Filmmaker Jen McGowan found out she had been offered her first episodic directing gig on the way home from the interview. She knew the meeting had gone well. It felt like she had clicked with the producers, but she had nothing to compare it to. In fact, this was only the second interview she’d been called in for as a potential tv director.
It sounds simple - two interviews, one job. Currently, she has the satisfying feeling of finding herself on the shortlist of female filmmakers being floated around town. It feels to her like she’s become an overnight sensation.
In reality, this took 15 years.
How she finally found herself in this position is not only about a shift in industry perspectives and priorities about women working in film, but also a story of determination, creativity, and endless optimism, and may inspire other underrepresented filmmakers who are on the brink of giving up.
“I didn’t know anyone. I had no access."
The director created buzz earlier this year when her indie escape thriller Rust Creek became a sleeper hit, but
McGowan had been working to find her place in the industry since moving to LA in 2002, and graduating from USC in 2005. Her thesis film premiered at Tribeca in 2005, and she had both a successful short (Touch, in 2010) and first feature (Kelly & Cal, in 2014), but all these projects had to be planned and shot while working her day job as a production supervisor for tv commercials.
Her attempts to break into tv were repeatedly thwarted. Says McGowan, “I didn’t know anyone. I had no access. Once, I managed to hustle myself onto two days of shadowing a director on tv and I arrived to find the director didn’t want me there and wouldn’t speak to me. He put me in a chair by myself behind a flat. That was the only time I ever shadowed, and not for want of trying. I applied to every shadow program pretty much every year since I finished at USC in 2005, and was rejected from them all, multiple times. I was even rejected from one this year while I was prepping The Purge!”
Looking back, she says things starting changing in 2017. Never one for waiting for someone else to open doors, she decided to build something that she hoped would blast them open. She co-created a female-fronted tv series called Angelica, with creative partner Eliza Lee, about the last remaining abortion clinic and the women in its orbit. The pilot ended up on the WeForShe WriteHer List of the best-unproduced tv shows written by women. Also in 2017, she met director Mary Lou Belli at an Alliance of Women Directors event. In 2018, Angelica was included in the Cannes In Development program, which led to McGowan’s first meeting with Blumhouse.
When, in the same year, McGowan applied a second time to the WeForShe Director Program, she was accepted, and as part of it, Mary Lou Belli became her mentor. “I always hear successful people talk about how important mentors were to them, but I just didn’t know anyone. I had never experienced that until now.” Explains McGowan, “Mary Lou is dedicated, talented, generous, and made herself available to me 24 hrs/day. Her sole concern was my success in my first episode, and I will be forever grateful to her for that.” About WeForShe, McGowan goes on to say, “I’ve never witnessed that kind of commitment. They are a non-profit, run by a small handful of incredibly passionate women who work hard on their own time, for free, to get women directors & writers their first episodes, and they make it happen.”
In January, Rust Creek became a sleeper hit, putting McGowan back on Blumhouse’s radar. Coincidentally, the studio had reached out to WeForShe to be introduced to more women directors. Her name was submitted, and she was called in for that one fateful interview. Her episode of The Purge, ‘Happy Holidays’, was set to shoot in three months.
"You’re told ‘You MUST make your days. The talent might ignore you. The DP might bully you. The AD might bully you. You might get hazed. Don’t bother the writers. You MUST make your days.’ I was nervous about that, but hoped if I could just work hard enough I would get through it.”
Getting the job was a thrill, but then she had to deliver on what she promised. Also, she’d heard some things about working in television from women who had worked on other productions. “You hear awful stories of being bullied, shut out, shut down, and far worse. You’re told ‘You MUST make your days. The talent might ignore you. The DP might bully you. The AD might bully you. You might get hazed. Don’t bother the writers. You MUST make your days.’ I was nervous about that, but hoped if I could just work hard enough I would get through it.”
As it turned out, her experience was nothing like what some of her colleagues had experienced. “I felt welcomed, supported, respected, creatively excited and set up for success. Wonderfully, I was simply treated as any director. It wasn’t some boring walk and talk either. I had pyro, stunts, a cameo, and a chase sequence with 350 background. Every person I encountered, in every department, showed up with passion and cared about the outcome of my episode. Every actor I was fortunate to work with gave their all, and brought their A games in their own unique ways. They allowed me to be additive where I could, and rightfully pushed back when something wasn’t working. They cared. They didn’t call it in. I could not have asked for more. Most importantly, together I think we made something really great.”
Is this an aberration, or the beginning of a new normal that advocacy groups like WeForShe, the Alliance of Women Directors, and Women in Film: LA have been working towards for the last decade? McGowan has thoughts on that. “As with everything, I’m cautiously optimistic. Fortunately, our industry has a massive demand for content right now, and that presents opportunities that didn’t previously exist. I very much hope the gains women & people of color make during this boom lasts. Only time will tell.” Still, she hopes her experience inspires other women working to get a foothold in the industry to reach out to companies and groups who have their best interests at heart. McGowan herself has a robust, outspoken presence on twitter (@IAmJenMcG), where there are many other affirming, supportive female filmmakers.
Says the director, “ Everyone’s journey is different. For me, it’s taken about three times longer than I hoped, but that time allowed me to find my community, which is essential. It’s absolutely not been just my hard work. This is happening now also because of the hard work, support, recommendations, trust, and advocacy of lots of other people. I am just extremely grateful to finally be getting to do the job I love and trained so long for.”
Jen McGowan’s episode of The Purge, “Happy Holidays” airs 9pm on Tuesday, November 19th, on USA.