Published on: 09 March 2017 in Industry

A Screen of One’s Own: a Fulbright lecture by Susanna White

Reading time: 29 minutes and 22 seconds

Earlier this week director Susanna White went to Exeter College, Oxford to deliver a Fulbright Lecture on women and film. Using the route her own career has taken as a starting point - from university to documentaries, through to high-end TV drama and features - Susanna looks at what needs to be done to ensure the industry doesn’t miss out on potential female talent.

Susanna’s speech was delivered on Monday 6 March. Read the full text below.

Thank you to the Fulbright Commission for the honour of asking me to give this lecture. It seems so appropriate to be giving it in this University, as it was in Oxford, when I was at St Anne’s College, that I received the Fulbright Scholarship to study Film and Television Production at the University of California, Los Angeles, that was to launch my career.

I have been asked to speak on the subject of women and film. I’ve turned the subject around in my head over the last few weeks, wondering what would be the most illuminating way into the subject for outsiders - should I speak about the work of Leni Riefenstal or Jane Campion or Kathryn Bigelow - what marks them out, what defines them, what inspired them? But in considering their work I kept returning to the much bigger question of why there aren’t more of those names to conjour with - in 2017 only 7% of feature films around the world are directed by women.

Nearly 90 years ago,  at the University of Cambridge, Virginia Woolf was asked to speak on the subject of women and fiction. At first she too wondered whether she should give a discourse on the work of successful women in her field - George EliotJane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. Instead she began to consider a character she gave life to - Shakespeare’s sister, who died young and was buried at the Elephant and Castle - and asked the question why was that sister silent, why is it the canon of her brother we study and not her own. In considering it, Virginia Woolf decided that it came down to a very practical issue - that what women needed to be creative was £500 a year and a room of one’s own.

My argument tonight, in tracking my own career and drawing wider conclusions from it, will be that there are similar very practical issues preventing us going to the movie theatre to watch the work of, say for the sake of argument Stanley Kubrick’s sister. Just as Virginia Woolf’s fictional heroine was excluded from entry to the libraries of Oxbridge colleges by virtue of her sex, so I will describe how thousands of talented young women are excluded from careers as film and television directors every year simply because they are not men. I am one of a very small group of lucky ones, in many ways my career an exception to the rule, in other ways an example of it.

This is one of my first memories of the power of the small screen. In 1969 my family gathered round our television set in the suburbs of south London to watch the transmission of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. That small box made me feel anything was possible - it had the ability to transport our family, as a group, to other places, other planets. The moon that I looked out of my window at at night, suddenly became a practical surface to be explored. Partly the joy was that of shared experience, partly the practical wonder of how that signal was transmitted from the moon to my television at home.

Later that year the Petts Wood Brownies went on an outing to BBC Television Centre to watch the children’s programme Crackerjack being made. While my friends were eager to get up on stage to win prizes, I was glued to my seat, transfixed. A red light came on on a camera which skated across the shiny floor - on the monitor above me was a two shot of Leslie Crowther and Peter Glaze. The image changed to another one - Leslie Crowther turned his head and suddenly he was in close-up from a different camera, the red light went on on that. As the second camera went live I went live with the realisation of how these images came about - there was a very concrete aspect to the magic that could be taught and acquired. My life after that became a journey to learn and practice those skills.

Fast forward about ten years. I’m at Oxford, reading English. My contemporaries an unknown actor called Hugh Grant, an unknown hopeful composer, Rachel Portman. The year above me a group of students set up The Oxford Film Foundation to make a film called Privileged. It was an exciting moment in this university, when two Rhodes Scholars, Rick Stevenson and Michael Hoffman, brought american filmmaking skills into our midst, as well as a can-do approach to fundraising. Television seemed to be going through a sea change - I remember the excitement when Jeremy Isaacs came to speak at the Union about the newly formed Channel 4 - as students we had the possibility of four television channels as potential employers rather than the three we had grown up with. I remember in my Fulbright interview discussing the viability of cable television in the UK - it seemed like a far-off world.

Student filmmaking, in particular a documentary on the newly co-ed colleges, led me from Oxford to the MFA program at UCLA. As well as the practical filmmaking skills I learnt at UCLA perhaps the greatest gift my time in California gave me was a sense of possibility - that good ideas were a precious commodity and we were in a place that hatched them - any one of us could take those ideas out into the world and have a voice.

