In Her First Feature Narrative Film, Elisabeth Subrin Takes a Feminist Look at Hollywood

In Elisabeth Subrin’s new film, A Woman, A Part—her Creative Capital project premiering at IFC Center March 22-30—tensions are built around the parts we play in public, and the challenges in trying to escape them. The story centers around Anna Baskin, a burnt out, Ritalin-addicted  TV actress who walks off the set of her successful but mind-numbing TV show. She runs away to New York, hoping to reconnect with two old friends, former theater collaborators she’ had abandoned for Hollywood who now find themselves struggling to survive in the rapidly gentrifying city. As Anna’s arrival tears open old wounds, all three are forced to reckon with their pasts and uncertain futures. The film is Subrin’s debut feature-length narrative, and she has an established career in experimental film and video art. To make the film, Subrin had to navigate sexism and other barriers both indicative of the film industry and portrayed in the very film itself.

We caught up with Subrin to discover more about A Woman, A Part.

Elisabeth Subrin, John Ortiz and Maggie Siff on the set of A Woman, A Part

Alex Teplitzky: You started a Tumblr in 2014 called “Who Cares About Female Actresses,” and you’ve been working on this film for quite a while as writer and director. Can you tell me about the origins of the film? What was going on in your head when you started working on it?

Elisabeth Subrin: I’d been developing a different feature project for many years with producer Scott Macaulay and my co-writer Evan Carlson about a bipolar photo archivist during the manic dotcom era—the project that Creative Capital initially supported. We worked so hard on the film, called Up, but ironically financing became impossible after the stock market crash in 2008. I finally gave up, and went back to making short films and video installations, but I couldn’t let go of the film.

Eventually I began rewriting it as a fragmented narrative, centered around an actress who plays the lead in a play called Up. Through a complex conceptual structure, Up‘s plot would be revealed through scenes of table readings, rehearsals, conversations— closer to my experimental work—and cheap to shoot.

Instead, I became fascinated by this new character, the 40-something actress. Eventually, Up fell away and an entirely new script emerged. At the time I was recuperating from an autoimmune disease after pushing myself too hard for many years, and thinking about my own life choices and priorities. A lot of that ended up in the script. As we started to seek financing, I got asked constantly: why a film about an actress? (Note: I doubt they asked that to the makers of Clouds of Sils Maria, Birdman or All About Eve.) All my work is about female representation, so the blog was a place to work out questions about acting, performance and the film industry from a feminist perspective.

Alex: So as you mentioned, the crux of the film deals with a woman reckoning with the consequences of playing the same clichéd woman on a popular television show over and over again.

I got to see an advanced screening of the film, and in one of my favorite scenes she reads script after script, trying to glean anything substantive out of the reductive roles she’s being offered until the whole script ends up in a swimming pool. Was this something you experienced personally as a filmmaker?

Elisabeth: Her struggle as a woman actor is symbolic of a much larger issue, which is the hegemonic dominance of one perspective imposed on our culture through a white male lens. Hollywood is responsible for normalizing and transmitting globally a profoundly limited vision of humanity—of all the possibilities of what it means to be alive.
The industry used to argue that this was a financial issue, i.e. that women actresses and women filmmakers don’t do succees at the box office, but extensive studies prove this to be wrong. There’s been a lot of discussion about “unconscious bias” recently, but Hollywood fully acknowledges their explicit, systemic bias against women directors, who in study after study account for about 5-10% of theatrically released films, despite graduating from film schools at the same rate as men. The depressing statistics about actresses versus actors in terms of leading roles, minutes actually speaking on screen and exploitation of their youth and appearance are equally destructive.

For example, in 2013, female characters made up just 15 percent of protagonists and 30 percent of all speaking characters in the top 100 grossing movies. The numbers don’t get much better as you widen the net. This gendered and sexualized bias has an enormous impact on what culture understands to be a woman. And this is without adding race, ability, orientation, and other difference to the picture. Imagine what it takes to be an actress or director of color! The odds are just staggering, which is why Hidden Figures is such a box office triumph (despite it being directed by a white man). Or Ava DuVernay’s tremendous series Queen Sugar, with almost all women of color directors. Nevertheless, despite so many “initiatives,” the numbers this year are stagnant—for decades.

You would think that as the creator of a feminist blog about women and film, I wouldn’t be surprised by encountering un/conscious bias while trying to get my first independent narrative feature film made. Nevertheless, the subtle sexism I’ve experienced at every stage of the process has shocked me. Starting with notes on the scripts, in which most financiers and production companies said they couldn’t “relate” to my protagonist. Scott and I began to call it the “empathy card” because my character wasn’t empathetic enough, i.e. not “likable.” Financing passes were generally “great script, not for us,” or “like the script, don’t know how to market it,” or “not commercial enough” or “is she really going to make the (narrative) script on the page?” because of my experimental short films.

