How to Survive Production Nightmares and Stay True to Your Vision: 'A Woman, A Part'
Majority female-crewed A Woman, A Part breaks conventions on both sides of the camera.
Celebrated filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin’s first narrative feature A Woman, A Part, stars Maggie Siff (Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy) as a successful LA actress who—nearing a breakdown over frustration with her clichéd TV role and seemingly empty life—tries to reconnect with her past and present self through a surprise visit to former close friends and creative collaborators in New York. Siff leads a strong cast, supported by Cara Seymour (An Education) and John Ortiz (Silver Linings Playbook), who play the friends with whom she had launched her career in the vibrant downtown theater scene of the '90s.
A compelling character study at its core, the film succeeds in covering many subjects at once: gentrification, gender roles, addiction, aging, the unglamorous side of Hollywood—motifs which subtly permeate the script as well as the visual and editing choices. The prevailing theme might be our society's paradoxical relationship with actresses: revering them while at the same time refusing them their own human struggles and complexities. Subrin beautifully describes this concept in her blog piece inspired by this project, Who Cares About Actresses?
Subrin, who is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Film and Media Arts at Temple University, has been widely recognized for her short and experimental work, notably receiving The Los Angeles Film Critics “Best Independent Film” Award for Shulie. A Woman, A Part had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. No Film School spoke with Subrin before the film's North American premiere at BAMcinemaFest.
No Film School: Tell us about making the transition from your more experimental work into a narrative feature.
Elisabeth Subrin: I like doing things that I don't know how to do. I was trained as an artist. I studied film in an art school— in an avant-garde film program— and then in grad school, I made video art. Narrative was kind of the devil, in a way, and I realized at a certain point I was doing back-flips to find ways to talk about things I really wanted to explore without narrative.
If I wanted to make an avant-garde film, I would have kept doing what I've done for the last 20 years. The privilege of a crew and brilliant actors loving my script is the opportunity to work with them, and the choice to put forth a story I really wanted to tell. I just wanted people to enter a world and follow a very specific emotional journey in a subtle and smart way.
"I was a little dismissive of the craft of screenwriting, but after I started learning how to write a screenplay, I was so unbelievably humbled by the form."
I was a little dismissive of the craft of screenwriting, but after I started learning how to write a screenplay, I was so unbelievably humbled by the form, like how brilliant and how challenging it is to condense so many layers of meaning into language and action within the codes of narrative. It was a profound process, really, to make a script that was good enough for me to love with the same kind of rigor as my experimental work.
NFS: How did you convince financiers to get behind the project while maintaining the integrity of your vision?
Subrin: When financiers would look at my past films, they'd be like, "Okay, there's a very legible script on the page with amazing dialogue; it's well written, but I'm looking at her experimental shorts and I'm like, how are we going to do this?" They could not put the two together, so there was a fear that I would just deconstruct the script and pull one over on everyone and not make a narrative film. It's kind of like damned if you do, damned if you don't.
"I see actresses as representatives of women, so it's a really political thing to talk about."
I love European and international art cinema, but a first-time director is not going to get financing to make a Béla Tarr film. So as my first feature, just on a pragmatic level, I needed to demonstrate that I knew how to command a story, a crew, and work really well with actors.
NFS: How did you drown out all the industry noise about what a script should or could be and just stick to what you knew you needed to say?
Subrin: I talk about this with my students a lot. We've absorbed at a cellular level the conventions of popular narrative film, or what I call “corporate cinema,” for our entire lives. By the time they get to film school, the default as they’re writing a scene are sentences they've already heard. Just the way we, if we watch a film on an airplane silently, we know what's going on, without hearing the dialogue. It's really an unlearning process. That's really hard.
"The navigation between what I think I'm saying, and then how it reads on the page, requires feedback from people. But ultimately, you have to trust your own gut."
The script took a really, really long time. I think that the navigation between what I think I'm saying, and then how it reads on the page, requires feedback from people but ultimately, you have to trust your own gut. I think the only note that was a real struggle for me happened in both my first script and this one, which is character empathy, and making the choice: did I want to make a film where we believe in a complex female character who is not likable all the time? Add to that the white person privilege of an actress [Siff’s character, Anna] who we see as "living the dream." How could we see her as a subjective, vulnerable human, with problems like everyone else?
Maggie was amazing because she really encouraged me to make the character less likable, more difficult and complicated and angry. I think that I was guilty at the beginning of trying to protect Anna.
NFS: This idea ties into your Tumblr, "Who Cares About Actresses?" What do you actually mean by that title?
Subrin: It's funny. The blog literally came out of readers and financiers asking that question, and Maggie too. When we got on the phone and talked about the script, that was the first question she asked. I think I persuaded her how important it was pretty quickly.
NFS: Was she saying, "I don't think anyone's going to care about the script because no one cares about actresses?"
Subrin: She was like, "I love the script, and I relate to it so much, but come on, it's an actress, she has a good job, she lives in LA, she has ‘pretty privilege.’" People overlook the fact that she's snorting Ritalin, is really depressed, has an autoimmune disease, is single, doesn't have children, feels alienated, and it's like: you don't see all of those ways she's struggling that lots of people go through?
[As an actress] you are this profession instead of a person. When I think about the whole conversation about leaning in and the glass ceiling, it's all about: "Can you follow your professional dreams and make impact in the culture without completely losing yourself?" I think that's a much bigger question about women in society. I see actresses as representatives of women, so it's a really political thing to talk about the struggle and navigation they have between these characters they're playing—which they rarely have the choice about, and don't write—and their lives and who they really are.
