Girls Just Wanna Have Films: IFC’s “In The Company of Women”
by Tony Phillips
The only thing many female filmmakers have in common are cameras and chromosomes, but award-winning filmmakers Lesli Klainberg and Gini Riticker manage to weave a unique tapestry from just this single thread — female indie filmmakers — for IFC‘s doc “In the Company of Women.” The project was conceived during a hot-and-heavy Sundance Q&A last year, gestated to more than 30 hours of interview tape referencing some 60 films from indie brass like Parker Posey, Lisa Cholodenko, Susan Seidelman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Anders, and Susan Sarandon. Just back from her Sundance premiere, PBS vet, documentarian, and Brooklynite Lesli Klainberg took some time out of a very busy Women’s History Month to talk to indieWIRE about the playing field for women filmmakers, her subject and pal Paul Monette, New York versus LA, heroin, the state of indie film and, of course, Jodie Foster. IFC premieres the film tonight at 8 p.m.
indieWIRE: The caliber of talent you got for this makes one wonder who said no.
Lesli Klainberg: Obviously, you make a film like this, then think, we didn’t get this or that person. You’re always conscious of that. There were some people that said ‘no,’ but they didn’t say they didn’t want to do the movie. They just weren’t available. No one said, ‘I am not doing that movie.’ Sofia Coppola was someone we really would have liked, but she just wasn’t available. She didn’t want to do interviews for a long time. Then she had to do interviews and we just literally caught her at exactly the wrong time every time.
iW: And, you know, Marc Jacobs runs a tight ship. Is this amount of footage typical to one of your shoots?
Klainberg: Lisa [Ades, co-producer of “In the Company of Women” and partner with Klainberg under the Orchard Films banner] and I often do these films. We interview eight or 10 people for a 90-minute film. We never interviewed over 20 people for a movie. That’s just not something we normally do, partly because we love the idea of creating characters with the people we interview and then integrating them throughout the film. It feels weird to us to have someone who only talks a couple of times in the film.
iW: How long did you shoot each person?
Klainberg: Oddly, one of the things I came up with in doing these interviews was how interested people were in talking about the topic. It wasn’t like a typical press junket interview. We don’t ask to interview somebody for 15-minutes, we’d ask for an hour. I’d say everybody talked to us for at least that long. Ruby Rich and some of our critics were more extensive, but everybody was very generous with their time. Susan Sarandon came and sat down with us for an hour.
iW: She was so spot on with that nipple conversation. I mean how can you think nipples in film and not think Atlantic City, that window, those lemons?
Klainberg: She’s not an independent film actress in the same sense as Parker Posey, but she certainly does her share of independent filmmaking and feels very strongly about women. She’s passionate.
iW: Booking these folks must have been a nightmare.
Klainberg: It wasn’t hard to get the interviews. Sometimes it was hard to schedule them, but it wasn’t like it took a long time to get Jodie Foster to do an interview. She was pretty amenable to doing it. I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert on her process, but one gets the sense that all these requests go to her and if she’s interested in something, she goes with it. She also has one of the best gatekeepers in Hollywood.
iW: Did you say gay keepers or gatekeepers?
iW: Regarding Ms. Foster, were there any parameters placed around her or anyone else in the film in terms of what you could and couldn’t ask?
Klainberg: There wasn’t anyone that told us anything that we had to ask or not ask. At all… It was really nice to interview [Foster]. She was very forthcoming in the context of what we were asking her and talked about things in a way that was comfortable for her. She was very real about the themes of her films. I felt she was very thoughtful and nice about other people’s work and she gave us a good amount of time. It was very exciting to interview her. I was probably more scared to interview her than any other person. I don’t even know why.
iW: Because she’s Jodie Foster!
Klainberg: She’s a pretty formidable character and that’s scary, but she was very charming and forthcoming. And it was relative easy to book her, but that was symptomatic of how the film itself got made. There were a lot of women who never really talked about women in film in a very complete and deep way. A lot of these women know each other’s work and are very happy to talk about each other whether it’s actors talking about directors or directors talking about other directors.
iW: It feels like uncharted waters in the film.
Klainberg: One got the sense when interviewing them that no one had ever asked them these questions. And we weren’t asking them questions no one would have ever thought to ask them. We weren’t, you know, smarty pants, but sometimes when you talk to people about something in a different way and they are used to the press junket questions and the “you have five minutes” thing, they’re ready. No one asks them in-depth questions about their work.
iW: You know, as a male filmmaker, I see Women In Film, Women Makes Movies, all this support and I have to tell you, sometimes the grass looks greener. Have these organizations leveled the playing field?
