Can you go into a little bit of detail about yourself? What do you do, and how did you start your creative career?
I grew up in a small town in the midwest—very, very rural. Now I think it’s beautiful and peaceful, but as a young person it felt stifling and boring. You had to make your own entertainment. My sisters and I would play very intricate games of dress up and put on shows, and when I got older I started writing poetry, short stories, and audio plays. We would borrow a neighbor’s video camera and record weird sketch comedy, or make fake reality TV.
I took a very roundabout path to a creative career—I studied philosophy and worked in marketing for a while, then eventually moved into a digital production job at a TV show. I was doing some acting in my free time, but I wanted to start writing again. I helped a good friend produce some of his work, then we started writing and making shorts together. Wise Gals is definitely my most ambitious project to date; it consumes any free time and most of my waking thoughts, but it energizes me like nothing else. I know a lot of creative women who are in the same boat: The work never stops.
Let's talk about Wise Gals, the film you're making. What's it about, and how did you get the idea to start it?
So, Wise Gals is a short American gangster film that gives all gangster roles to women and all spousal roles to men. It takes place in the 80s and follows Sophia, a rising star in this reimagined, all-female mob. It’s a very traditionally “masculine” story of ambition and the pursuit of power, but seen through a female lens. I was watching The Wolf of Wall Street a few months ago with my boyfriend, and I realized how tired I was of seeing movies with an infamous white guy telling the camera how cool he was. I wondered what it would be like to have a woman act that way on screen. I started writing it that night, and it just kind of fell onto the page. I started telling friends about the idea, and some of my contacts in professional organizations, and from very early on people were very excited by it. I think people felt very similar to me about it: I have grown up my whole life seeing women as princesses, girlfriends, and sidekicks—but I was tired of us being necessarily pretty and polite. I wanted a clan of complicated, dirty, ruthless female characters.
What's been the most challenging part so far about making a female-centric film in a male-centric genre?
When I write, I tend to play the scenes out in my head. I’ve found that with this project, if I’m not focusing on it, the female gangsters turn into male actors. Sophia has been played by Robert De Niro a few times. I remember writing this scene—I think it was a fight that takes place between the main character and her husband—and about halfway through I realized I was picturing it as you’d normally see it: the person crying and taking care of the baby was a woman. It shows you how powerful representation is. It’s like I had to train my brain to think differently.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned along the way, during this process?
My old boxing coach gave me some great advice that is proving true for this process too: everyone has advice, and the frustrating thing is that no one is wrong. You should listen to everything, but only incorporate the feedback that fits into your plan for yourself. I think I’m learning a lot about maintaining confidence. I think my experience growing up as a woman sometimes influences how I think as a director. I worry about other people's feelings a lot. Am I being too demanding? Too aggressive? I worry that there's a "right" way to do this and that I'm not coloring within the lines. I'm learning to be more brutal, in a good way, about protecting my vision. My male friends in film have been the first to remind me that there’s no "right" way to direct, just your way.
Can you talk a little bit about representation in your film? What are you doing differently to empower underrepresented groups on the screen?
It’s very important to me that Wise Gals is “the misfit” gangster film, so to speak. I want anyone who feels like I do—that they haven’t seen themselves in these kinds of roles—to have a chance at representation in our film. We’re just getting into casting now, and are making it a priority to build a diverse group of women, in terms of ages, ethnicities, sizes, etc. This extends to the crew as well; we’re already a female-led and female-majority team, and we’re making a concerted effort to keep it that way. So far, I’ve found that you don’t have to compromise your quality standard for the sake of diversity, it just takes more time. The first applicants you get will almost always be white and male, but if you dig a little deeper you find great talent outside of the status quo.
Do you think Wise Gals is especially timely, considering all the sexism running rampant in Hollywood recently?
Everything happening in Hollywood right now is just an implosion of the larger, imbalanced environment women have been working in for decades. It is essential that women are given the chance to control our own media narrative; the current portrayal of us as sexual, passive objects for the pleasure of men is so harmful! Women lose their agency and confidence as we’re taught that our value is tied to our physical appearance, while men are taught that they “should” be aggressive and entitled to the woman of their choice. That's not how the world works, and that's not reflective of the women I know.
What character do you think has the potential for the most impact in wise gals? How will she be impactful, and why?
The film’s main character, Sophia, is going to have the most impact, I think. We’re really going to rely on her to guide us through an unfamiliar world. I think the challenges Sophia faces aren’t going to be new to female audience members: the frustration of being an ambitious woman, the feeling of being young and hungry, those moments in life when you have to sell yourself and be your own cheerleader. But her response to these hurdles is what I want to be impactful—she’s sharp, dynamic, and assertive. Even when she knows the odds are against her, she’s going to show up to the fight. Those are the kind of women I know.
Is there a specific demographic you're making Wise Gals for?
I’m 100% making this for women. I want us to have more examples of badass, complex characters that we can become invested in and relate to. That’s a simple enough mission, but I think the fact that we’re entering new genre territory for female characters is really important. When I saw Wonder Woman this summer, I had to try hard not to cry, and I know many of my friends had a similar experience. I’m 26 years old, and I had never seen anything like it, and all I could think about was the thousands of little girls who would grow up watching it.
When I was little, I was obsessed with Debi Mazar as Regina in Beethoven’s 2nd. It’s kind of a weird character to be excited about; she’s very mean to adorable puppies. But she’s a brash, nasty New Yorker who runs circles around her idiot boyfriend and masterminds the whole, evil plan. I watched that character before I even knew what a mobster was, but I think she was a kind of surrogate gangster. I loved her because she had the kind of authority and confidence that I wanted—she controlled her environment with no rules. Especially now, when I think many women feel our rights are being threatened by the authorities in place, that kind of example is powerful.
How can film make things better for all women?
Film can create change because it’s such an approachable medium; you can catch people with their guards down. Even if someone doesn’t strongly identify with a belief system—feminism, or whatever you’re passionate about—if you tell a story that appeals to their feelings, you can make them question their beliefs in a very non-confrontational way. Additionally, it’s something we trust. Usually from a very young age, we’re consuming it. So if we can get in on the ground level and change people’s beliefs about themselves or the people around them, we can create lasting change.
After Wise Gals, what's next for you? Any big plans that we should watch out for in the future?
I am writing a script that I’d like to be my first feature in 2019. It’s a thriller/horror story with some similarities to Wise Gals: a female lead, a “gang” of characters, lots of violence. . . We’ll see what the future brings! Ultimately, my goal is to be a showrunner. TV is in such a cool place, and I guess we all know by now that I’m a control freak. I want to build worlds!
All photo credit goes to Matt McLaughlin.
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