I hit my first buffer coming back to England in the autumn of 1984. An interview in Room 101 at BBC Broadcasting House. Four men in suits on the panel interviewing applicants for the BBC Production Trainee scheme and a female secretary taking notes. What made me think I could be a director? I listed the number of films I had made since the age of eight and the Fulbright Scholarship to UCLA. Why on earth should that qualify me I remember being asked - why didn’t I stay home and work on my local paper?

At the time I saw those questions just as a test of my powers of argument - after all lots of people wanted those coveted positions - it was notoriously hard whether you were a man or a woman. I put my failure down to my interview technique. But I was crushed to get not just a rejection from that interview but from the many jobs I applied for over the next six months. I had soon acquired a file of rejection letters nearly two inches thick. The excitement I felt at UCLA was met by door after door being shut in my face. I wished I were back in California. Looking back now I see my personal rejection as symptomatic of a much larger pattern and twenty years later the situation is shockingly no better.

In a study commissioned by Directors UK published last year, Cut Out of the Picture, it was shown that in the ten-year period up to 2014 50% of all film students in the UK and 49.4% of new entrants in the film industry were women and yet nearly 90% of those who made it through to directing a feature film were men. Unlike other careers, like science or engineering, the shortage of female directors we currently see is clearly not caused by a lack of aspiration. The depressing finding of the report was a systemic bias against women at every key stage of their careers.

The report showed women were under-represented in all the major routes to directing. In film crews the ratio of women represented was less than 10% in the key creative roles of camera and editing, compared with an astonishing 80% in the non-pathway roles people saw as appropriate for women - hair and make-up and costume (I can’t think of a single example of anyone going from those departments into directing a film). Women did relatively well as third assistant directors and second assistant directors (around thirty per cent) but moving to the key role of first assistant director (a common route to directing) the number dwindled to 15%.

When women did manage to break through into directing a marked funnel effect set in. 27.2% of short films were directed by women but only 14% of full-length television drama. If  women successfully became directors they struggled to progress to larger budgets (16.1% of women on low-budget films compared to 3.3% on high-budget films). In 2016 British films are six times more likely to be directed by a man than a woman. The pattern has been pretty much the same in the USA.

Depressingly I now realise something pretty similar was going on in the late 1980s - my personal situation was representative of a much larger whole. How did I get round that? Having discovered the thing that made me feel more alive than anything else on earth and that completely matched my skill set, there was no way I was going to give up. I met up with some old friends from Oxford who had just got sponsorship from Lloyds Bank to run a national screenwriting competition and became involved in running that. It meant reading lots of scripts and workshopping them with industry professionals in a summer school in Merton College. In my spare time I kept making short films and music videos unpaid with whatever money I could raise; I tried getting any entry-level position that was advertised or unadvertised. I kept coming up with film and television ideas, which I knew were the commodity the industry constantly needed to renew. Finally that tactic won through. In 1988, four years after leaving UCLA, I got a letter from Eddie Mirzoeff, the programme editor of Forty Minutes at the BBC. Like many artists over the years, my career has been very dependent on patrons and Eddie was one of those remarkable people with a nose for talent and a disregard for the system. He didn’t mind whether good ideas came from men or women; he discovered and nurtured Molly Dineen and Lucy Blakstad and to my eternal gratitude he took a punt on me.

Under Eddie’s patronage I made my first film for television, a documentary about the clash of cultures between the residents of Appleby in Cumbria and the gypsies who held their annual horse fair in the town. Eddie gave me an anthropologist to work with, Melissa Llewyellyn Davies, and a talented young cameraman, Richard Ranken. With that film behind me I was launched as a freelance director - from there I moved to Channel 4 to direct Volvo City, a portrait of the community of Hasidic Jews in Stamford Hill, followed by Readers Wives. For the next few years I moved between the channels making films on subjects ranging from a year in the life of the Victoria and Albert Museum to arts films working with writers like Blake Morrison and Ben Okri.

However I was still trying to pursue my original dream - to direct drama and ideally a feature film. Twice I applied to the BBC drama directors course - a brilliant six week course taught by established drama directors. Again another interview with men in suits. This time the question that surprised me the first time it came up but not the second was “what makes you think you can control a hundred people?” I turned it around and asked them what made them think I couldn’t? I wonder now if they asked that same question to men. Two more rejection letters. Again my personal disappointment and sense of failure I now realise was part of a systemic problem.