Klainberg: Well, it’s really hard to say. There are women’s organizations that help other women, but sometimes it’s a networking thing or just a more collegial group. Women Make Movies is really about helping women, younger filmmakers particularly, learn about where you get financing and fiscal sponsorship. New York Women in Film is more of a professional organization for women. I was just speaking to one of its founders and she said it was founded around this idea that in the ’70s and ’80s there weren’t many women directors in the industry and so there was a feeling of wanting to get women together.
iW: Is that different now?
Klainberg: I don’t think any of these organizations help get movies made, specifically. They’re resources you have access to through AIVF [Association of Independent Video & Filmmakers] or any of those other groups. They’re not about trying to get you a deal with HBO. They’re about trying to get you the skills you need to do fundraising or the legal things you should think about, but of course they also have seminars with people from the networks to give you advice about pitching.
iW: What was your pitch for this film?
Klainberg: Oddly, this film came about in a very organic way out of last year’s Sundance. I was on last year’s jury and watching “A Decade Under the Influence.” At the end of the film, I put my hand up and asked [co-]director Richard [LaGravenese] what he attributed the lack of female directors to during this time period. We both looked at each other and thought, “I don’t know.” I literally looked at Alison [Palmer Bourke, “In the Company of Women”‘s co-executive producer] who was sitting a few seats away and whispered, “We have to make this movie.” Two days later we were sitting in a coffee shop and Alison said, “Okay, why don’t you develop this.” So me and my partner Lisa produced the film together. Alison gave us money to write a treatment and develop the idea. And then she matched me up with Gini [Reticker] who was the producer of “Decade” and we co-directed this film together. I’m not kidding, from that moment of me asking that question came this film.
iW: So Sundance really is an incubator!
Klainberg: [Laughs] I wish every film was as easy as that. It was just very clear. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a little file in my office on women directors along with 10 other things that I’ve thought about for 20 years or so.
iW: But you’re much more current that just the ’70s. You explore the 90s from New Queer Cinema right up to the present day.
Klainberg: Well, it was just a jumping off point. We weren’t really intending to go off of “Decade.” But there was this thing happening in the ’70s based on the Women’s Liberation Movement and what was going on with women during that time period. There were more women making films and more women going to film school and feeling entitled to be artists and filmmakers. Also, at the same time, there was a burgeoning independent film movement. So a lot of things came together.
iW: Did you ever want to look back beyond the ’70s to people like Maya Deren or, God help me, Leni Riefenstahl?
Klainberg: Well there had been films made about Dorothy Azner, Alice Guy, and these very early female filmmakers. We weren’t, by design, doing a film that was about Hollywood. And so we didn’t talk about Penny Marshall or Nora Ephron or the Hollywood aspect of it. We really ended up concentrating our efforts on talking about independent filmmaking.
iW: You’re in the right place then. You guys are barely in this film at all. No one’s going to accuse you of Nick Broomfield-ism. There’s one moment during an interview with Allison Anders where one of you laughs, but that’s about it.
Klainberg: In this particular instance, it wasn’t our intention to impose ourselves on the film. That happens to not be personally a type of filmmaking I like to watch too much, but that wasn’t the kind of film we’re making. But often when you do interviews, you’re not a person in the film and I often have to stifle my laughter. And Allison Anders is a particularly funny person with comic timing. She has that beat and that’s when I started to laugh.
iW: So it was you!
Klainberg: It’s very funny because I wasn’t very conscious of that moment until we were in the mix and I heard it a lot more and thought we have to get rid of it. But no one’s ever mentioned it except for today and now you’re the second person!
iW: It didn’t take me out.
Klainberg: No, no, it’s totally fine. I did a documentary about Paul Monette several years ago. I shot it with a friend of mine over two and a years and it was a much more personal film.
iW: Not a lot of laughing on that one, I’m sure.
Klainberg: No, you’d be surprised. Paul was a very funny guy, but obviously when you follow someone through the end of their life, you get to be very close. But there was a moment in that film where I’m in it because we go to the March on Washington and then Larry Krammer walks in. That’s the Alfred Hitchcock moment of my career.
iW: I remember now seeing this film you’re talking about. You guys followed Paul pretty far along that road to dying.
Klainberg: Well, when we made that film we thought we were going to make a film about all kinds of gay American heroes. We did one interview with Paul and said obviously the film needs to be about him. We fell in love with him. We thought he was the most amazing person.
iW: He was. Did you ever think about drawing a line in terms of when to stop filming?
