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Daily Reads: Why TV Lags in Behind-the-Scenes Diversity, ‘Spotlight’ Isn’t Just About Journalism; It Is Journalism, and More

Daily Reads: Why TV Lags in Behind-the-Scenes Diversity, 'Spotlight' Isn't Just About Journalism; It Is Journalism, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Peak Inequality: Investigating the Lack of Diversity Among TV Directors.
As a medium, television has made great strides in diversifying both on-screen and off-screen talent, with plenty of shows featuring non-white casts and writers. But though TV is a writers’ medium, it still has yet to make those strides with diversifying directors. Variety’s Maureen Ryan comprehensively examines the lack of diversity among TV directors.

Television is a writer’s medium, unlike film, and the industry has made a modicum of long-overdue progress when it comes to diversifying the ranks of creators. But those efforts at inclusion have yet to infiltrate directorial rosters in a significant way. Efforts to open up the ranks of TV directors have been too limited to truly alter the repetitive annual DGA reports. Adding to the problem: Women and people of color who somehow break through the hurdles at the broadcast networks are rarely of interest to cable and streaming outlets. In that segment of the industry, DGA stats reveal that efforts to nurture the careers of white women, men of color and women of color are lacking, and thus the pool of diverse directors with “prestige” credits remains tiny. The networks with the worst records acknowledge they have to do better, and point to their upcoming slates as signs of progress, but it will take more than incremental changes to reverse systemic problems. Greater efforts could be made to alter the membership of the DGA, of course, but the irony is, diverse directors with experience are already in the guild — hundreds if not thousands of them. But if their credits are more than a year or two old, they might as well be invisible to the industry. The end result is statistical gridlock. White men constitute 31 percent of the American population, but for years, they’ve gotten more than two-thirds of directing gigs — and at some cable networks, that number is closer to 80 or even 90 percent. Those kinds of profound imbalances led the ACLU to begin an investigation of Hollywood more than two years ago. “What we learned through that investigation painted what I think is a disturbing picture of very long-running, systemic discrimination throughout the industry,” says Melissa Goodman, director of the LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project for the ACLU of Southern California. “We thought this was very important because the effects of this exclusion from director positions is a cultural matter…the discrimination happening within culture production actually helps reinforce discrimination that happens in the wider world.”…Some efforts to change how TV hires directors were already underway, but there’s no doubt that the ACLU inquiry, which led to an ongoing Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation of Hollywood’s employment of female directors, made the industry sit up and take notice. “Now that studios are not owned by one man and they’re part of big conglomerates, they have responsibilities and they can’t just discriminate like that. They know that,” says Lexi Alexander, director of the films “Green Street Hooligans,” “Punisher: War Zone.” Alexander recently directed her first TV episode, an installment of the CW superhero show “Arrow,” and she has become an eloquent spokeswoman for women and people of color who feel excluded by the industry. On Twitter, she recently pointed out that if she or another director of Arab descent had gotten a chance to direct “Homeland,” perhaps graffiti in Arabic mocking the show would not have appeared in a recent episode. Her passion and advocacy boil down to a simple idea: “Maybe some of the problems we have could be solved by not having one point of view and letting other people also tell stories.”

2. The Inside Story of the Extraordinary “Spotlight.”
 Tom McCarthy’s new film “Spotlight” focuses on the Boston Globe’s investigation of the 2002 Massachusetts Catholic sex abuse scandal. The film has been celebrated for its procedural style that demonstrates the power of journalism. Uproxx’s Mike Ryan delves into the inside story of the extraordinary “Spotlight.”

