“When they say there are no parts for women…They’re in my garage, and probably in yours.” – Pamela Gray at the Austin Film Festival Conference panel entitled “The Heroine’s Journey: Writing and Selling the Female-Driven Screenplay.”
She was referring to all the scripts she’s written that haven’t been made into movies yet. One studio executive told her, “We had a woman movie, and it didn’t make it financially.” A single movie. Eek! Gray pointed out no one stops making movies about men when one fails.
Gray, along with Elizabeth Hunter (Director of Development at Universal Pictures for APOLLO 13, CLOCKERS, CROOKLYN, TWELVE MONKEYS, and others and screenwriter of JUMPING THE BROOM, THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS, and BEAUTY SHOP) gave a fun, lively, informative panel on writing movies whose lead characters are women. The room was filled with woman and men screenwriters and wannabes.
Let’s Talk About Sex
Was the panel led by women about women writers writing female leads different from other panels? Yes and no. While both male and female driven panels were open, interesting, helpful, compassionate, and a little bawdy, I noticed the men made fewer references to sex than the women, not for lack of trying. In one panel, one male screenwriter made a porn joke that fell flat. He made tons of other quips and jokes that landed, just not that one. In the Heroine’s Journey panel, Pamela Gray did not joke about porn. In a light-hearted manner she openly discussed writing about orgasms. Her lead character in A WALK ON THE MOON, wanted to have one, for the first time, after marriage and childbirth. After those comments the entire room felt comfortable talking about sex. No doubt about it, this movie and this panel were from a woman’s point of view.
I think that serves everyone. After all, everyone’s interested in sex. I think it’s more interesting to put sex in the movie rather than leave it out. But I’d rather see it connected in meaningful ways to the character’s journey at all levels, not just the physical, and not just the emotional, and not just the spiritual, but all of these. Any writer, male or female, who does this for any character, gets my interest and movie dollars. And it’s what I write.
The Times They Are A Changin’
The panelists writing about and then openly discussing sex as integral to the character’s journey allowed the rest of us in the room to discuss character more deeply. One audience member asked questions about how to portray sex on-screen, really show it, without cheapening it. He expressed his worry that accurately portraying a woman character’s sexuality gave him some trepidation. He portrayed the male characters’ sexuality without worry, because, he said, he knew people simply would accept it. He feared people would judge his women characters just for being sexual. I thought, wow, what a great expression of how it feels sometimes, just being a woman. And here’s this young male writer worried about his female character being judged for being sexual. Here’s a writer with real empathy for his character’s problems even if he doesn’t realize it. I wanted to say, “Maybe that’s how the character feels, too. Maybe the character, being a woman, really would have to deal with judgment from others and from herself.” I don’t know of course; it’s his character. Elizabeth Hunter said the fact that he even asked that question made her happy. We were all noticing the positive changes in the way writers and the culture at large think about women and how to portray their complex lives. Both she and Gray encouraged the questioner to stay close to the character and ask himself questions about her, and to stay close to the story, and do whatever he needed to do in his story even if others judge. Hunter said, “You’re an emerging voice.” Write it the way you write it.
Granted, no other panel specifically tackled the subject of sex or gender, and shouldn’t have been expected to do so. It’s typical that a panel like this one comes from the need to shine a light on the invisibility of real women and therefore women characters, their stories, the writers who portray them, and the people who do or do not produce them. But, seeing the mix of sexes, ages, and ethnicities in the room, it appears the subject interests everyone.
The Zig-Zag Path
Gray said right up front she wanted to make sure she and the room didn’t veer off into negativity and only discuss sexism. True to her intention, we mostly discussed character and story the way other writing panels do. The panelists said any question, even questions regarding sexism, usually boil down to making sure you know who your character is and what your story is about, and staying true to that. You may have to deal with sexism if your character does. Hunter said, “Tell the story from the point of view of whose story it is.” I know from experience how hard that is. I often start the story from a male character’s point of view, then switch to another male, then switch to a younger female character. Finally I realize the story belongs to the adult woman on the edges of my psyche leading me on a zig-zag path, the creative process that reflects my own journey.
The Heroine’s Journey
While Gray uses the heroic journey to structure her stories, she does give the female lead character, not one, but two chances to decide to take the journey. She thinks this reflects the reality of many women’s lives. There’s no support at first for them going on a journey of transformation. There is more heat, more resistance, inside the closest relationships women have, and therefore they take a little longer to get the journey going. Other than that, same. I thought that was interesting, and noticed it’s true in my own work. My female leads decide they want to take the journey, but that does not necessarily lead to taking the journey, or even seeing it as an option. In fact, I create three or four moments of indecision before the moment of decision. Gray says, it seems more authentic. It does to me, too.
There are differences and similarities when writing a woman lead. Hunter said you still have to make the story complex, the journey universal. You still have to create authentic moments and structure your story well. At first you have to be cerebral and structure your story. Then you have to be emotional to tell a good story. And she reminded us, “Actors want emotion.”
Both Gray and Hunter advised us to write characters that actors want to play. One of the few differences mentioned for female-driven stories: while every story needs a “likeable” main character, the definition of “likeable” can be different for male and female leads. As several writers on other panels advised regarding notes from executives, Hunter and Gray said try to understand the spirit of the note even if it’s delivered in sexist language. Gray said sometimes there is information underneath such notes that helps her make a change she, too, feels is important. Both Hunter and Gray said to listen to the note, but fix it your own way.
When asked about their writing influences, Hunter nodded to Toni Morrison, Callie Khouri, and Susannah Grant. Gray nodded to poetry, George Eliot, especially Middlemarch, Jane Austen, Wendy Wasserstein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Nora Ephron, THELMA AND LOUISE, and CAGNEY AND LACEY for the deep level of character work.
I look forward to including more gems from Hunter and Gray in future posts about The Austin Film Festival screenwriting conference.
What’s your favorite woman character from movies, TV, or other stories?
As a kid, I loved both Cagney and Lacey, Constance from Constance, Laura Ingalls Wilder from the Little House Books. I love Rebecca Davitch in Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grownups, and Emily in Tyler’s Morgan’s Passing. I love Chief Brenda Lee Johnson on THE CLOSER, Joan Allen’s character in THE CONTENDER and THE UPSIDE OF ANGER, Drew Barrymore’s in RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS. Emma, Anne, Lizzie, and Elinor in Jane Austen’s books and the movies based on them, EMMA, PERSUASION, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. And so many more!
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