interview by Douglas Eby
Elisa Rothstein is the creator and executive producer of the
Network anthology series "Women: Stories of Passion." She has also
in a number of episodes, as a kind of "sex lies and videotape
as she describes her character.
The show - she proudly points out - is the only one to be written, produced and directed exclusively by women, with most of the music and tech credits also going to women. It has inspired a huge audience, both male and female, becoming Showtime's highest rated late night program.
As the creator and executive producer, it is very much her
and she points out how engaged she has been in the development: "It
mean showing up on set occasionally and barking orders; I'm involved in
every facet of the show.
My concept was a woman writing a book about women's fantasies and sexual stories. Once I'd figured that out, I had three weeks to generate thirteen scripts for the first season. I've never been one of those people who subscribe to the idea of 'development hell.' It's not rocket science; if you know what you want and you're clear about what you want, you can facilitate it in a pretty fast manner.
"With only three weeks to do it, I thought if I separately met with all the people I wanted to work with, the three weeks would be up and I would have nothing, no scripts. So in a move that was either complete insanity or total genius, I thought I'd invite everyone into one big meeting. I told them we were going to go around the table, and everybody was going to throw out their ideas; if there's a writer there who's not a director, and there's a director who sparks to their ideas, great, I can match them up."
She wasn't sure what was going to come out of the meeting, but in retrospect says "I wish we'd gotten it on film, because we had it at the Playboy offices in Beverly Hills, and they were casting something that day, like a Playmate video, and on one side of the waiting area there were about fifteen twenty-something women in skirts almost up to their crotches with 'f**k-me pumps' and ankle bracelets, and fake breasts, and on the other side were these radical feminist filmmakers in black leather. It was hilarious."
When Elisa told the executives at Showtime and Playboy what she was doing at this meeting, "their jaws hit the floor" she recalls. "They could not conceive of thirty men sitting in a room, sharing ideas. It just did not compute. But once we got into this meeting and everybody got over their initial shock, there was a real sense of teamwork, that we were all in this together, and part of something that had never been done before.
"That was very exciting. By the following morning, I had sixty ideas, which I culled down to what I thought were the strongest twenty, and from there we picked the final thirteen. Script assignments went out the following day, and they had two and a half weeks to get me a first draft. By the time we started shooting, I had all thirteen scripts. It was the first time in Showtime or Playboy history they had ever started shooting a series with all the scripts. So it worked out really well."
Playboy had been trying to find a project to do with Showtime, and one idea was "erotica from a woman's point of view." They knew Elisa had written a feature film based on "Delta of Venus" by Anais Nin, which she characterizes as "classic female erotica", so they approached her. "Honestly, at first I was not interested," she says, "thinking I'd have to hire Playboy bunnies, and do the sort of voyeuristic male version of this stuff, which is all over the place, and what's going to be new about it?
"But they said they really wanted to do it right. So I told them what I thought was the right way was to go after filmmakers, not TV directors, but people who have a strong, clear and unique vision, and every episode is going to look different and feel different. And I said I may go after people who only have one half-hour short under their belts, but I think they've got an interesting story to tell, and that what Playboy would get would not look like anything they'd done before. So kind of every possible roadblock I could think of to throw their way, they said 'Fabulous. Go do it.'"
There are a number of episodes that Elisa wrote, or rewrote, but for the most part each episode is the creation of a different writer-director, which was her choice as producer: "It became a greater incentive creatively and otherwise if they were writing the work they were also directing. And I think that also led to a real unity of vision you don't often see on television. I had the pleasure of writing and directing the final episode this past season we just finished.
"I had directed theater in my college years, but I'd never directed for television, and was not sure if I was going to like it. But I have to say that as a writer, which is primarily what I've been, to have the experience of realizing your work, as close as your budget will allow you to get it to what you saw in your head, was such a gift."
Asked how the series relates to the style or content of romance fiction, Elisa recalls when she was working for another film company, Alliance Communications: "We had a deal with Harlequin Books, and I had never read a romance novel. I had lived for many years in England, but I somehow missed the whole Barbara Cartland craze. It just wasn't an area I paid attention to. Because we were developing a series of films with Harlequin, I had to read a bunch of these books, and I found a couple of things that blew my mind. One, the average Harlequin reader is me: mid thirties, college-educated and affluent. The average Harlequin reader reads about three hundred of these books a year. It's amazing. A number of them are very well written, and very sexy. Very sexy.
