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Lexi Alexander on The Brutal Truth Behind Why Women Don’t Direct More Television

Lexi Alexander on The Brutal Truth Behind Why Women Don't Direct More Television

When I got Lexi Alexander on the phone, I wasn’t quite sure what would happen. On the one hand, the Oscar-nominated director of films including “Green Street Hooligans” and “Punisher: War Zone” is incredibly outspoken on Twitter when it comes to her opinions regarding… well, everything, but most notably the way women directors are treated in the industry. On the other hand, when she agreed to a phone interview, she mentioned that “TV is complicated for me and I haven’t been able to say a lot about it, mainly to save my own career.” So there was a strong chance she’d end up playing it safe. 

READ MORE: Sorry, Ladies: Study on Women in Film and Television Confirms The Worst

Playing it safe is not Alexander’s style, though. Below, she talks about how she got the gig directing an episode of “Arrow” next season, before digging into the cultural realities of Hollywood production that keep women from getting the same opportunities that men do. 

How’s the day treating you?

Pretty good, pretty good, I went to see “Spy” because, I don’t know if you know this, but Paul Feig is the only male A-list director who came out in solidarity of the whole ACLU thing. I was a fan before, but of course now we are all even bigger fans. I went to a 9:30 screening and it was a good start to the day. The movie is very funny.

Awesome, I want to see it this weekend.

It’s so good.

Certainly instead of seeing “Entourage.”

[laughs] Exactly. 

I wanted to start off by congratulating you on the “Arrow” gig.

Thank you.

I feel that is a great entry point into what I want to talk about. People look at numbers of how many women are directing, but I don’t think we have a sense of how directors get these sorts of gigs. Could you talk about how you ended up getting an opportunity to do an episode of “Arrow”?

It’s very funny because it is actually exactly how all of the TV business works: There is no rhyme or reason to it. It was one showrunner, one executive producer, who was a fan of my work, reached out and made it happen. That was Andrew Kreisberg, who is an executive producer on “Arrow.”  

Basically, I am unclear if it was specifically said “we need to get more women in” or if it was we need to get some other filmmakers in, but this was him tracking me down, knowing my films, and finding me because nobody had pitched me to him, not even my own people. People in his office had to track my representatives down and specifically invite me. The simple version of that is when people don’t go through the work to find a specific type of filmmaker, a woman or minority filmmaker, they just call their friends or they take whoever the agent is pitching them. Mainly though, in TV, it is people who know each other. It is not necessarily directors who fit the show at all.

You didn’t know anyone involved in “Arrow” when you got tracked down?

No, and it is a very rare occasion that a producer actually does the work, who says “let’s get some new people in.” It’s the medium where people who get in at a certain point work until they’re 80 years old. They basically work because a showrunner they’re friends with will get a show and call them. It is very country club-ish, to be honest.

What specifically interested you about working in television?

The thing about TV is that it’s great work for directors because the responsibility is not ours, at all. In a movie, you choose a movie and everybody points his or her finger at you afterward. It doesn’t matter how much influence you had on the script, how much decision you had, or the fact that you didn’t have final cut. Nobody ever said, “Such and such show got cancelled because Episode 5 was directed by Joe Schmo.” 

You do a good job directing, and it’s fun, but you don’t carry that burden of the entire success of the project. We love it because we can also develop our own stuff in the meantime. The problem is these gigs get handed out almost like perks, and that’s a massive problem. 

This is what cuts black directors out, Hispanic directors, Asian directors, women directors. Our numbers are the lowest of all — minority men have passed us by far. Now it is not about skill. We can’t even get on shows that are considered women shows. It becomes a real issue because where can we get hired then?

This sounds like something I’ve seen you talk about on Twitter, the idea of tokenism — where there is a very small number of women directors who are working regularly but get pointed out as “Look, we’ve hired a women director.”

Exactly. This is actually a big problem because those 20 directors are fighting over everything. When you have a token group, that token group does so well because they become the one woman of the season that everybody goes to. They don’t want any change. Other women in the industry are often frustrated at them. We also have to admit that had it been us, if we fell into that position, we would probably do the same thing. 

We have to consider that this has to, at some point, become an industry that can be accessible because people are talented and not because they knew the right person. Being at the right place at the right spot to get that one token spot, it can’t be like that. Even shows like “How to Get Away with Murder” or “Grey’s Anatomy” are celebrated because they have a lot of women, but even a lot of women on these shows doesn’t mean a majority of women. It will still be a majority of men on them. It’s almost inexcusable. 