It took me so long to realize that both of my scripts feature complex, dimensional women over 35 whose problems are in no way resolved by men. In fact, in neither script is there a major love interest (though there is sex, love and desire). As I looked at more first time female directed films, I realized almost all of them are “coming of age” or “emerging female sexuality” stories which I guess are more “relatable” to a male-driven marketplace. Trying to hire an inclusive team where we had 50% women and crew of color was also challenging, because production is so male-dominated, and getting any recommendations for women in many post-production positions was also hard. What I saw was that when we asked for recommendations, men would recommend men. They could be really nice men, but they were almost always men. The same is true at each stage of the process, including film critics and film programmers. For example, all the curtain raisers assigned to review our screening at BAMcinemaFest were men, all but one of the 20 or so writers who requested interviews with me were women. In other words, men want to opine on the film, but did not want to ask me any questions. Or, most staff writers are men, and more freelancers are women.

A Woman, A Part is shot through the consciousness and gaze of a woman, and at times this is very confusing for men, especially men who have not encountered any seriously adverse situations where they were forced to experience the world from a marginalized perspective. They simply don’t know how to empathize with a female consciousness unless they seem themselves on the screen as well. And they’re honest about this. One 60-something European film programmer wrote to me and said “I felt like I was watching her through a fishbowl.” And I thought, “well, maybe because you were. It’s not your world, buddy.” Does the fact that you can’t relate to her mean the film is not good? I’ve spent my life watching “great” films where I could not relate to the psychology of the male protagonist. As a woman, if I only watched truly relatable characters, I’d miss out on most of the history of cinema. And that experience only gets worse the more marginalized one is in this culture.

Maggie Siff as Anna in A Woman, A Part

Alex: It’s so interesting because what you focus on in the film is what you’re dealing with directly behind the camera. In recent years, one way filmmakers have dealt with the challenges and limitations on expression within the studio and even “indie” system has been by finding alternative approaches to financing, like through grants, or crowdsourcing on Kickstarter. From what you are telling me, it seems you’ve been able to take back a major part of the film’s direction by finding alternate funding models.
It’s so inspiring that you’ve done this, and I wonder if you can share some info to other filmmakers who are frustrated by lack of arts funding and filmmaking grants.

Elisabeth: It’s very, very challenging if you’re trying to make a story outside the parameters of what the industry—and I include most indie film production companies in that—thinks will sell. Even if you try to keep your budget incredibly low, narrative filmmaking, i.e. creating the illusion of continuous time and space, and cohesive characters, is just really expensive. I wish I felt more encouraged about the situation, writing this as the new administration is proposing eliminating the NEA.

Our budget was raised through a combination of Kickstarter, grants, and private equity from both investors and a production company, as well as friends and family who made micro-investments, and a very generous loan (not from family), which I hope and pray we’ll be able to pay back fully through the New York State film tax credit. A lot of the budget was raised in $5K investments and contributions. Those add up, if you keep asking and asking.

But what really raised the money was an accelerated schedule, based on my actress’s pilot being picked up. We had to shoot several months earlier, or wait another year. Having spent SO many years trying to get a film made, we chose to make the leap and plow ahead. It forced me to get very, very bold about asking for money.

Writing this, it actually sounds like an awful model for funding a film, full of risk, loss and the need for support from people who know your work and believe in you. I don’t know if I could have raised the money if I hadn’t made films for many years and had people who believed in my work. And it doesn’t sound so different than what someone would have written in the ‘90s, except there was a little more money for independent film, and not the competition of digital platforms and the web. Crowd-funding is great, except that it’s like a second job, on top of the full-time job of making films, and the full-time job you have to be able to make films. I think it’s only something a soul can handle doing once. In general, low budget indie filmmaking is physically and emotionally grueling in ways that stagger me to recall from A Woman, A Part, and it doesn’t end when the film is done. Then you have to get it out there!

There are only so many ways to raise money. Finding original ideas and stories that matter and fuse form and content in interesting ways—that’s the ticket. That doesn’t have to be expensive. I think Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits is an excellent example of a really powerful and unique story, told primarily in one location—a youth recreation center—with many non-actors. Or Frances Bodomo’s short film, Afronauts, that creates an Afro-futurist, sci-fi-ish world based on a real story about Zambian exiles trying to reach the moon before America in 1969.

That being said, A Woman, A Part didn’t have a particularly original plot at all, which is strange, given my background in experimental film and conceptual art. A conceptual, high-concept plot wouldn’t have made sense given what I wanted to explore. Instead, I wanted to create a world with fully rendered, complex characters over 40, struggling with fully rendered, complex issues about their pasts and present, and to find a visual language which supported the ideas, while staying focused on the emotions, and my characters’ struggle. My luck was finding incredibly strong actors and crew willing to go there with me, and to have an amazing, risk-taking, seasoned producer who was willing to stick with me through two scripts until we found a way to go forward. Our collaboration is my greatest luckfinding people who truly believed in me and were willing to go all the way.

Get tickets to A Woman, A Part playing at IFC Center from March 22-30 with a few Q&As here.