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Natalie Wreyford: Radical Academic

Natalie Wreyford has a unique perspective, as an academic who was deeply embedded in the UK film industry for many years and is also politically very active. She held a senior role at the UK Film Council; commissioned one of the first reports into the lack of women screenwriters; read, advised on and script edited hundreds of film scripts; and worked with Academy Award-winners and those trying to get their first break.

Natalie is now Research Fellow on Calling the Shots:Women & Contemporary UK Film Culture, at the University of Southampton, where she co-authored Calling the Shots: Women working in key roles on UK films in production during 2015 (2016), and is the author of ‘Birds of a feather: informal recruitment practices and gendered outcomes for screenwriting work in the UK film industry’. Her PhD thesis, The gendered contexts of screenwriting work: Socialized recruitment and judgments of taste and talent in the UK film industry is online here.

A couple of years back you initiated the #wewantleia campaign. Can you write a little bit about that and what you learned from it?

When preparing for my children’s birthdays (the dates are only 11 days apart, although nearly 2 years in age) and discovering that Leia had not been made as one of the new Disney figures I had a very strong, personal and emotional reaction — how was I going to explain this to my daughter? What message would it send to my son that Leia had been erased from the Star Wars universe? Why did Disney think Leia wasn’t as important as a generic stormtrooper? But another part of my brain very calmly reflected: “I think I can do something about this”. It seemed to be the culmination of many experiences and concerns I'd had over the past few years. As a Senior Development Executive at the UK Film Council I had commissioned an animated film script about fairies. The hero was unable to use her ‘sparkles’ to make herself more (conventionally) physically attractive the way all the other fairies did, but in the course of the movie she discovers other, more beneficial uses for fairy sparkles and saves her entire colony. The script was good and was picked up by an animation company, who then told us that the toy manufacturers (who put up a huge part of the production finance) had a problem with the main character because ‘Princess Leia dolls didn’t sell back in the 70s and 80s’. Apparently boys won’t buy female figures and girls only like pretty female figures. Needless to say I was astonished and angered for many reasons. This was back in 2006 when I was just beginning to realise how few women screenwriters were getting work (this script wasn’t by a woman) and I believed there was a connection, but at that time it was difficult to even get a conversation started about either issue, let alone challenge or change these issues.

Of course I heard the same argument about Leia dolls repeatedly after I started the social media campaign to challenge Disney, but those voices were hugely outnumbered by people who supported me and loved Leia. I still get them now. Messages from women who saw Leia as a childhood hero and icon, but even these were outnumbered by men who wanted Leia to be included. Some of them wanted their daughters to have a Star Wars character to identify with, but many of them just loved Leia in her own right, and couldn’t seen the sense in leaving one of the main characters out of the merchandise. So I learnt that men do like female figures. I learnt that toy manufacturers control our choices — and therefore our interests — in often subtle and complex ways, and really do believe that if a toy is seen to have any slight female connotation it will put off men and boys from buying anything at all. I realised the parallels with what was going on in cinemas.

The idea that audiences were primarily young men had long since been challenged, and yet this demographic continue to be the target audience for most films because distributors, sellers, studios seem to believe that if a film has any slight female connotation it will put off men and boys, whereas women will accept and attend films made by and about men. Of course there is a huge and complex system in place to disguise this — promoting male ‘auteurs’ and stars as the biggest and most important, putting huge advertising budgets in place to ensure audiences feel they must go to see these films, and that’s before we even get to discussing the male as universal, female as other.

You used to be a script editor and worked in a senior role at the UK Film Council. What was your life like and why did you leave it for academia? Do you miss the contact with scripts?

How I wish I knew then what I know now! I loved my jobs working on film scripts. I didn’t want to leave. Continuing was made difficult by a redundancy from the UK Film Council and another company who stopped paying me, both of which coincided with my two pregnancies. After that it was very hard to find work, for reasons I discussed in my paper for Studies in the Maternal,'The Real Cost of Childcare: Motherhood and Flexible Creative Labour in the UK Film Industry', and in more detail in my thesis. Finding work in the film industries is predominantly done through informal recruitment mechanisms, such as meeting for coffees, having catch-up chats and networking at evening events. There are no advertisements or agencies, you hear of jobs through word-of-mouth. With no income and two very young children, it was difficult to find the time and money to sustain all these speculative endeavours. I did try for a while and picked up some sporadic and low-paid freelance work. When I did hear of a permanent job opportunity, and it turned out to be real, I would often have to read scripts for free and attend interviews and give development feedback on their projects, only to be told they had decided not to employ someone after all.