"In terms of comparison with romance novels, I think there's a lot more explicitness in our stories. Some of the women who were writing and directing were gay, some were bi, but what I really wanted to do with the series, which I don't think has ever been done, and I think we've been successful at, is to really start to show an accurate tapestry and accurate cross section of what women think about, dream about, desire -- every possible realm of emotion that you could bring to a sexual situation. And that's why you do see this diversity in the stories."
Another aspect of the series she was concerned about was wanting women of different colors and ages represented: "I felt very strongly about that, and I fought hard to make sure when we were casting these stories, it wasn't just all twenty-somethings with big breasts, because you see a lot of that. If you took the nudity out these stories, you would still have strong characters and strong situations, which I think is not true of a lot of sexually explicit material you see out there."
The series has a very different sensibility than typical male-produced and male-defined eroticism, Elisa feels: "Women are not as turned on by pure voyeurism. There are elements of voyeurism in some of the stories, but they're in the context of something a little more complicated. In the very beginning when I was developing the show, I was trying to get a clear definition of what Playboy and Showtime wanted, and I kept saying 'I know what I mean when I say erotic, what do you mean?'
"And there was a lot of discussion back and forth, and I could tell we weren't hitting the same synapses at the same time. Finally, after much discussion, I realized what they were talking about was nudity. So I said, 'Oh. Why didn't you tell me this in the first place, because I would have told you to hire someone else to do the show.' In my opinion nudity in and of itself is not sexy; there has to be a context for it."
So after some initial misunderstanding and other issues, the show went into production, for the most part the way Elisa wanted it to go: "We've had our trials and errors, but finally figured out a formula that works. But there was and is a double standard operating, and one of the few things I have not been successful in fighting with them is about male nudity. They have no problem with complete female nudity.
"I ran an art gallery in New York for many years, and we had a show with a lot of beautiful portraits of female nudes, and there was one of a woman sitting on a bed, wearing a skirt but no top, and she had very large breasts, and lying next to her was a completely naked man. We had hate mail coming in to the gallery, and people were just incensed that we were showing a penis; it didn't matter there were fourteen pairs of breasts there."
Elisa is clear about differentiating erotica from pornography: "If you took the sex out of erotica, you'd still have a story. The same really cannot be said, for the most part, of pornography. I think pornography also objectifies the sexual act and people participating in it, whereas in erotica, the sexual act is an extension of the story and the characters, but not necessarily the focal point of them."
When asked about examples of film that have been classified as "women's stories, she mentions one that everyone has at least talked about, if not seen: "I must say I'm one of the few people on the planet who did not love "Thelma and Louise." I understood it for what it was, which in my opinion was a transitional, and a very important transitional, piece. What the writer did was take a classic male buddy pic and make the characters female, and I didn't think the transition wholly worked, but it was a link, a very important piece that needed to happen to open the door for other films to embrace that."
Considering that film leads to thinking about some aspects of the women's movement, which Elisa thinks "made a grave tactical error when it tried to divorce women from their sexuality, and to denigrate sexual power as power. Even if a lot of women haven't been conscious of it or haven't consciously voiced it, especially among my generation, which has the benefit of mothers and older sisters who went through the movement, but was caught in the 'had to be superwomen' part of the movement, which left a lot of us feeling tired, resentful, angry and in no way interested in pursuing or promulgating other causes.
"And I think a lot of what it had to do with was, okay, not only do we have to be superwoman in the workplace and raise children and everything else, but we're supposed to be neuter? Not have a sex life? We're not supposed to be sexual beings, or if we have a desire, there's something wrong with us?"
A large part of the audience is male, and Elisa thinks that is "because men genuinely want to know about women. The majority might fantasize about the Playboy centerfold, but I think basically that would be one night for them, that most men, if really pressed to be honest about it, which is hard for them, would admit that what they were looking for is the total package: somebody who not only turned them on physically, but turned them on in their brain, their head. Where heart, soul and groin meet.
"That nexus is what everybody is looking for, men and women. Men seem incredibly gun-shy when it comes to mixing humor with sex, whereas for women, laughter and humor are often an aphrodisiac, and there have been a number of episodes we've done that are funny, that deal with sexuality."
One of the episodes, called "Wishful Thinking", Elisa describes as "a woman who's about to be married, is really wrestling with the idea of only being able to have sex with one person the rest of her life, and into her life pops a genie, and for twenty four hours he grants her the wish of being able to sleep with anybody she wants, there'll be no rejection, no pain, nobody will refuse her, and nobody will remember it when it's over. So she sleeps with her best friend, her sister's husband, the milk man, her shrink, every taboo she can think of to break.
"By the end of the day she realizes that having her sexual freedom for that time was fun and somewhat liberating, but in actuality they were mostly a string of empty experiences. Her fiancé comes home, and for the first time all day, she makes love with somebody, and it's like, okay, that was the missing link."
