as she tends to need this daily reminder.

Nina was asked about her motivation for everyday. She talked about how you want everyday to be right. You want things to look and sound right and its rewarding when they do look great. With her work, she wants the end result to be invisible and that it looks and sounds like it would have originally.

Hannah was asked about rejection, but confidently said “It didn’t work did it?” Then Madelyn asked her how Hannah handles it and in response Hannah said, to keep going and make it fuel to the fire. “Okay, well, I’ll see you in a year,” was the mentality she said to have and to be persistent with your work. “It didn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean I’m not supposed to be here.” She then refers to the white, male dominated field by saying that as a woman and a person of color every second counts and taking rejection personally sets you back, so you just have to find a silver lining to keep going.

Last, but not least, in the round robin, was Louise. She was asked whether she was good at pitching, but said that she  ended up taking a class on it and is actually rather introverted. But some advice was to always be passionate about the work that is yours because you know it best, so no one can tell you that your concept is wrong. Be passionate and remember why you want it!

Altogether, the women’s panel was an inspirational and insightful experience for both writers of this article. Writer Jaquelynn Tesch in particular dreams of pursuing a career in film, and appreciated this incredible, educational, and inspiring opportunity. We were honored to have been in the same room with each of these incredible women.

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