Who knew that becoming a female director in the film industry was all about boxing and long distance running?
This is particularly true for female film directors like Karyn Kusama, whose success is about more than talent. Karyn is a modern day film director recognized for her powerful voice, determination and creative story arcs.
But finding opportunities to work and getting access to financial backing has not been easy for Karyn and other female filmmakers, who typically lag behind their male counterparts.
As a graduate and scholarship winner at the New York Film School, Karyn had a bumpy start. She couldn’t find work directing so she editing films to pay the bills. It was only after a chance meeting with an independent filmmaker, a friend of the couple she was babysitting for, that Karyn had the opportunity to showcase her talent and find support and direction that would lead to her first award-winning script.
To date, Karyn’s body of work includes five feature films to date ( Girlfight, Eon Flux, Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation), her newest release (The Destroyer) and many highly-rated television successes (Billions, Man In the High Castle, Catch Fire). Each has provided learning experiences and a testament to Karyn’s work ethic.
In her first breakout film eighteen years ago, Karyn’s Girlfight won the coveted Grand Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the prestigious Prix de la Jeunesse at the Cannes Film Festival. But this success would not be repeated until the release of The Invitation in 2015. Karyn struggled to find funding for her work and confident backers willing to give her creative control over her work.
A passage from Girlfight describes the kind of staying power that female filmmakers like Karyn need to survive in this male-dominated industry. Hector is a boxing trainer who gives his young Latina boxer (Diana) from Brooklyn some advice about winning:
Hector: You should start roadwork. Run three miles, four times a week.
Diana Guzman: Three miles? You gotta be kidding me.
Hector: At least three. At this rate, you wouldn’t last one round in the ring.
Diana Guzman: But I got power, you said so.
Hector: Big deal! You got the endurance of a corpse.
With the world premiere of Karyn’s latest 2018 movie, Destroyer, at Toronto’s International Film Festival (TIFF), she has managed to stay in the boxing ring. Destroyer stars a barely recognizable Nicole Kidman, who plays a police detective wrestling with her inner demons and hoping to make peace with her past. The film is already garnering critical praise for both Karyn and Nicole.
The story arc – women overcoming adversity – is a consistent theme in all of Karyn’s films.
It echoes the unrelenting battle for women in the director’s chair who are dependent on men in suits financing their film productions and questioning their ability.
Throughout her career, Karyn has struggled with these issues. She commented in a recent article that the success of The Invitation was terrifying for her because financial backers said it was “execution-dependent”. For them, the film looked promising but the debate was about whether or not Karyn could do the job. All this fuss despite her established success would be incredibly disappointing and stressful.
Funding for The Invitation happened because of Game-changer Films, an equity financing fund established to support female-driven projects. For this reason, Karyn has made funding by outside firms a key objective in all her projects including Destroyer. This also ensures Karyn stays in the creative control helm, as well.
WomanScape is pleased to see the growing support at TIFF and around the world, for empowering women working in the film industry. TIFF’s Share Her Journey Program, established in 2017, is a developmental and fundraising initiative to bolster’s female participation within the industry.
Similar programs are popping up in other festivals and should help to bring attention to the concerns of Karyn and other female filmmakers. When only 18% of the top 250 international films in 2017 have female directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers, it’s an uphill battle for women to stay positive and engaged in the business.
Thankfully, there’s also been an increase in the number of think-tank organizations lead by Hollywood A-listers like Geena Davis. Knowing that women direct only 3-5 % of the television and film assignments since 1995, filmmakers need all the help they can get especially when you consider the even greater lack of representation from Black or Hispanic female directors. Actress and filmmaker, Amma Asante shared this message with more than 2,000 people who gathered at the Share Her Journey TIFF rally.
As Karyn Kusama continues to make movies and share female-centered stories about real women and their everyday challenges, the gender parity will move in a positive direction. Talent is not enough for women in film to keep boxing for the chance to make movies that matter.
Their stories expose us to all walks of life and foster a greater range of more inclusive stories and roles for other female actors. Seeing different lifestyles reflected in movies helps us to be more understanding, tolerant and empathetic. And when that happens, this will spawn greater inclusivity and opportunities for more women.
Look for a brief review of Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer on Thursday. We’ll keep boxing here at WomanScape to re-frame what matters for women in the film-making industry.