Yes I do miss my contact with scripts and writers. I miss reading amazing stories and working with imaginative writers. It’s very satisfying to collaborate with a writer, or in a team, to tease out a story’s strengths and heighten the emotional responses it generates: panic, laughter, tension, heartache. Of course it can also be very frustrating, especially when you can’t find others who share your enthusiasm for a writer and their work — but actually this has become a key element in my research. Being driven to understand subjective judgments of taste and socially constructed ideas about who is talented has unlocked for me how discrimination often works in practice. It’s also in line with the reasons Disney eliminated Leia from the merchandise.

As part of my role at the UK Film Council, I was asked to devise a strategy for working screenwriters to develop projects at an early stage without having to come through a producer. It wasn’t a popular job. I volunteered when another colleague protested at being asked. I thought it would be exciting to be responsible for identifying and promoting some new voices and ideas. This project lead me to first notice the lack of women screenwriters. I wanted to rush in and provide funds just for women but was asked to commission some research to better understand the problem first. The resulting report confirmed my suspicions. We held a conference for the great and the good of the industry. It was well attended by key members of the British film community. Nothing changed. When my mother suggested I might try academia as an alternative to the film industry, the subject of women screenwriters returned to me. I remembered the Head of Research and Statistics at the UK Film Council said to me at the time of our project that nothing ever changes unless a small group or individual decide to do something. I thought that maybe it might be up to me.

When you were assessing scripts, what did you observe about (some) women-written scripts that intrigued you? 

I can honestly say that for most of my career I didn’t particularly notice whether the writer was a man or a woman. Unfortunately, we’d none of us heard of the Bechdel Test back then. It was only after the writer’s initiative that I started to notice how few women screenwriters there were. I myself had worked with quite a few, and my research would suggest that there are various reasons that this might happen. The UK Film Council report had also identified that there were far more women screenwriters in development than as authors of films that got made. So working in development I was likely to be seeing more women screenwriters than those working in production. I have a particular love of thrillers and science fiction and was drawn to those scripts. I had worked with women screenwriters on these types of projects, so knew it was incorrect when I heard people say that women weren’t interested in writing these films. I do remember being pitched certain stories, for example, Made In Dagenham (male screenwriter but I was pitched the idea by a female producer), and being told, ‘Thank goodness, you get it. So many people haven’t understood why this story is interesting.’ It’s only now that I wonder what role my gender played in this.

You’re involved in Raising Films, the ‘Making babies, making films, making change’ organisation. Why?

As soon as I heard about them I wanted to be involved. I suppose my own experience finding it hard to get work as a mother played a part. It had also come up in my PhD research that motherhood was still a huge obstacle for women, even if they don’t have children. Fatherhood too, but not as much. I love that Raising Films include fathers in the conversation and try to push the issue of childcare beyond just something that women should be responsible for. They are an amazing team of women, as you know. In particular, Hope Dickson-Leach is a powerhouse of ideas and determination. Her passion and conviction really drive Raising Films. I’d say the interviews and testimonials have been key as they’ve given us a public profile and a voice to those who aren’t often consulted or heard, i.e. the technical and production roles. The timing has been great too, as the conversation about women in film has grown in the UK and internationally, and people are looking for solutions.

I would only caution, as Ros Gill has done, that motherhood has become the acceptable way to talk about the lack of women in creative industries (Gill, R. 2014. Unspeakable Inequalities: Post Feminism, Entrepreneurial Subjectivity, and the Repudiation of Sexism among Cultural Workers. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society, 21, 509–528). Discourses of motherhood run the risk of re-essentializing this as women’s work. It was common amongst my participants to present motherhood as a natural instinct for women. Women were repeatedly positioned as both wanting children and choosing to devote their time to ‘nurturing’ them. By framing motherhood this way, any adverse effects on a woman’s career is understood as being part of her individual choice and therefore not something to be addressed more widely by the film community. In addition, it draws attention away from the very real barriers faced by women — and anyone who is not a rich, white, able-bodied, heterosexual CIS man — which are more about matters of trust, taste, exclusion and stereotyping.

But, from what I’ve seen of the Raising Films team, they are all so very smart and understand that there is much more to gender inequality in film than just motherhood, so in fact they are able to use this platform to draw attention to other issues. Collaboration is so overlooked as the way to creativity and getting results. Collaboration in the making of the film is sidelined in favour of a narrative of genius; something I believe contributes to inequality in many ways. Raising Films is a great example of collaborative achievement. Unfortunately it also more unpaid labour for women. Why isn’t anyone with public money doing this sort of work? I’m not sure yet what will be achieved but Raising Films has certainly put parenting front and centre of discussions of inequality in film in the UK and garnered a lot of support from key organizations.

Raising Films’ UK wide survey, which was completed between March and May 2015, had 640 respondents, with further insights gained from related public events. The survey results show very clear barriers for parents and carers who work within film and TV, which do not only affect women, but continue to affect them disproportionally. 79 per cent of respondents reported their career felt a negative impact from their parenting and caring responsibilities. The research makes it clear that financial provisions, whilst desperately needed, are not going to solve this inequality. Working practices must change and those who cannot or do not want to work excessive hours, or even just full time hours, must be understood as no less committed or capable. I’m hopeful that the survey will push film financiers and funding bodies to making some kind of financial contribution and possibly to changes at budgeting and even policy level.

