A Movie and a Movement: Filmmaker Steven Bognar on the Importance of '9 to 5'

'9 to 5' and '9to5'
'9 to 5' and '9to5'
40 years ago, cult comedy 9 to 5 was released. We look back on the classic with the co-director of the documentary 9to5, Steven Bognar.

Perhaps things aren't quite as bad now as they were in the 1980 comedy starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton.

In 9 to 5, the actors play three coworkers suffering under their "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" boss (Dabney Coleman), who bullies and abuses them mercilessly until at last, they kidnap him. In his absence, they pass several new office policies that benefit everyone.

It's one of my favorite movies. 9 to 5, even in its more zany moments, remains radical and relatable.

Anyone can understand Fonda's character Judy, who breaks down in tears after being called names and left alone at the Xerox machine to clean up a mess of paperwork. Anyone can feel for Parton's Doralee, who yearns to be friends with her coworkers but is ostracized because of rumors her boss spreads. And I wish I were like Tomlin's Violet, who can roll calls and shoot off barbed retorts without breaking a sweat.

However, 9 to 5 is more than the movie and the perpetually jaunty anthem Parton wrote for it. It's also a real-life movement that began in the 1970s when female employees decided they were fed up with unequal pay and poor job conditions. Fonda learned about the 9to5 organization and developed the film as a result.

Both the movement and the movie it inspired are the subjects of the new documentary by Oscar-winning directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar. Their doc 9to5: The Story of a Movement explores the beginning of the organization, the women who built it, and their fight for equality.

Bognar kindly agreed to speak with No Film School via phone about the fictional 9 to 5 and his and Reichert's own take on the movement.

'9 to 5'
'9 to 5'Credit: 20th Century Fox

Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I did want to ask what your inspiration was for making the documentary, and why you think it's still so timely.

Steven Bognar: It's sad that it's timely. It really is. You'd think we would've gotten further than we have by now for a more equal world and a more just society. But it's sad, if you look at the income disparities between women and men, even now in 2020, it's crazy that they're still so big. So that's one reason we wanted to make the movie.

But really the spark came when Julia reconnected with some old friends who had been members of the 9to5 movement, Karen Nussbaum in particular, and we started telling stories. Karen started sharing memories from those days. And Julia and I started talking about what a good movie this would make. And also that their story, the story of the 9to5 movement, which inspired Jane Fonda to make her classic film, those stories have really been forgotten.

9to5 Cleveland holds an action in protest of National City Bank Mary Jung in center.Credit: Steve Cagan

And when you think back to the '70s and the Women's Liberation Movement, other social justice movements, the 9to5 movement had been forgotten, and we thought, you know what, someone should try to tell the story. And the more we thought about it and the more stories we heard, we thought this should be a film.

And Julia, she's just celebrating her 50th year as a documentary filmmaker. In her past work, particularly her films Growing Up Female and Union Maids, these are themes she's explored. Women, work, equity, that she's explored over the decades. And it just felt organic to her career to tell this story and to keep telling these stories.

NFS: Prior to watching your film, I didn't know how enmeshed Jane Fonda was in the 9to5 organization, seeing her involvement and how closely the film was actually tied to the movement.

Bognar: Yeah, Jane really drew inspiration from these working women. [9 to 5 director] Colin Higgins and Jane apparently went to Cleveland. I know Jane was there, and they did interviews, and that's where they got those stories about who fantasizes about killing your boss, and all that stuff that ended up helping fuel the movie.

'9 to 5'
'9 to 5'Credit: 20th Century Fox

NFS: She makes the comment in your film that the "movie was married to the movement," so I was going to ask your opinion of how those real-life issues were fictionalized in 9 to 5. What did it do right, or what did it fail to capture?

Bognar: Well, I think the 9 to 5 movie, the classic movie from Hollywood, is brilliant in its use of satire. [...] Jane Fonda in the '70s was doing a lot of dramas. She had done The China Syndrome and Coming Home, addressing nuclear energy and the Vietnam War. And so her default had been for a while to do these dramas. But the idea to make it a satire, to make it a razor-sharp comedy, makes it much more effective.