Women tend to do much better as directors of factual programmes than television drama, albeit with some level of gender bias - plenty of women are hired for programmes on body image, food and family, while far fewer for science and technology. Factual crews are a maximum of two or three people (even fewer now where many factual directors self-shoot) whereas drama crews were often nearer 100. For an industry that one thinks of as being progressive it is actually very risk-averse. When budgets and responsibility get bigger people tend to hire people who look like the successful ones who went before. Women might get in under the radar in factual programming with a patron like Eddie, but in drama a lot more boxes needed to be ticked. In 2014 in a Directors UK report things had not really improved - while a healthy 29% of children’s factual programmes in British television were directed by women only 9% got to direct children’s television drama.

Undeterred I kept knocking on doors. I finally got to direct a cinema short for Film4’s Short and Curlies, based on a short story by Blake Morrison. My family were concerned -  I was eight months pregnant with twins at the time but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to get a film into production. Finally, having given birth to two beautiful girls, I got a place on the BBC drama directors course. From there I directed two episodes of Holby City and once I had proved to the world that I could control 100 people in the form of the Holby City crews more opportunities opened up. I was given the chance to direct the comedy series Teachers and from Teachers I moved on to direct a new drama series about the dot-com boom, Attachments.

For many women there is another blockage in the funnel moving from staple shows like Holby to high-end authored programming. My route through this was the radical producer Tony Garnett. Diversity was the nature of Tony’s game - an outsider himself, from a working class background in Birmingham and very different from many of the standard privately educated producers of the day, he actively promoted people who might struggle to penetrate the world of the broadcasters through conventional routes.

With Tony’s help and with that of Jane Root - the then controller of BBC2, who circumvented the drama establishment by giving me money from a factual budget - I made my first single film, a period drama about the life and loves of Philip Larkin, Love Again, starring Hugh BonnevilleEileen Atkins and Tara Fitzgerald. Made for the princely sum of £200,000 it was transmitted on BBC2 to critical acclaim in 2003.

I was still trying to make a film for the cinema but in the meantime another opportunity came my way. Nigel Stafford-Clarke was producing an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House for the BBC. Written by Andrew Davies it was revolutionary in television terms in that it applied the format of a television soap to period drama, with half hour episodes and an omnibus at the weekend; each episode ending with one of the cliff-hangers Dickens originally used when the work was first published in installments in 1852.

Bleak House was a huge critical success and a big boost to the BBC in the run up to charter renewal. It put a BAFTA award on my shelf and won a host of other awards internationally. The lead director on the series, Justin Chadwick, was deservedly snapped up by Hollywood, with a range of studio projects on offer. For me life carried on pretty much as normal. Feature films remained elusive but I continued to find work in television. By now I had young twins and like all directors faced the issue of childcare. I was offered the job directing the BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre. The offer came on the Friday with the suggestion that I should move to Derbyshire for four months on the Monday. Thanks to my very supportive husband our family somehow rode that wave.

It sometimes comes up as an argument that the shortage of female directors is down to the fact that women reject the unsocial hours associated with being a director in favour of staying home with their children. While the freelance industry is undoubtedly challenging for both men and women and some women may make that choice, I would argue that the proportion of women who actively elect not to direct drama is actually relatively small. Let’s go back to those numbers - 50% of women graduate film school wanting to direct and only 3% of big budget feature films are directed by women. In jobs in the industry which aren’t traditionally male preserves, such as hair and make up and costume design, over 80% of heads of department are women. Those people often work much longer hours than the director - they are the first to arrive in the morning, often putting actors through complicated prosthetics and wigs, and the last to leave in the evening. The director can leave when wrap is called but hair and make up and costume stay behind removing the make up from all the actors for the day and preparing for the morning. If the issue were solely about an unwillingness to work long hours it is hard to explain this disproportion.

Surprisingly perhaps, I can truthfully say that I have never encountered any overt sexism in my career. When women get the opportunity to direct, crews are generally hugely supportive and comment surprisingly often for 2017 on how good it is to have a woman behind the camera. I don’t think anyone ever consciously denied me an opportunity to direct because I was a woman. The truth is much more subtle and for that reason much more insidious. In a freelance industry where everyone’s success depends on ratings for their last piece of work people tend not to take risks. They either, understandably, hire someone with a proven track record in that area or if they are looking for the bright new face of directing, tend to hire someone who looks like people who have gone before and done well.