Klainberg: We knew the only way the film would end would be to follow him to the end. Paul would always say to us, “Come shoot me now, I might not last that long.” Even on the first day, he was like “I’m dying, you know? I might not last!” Then two-and-a-half years later… And the film to us is still not a film about someone dying, it’s about a writer and artist. We ended up being part of a small circle who was with him until the end. Honestly, I’d never seen a dead body. So it was a very intense experience. Maybe once in your life you make a film like that. Maybe. And being gay and living through that time period, he was probably a year away from getting the kind of help that might have his life last longer. It’s already been nine years now since he died. It’s shocking, actually. I have a lot of pictures of him in my house, a lot of things. And I always thought he was such a handsome guy. I have this picture that [Tom] Bianchi took of him kneeling at the ocean. It’s a picture that’s used a lot of Paul, but every once in a while I’ll just stare at that picture and just stare and stare and stare.
iW: That period is also really well articulated in your current film. I was surprised by how much breath you gave to New Queer Cinema.
Klainberg: Well, one of the things we deal with is how its rise helped women. Obviously we’re making a film about women filmmakers and a lot of women came out of New Queer Cinema. A lot of them didn’t stay there, but that’s where they started.
iW: People can talk about that time and it sounds like such a boy’s club, so it was nice to have you remind of the Troches and Cholodenkos.
Klainberg: Well, “Desperately Seeking Susan” was one of the major influences on independent filmmaking. It was a crossover film. At the time it was the highest grossing indie of all time, male or female. And in that same way, “Go Fish” became a crossover film. So many people went to see that film. Being gay, I look at it from a different perspective. I remember seeing it at Outfest. But so many people when we were doing this film would say that was such a good date movie. I would say it was? It was a big movie. It crossed over. I thought it was sweet that all these straight couples were going to it on dates.
iW: And Cholodenko?
Klainberg: “High Art” was a film that dealt with the sort of downtown culture, heroin, the art world. It was a breakout movie for someone like Patty Clarkson, a comeback movie for someone like Ally Sheedy and by the same token, “Boys Don’t Cry” took on transgender issues and Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for that. That is just incredible. These are very important films.
iW: She talks about coming to New York from LA to be part of this indie scene. Do you feel like that New York is still here?
Klainberg: It’s all relative. I grew up in New York and lived on Avenue B and 10th Street until 1991 or something. I know very well the neighborhood a lot of these films take place in, actually. I think I lived on St. Mark’s Place when they were shooting “Desperately Seeking Susan” there. But there was a point at which I moved out and then lived in L.A. for nine years. And I thought a lot of it was that I was more connected in the gay indie film world in L.A. than I am in New York. I think that’s partly by the way people engage each other out there. I was on the board of Outfest in L.A. and I made a lot of friends and got involved in Out There.
iW: I remember my misspent year in Los Angeles. I think it was ’99 and this collective of filmmakers and actors brought “Charlie” to Outfest. It was a very downtown New York kind of a thing: Charles Manson meets “Charlie’s Angles.” And you could have heard a pin drop. The Angelenos just did not get the New York humor.
Klainberg: There are certain sensibilities to both coasts. Lisa Cholodenko, by design, wanted to come to New York to become a successful indie filmmaker. She wanted to get her masters from the directors program at Columbia. She realized New Queer Cinema was going on and got herself involved with those people. She was ambitious enough to use that to become a director. It was very thoughtful.
iW: She also had a real New York story to tell. Are we to assume, with “Laurel Canyon,” that she’s again an L.A. filmmaker?
Klainberg: It’s interesting, because who knows when she wrote “High Art” or “Laurel Canyon.” When she lived in L.A. or when she moved to New York? She was very interested in the art world and picked up on heroin chic.
iW: Oh God, remember heroin?
Klainberg: [Laughs] I don’t actually miss that. I don’t miss watching my friends keel over.
iW: Not to dwell on the differences between the sexes, but when your lone male critic — Emanuel Levy — finally pops up, I thought, he better have something earth-shattering to say. Was he a token?
Klainberg: No, he’s a great critic. He has this wonderful book called “Cinema of the Outsider.” We felt he was really important and had a lot to say so we were happy to include him. But that’s an example of someone we wound up using more discreetly.
iW: How do you approach directing in collaboration? You seem to do it a lot.
Klainberg: Well, my business partner and I direct together all the time. We directed a film for IFC before called “Indie Sex,” which is about depictions of sex in independent film. We directed other films together. Then there are times when she directs and I produce, but we always produce together. It just happened in this particular instance IFC asked if I would be interested in working with someone else, so Gini and I directed this film together.
iW: How is the labor divided?
Klainberg: We pretty much did everything. I did most of the interviews, but Gini definitely did some. She hadn’t done much interviewing previously, so she wanted to get more comfortable, but other than that we did the film together. She got all the interviews. I didn’t do much there at all. And then, in the last few weeks, we all worked on everything because we were running out of time. We had to make it to Sundance.