And I think Karen Nussbaum in our documentary says it best. She says, "You know what it does? By making it a comedy you leapfrog the debate about whether women's equality is even an issue."

What their movie does so brilliantly is says, yeah, of course it's a huge issue, and here's what we can do about it, or here's how people should respond. It's not even open for debate, because it's so funny. When we laugh and cringe at the same time, it's like we're seeing truths. And I think that movie does that brilliantly.

925 StrikeCredit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

NFS: I did think it was interesting how you incorporated, alongside the actual stories and the historical footage and pictures, the portrayals of these issues from Mad Men or even The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I was wondering about the choice to do that. Is that something that you thought modernized the issue?

Bognar: We felt like showing clips from these pop culture landmarks, TV shows, would be important because it does, in a very succinct way, help make it real. And we didn't want to overdo it. We'd actually watched a ton of pop-cultural TV shows, Mary Tyler Moore and Maude from the '70s, Rhoda, some of these other classic working women's stories. And then we watched a lot of Mad Men, which is full of brilliant examples.

But we just tried to find the right balance of just the right very choice clips to help comment on and make a point about the situation, but also on which we're commenting too. The women in our film are commenting on these same issues.

NFS: What do you think the ongoing cultural impact of 9 to 5, the fictionalized version, is?

Bognar: Well, I think it's inspiring. I think Dolly wrote an all-time great song. It's an anthem. We go to rallies, we still hear that song performed, even though it's 40 years old. There was a huge flash mob on the Lincoln Memorial a few years ago, for equal pay, and something like 150 women were doing a synchronized, choreographed dance to Dolly's song. And that's great. And the movie is beloved.

What's exciting is that the movie is getting rediscovered. As we were making our documentary, we would ask younger activists, younger women, "Hey, have you seen this movie, 9 to 5?" And some of them had because their moms would show it to them, and that's always great. But the fact that it's getting rediscovered is really exciting because it holds up beautifully. It's still very funny and very painful and sharp. It's just really sharp filmmaking. Even though its palette is poppy and bright, it's got real teeth. And that's what I love about it. It's got a big smile, but the teeth are razor sharp.

Credit: Richard Bermack

NFS: Was there anything you wanted to add about your work?

Bognar: I would say just in making our film, we were making this film while we were making American Factory, and it was a big dance to try to make two big films simultaneously, which is a whole other story, but it was a real joy. It was an honor and a joy to meet these amazing women from all over the country because we making the film, we went to Atlanta and filmed there. We went to Seattle, filmed there. Cleveland, Washington, D.C. We did San Francisco. And we interviewed all these incredible women. And we're just really thrilled that they're—like Verna Barksdale in Atlanta or Mary Jung in San Francisco. We're just really thrilled that this movie gets to introduce them to the country.

NFS: I made that comment [...] I was like, "I wonder if they made this because they needed something happy after American Factory." After the frustration of that, in terms of content. I didn't know that it was the same time. That's amazing.

'9 to 5'
'9 to 5'Credit: 20th Century Fox

Bognar: Yeah. We actually started this movie, the 9to5 movie, before American Factory. We had been doing interviews and archival research and then American Factory took off like a rocket in our lives. And we were still working on the 9to5 movie, but there were periods when American Factory was just a runaway train where we were in that factory filming day after day after day.

But in the end, we finished American Factory. And then that premiered in early 2019, and then throughout 2019, we were finishing the 9to5 movie. And of course, we were going to premiere it at SXSW [2020]. We didn't even submit it to Sundance because we were dealing with the Oscar campaign for American Factory. And there was no way we could've tried to do both. But we were thrilled that got into SXSW, and we were so excited. And then, of course, you know what happened. But it's had a great run out in the festival world and it's a lot of online and some drive-in movie theater festivals. And then now we're thrilled it's going to be on PBS very soon.     

Reichert's and Bognar's 9to5: The Story of a Movement will air on PBS Independent Lens on Feb. 1, 2021.

For more information about the documentary and to learn more about workers' rights, you can visit the PBS website.

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2 Comments

Great comedy! My sister's favorite movie!

February 8, 2021 at 8:44AM

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A adore this film! A wonderful comedy and a wonderful cast.

February 10, 2021 at 10:45AM

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