You’re also involved in the Women’s Film & Television History Network. What is this doing that is useful to women who love film and women filmmakers?

WFTHN is doing so much important work, but I’d like to highlight two things in particular. It’s creating a community of those who are interested in the history of women’s work in the audiovisual industries, both online and in person, academic, professional and as consumers. Most importantly however, it is working to showcase research on all the women who do and have worked in the film and television industries. It challenges the ideas that women aren’t interested, aren’t experienced, aren’t capable, aren’t strong enough, aren’t talented, aren’t there. Such valuable work on the history of women film and television workers, to contrast with the statistics that women aren’t being employed in great numbers. It’s all too easy to assume that women are choosing not to work in film and TV.

Calling the Shots found that in 2015, women constituted just 20% of all directors, writers, producers, exec-producers, cinematographers and editors on 203 UK films in production during 2015.

Of those women, only 7% were of Black, Asian, or Ethnic Minority identity, making BAME women less than 1.5% of all personnel working in these 6 key roles last year. Calling the Shots came out the same week as Cut Out of the Picture, from Directors UK . Where do the reports overlap and what are their key differences? Does the EWA Where Are the Women Directors? amplify the findings in these British reports?

Calling the Shots takes the discussion beyond directors. Each of the three reports is complementary and we have all been very supportive of each other. Calling the Shots was set up by Dr. Shelley Cobb to provide the UK with its own reliable data and to look at a range of critical roles within the filmmaking process. The scope of the whole project is historical as well as contemporary, and also involves qualitative interviews with women in each of the six key roles we are considering. The data is more up to date than the other reports as it is based on figures for production rather than release. Directors, though very influential and important, do not work alone, and are very rarely in a position to originate a film project. By looking at producers, executive producers and screenwriters, Calling the Shots is able to start examining the way these roles work together, and how much work women producers are actually doing in backing women screenwriters and directors (and how little many men producers are doing by comparison). We are also collecting data on race and nationality. We have already demonstrated how few women of colour were involved in these key roles in 2015. Knowing nationality is going to help us complicate the picture even further.

The BFI has supplied us with a list of all British-qualifiying films from 2003 to 2015. This includes domestic productions, inward investment and co-productions. The UK has a co-production treaty with several countries, including India. Many of the personnel in all three of these categories are not British. For example, it seems that many of the Asian personnel involved in making films last year were actually born, living and working in India. As might be expected, there are a large number of North American workers on the inward investment films, such as Rogue One and Snow White and the Huntsman 2. We hope to be able to calculate how many of the non-white women (and men) making British-qualifying films live or work in the UK. To be honest, our data is so rich that we’re not yet aware of all its possibilities — very exciting.

How much crossover between the 13% screenwriters and the 13% women directors in Calling the Shots? Were there any women who directed men’s scripts? And were most of the women directors writer/directors?

Only two of the films directed by women didn’t have a female screenwriter: interestingly Amma Asante’s new film, A United Kingdom, and Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman, which is unbelievably male heavy in key roles including two screenwriters. There were female screenwriters working on films directed by men, but again in the minority. Some good news: Helen Fielding and J K Rowling finally adapting their own books rather than a man doing it! Eight out of the 27 films directed by women were writer/directors. Seven more were documentaries, which leaves ten films with a female director and a different female screenwriter, and the two films mentioned above which have a male screenwriter. The short answer is no, most of the women directors in 2015 were not writer/directors, but a significant proportion of them were (2/3).

So who were the women who wrote for male directors? I’m concerned at the moment because such a high proportion of films in competition at Cannes had female protagonists and male directors. Of the two Irish films with women protagonists that were in Oscar contention one was written by women (Emma Donoghue, Room) but both were directed by men and a man wrote Brooklyn. I’m concerned that as films with female protagonists are shown to make money, men will move in and get the money to make them more often than women do and the Australian gender policy makes this a real risk there, because of the four roles that they aim to be 50:50 men and women over the next few years, one is the ‘role’ of female protagonist. So it will be possible for projects to be defined as 50:50 if they have men as writers and directors. Do you perceive new opportunities for men writers and directors to create female protagonists as an issue?