Think how often we hear a filmmaker say, “I just wanted to tell their story.” Usually this is at some sort of question and answer session in front of people who might potentially vote to award that filmmaker one of countless trophies. And then that filmmaker tells that same story to Jimmy Fallon later that week, then probably Charlie Rose the week after. This is all usually accompanied by a clip from that filmmaker’s new movie — probably a scene in which the protagonist looks triumphant as the music swells. Or maybe our main character is yelling. He’s probably yelling about something righteous. This is an “Oscar” scene. This is an “Oscar” movie. And this is all the usual garbage we have to put up with while that filmmaker makes his or her play for that Oscar.Cynicism aside, filmmakers often have a problem with falling in love with their subjects, especially if that subject is still living and breathing. It’s human nature to trust that the person they’re making a movie about is telling the whole story…this isn’t journalism. But what happens when a filmmaking team doesn’t just take its protagonists’ word for it? What happens when these filmmakers dig deeper than the word of a group of journalists responsible for one of the greatest reported stories of the 21st century? Surely, if anyone were going to give you the full story, it would be this group, right? That’s what makes “Spotlight” so remarkable. I met Josh Singer — one half of “Spotlight’s” screenwriting team (director Tom McCarthy makes up the other half) — for coffee in Manhattan’s East Village. It’s a brisk evening and we have difficulty finding a coffee shop that isn’t packed. We settle on one, but Singer isn’t happy. He likes the coffee at the location we just left, but my fears of only hearing “crowd noise” on my recorder win the argument. Singer is quite tall and, when he gets going, kind of sounds like Adam Carolla, which makes him look a little bit like Carolla, too. Adding to this, Singer has a tendency to stop mid-sentence and proclaim, “Look, here’s the thing…” “Spotlight” premiered in September at the Venice Film Festival, then ran the gauntlet through the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival, picking up almost unparalleled praise at each stop. Singer has taken this festival route once before – with 2013’s Julian Assange biopic, “The Fifth Estate” — but that experience had, let’s say, a lot more turbulence. “Two years before, we had the same location for the party for ‘The Fifth Estate,'” Singer is talking about Toronto’s Soho House, which hosted the premiere party for both “The Fifth Estate” in 2013 and “Spotlight” in 2015. “There were a lot more people who wanted to talk to me at this year’s party.”

3. How an Oscar-Nominated Legend Ended Up in an Amateurish Horror Film.
Sometimes great actors end up in films that are beneath their stature. Sometimes great actors take on jobs in smaller films because they want to shift their career in a different direction. But other times, Oscar-nominated, legendary character actors take jobs in amateur films. But why? At Vanity Fair, Vadim Rizov writes about how James Caan ended up in a four-walled horror film.

Far beneath the world of movies you’re probably or possibly aware of — mainstream multiplex offerings, art-house indies, festival films that don’t get distribution (if that’s your aesthetic calling) — exists a different and dreadful world of movies that shouldn’t exist. This isn’t the realm of direct-to-DVD-and-TV schlock, which makes economic sense — dreadful as the latest Steven Seagal film might be (yes, he’s still grinding them out annually), these kinds of movies are generally pre-sold to various platforms and territories before production starts. That means as long as you stay on budget, the profit’s already made. But then there are hopeless dramas and mirthless comedies featuring non-performances, financed by someone with more money than judgment. You’ve never heard of any of them; as a freelance film critic, I’ve seen dozens. The more money you’re willing to waste, the relatively bigger names you can get: Michael Madsen appears in about a dozen no-profile films a year. With no sane distributor interested in acquiring these films, their makers resort to the practice of “four-walling” (paying theaters to show a film) or submitting their work to low-/no-profile festivals more interested in raising money from submission fees and sponsors than the caliber of what’s being shown. There are far more of these than you’d suspect. “Sicilian Vampire” star/director/producer/musician Frank D’Angelo is a more-than-usually egregious creature of these overlapping worlds. Notorious in Toronto and virtually unknown elsewhere, D’Angelo is a dubiously talented businessman…with a lot of cash to throw around, primarily (presumably) thanks to D’Angelo Brands, a company whose wares include the energy drink Cheetah Power Surge. Since 2010, he’s also been the host of “The Being Frank Show,” a late-night talk show taped weekly at the Forget About It Supper Club, one of D’Angelo’s two restaurants. It looks like a real show but it’s really just an infomercial D’Angelo has paid for, interrupted only by commercials for his own products. He’s also cranked out a series of albums in the Seth MacFarlane–big-band vein and claims to have written 500 songs. In 2013, D’Angelo decided he wanted to make films and he started with “Real Gangsters,” a mob film starring himself whose general tenor can be gathered from this opening snippet of dialogue: “The finality of life, it sucks big fuckin’ cock.” “Sicilian Vampire” is his fourth film, a feat of productivity made possible by D’Angelo’s decision to shoot all his films in five days or less. Will Sloan has written an amusing overview of what he calls “The Frank D’Angelo Cinematic Universe,” a world in which continuity errors, plot inconsistencies, and baffling incompetence reign supreme. All of these films cost at least $5 million Canadian (about $3.7 million U.S.), with actors paid in cash. Given the low time commitment, prompt payment, and well-catered dinners that come with participation, it’s not surprising that a small repertory company of actors whose name value isn’t what it once was — Eric Roberts, Margot Kidder — have repeatedly returned to the trough.

