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Telling stories on film

by Douglas Eby

"Telling stories is a need and a love 
and a way to grow and deal with my life."

   
That is a comment by Adrienne Shelly from her article "Fishnets, a Tiger, and Fake Boob Things in a Push Up Bra... Or Why I Have Been Writing and Directing Stuff" (published a while ago on the Sundance Channel website) in which she writes about the limitations of acting (which she has done in a number of films), versus the creative pleasures of directing. 

"The truth about my decision to direct is that it does not come from a place of neurosis and insecurity," she wrote. "It is simply what I loved to do growing up: tell stories. This frankly gets me off and makes me happy. It stems from my Russian grandmother, and centuries of traditional storytelling."

There are all too few women who get to tell stories on film. Challenges for any filmmaker, male or female, are both personal and internal, as well as external. 

In a New York Times Forum ("Women's Wasteland?"), writer Francine Prose commented, "Every so often you do see an extraordinary film about women's lives... But I can tell you from personal experience that Hollywood is not precisely falling all over itself to make such films. It was very hard to get funding for the extraordinary film that Nancy Savoca made from my novel, 'Household saints.'" 

Of course, what is called 'Hollywood' is not a simple entity, not some central office that approves or "greenlights" proposed movies, based on business or financial considerations.

As a filmmaker, Shelly notes there are numerous challenges, but also rewards: "There are so many elements involved in filmmaking, and each time you pass one hurdle, a new harder and higher hurdle appears," she wrote. 

"There is a great deal of stress, there are a million personalities to deal with, to coddle and get the best work out of. There are a million scenarios in which at any moment, everything might just fall right down around your ears.

"I love it," she adds.

Linda Seger, a script consultant and author of five books on screenwriting and filmmaking noted in an interview that "we can all be very talented in certain areas" but that getting a film made may demand particular skills, and collaborative help. 

"I don't think we do anything alone," she said. "I was very talented in terms of scripts, but I had to learn about business and sales. There might be a few people out there who are comfortable with selling, but most of us are not. And there are so many aspects of my business where I had to constantly say 'This is a stretch' and 'This is difficult'. 

"You have to learn how to be in scary areas, make those comfortable, then go to the next scary area and make it comfortable."

Screenwriter Anne Meredith ("Losing Chase" and other films) has talked about having the emotional wherewithal for her career, as a heritage from her childhood: "I painted, played music, was a ski racer, played tennis on the junior circuit," she recalls. "There were so many things I loved doing, and was good at doing. 

"I felt like Superman, which is probably what has allowed me to be here with such a happy heart, because Hollywood can bruise sensitive people quickly. It's not that I'm not sensitive; I'm incredibly sensitive, but I feel like I'm able to leap tall buildings and come down on the other side and land on my feet somehow." 

Another aspect of filmmaking is the relative majority of men in studios. Linda Woolverton, screenwriter of "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" films, commented in our interview that she is "challenged by working with strong male egos. I never held back because I was a woman... Creatively, I'm very self-confident."

She also noted, "You don't just write the material, you have to defend it. You need to be able to say, Here's why I wrote the scene this way and here's what you're going to be missing if you do it this other way. I don't think in combative terms, but it really is fighting for your ideas, in terms of the best way to tell the story. Once I start working, there is no gender." 

Linda Seger has noted that getting a creative project like a film made can be a very fearful undertaking, and often takes real determination. 

"If we want to be in a little cocoon, well, that's where we're going to be," she said. "But the nature of moving out of your little cocoon into another area is that it is scary. It's not just a matter of saying you have to have courage, because you learn courage."

Hopefully, more and more women will learn how to find their own courage to help create meaningful and moving films.

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books:

Linda Seger When Women Call the Shots: The Developing Power and Influence of Women in Television and Film

Laura J. Shapiro The First Time I Got Paid For It : Writers' Tales From The Hollywood Trenches

interviews: 

Anne Meredith

Linda Seger

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related pages:   filmmaking ***play / screen writing

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