I share your concerns and discuss in my thesis why it’s important that we have women telling the stories, not just stories about women (indeed we need stories by women about men, but maybe not as much as a priority!). I worry that the current BFI ‘tick’ system allows for a similar definition of diversity. There are very few films in the 2015 dataset where there is one women screenwriter and one male director. Frequently the women screenwriter is one of several, and the rest are men. Clearly there are more complex stories behind these collaborations and it is a limit of the data that we cannot tell the order in which the screenwriters worked on the project, or whether the writers are working in sequence or together. Here are some of the more straightforward examples:

Jenny LeCoat wrote Another Mother’s Son, which was directed by Chris Menaul. 
Rosamond Decon wrote Blood Money, which was directed by Luke White. 
J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was directed by David Yates. 
Philippa Goslet adapted Neil Gaiman’s How To Talk To Girls at Parties and then seems to have been re-written by director John Cameron Mitchell. 
Rebecca Lenckiewicz appears to have co-written I Want To Be Like You with director Konstantin Bojanov. 
Callie Kloves (daughter of Steve Kloves) adapted The Jungle Book which was then directed by Andy Serkis. 
Jane Goldman was one of two writers on Tim Burton-directed Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Melissa Mathison wrote Spielberg’s The BFG. 
Lucinda Coxon was one of two writers on Tom Hooper-directed The Danish Girl.

I was very interested in Stephen Follows’ article: ‘How to become a film director'. What do you think about his analysis in relation to women, looking at it through your own experiences and research?

Specifically, when I went back to your Birds of a Feather I read “With women not being employed in key roles in sufficient numbers they have less experience and credits when the next opportunity comes along. However, this does not explain why employers talked about the contradictory and apparently endless search for ‘new talent’, or ‘the next big thing’ (‘that sort of slight wrestling match between those bigger names who I’d ideally like to get to but they’re always invariably unavailable for a really long time, and discoveries that you might find’)”.

Is it fair to say that your research in the past and possibly now is located where Follows’ ‘2. Learn how the industry functions and 3. Get known (and liked) by the gatekeepers are particularly important’? I’ve been reflecting on this after seeing a very accomplished and interesting NZ film last night, made by a life-and-work team (woman and man), The Great Maiden’s Blush. It’s their third feature, a Bechtel Test film and they’ve just spent their time on Follows’ ‘1. getting good at the craft of [writing and] directing’ and it really shows.

I agree with much of what Stephen says, but I’d like to problematize some of it too. I’d say (after years dedicating myself to the cause) that I’m coming to the conclusion that 1. is of little consequence to getting work, although that’s where most teaching of screenwriting focuses. It might help in some situations, and of course screenwriters want to do good work, but I’ve seen an awful lot of bad scripts backed by producers, directors, financiers, etc. 2. and 3. are crucial, but also almost impossible to achieve unless you’re from the right socio-economic background, gender, race, university, body, sexuality, football team or indeed the right part of London. I’m pretty sure that’s probably true of getting running work in the first place, or the other key roles that Stephen identifies as paths to directing. I’m sure there are exceptions that get through the system somehow and therefore act as examples for others to follow, but the reality is that the core business of the British industry shuts out an awful lot of people year after year, or allows them access to lower levels and smaller funds but rarely to a sustainable livelihood.

For women, especially BAME women, the schmoozing function can be particularly problematic for two reasons: 1. (which we see a lot here in NZ where the schmoozing opportunities are limited) women become afraid to speak up about injustices 2. possible sexual/harassment issues in the schmoozing, which I’ve witnessed in the law profession in NZ.

Yes, and I recently spoke to a Muslim woman who pointed out that it is very difficult for them if there is alcohol involved. I no longer believe that these kinds of events lead to much in the way of meaningful relationships though. I wonder if they actually function as a distraction from where the real networking is happening and a cursory nod towards doing something to help newcomers.

The real networking is happening in private homes and private offices and private clubs. In fact, it starts even earlier than that. A significant percentage of my research participants mentioned going to Oxford, Cambridge or Bristol universities. Others were aware that attendance at the same three universities was key to gaining entrance to the most lucrative networks. I did not ask any questions about education or university attendance, no other universities were mentioned in any of my conversations, which suggests perhaps that those who did talk about going to one of these three places felt it was worth dropping into the conversation. There are several tiers to networking in the film industry in my experience. So you pay for a pass to Cannes film festival but not get into any of the best parties, let alone onto the most exclusive boats or the famous Hotel du Cap. You can be someone’s guest at Soho House, but not sit at the right tables or be proposed for membership (or afford it!).

Related to the last question: how do these two issues from Birds of a Feather relate to what you’ve learned from Calling the Shots, if at all?
1. 50 per cent of writers of British films had a previous working relationship and 42 per cent had a personal relationship with the producer, director or production company responsible for their hiring; and
2. Homophily and trust
This is the sort of information that might emerge once we have the data in place across several years. We will be able to start tracking patterns and relationships. So far, we have seen that women directors are far more likely to be on project where there is at least one woman producer and that there is a high correlation between women directors and women screenwriters, editors and cinematographers. This of course correlates strongly with my discussion of homophily and trust, which is further expanded in my thesis.