4. Aziz Ansari on Acting, Race, and Hollywood.
Aziz Ansari’s new show “Master of None” has garnered attention for its diverse cast and intelligent attitude towards representation. Ansari has made a purposeful effort to cast non-white actors in prominent roles. In an article for The New York Times, Ansari writes about casting in Hollywood, how it’s essential to cast minorities non-traditional roles, and his experience with Fisher Stevens in “Short Circuit 2.”

These days, Indian people, real Indian people, pop up way more in film and television, but fake Indians are still around more than you think. I loved “The Social Network,” but I have a hard time understanding why the Indian-American Harvard student Divya Narendra was played by Max Minghella, a half-Chinese, half-Italian British actor. More recently, “The Martian” was based on a novel with an Indian character named Venkat Kapoor, who in the film became Vincent, a character portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor of Nigerian origin. (The Indian actor Irrfan Khan was reportedly in talks to take the role, but couldn’t because of a scheduling conflict.) My efforts to get responses from people who made these decisions were unsuccessful. But I don’t want to judge them before knowing the full story, especially because I know that both films made at least some attempts to pursue Indian actors. I auditioned for “The Social Network,” and I was horrible. I tried to improvise and make the role funny. I was a young actor who didn’t understand what he was doing. I was also asked to audition for a part in “The Martian” (not Kapoor), but I skimmed the script and — no offense — it seemed like a boring movie about a white guy stuck on Mars for two hours who gets fired up about plants, so it didn’t seem worth taking a break from my own projects. (I’ve heard the film is fantastic.) So, I know the filmmakers made an effort to cast Indian actors, but how hard did they try? I had to cast an Asian actor for “Master of None,” and it was hard. When you cast a white person, you can get anything you want: “You need a white guy with red hair and one arm? Here’s six of ’em!” But for an Asian character, there were startlingly fewer options, and with each of them, something was off. Some had the right look but didn’t have comedy chops. Others were too young or old. We even debated changing the character to an Asian woman, but a week before shooting began, Kelvin Yu, an actor from Los Angeles, sent in an audition over YouTube and got the part. So I get it: Sometimes you’re in a jam. Every time I’ve played a part that required stunts, they’ve been done by a white stuntman who has had to brown up. In those cases, the ethics didn’t seem quite as dubious. Training an Indian to do the stunts wasn’t practical, and a stuntman is not mocking Indian people; he’s tricking people into thinking it’s me, a real Indian. (If there is a heartbroken Indian stuntman reading this now: Dude, I’m so sorry, and you really need to get a better stunt agent.) But I still wonder if we are trying hard enough. Even though I’ve sold out Madison Square Garden as a standup comedian and have appeared in several films and a TV series, when my phone rings, the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents.

5. Dennis Lim on “The Man From Another Place,” His Book About David Lynch.
Dennis Lim’s new book “The Man From Another Place” examines David Lynch’s work from a variety of angles, offering a variety of interpretations on his films without trying to decode or “solve” them. Flavorwire’s Alison Nastasi interviews Lim about his new book and his approach to David Lynch.

Q: In the book you discuss how “Eraserhead” is less a depiction of Philly and more about how the city got under his skin. But at the same time, there’s something grounded in the realities of those neighborhoods that preexists Lynch. Still, people conflate them with “Eraserhead” That part of the city is nicknamed the “Eraserhood.” How was Lynch was able to take something literal, the parts of these neighborhoods, and internalize something so specific to transform it into this mythic location?

