For women in filmmaking, the struggle is real. My Year with Helen director Gaylene Preston wants to change that.
When I meet up with Gaylene Preston in a Ponsonby café on a grey Auckland morning, she’s having, what she calls, “a moment of confidence” Why? Part of it, she thinks, is the two years she has just spent filming and promoting her latest documentary My Year with Helen with its subject, Helen Clark.
The other part is the time she has just spent at a Women’s film festival in Hobart, Australia called Stranger With My Face. There she acted as a mentor to female filmmakers, received an award for her contributions to genre filmmaking and, most significantly it seems, saw her past work be received in the kind of space for which it was intended.
“The film writing that came from that festival has really given me a boost,” she says. “Because I read what's written and I go finally. So it is there. I didn't miss. It just wasn't seen or heard at the time.”
As one of New Zealand’s leading filmmakers for over 30 years, it may seem surprising to think that Preston still feels the industry in which she works is less than fertile ground for female stories and storytellers. Yet, as she tells me, it is an ongoing struggle and an issue very close to her heart.
It’s also why she’s so proud to be able to offer, along with women’s filmmaking fund WIFT, a $1000 prize for the best female director at the 48 Hours film competition, which she hopes will not only encourage women and girls to enter, but to take a leadership role in an industry where such a thing is no easy feat.
With the competition set to take place this weekend, we talked to Gaylene about the film industry, storytelling, and why it’s so important to be a bad girl.
Tell me about what made you want to offer a prize for best female director at the 48 Hour Film Competition.
When I made Mr Wrong, in 1984, I was among the 8 percent of women who were behind the camera, making a feature film that saw the inside of a cinema in the world that year. Eight percent.
Guess what? It's still 8 per cent. It hasn't really changed. So globally that's where it sits. So there's an issue there.
With the 48 Hours film competition, I embrace that kind of competition. Anybody can enter. Anybody, any age, anybody. And over three or four years of the 48 Hours, I saw a blossoming of Kiwi film talent emerging.
Invariably they're all directors. And I started to notice that at the beginning of the weekend, teams turn up and everybody's going to do everything. But by the end of the weekend, the women are behind clipboards, they're busy ticking off the to-do list and the men have become directors.
They might be co-writers or they might be casting, they might even be acting coaches but because the guys get in and they edit it, they're directors. And they're used to the idea that they would be directors.
Somehow the 48 Hour film competition kept turning out great, glorious boys. And so I decided that the best thing to do was to offer a Wellington award for the best female director.
Well all hell broke loose.
Yeah, like "that's not fair! that's sexist! where's the best male director? blah blah blah!". And among my compatriots in the film industry and WIFT, they're going, well, it should be for the best creative, because there aren't enough women who are directing so it should include writers. And I went "oh ok so, yeah we could do it for the best creative".
And then they go, well producers are creative too, and I go “look we haven't got a female producer problem”. Women are allowed to be producers. In fact, their chances of not becoming a producer are really slim. Because the producer makes the film happen, but the director makes the film.
The director is the one who controls the frame, the director is the one who actually tells the story, the director is the one that gets the most fun! And actually, if I'm on the subject, the director is the one who doesn't actually have to do anything. They just have to persuade everybody else to do it.
I can imagine.
Well, the resistance to having a best director award went on and on and on. So every year I put up this measly $250 a year, down in Wellington for the best female director.
Basically, we'd just get a whole load of girls schools. I'd go no no no, we haven't got a problem with female directing in girls schools - guess why - and we haven't got a problem with female directing when people are under 18, we've actually got a problem once women are out in the world.
Having a best female director award is just a carrot to encourage women, when everybody's sitting there and there are minutes to spare and suddenly the credits have to go up, to look at taking the director credit or at least a co-director credit, to be able to get their hands on some dosh.
And the tides only turned on that award recently.
And now it’s become the National Award?
It became the national award about three or four years ago, and I went to the Civic [for the prize giving]. WIFT and me gave the award, and then the thing went on, and all the winners end up standing at the end.
And it speaks for itself, all the films are made by men except the one that's got the female director award. And then I think that really helped people start ... thoughtful people thought about it.
It's interesting what you said about how women are able to participate but don't often get the chance to take on that auteur role than men go for.
Well, they are able and they can claim it. but you have to take it on. There's no point being apologetic about it.
When you were starting out as a filmmaker was that hard to take that role?
Nah, because I was in New Zealand, in 1977, and there was a little film industry being invented and nobody knew what they were doing. And I knew all those guys and I thought 'well I don't know what I'm doing either but that's alright. Who gives a shit’.
Look, I think being a good girl is part of the problem. See I wasn't a good girl in my family, I wasn't bad exactly but I was cheeky and I was naughty.
And the fact of the matter is that girls do really well in schools in New Zealand, they're ahead, and they do really well right up through university and then they hit the real world and they fold. Statistically, you can see it. And it's partly because they're traveling the main road and they haven't got a machete out. They haven't had to. Why? Because they're good. I think being a naughty girl and being a cheeky girl is a real plus. And that doesn't mean being nasty personally about people. It's about questioning things and asking 'why does it have to be like that? Why is the main road defined like that?'
And that's why the 48 Hours film competition has a Gaylene Preston WIFT award for the best female director, because we are encouraging women to be bad. We want the good girls to come out, find their feet and we'll give you money for it!
Is the industry receptive to those women?
Look, the industry only cares about money, and even then it votes against itself with all the statistics from Hollywood about female helmed films.
Even just as a woman who writes about film, I can see that it's such a boy's club. What’s your advice for women who are on the outside of that?
You are the cavalry, get on your horse! Give them a run for their money. It's not about fitting in; it's about defining where it’s at. And if you've got a strong feeling of where that is, don't wait for permission because no one's gonna give it to you. You do not have permission, but you have mine.
It's not just how many women stand behind cameras and direct a movie that's important, what's really important is what stories actually get out there into the mainstream, and affect the culture at large.
It could be that we're all sick of the three act structure and that actually there is a way of telling a story that is different. And it's just not about the big orgasm at the end. We have multiple orgasms, that's God's gift to us.
Waitress coming to clear our cups: [laughs] Sorry, I have to be a part of this conversation
Gaylene: There is a theory around women's storytelling, that it isn't just the three act structure to get to the big bang at the end. That isn't our biology. We like a slow burn. And it's very rewarding. What's wrong with 10 endings?
Waitress: Yeah, that go on and on and on. And they last for days, you can tap back into it and ooooh.
Gaylene: That's right! Global storytelling, when you look at the novel, women are well represented. What's the difference?
The difference [with filmmaking] is you've got to have money on your head before you can start. Women are allowed to make documentaries, because guess why? You can just pick up a camera and off you go. You don't need funding.
You need funding later when it starts to get really interesting. But when you come to dramatic filmmaking you need money on your head, and that's where the business kicks in and they do not trust women to deliver. There's something brainstem about it.
So I've been able to sustain - touch wood - quite a long career. In terms of being able to make my own films with funding, since 1978. and working at a professional level since 1978. And making films locally with a global reach.
Women can make good film after good film and it kind of doesn't quite mean the next step. That's true on the main road. And by all means do the main road, but have a machete in your pocket. And play the long game.