The Directors UK report came about when a group of female directors on the board got together as we were starting to feel how weird it was that there were so few of us in work when we were beseiged by emails from other women wanting to do what we do and asking for advice. The organisation has a huge database as it started life as a collecting society for royalties on television production, so had a data set of everyone who had directed in British television and film going back many years. The board voted to commission Stephen Follows, an established data researcher to analyse the facts. When the results came out even we were surprised by the extent of the systemic gender bias, and the broadcasters and commissioning bodies were really shocked. People “felt” that the industry was a progressive one and that there were lots of women working in it. While women had done well penetrating the traditional support role of producing, there were a tiny number of successful female directors. When challenged people struggled to name more than five women across film and television - Kathryn BigelowJane CampionLynn RamsayAndrea ArnoldClio Bernard - then they ran out of steam. Why was it happening? A big issue was the freelance nature of the industry - people are hired on a project-to-project basis and traditionally there has been no HR monitoring that might have spotted the trend earlier.

It was in 2007 after directing Generation Kill that personally I realised the full extent of the problem. Lots of people ask me how that job came about. What happened is that the scripts were sent to my agent, Natasha Galloway, for another of her clients, Kevin Macdonald. Kevin wasn’t available and Natasha thought an opportunity to work with David Simon (best known for The Wire) might appeal to me. Again David is one of those remarkable people my career has been dependent on, who is blind to sex and race when it comes to hiring directors. David, having a long track record in hiring female directors, had no issue with hiring me. In fact, having once been compared to Dickens, he was delighted that a director of Bleak House should direct his mini-series on the US invasion of Iraq. It was when other people started to comment that I realised the issue. How remarkable, producers and journalists said, that a woman had directed this material. How unremarkable, I realised, were all those times that men had directed Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility - no one chose to comment when 13 productions of Jane Eyre were directed by men.

None of the crew on Generation Kill had any issue with the fact that I was a woman, nor did the ensemble cast of 35 men. The series had 11 Emmy nominations including Best Director. Finally, twenty three years after my Fulbright Scholarship, I was back on a plane to Hollywood and I got my first feature film - for Universal Studios: 

From the director of Generation KillNanny McPhee and the Big Bang.

I’m not knocking it. It was an incredible opportunity for anyone - a thirty million dollar studio film with Emma ThompsonMaggie SmithMaggie GyllenhaalRhys IfansRalph FiennesEwan McGregor and Asa Butterfield. In many ways my dream had come true. I pinched myself walking through the gates of Twickenham Studios - it was incredible to be working with that cast in that place. It just wasn’t what one might have expected to be offered after Generation Kill. Or maybe it was in terms of how it fits with the statistics. When women do reach the top of the pyramid it is far more likely that their big budget film will be a children’s or family film than anything else. Take Philippa Lowthorpe, one of our most distinguished, multi-award winning television directors and a similar sort of age to me; she got her first feature film last year: Swallows and Amazons. No one could have done a better job of it but it is symptomatic of the whole.

After Nanny McPhee I wanted a return to serious drama and it doesn’t come much more serious than an opportunity to work with Tom Stoppard on his adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s modernist work Parade’s End. Starring Benedict CumberbatchRebecca Hall and Roger Allam it was an intense year’s work with over a hundred different speaking roles and an incredibly rewarding experience.

The following year I directed my first feature thriller - John le Carre’s Our Kind of Traitor with Ewan McGregorStellan Skarsgård and Naomie Harris. It was shot in five countries - Finland, Switzerland, France, Morocco and the UK. The odds against someone like me directing something like that are crazier than anything else I’ve done - only 3% of high budget feature thrillers are made by women.

Does any of this actually matter? As long as television and film gets made why should we care about the personal wellbeing of a group of privileged women? You might be feeling at this point that this lecture is just one long moan. It isn’t meant to be a moan as I actually feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to spend my life doing something I absolutely love in the company of some of the best writers, actors and crews in the world. But does it matter? Yes it does. Firstly because our culture is a lot less rich because of it - potentially we’re missing out on a lot of talent. We will never know what Shakespeare’s sister could have written, just as we will never know what films could have been made by the sisters of Stanley Kubrick, Alfred HitchcockMartin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. We know that the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola has produced some pretty remarkable work. Imagine the English novel without Jane Austen, without the Brontes, without George Eliot, without Virginia Woolf. By the law of averages, world cinema has to be depriving itself of that sort of talent. We just don’t know what we’ve missed out on on the big and small screen from the sensibilities of thousands of women who have gone unheard.