A: One factor may be distance. He was already living in LA when he made “Eraserhead.” He was going off a certain sense memory of the place and certain emotions that it provoked. He talked about it very excitedly as a place that was very frightening to him, as somebody who never lived in cities and had never really confronted violent crime. And he was living in a fairly rundown part of Philadelphia at the time. Nobody would ever mistake Lynch for a realist or naturalist artist. He was always interested in expressionist ideas, which you see even in his early paintings and films. The idea of translating something very real into something more fantastical has always been part of his process.

Q: That reminds me of the quote you mention from “Lost Highway.” You tell the story of Lynch seeing “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie” for the first time and how when he stumbled across it later in life, he wouldn’t watch it on TV. You quote Bill Pullman’s character from “Lost Highway”: “I like to remember things my own way…How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” Keeping that snapshot quality and distance in mind, how does it affect the way we see things in his films? How does it enhance the work?

A: It’s interesting. I went back to many of these films when I was writing the book. I was surprised at how well they held up. The thing with films that have really visceral impressions or are shocking in some way, you expect that to wear off. But they didn’t for me — at least the films that meant the most to me or the ones that I watched most often. “Blue Velvet” is maybe the best example of that. It’s the first Lynch film that I saw. I was very young. And going back to it when I was writing this more than 28 years later, it’s a film that not only shocked me again, but also seemed no easier to comprehend in some way. It was very much the “Blue Velvet” experience I remembered, strangely enough, from watching it when I was 14 years old.

6. A Very Special Episode: “Ellen” Lost Her Virginity (Again).
The A.V. Club’s Very Special Episode column focuses on one specific episode that exemplifies a certain show, trend, or era of television. In this month’s installment, writer Noel Murray explores an episode of “Ellen” in which the titular character has sex with another woman, something ’90s television didn’t really cover.

“Ellen’s” writers, though, struggled to come up with stories to fit around the jokes — or at least ones that distinguished the show from every other contemporary sitcom about the petty daily gripes of middle-class white folks in their 20s and 30s. Often the lead just reacted to the latest folly of one of her pals: a shifting cast of characters played by TV vets like Joely Fisher, David Anthony Higgins, and Jeremy Piven. Occasionally the producers would try to force DeGeneres’ Ellen Morgan character into romantic plot-lines, but she was never that convincing playing boy-crazy, which cut off a lot of conventional sitcom avenues. Then on April 30, 1997, ABC aired “The Puppy Episode,” an hourlong “Ellen” laden with cameos by Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, and Gina Gershon. The most important guest star was Laura Dern, playing Susan, a woman whom Ellen would develop a crush on, which would help her to admit that she’d been suppressing her homosexuality her entire life. Rumors about the content of the episode spread for nearly a year before it aired, and the big revelation was winked at and teased throughout “Ellen’s” fourth season. Then on April 14, “Time” published a cover story on DeGeneres with the headline, “Yep, I’m Gay,” confirming what was already widely suspected. The subsequent hype surrounding “The Puppy Episode” drove viewership to over 40 million. The series went on to win an Emmy that year for Outstanding Writing, and “The Puppy Episode” is still considered a watershed moment in television, clearing the way for more LGBT content. What’s sometimes forgotten is that “Ellen” stayed on the air for a full year’s worth of episodes after DeGeneres came out. There were two more episodes in season four, dealing with the aftermath of her announcement. Season five tested ABC’s commitment to airing a sitcom about an openly gay woman. As groundbreaking as “The Puppy Episode” was, “Ellen’s” fifth season went even further, as the writers explored the ripple effect of their heroine embracing her sexuality. Suddenly, they had a lot of stories to tell. How would this change affect the way Ellen interacted with her friends and family? Would she keep the same job? Would she get politically radicalized? And — most importantly — would she get a girlfriend? Ellen did in fact find somebody early in season five: Laurie (played by Lisa Darr), a single mother with a sense of humor. In the season’s ninth episode, “Like A Virgin,” Ellen has sex with Laurie for the first time. This was an inevitable turn of events for any show about a healthy adult lesbian. But it was way beyond primetime network television’s usual handling of gay female sexuality, which tended to treat a woman lusting after another woman as something shocking, sinister, silly, or softly pornographic.

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