Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present and future.
Elisabeth Subrin’s feature directorial debut, “A Woman, A Part,” is a film about now. The film follows Maggie Siff as actress Anna Baskin, star of a seemingly popular and well-regarded network television series, who has grown increasingly disenfranchised with the work afforded to her by her industry. Fresh off a recent battle with an autoimmune disease and frustrated by a career path that doesn’t value her creative input, Anna takes a break from her show and heads back to the familiar environs of New York City, where she got her start in experimental theater.
Anna’s success on the small screen has alienated her from her friends, including her closest confidants and former performing partners, Kate (Cara Seymour) and Isaac (John Ortiz). When she returns to NYC (and Kate and Isaac), some old wounds are reopened and some hard truths – especially about the intersection of emotion and art – are revealed. “A Woman, A Part” confronts industry-wide sexism head on, making it clear that Anna’s experiences are not unique and dismantling any romantic notions about how Hollywood operates.
Although the film is Subrin’s narrative feature debut, the visual artist and filmmaker has long used film and video to tell her stories, and it’s not the first story she wanted to turn into a long-form offering. In 2003, Subrin was picked for the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Directing and Screenwriting Labs, where she worked on her first feature-length screenplay, “Up.” The film’s plotline proved to be prescient: The film, about the dotcom bubble, was scrapped because of the American economy went topside in the early aughts. (Subrin, however, is still dedicated to making the film and expects to make it after shooting another experimental short.)
Heartbroken over the fate of “Up,” Subrin backed away from filmmaking for years, until her producer Scott Macaulay encouraged her to channel her professional frustrations and personal pain into a new script. That screenplay eventually became “A Woman, A Part.”
“I kind of put all my personal challenges into it,” Subrin recently told IndieWire. The result is an intimate film with a big message, and a feminist feature that embraces equality in all its forms, both in front of and behind the camera. That it’s also about the industry it actively subverts is just icing on the cake.
Two Women, Two Parts
Siff was Subrin’s first choice for the complicated role of Anna, a part that Siff personally sparked to early on. “I was intrigued and also sort of intimidated by it, because it bears a lot of resemblance to my own life, not so much in whom the character is or what necessarily her psychology and crises are, but the life of the actor and the things that you struggle with and the lifestyle in Los Angeles,” Siff said. “You burn out.”
Having previously worked with Seymour, Subrin knew what she could bring to the also complex demands of playing Kate. “This is a brilliant actor, and she’s not getting big enough parts that reflect everything she can do,” Subrin said of Seymour. “I knew she could sink herself into this.”
“It’s always nice to get something you can really sink your teeth into, and to explore a character with many dimensions,” Seymour said. “I knew it wasn’t just about playing someone who is both sympathetic and angry, or alcoholic and a lesbian, it’s about the spiritual dimension of a character. You think it’s familiar, but it’s not.”
“It’s Just Not the Status Quo”
Another thing that wasn’t familiar? The on-set vibe provided by having not only a female director, but a crew that was evenly split between the genders. “There was a really, really different kind of vibe on set,” Siff said. “It was one of those things that once you’re inside of it, because it’s just not the status quo, you’re like, ‘This is amazing!'”
Subrin’s sensibilities and sensitivities permeated every part of the production, something the filmmaker made clear to her performers early on.
“She said to me, ‘Just so you know, this film is not going to have a male gaze,'” Siff remembered. “Usually, the camera is operated by a guy and it’s something that’s written by a guy and directed by a guy, so of course the camera is the male gaze. When she said that, I was intrigued. She said, ‘I’m not going to fetishize your body. It’s not going to be about you looking sexy. It’s going to be about a woman’s emotional experience of moment. You’re not going to feel objectified.”
For Siff, the end result was an experience like no other and one she’d like to have much more often. “Why can’t 50 percent of my experiences be like this? Why is this one in a hundred? Why isn’t this one out of two?” Siff said.
One obvious impediment to Siff and other performers having this kind of experience is film financing. For Subrin, it wasn’t easy to get the funds to make “A Woman, A Part,” despite her background, her passion and her cast.
“We went the traditional route first, the usual suspects, who said really nice things about the script, and either wanted bigger name actors or couldn’t connect to it. It’s a very particular film, and we were really prepared for that,” Subrin said.
But despite being “a very particular film,” Subrin admits that “A Woman, A Part” does share some large similarities with other films that have gone before it and that have been both critically and financially successful. But that’s not something that investors connected to.
“One potential investor said, ‘The last thing I’m interested in is a story about a burnt out fortysomething actress who moves to New York and gets in a play to try to find herself,’ and [producer] Scott was just like, ‘Unless it’s a little movie called “Birdman.”‘ It is ‘Birdman’! It is the same film,” Subrin said. “That kind of says it all.”
Subrin, however, remained committed to getting the film made. “We recognized that we needed to find smaller investors and build up the budget, teeny piece by teeny piece,” she said. They did just that, eventually cobbling together the money to make the film, though its production was threatened by Siff and Seymour’s tight schedules on “Billions” and “The Knick,” respectively. Subrin forged ahead.
“We probably had no business going into production when we did. We were like, ‘Do we wait a year?’ and I was like, ‘No way. I’ve waited a decade,'” Subrin said.
The Narrow Ideas of Women
Early in the film, Anna has a breakdown that culminates with her reading through a stack of scripts for potential roles, only to discover that each screenplay is filled with one-dimensional female characters, trope-laden narratives and wooden dialogue. Already on edge, Anna throws each and every script into her pool.
It’s a situation that rang true for both Siff and Seymour.
“There is just an ocean of roles and scripts that you’re sort of reading through that are really trite and redundant. There are a lot of tropes for women you encounter over and over and over again, depending on your type,” Siff said.
“I myself have thrown scripts across the room, and I know many actresses who do. It’s getting better, but it’s unbelievable how we’re asked to represent the narrow [ideas of women],” Seymour said.
“For a long time, I felt like I was getting scripts when I was younger that were sort of like the ‘sardonic bitchy best friend.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, there’s the bitchy best friend again that I have no interest in playing,’ then you graduate to the ‘bitchy ex-wife,'” Siff added. “It kind of goes on from there.”
Parts like that of Anna and Kate in “A Woman, A Part” afforded both actresses the chance to do something more meaningful. “When you read something that’s actually got depth and warmth and feels real, it almost feels like a shock to the system,” Siff said. “‘Oh wait, that feels real, that feels true. That feels like something we’ve never seen before. Why haven’t I ever seen this before?'”
“I feel really excited about the way Maggie and Cara’s performances are being received, because they’re complex characters and they’re not always likable and they’re not twenty-five,” Subrin said.
“Kicking and Screaming”
For Seymour, the possibilities laid out by Subrin’s film (and its unique production) have her excited for the future. “One day, we’ll see it as just hilarious, [how getting parts was] based entirely on what you look like and how fuckable you are and how that defines how much screen time you get and how much you are allowed to express yourself.”
Subrin, however, is a little more restrained when talking about the future.
“I’m not sure I totally agree that things are changing, because I think we’re pretty much at a primordial state in change. The first thing is a lot of kicking and screaming, and we have been doing that forever,” Subrin said. “When I look at what films are in the festivals, when I look at the statistics of what is in the festivals, when I look at the 2016 statistics, it hasn’t changed. I just want to see other stories.”
“A Woman, A Part” is screening at BAMcinemaFest on Sunday, June 19. It is currently seeking distribution.