In terms of her own creative growth, Elisa says her father has been incredibly supportive of whatever she's chosen to do: "When I was just learning to read, my dad, instead of reading me stories at bedtime, I would read him a story. And literally from the time I could hold a pencil, I always wrote. Stories, poems and whatever.
"A lot of the women I went to college with had parents who basically mapped out their entire lives for them, and my father, the day I left for college, said 'This is your time to experiment. This is your life lab. You should take anything you want, you should do anything you want. It's your time to explore and figure out what you want to do. I don't want you to feel you have to declare a major until you want to.'
"Quite frankly, there was a point in time where I was
being like a triple major, because I was interested in Italian and art
history, but I had always written and knew I wanted to be a writing
"There were so many things of interest to me, and because I
had a family
where that was considered an asset, not a liability, I always felt I
a very strong platform from which to explore. And I also felt I had the
freedom to choose what I wanted. When you're given a very straight,
path, you constantly feel you have to break out of it, and that makes
very difficult to decide what you want to do in some ways, whereas if
looking at an open road, you can say 'You know, that little village
there looks very interesting. I'm going to go check that out for a
"My father had been one of my biggest fans, which has been terrific. He's a theater producer, so I think a lot of my abilities in that area are probably genetic."
In addition to developing other film projects, she is working on her first novel. Her creative frustration as a writer in Hollywood, she has found, is "no matter how involved you are in a project, or how much you feel a director gets your vision, it's never going to be what you envisioned in your head unless you're producing it, or directing it. If you want nobody to interfere with your work, write a book, and publish it yourself.
"Actually for years, I prided myself on being the only person in Hollywood who did not want to direct. And when they offered the carrot this year of getting to write and direct one of the episodes, I thought 'Why not.' I feel like a shark, creatively, that I have to keep moving forward or I'm dead. This was a challenge for me, but a delightful one. To be able to put on film images I saw in my head was a gift, and one I would hope every writer at some point would have.
"I think writers tend to get very mangled in this town, very mangled. But I have more control over this project than most people have here, and that's wonderful. And it made me realize you don't need a four hundred million dollar budget to be creatively fulfilled. In fact, in some cases, too much money blocks creativity. As much as I would like to have that problem, I'm grateful I've cut my teeth in a forum where I didn't have that luxury."
The series, Elisa feels, has more than entertainment value: "The legacy I would like to think that we are leaving with this show is manifold. One is that we are genuinely giving women back a voice to express their sexual dreams, thoughts, ideas and fantasies. Two, I was able to give a lot of women an opportunity to grow and develop in their work in a way that I believe will serve them for the rest of their careers and hopefully give them a platform from which they can launch other projects.
"And to teach them that there are different ways of doing business in this town. You don't have to be a back-stabber; you can be somebody who supports somebody else's vision without it detracting from your own. Directing is still one of the hardest things women can choose to do in this town. You will get chosen to write a script far more readily than you will to direct it and have an umpteen million dollar production riding on your shoulders. Women are still not perceived as being able to wield the authority necessary to marshal a crew and get a film done. But women have had to wear so many hats to get where they are, they are uniquely qualified to be directors. Women have a natural ability to marshal a team."
Aside from the pleasures of the erotic nature of the series, she feels the show has been able "to give women back a voice, to give back stories that women can talk about, relate to. Even if they hate the stories, I pray to God it sparks some kind of conversation whereby they have a better understanding of their own fantasy life or their own sexual being.
"There's something almost tribal about needing to share your life stories. And as Westerners, we don't do that a lot. I think it happens in smaller communities, where there's a stronger tradition of oral story telling, and I think in urban environments that has really fallen by the wayside for obvious reasons. But I know among groups of my own women friends, we still do that.
"When we get together, we talk about our stories, whatever it is, whether it's a sexual story, a career story, a family story. And there's enormous strength women derive from sharing their stories."
As a writer and producer she is passionate about continuing to portray aspects of real women's lives. "To me, you can't have enough stories about fun, strong, conflicted, smart women who respond realistically under extraordinary circumstances. That is what the stories in "Women" are, and I'm developing other stories.
"I do like to write about women. It's not something where I consciously wake up in the morning and say, okay, I'm only going to write women's stuff. But I know so many terrific, talented, interesting women who are so together in many ways, and completely falling apart in others. And I love to explore the dichotomy of that within characters I write about. That's endlessly fascinating and endlessly rich and fruitful."
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[image from interview with Elisa Rothstein on Wench.com]
dvd: Delta of Venusbook: Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
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