When I found out that I was invited to take part in the Fox Global Director’s Initiative, I was in Beirut, on my way to the Bekaa Valley. The lab would commence in just seven days — by which time, I was supposed to be in Amman, continuing development on my dance feature A History of the Middle East. The Royal Jordanian Film Commission had already booked arrangements for my time there.
Needless to say, being at Fox Studios as a Directing Fellow was the furthest thing away from my mind — and seemed like the unlikeliest thing to ever happen.
For one, the nomination to enter the lab by Melissa Silverstein happened over the summer while I was ill. The second round of the submission process for the lab came while I was in Michigan, casting my upcoming feature Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf. I remember taking a whole day out of the casting process and barely getting the documents in under the deadline. But the real reason I didn’t think I’d get in was because, while my films have been celebrated critically, I really can’t tell you the names of anybody like me working in TV. To my knowledge, there are no Arab-American show runners, never mind Arab-American women television directors. The program is a rare portal for someone like me to get into episodic directing, and that’s why I dropped everything and came out to L.A.
Becoming an episodic director, I’ve learned, is an extraordinarily difficult task. The networks like to go with directors who already have experience. If someone is a newbie, they can get in if a show runner wants to take a risk on them. This was thus a very special and rare opportunity to meet a slew of show runners.
My first night on the Fox lot, I was overcome by how it was one of the epicenters of the culture that dominated my pop cultural childhood. There was a fake New York set, lines of palm trees, illustrations from The Simpsons on the wall. I received a tweet from a prominent Dutch cabinet member Arjan El Fassad, congratulating me on receiving my “permission to narrate.” That about sums it up.
I’m a woman who covered the Second Intifada as a 23-year-old journalist living abroad. I’m not scared of much. But the idea of breaking into an industry where there is a lot at stake and very few women of my background working as episodic directors, inspires me and makes me want to push onwards.
For all the hassle and expense of getting here (there is no stipend for participating in the lab), I received extraordinary access to meeting major episodic directors who worked on my favorite shows growing up, from The Wonder Years to Roseanne. I found the lab leaders beyond willing to take risks to help me, including with contacts outside the lab. Fox executives Nicole Bernard and Gina Reyes are strong, elegant women who are also accessible and kind.
The details of the lab are not as important to me as the general feeling that of infinite possibility. My work and my ideas will be circulated to executives as part of the mission statement for the lab. To me, this represents the absolute possibility of working in the studio world and in TV if I want it.
For someone like me, who is interested in shape-shifting (I make video art, docs, narrative, and dance films), this lab gave me another toolbox. I want to express how deeply I felt everyone pushing me forward. The Princess Grace Foundation awarded me special funds to help with the costs of coming to Los Angeles. My sister found me a place to rent. The film commission in Jordan changed dates for me. My fellow women in the program even introduced me to their agents and managers. Everyone facilitating during the lab answered my questions and emails, and even offered me meetings.
One of my final experiences at the Fox Lot was shadowing the legendary episodic director Gail Mancuso on Cristela. She and show creator Cristela Alonzo showed me that women can direct and create while also being extraordinarily helpful and available to other women. I wish to take that spirit with me. I can’t wait to return to Women and Hollywood when I’ve received my first big break as a director working in TV.
I’ve received all the tools: now what I do with them are up to me.
Susan Youssef is the director of the 2011 feature Habibi. She was one of the 20 inaugural participants of the Fox Global Directors Initiative, a new multi-year program from the studio to develop the talents and networking pools of promising women directors.