Visible Women

Director Amy Adrion on Half the Picture, her vital documentary about women filmmakers

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In Half the Picture, filmmakers including Ava DuVernay and Lena Dunham discuss the barriers faced by woman in Hollywood. Stylist speaks to director Amy Adrion. 

Last summer, Amy Adrion unexpectedly found herself weeping in the cinema. The film – specifically, the scene – that had reduced her to tears wasn’t the emotional climax of an esteemed indie romance, nor the death of a beloved character in a period drama. It was the battle scene in Wonder Woman.

“I was like, why is this affecting me so much? This is a superhero movie; people are wearing capes and costumes. Why am I crying?” she says. “Then I realised: oh my gosh, I am a grown-ass woman and I have never seen a movie – ever – when the woman is the one going into battle in slow-motion with a bow and arrow, sacrificing herself for the greater good, with all the men standing behind her.”

Adrion had been working on a documentary about the challenges faced by women directors for 18 months when Wonder Woman was released. Directed by Patty Jenkins, it went on to become the most successful live-action film directed by a woman of all time. Adrion sees it as the perfect example of why women storytellers matter.

“I didn’t even really realise [before watching Wonder Woman] that I’d seen those images with men at the centre, particularly white men, my whole life,” she says. “When you have different people behind the camera, you profoundly shift what those images look like. And that’s important. If you’ve never seen yourself as the hero in a story, or even the protagonist in a story, that’s really difficult. And when you do see it, there’s some kind of, I don’t even know how to say it… joy and recognition.”

Adrion’s documentary, Half the Picture, premiered at the prestigious Sundance film festival in Utah in January, and will be shown at Sundance London this weekend. Over the course of 94 minutes, it sees directors including Ava DuVernay, Lena Dunham, Miranda July, Gina Prince-Blythewood, Catherine Hardwicke, Jill Soloway, Tina Mabry, Jennifer Phang and Sam Taylor-Johnson discuss the challenges they’ve faced as women directors working in TV and film – from overt sexism to more insidious, hard-to-counter barriers such as the difficulty of getting funding for films. 

Ava DuVernay in a scene from Half the Picture 

All of the directors speak thoughtfully and remarkably frankly about their experiences. Some of the stories they share are shocking, some are inspiring, and others are more depressing than anything else. But as a whole, they provide an illuminating view on what it’s really like to be a woman director – particularly one working in Hollywood.

Adrion attributes the women’s honesty, in part, to the decision to film them all in their homes or offices. “We tried to make them comfortable so they could be as candid and real with us as possible,” she says. She wanted the documentary to feel “like you’re sitting in a room chatting with your favourite directors, and they’re telling you the real deal of how this all works.”

It was Adrion’s own fraught experiences as a filmmaker that inspired her to create Half the Picture. In 2015, she had been able to get only a handful of short films and TV episodes off the ground, despite having worked in the industry for years. She wanted to direct for a living, but had begun to feel discouraged after reading endless articles about the obstacles faced by women directors. Even in 2018, just 3.3% of studio films being released are directed by women, while women accounted for only 11% of directors working on the top 250 films in 2017. The numbers are even worse for women who are black, Asian or from other minority ethnic backgrounds.

“I got my graduate degree in directing, I’ve won awards, and I just began to wonder – is this impossible? Is it me? Is it the system? What is going on here?” Adrion says. “And that’s when I decided I wanted to investigate it further.”

She began filming the documentary in December 2015, and its primary concern is structural sexism, rather than sexual misconduct. But it nevertheless feels strikingly timely in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, both of which have seen women begin to speak critically and publicly about issues that have long been swept under the rug in the entertainment industry and beyond.

“Even when we first started filming, I could feel a change in what women were willing to talk about and how they were willing to talk about it,” Adrion says. “But that process has definitely evolved since then. I think women are being inspired by one another’s bravery, and seeing other high-profile women call out injustices and wrongs in the business is really encouraging other women to open up.”

Amy Adonis (centre) with some of the directors featured in Half the Picture 

One of the documentary’s most telling moments comes when a string of well-known filmmakers discuss how they struggled to get hired again by major studios, even after directing movies that were critical and commercial hits. For DuVernay, that moment came after the release of Selma, her Golden Globe- and Oscar-nominated 2014 drama about Martin Luther King, Jr. For Penelope Spheeris, who helmed the smash Nineties bro-comedy Wayne’s World, it was when she was replaced by Stephen Surjik to direct the sequel. For Hardwicke, the phone went relatively dead after she directed the first Twilight film, which sparked a global pop culture phenomenon, made superstars of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson and grossed over £295million worldwide.

“After Twilight, I did have some illusions… I thought I would get an office in a studio or a three-picture deal or some of that cool stuff,” says the softly-spoken Hardwicke. “And really none of that happened to me.”

Why does Adrion think that even these hugely successful directors find it so hard to get a second – or third, or fourth – bite of the apple?

“I think people assume Hollywood is a business, and so the reason women don’t continue to get more and bigger opportunities is that their films don’t make money,” she says. “That’s just not empirically the case. These women have had blockbuster films, and they still don’t get the jobs that you’d think would be lining up for them. So if it’s not about money and it’s not about success, what is about?”

“I think maybe some of it is just fundamental discomfort with the idea of women in positions of power,” she continues. “We still find it difficult to accept women as artists and visionaries and leaders. Look at the challenges, culturally, that we face with the ideas of women as political leaders or as CEOs of big companies. It’s still hard for people to picture women in those roles, and Hollywood is no exception.”

The image painted by the women in Half the Picture is not always a happy one, but, says Adrion, it’s important to remember who they are, and what they have achieved in an industry where the odds continue to be stacked against them. She hopes women directors will feel inspired, not disheartened, after watching the film.

“I think they’ll be encouraged to hear that Jill Soloway and Lena Dunham and Ava DuVernay had the same experiences that they’re having now,” she says. “They were rejected by top film festivals and dealt with crappy crew members and had trouble getting financing for their film, and they faced those challenges and emerged from the other side.

“The film is largely about female artistry, sisterhood and perseverance. Its ultimate message is that this business is really, really hard for women, and we need to be realistic about that. But it is also so fun and so magical and so incredible, and if these women have made it, so can you.”

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Courtesy of Amy Adrion / Half the Picture