In last week’s New York Times Gloria Steinem wrote a piece about the difference between what women want in films and what men want. She defined a ‘chick flick’ as one with “more dialogue than car chases, more relationships than special effects, and whose suspense comes more from how people live than how they get killed”. She went on to write: “As long as men are taken seriously when they write about the female half of the world - and women are not taken seriously when writing about ourselves, much less about men and public affairs - the list of Great Authors will be more about power than talent, more about opinion than experience”. She goes on to define how the problem is linked to the fact that adjectives are mostly required of the less powerful: “Thus there are ‘novelists’ and ‘female novelists’, ‘African-American doctors’ but not ‘European-American doctors’, ‘gay soldiers but not ‘heterosexual soldiers’”. And by extension, ‘film directors’ and ‘female film directors’.

It doesn’t stop there. Hiring female directors has a huge knock on effect both on the industry and in society at large. Women tend to hire more women - female directors often means work for female cinematographers, more female editors and more female assistant directors. And women are often interested in telling strong female stories that often aren’t heard.

According to a study by the Geena Davis Institute last year only 31% of speaking roles in film were occupied by women and only 23% of films featured a female protagonist. Male characters are twice as likely to speak as female characters and in movies with male leads men speak four times as much as female characters.

The screens we watch mirror our society back at us. Employing female directors means a fairer representation of the world we live in - if women make up just over 50% of our population doesn’t it make sense that a reasonable amount of screen time should involve stories about that group of people? The Geena Davies Institute showed that only 3% of lawyers and judges on screen were portrayed as women, 5% of doctors and 6% of politicians. Is that the society we really want and the society we hope our children will aspire to be a part of?

The screens we watch have a direct impact on our lives. The year after the release of The Hunger Games saw a huge increase in the number of girls taking up archery. In a survey of the American Archery Association 7 out of 10 girls said they had been inspired to take up archery as a direct result of the portrayal of Katniss in the films. By extension what if popular film showed strong young women entering into meaningful roles in public life with voices that were heard?

Film projects a world of possibility. As directors we work on the script as well as casting both speaking roles and extras. In The Night ManagerSusanna Bier chose to alter Olivia Colman’s part to a woman rather than a man. In Our Kind of Traitor I took Naomie Harris’s character from someone who cried a lot to show her as an active thinking barrister. Stellan Skarsgård’s wife in the book didn’t speak and I gave her one of the most powerful scenes in the film. As the director you make a choice of what a board member looks like, what the head of a school looks like, who plays an engineer or an architect. By having more female directors we can create a virtuous circle of inspiration for society as it could be.

This argument isn’t just about men and women, it is about diversity as a whole - about creating a fairer and more healthy society where all different types of voices are heard. Monitoring the freelance culture isn’t just about equity between men and women - it takes in diversity across the board. My new film, Woman Walks Ahead, tells the story of two people without a voice coming to be heard. Jessica Chastain plays Catherine Weldon, a portrait painter who escapes an oppressive marriage in New York in the 1880s to go out to North Dakota to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull. She thinks she is going out West to discover freedom but in fact the opposite is true and she becomes embroiled in a struggle for Native American land rights.

In making the film I was very aware that there were very few Native American actors who had been represented on the big screen. My lead actor, Michael Greyeyes, had never made a film before. I got a young man from the Rosebud Reservation to work as my assistant, and he has just been accepted onto the producers programme at Sundance. Hopefully he will go on to make films that tell the stories of his community from the inside.

To conclude, both in the UK and in the US we have missed out as a society from a lot of potential talent not being given opportunies. It’s not through any deliberate shutting of doors - rather the effect of the conservatism of a risk-averse culture. I wish the solution were as simple as £500 and a room of one’s own. Making a film requires a lot more people and resources than writing a novel and to change the situation for directors systemic reform is needed to move from a vicious circle to a virtuous one.

The good news is that improvements are starting to happen. The chief agency for change that is needed is proper monitoring of the freelance culture and that is now underway. From news in the last week it seems highly likely that the Equal Opportunities Commission in the US are about to rule that the Hollywood studios have acted unlawfully in gender bias against female directors - the prospect of that is already leading to an industry-wide review of working practice. In the industry in the UK, there is a definite desire to change things. The BFI have set a target of 50% representation of female film directors by 2020. A similar goal was set by the national film board in Sweden and achieved within 5 years. The BBC and Channel 4 have both increased training schemes for female directors and are monitoring their freelance employment. Several peers have spoken out in the House of Lords as a result of the Directors UK report, and diversity is being considered as an element to help qualify for tax relief in film.

Things won’t change overnight and the playing field may continue to slope for a while as groundwork is done but I feel optimistic that for the next generation of Fulbright Scholars change is in the air.

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