Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
Long-time actress, writer, and producer Zoe Lister-Jones had a big idea when she decided to move behind the camera to direct her first film: she wanted an all-female crew to assist her. On her directorial debut, “Band Aid,” Lister-Jones was joined on set by producer Natalia Anderson, director of photography Hilary Spera, and a team that included female art directors, camera operators, electricians, sound editors, and many more. It was a revolutionary idea that the filmmaker found essential to execute, if only to prove that such a move was indeed possible.
While the lack of female filmmakers working in the industry has become a firebrand topic over the past couple of years, diversity is also severely lacking in other areas of the crew. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University’s latest Celluloid Ceiling study reported that gender representation in professions like editing and sound design is still wildly skewed towards men. The 2016 study found that women comprised 17% of all editors working on the top 250 films of 2016 and just 5% of all cinematographers on those same films were women. Of that same sample, 3% of composers were women, along with 8% of supervising sound editors and 4% of sound designers.
But Lister-Jones didn’t require numbers, because she had already seen the under-representation of women firsthand during the course of her career. While she was heartened by the uptick in conversation around the topic, she was also eager to those ideas into action. “Nothing was changing,” she said in a recent interview. “It felt like, in order to effect change, I needed to sort of subvert the paradigm entirely.”
And that’s exactly what she did. Here’s how she did it (and why it worked so well).
1. Start Planning Early
The daughter of video artist Ardele Lister and photographer and media artist Bill Jones has been working in entertainment since she was kid — amusingly, her first on-screen credit is from when she was just three and starred in her mother’s short “Zoe’s Car” — and she’s always been serious about her craft, graduating with honors from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London to boot. She committed to the idea of an all-female working environment early on.
“I was given this assignment to start a business in my elementary school, and the business that I came up with was an all-female construction company called Big Women. The tagline was ‘There’s No Job to Big for Big Women,'” Lister-Jones said with a laugh. That was just the spark of what would become a game-changing decision, decades later.
“I don’t really have a moment where I remember making that decision,” she said. “For some reason, it lived in me for a really long time, that this was something that I want to create in this world: A place where women, in a collective, get to do work that has otherwise been sort of difficult for them to break into.”
Lister-Jones was confident that her dream of an all-female crew could be reality, having already seen examples of boundary-busting on other projects. She pointed to her work on the TV movie “Confirmation,” a project that boasted a female cinematographer and a first assistant director, in addition to a number of other female crew members.
“There are so many misconceptions that continue to create roadblocks in terms of creating more opportunities for women on film and TV crews,” Lister-Jones said. “And I had seen so many examples of those misconceptions being turned on their heads, and so I just thought, ‘Yeah, let’s just go for it, whole hog!'”
2. Go After Every Possibility
In gathering her crew, Lister-Jones cast a wide net and allowed herself a few months to find the right people for the job at hand, chasing down every avenue in the process.
“I worked with my producer Natalia Anderson, just reaching out to friends and friends of friends in the industry, getting recommendations,” Lister-Jones said. “Once we started hiring our department heads, it was about their recommendations.”
Women began to recommend other women, a sentiment that was reflected when Lister-Jones pursued other employment options, too. The filmmaker also looked to female-centric industry resources, like Women Making Films (WMF) and the Film Fatales, a widespread collective of female filmmakers who have chapters around the world, who had a number of recommendations for her. She even went as grassroots as posting on Facebook when she was in need of a woman for a specific job.
“There is a growing community of women who prove to be very helpful resources in hiring female crews,” she said.
3. Embrace the Good Vibes
“Band Aid” follows a long-time couple (Lister-Jones and Adam Pally) who decide to work out their issues by forming a rock band in their garage dedicated to literally singing out their problems. It’s a fun, fresh idea, but it’s also one that is rife with dramatic possibilities and major revelations. It’s also an emotional film, and Lister-Jones found that having an all-female crew allowed them to tap into those spaces with a different kind of ease.
“There was definitely a large sense of intimacy on set, and I think that our crew definitely lent to that energy,” she said. “It was a very supportive and nurturing and patient vibe.”
Lister-Jones pointed to the film’s sex scenes as a barometer for the energy on set, one she had never experienced before.
“The sex scenes were really clear indicators of how different the energy was on set,” she said. “As an actress, I think even when you’re not in a sex scene, just as a woman, you’re very aware of your objectification on a day-to-day basis. I think that’s obviously magnified when you’re naked and simulating sex in front of a group of men. To be surrounded by women [while doing it], it was just like night and day.”
She’s clear, however, that her desire to have an all-female crew isn’t reflective of bad experiences she’s had with male-dominated ones, however. It was about finding — and embracing — the right crew and vibe for the project.
“It has nothing to do with the intentions of the people watching,” she said. “I’m not saying that male crew members are predatory in those instances, but I think it’s just the nature of what we as women are raised feeling and continue to feel. That male gaze is very powerful. It just was so freeing to feel that protected.”
The gamble paid off: the film premiered at Sundance in January, where it was quickly snapped up by IFC Films and Sony Pictures Worldwide for a summer release.
4. Enlist Male Allies
There were, of course, a handful of men directly involved in the film’s creation — including Lister-Jones’ own husband, executive producer Daryl Wein, with whom she has frequently worked — and QC Entertainment partners and producers Edward H. Hamm Jr., Raymond Mansfield, Shaun Redick, and Sean McKittrick, none of whom balked at the filmmaker’s request. And that wasn’t even the half of it.
“One of the earliest conversations we had was that they wouldn’t be allowed on set,” Lister-Jones said. “Because I wanted to be really clear about boundaries, in terms of creating an environment where women were calling every shot. I think even with the most wonderful and caring and sensitive executive producers at the monitor, it would inevitably shift the dynamic. They were so respectful and so excited about this idea, it was really refreshing.”
Co-star Pally also benefitted immensely from the all-female crew. Lister-Jones fondly remembered shooting a particularly emotionally raw scene with the actor, an experience that was bolstered by a crew that fell totally silent during filming, allowing the actor the space and safety to dive deeply into the material. “It was this incredible reverence to what they understood Adam had to do in that moment,” she said.
5. Keep Pushing Forward
Lister-Jones is pragmatic about the future of all-female crews or even female-dominated crews, though she’s continuing to push forward on her own end. She recently filmed a music video for a song from the film’s band, The Dirty Dishes, and she again employed an all-female crew for the gig, including some returning members and some new faces.
“I think what’s exciting to see is that it just keeps getting easier to do,” she said. “Now, it just feels like the norm for a lot of us.”
She’s also hopeful that what she was able to accomplish on “Band Aid” will inspire others to try something similar, or at least to try something different than their usual stuff.
“The reality is still very bleak, but I hope more people are inspired to do so and inspired to sort of step outside their comfort zones in terms of their hiring practices and the patterns that can so easily fall into in terms of hiring people that they know,” Lister-Jones said. “I think all of those things need to be challenged a little more vigilantly, so that more change can be effected.”
“Band Aid” opens in theaters on June 2 and on VOD on June 9. Check out the trailer below.