“We didn't hire anyone that I didn't sit down for an hour with and say, ‘Tell me what this script is about.’”
NFS: I read an interview with Maggie Siff where she said that your set was really different because there were so many female crew members.
Subrin: I was really lucky to hire a line producer and a UPM, both women of color, and I said to them, "I want a 50% female crew, and I want same with actors and crew of color." It was crazy because usually when you're in a huge rush to make a film—and we shot two months early, because Maggie's pilot got picked up—to make that kind of demand at the last minute is a lot, given the demographics. But they went for it. It looked so different from any crew I'd ever seen.
NFS: Was there anything that you consciously did to create a female-friendly environment on set?
Subrin: I wanted to create a people-friendly environment. In general, in the morning, I would try to say hi to everybody on the set, and check in with them, and see how people were doing. The response was just that generally, they don't get asked those questions. If I'm going to go through the hell of making this thing, I wanted to have fun on set. I want it to feel good. I want everybody to understand the meaning of the film, just not where the lights have to be. I also interviewed every department head myself. We didn't hire anyone that I didn't sit down for an hour with and say, "Tell me what this script is about." Everyone— location scouts, assistant director— nobody was hired who could not talk articulately about the film.
“If the film tanks because you didn't commit to your vision, nobody's going to be like, 'It was a sucky film, but she was so nice.'"
NFS: How did you navigate between keeping a positive vibe and maintaining your leadership as the director?
Subrin: I learned a lot on the short I made with Cara [Seymour], The Caretakers, which was my first narrative endeavor. That was a very male crew, and I wasn't involved in hiring people because it was all done very quickly. There were some people I should have fired, and there was such a bro culture on the set. At times, I felt like the art freak on the set, surrounded by people who were serving my vision and didn't understand what we were doing.
My line producer on that film, filmmaker Julia King, said something to me that was so powerful. She was like, "Look, you cannot have your goal to be liked. Ultimately, everybody's trying to serve the film and they're going to want their voices heard. If the film tanks because you didn't commit to your vision, nobody's going to be like, 'It was a sucky film, but she was so nice.'"
I also learned from shadowing other directors. Lesli Linka Glatter from Homeland really directs from love and understanding. Watching her on set be strong and forceful and committed to her vision... I never saw her raise her voice. Basically, when people would try to say, "Oh, you need to do that," she would listen to them, explain very quickly what she thought, and be like, "Okay, let's try both." It was really clear who was in charge.
NFS: One of the most striking scenes was the one in which Maggie’s character is reading screenplays for potential parts while on a Ritalin bender and throwing all the scripts, and eventually herself, into a swimming pool. How did you pull that off?
Subrin: Oh my god, that pool scene was kind of devastating. We shot all of the LA scenes, including the pool scene, in two and a half days at my friend’s, where I actually wrote much of the script during school breaks. I did a test shoot for the lookbook, which [producer Scott Macaulay] thought was excessive, but was really actually quite useful. The LA art department did another test with their paper to make sure they floated the same way. Who ever does two tests on something in indie film?
It was crazy when we went to do the actual shoot because of scheduling. There’s a night shot and then there's a morning shot when Maggie's pulling them out of the pool. We actually had to fill the pool with a thousand pages twice. The problem was that the scripts sunk much faster than in our tests. We could not keep them floating. They all sunk to the bottom, and everybody was in tears, because we had done everything we could, and the only thing we could figure out is that we had turned on the heat in the pool for Maggie, because it was cold, and it must have been the change of temperature that made the scripts sink. It was just crushing, and it meant that we had to shoot way faster and we had the whole rig to shoot underwater, but we couldn't use it. It was like 2 in the morning when we finished doing stuff and we had an early call time.
“We were in pre-production while we were in production. None of us slept and we all got sick and everybody was delirious.”
NFS: We can learn so much from production debacles. Were there others?
Subrin: LA was really tough in general because we were working with a crew we didn't know. We were integrating department heads with departments that didn't know each other at all. Working in a house that none of them had been in. We were in pre-production while we were in production. None of us slept and we all got sick and everybody was delirious. Our PAs were making ginger shots all day.
Another production debacle: my friend whose house we were using had made sure to check in with the neighbors to the left, because they had kids, whereas the other side used to have really loud parties, and they were in the industry, so I was a little worried about them, and he's like, "No, they're pregnant, so they've been very quiet."
The night before we were shooting, he came into the room and he just looked ashen. He was like, "I just got a call from next door where they said they’re actually having their baby shower on the day we were going to shoot outside, and there are going to be like 80 people there and an outdoor sound system."
We changed the schedule. Then, what turned out to be the real disaster—I felt like I did not need to scout the backyard, because I had spent a gazillion hours there writing the script—was that at a certain time in the afternoon, the birds are so loud that for Maggie and Khandi's scene, it was like, all the things we worried about, the party, the construction, were not the issue, but the birds were off the charts.
We had to pause and wait, which was really hard because Khandi [Alexander] was only on set for one day. We were shooting one to one at times. Then we ended up doing some ADR for Maggie.
"Scorsese, Tarantino, Jarmusch, your heroes...they did not make their way into the industry and become successful because they repeated films that looked like other people's.”
NFS: You are a tenured film professor. Is there anything that you've changed about what you tell your students now that you've completed this feature?
Subrin: Over and over, my job as a teacher is to help students find their own voice, help them detox from mainstream media. I've taught since grad school and that hasn't changed. I will literally say, "Scorsese, Tarantino, Jarmusch, your heroes...they did not make their way into the industry and become successful because they repeated films that looked like other people's. Every great director became successful because they had a unique voice.