Even England, which usually lags behind on any kind of equality, at some point decided they should have a show where they have an entire season directed by women. It wasn’t something they purposely set out to do. But “Call The Midwife” turned out to be that way. That’s the right way to look at it.

One thing that just came to me is the fact that I can think of a few female directors in television who got their start as actresses.

That is another thing. It is very complex in TV. It is actually more corrupt than the feature world. The TV world is unbelievably country club-ish in that way. It has become this thing where agents have to get out, and agents just do what they were taught to do, which is making the most money with their clients. It’s actually very good money, especially on a network show that gets residuals. They have their client direct a couple of episodes, and it’s double the money, basically.

This has become a huge problem because, first of all, not everybody is made to direct. I see some of them literally do it out of boredom and because their agents have talked them into it. “It’s a power thing, you should do it, you never know, for later…” It’s become this thing where it’s suddenly a back up career for aging actresses. That’s nice, except now you’re really cutting us out of everything. 

There are people who go to film school. Girls almost graduate with parity. People look at directing as a career. They’ve paid their dues. They have peak status. They go to film school. They want to get that Sundance award. Then we’re standing here and we have to watch leading actors decide, “I really want to direct because I’m not sure if I’ll ever get cast after this show and I need a backup career.” Even they get preferred ahead of us. It’s becoming really complicated, even though we understand directors aren’t the big shots that they are in movies. Can we just hire some people that are actually good for the show? It makes sense.

When I interviewed Dee Rees a month ago, we talked about how she ended up going to TV in part because she had more opportunity to make something that was really hers and not have to compromise on it.

In development it’s a different story. I’ve had show options almost every year, sometimes, some years even two. They just haven’t made it on the air. Oddly enough I’ve had a lot of fun because I think it is the one arena in the entire industry of Hollywood where women are not underestimated. I think we have to thank Shonda Rhimes for that. And the creator of “Orange is the New Black” [Jenji Kohan]. There are women now who are winning awards and are making a lot of money. Shonda Rhimes makes more money for the network [ABC] than anybody right now. The idea that they have in this feature world where there hasn’t been a woman who has made a load of money doesn’t exist in TV. You actually get treated much better.

I’ve pitched movies to all of the major studio heads in my time. When I first made “Green Street” and I was considered a hot director, I pitched everybody, but there was always this feeling that I was being underestimated in the room. I pitch TV and nobody underestimates me. They literally think you could be the next whoever and that is a very cool thing. 

In terms of writing and developing, TV is very open because TV needs stories. They need new pitches and they need new ideas. They don’t always take the risk for new ideas, but they are certainly open to it. They can’t have enough people come in and pitch to them. It doesn’t matter how they look or what gender they are.

Something else I’ve noticed on Twitter is that you boycott shows that don’t have any female directors. 

Yes, I am going to start doing that now.

When did that start?

The DGA released a list of stats— I was shocked, to be honest, when I first saw it. I thought that there is no excuse for some of these shows to have not a single woman. Do they not fit? What is the deal here? I see “Agent Carter” has no woman. Honestly, I can’t sometimes breathe when I read this. How does a show like “Agent Carter” not have a women director? It is unreal to me how this happens.

What do you think is the best show, currently, in terms of representing women?

I believe “Jane the Virgin” has done the best job. “Grey’s Anatomy” was on that list for a while, but that bizarre lawsuit came out that was really interesting. I don’t know if you remember this, but the best boy grip said the DP fired him because he basically blew the whistle on how this DP treats women really wrong. I ended up talking to one of the women who directed there — I can’t name her name because she says she doesn’t want to be involved. She said it was true. And it rang true to me because I know this is kind of what goes on. She said it is absolutely true. 

This DP hated every time a woman was directing and sabotaged them. That is another issue in TV, in terms of directing. Everybody in a senior position, the stunt coordinator, the editor, the DP, they all end up wanting the director spot. Again, that all comes down to the director in TV is not nearly the director as we look at them in the movie world. There is much less responsibility. They fly in. They are supposed to watch the tapes and see what’s up and make sure nobody is over-acting. Nobody comes in and has a fucking vision. It’s not what TV directors do.

So all these heads of departments end up thinking “I should do this. This guy gets 10 times more money than me, flies around the world. He’s not stuck in bum town on the same show.” It becomes the aim of every head of department to end up as a director. This idea — the DP hates it when a woman gets an episode because secretly, he wants to have that episode. It totally rang true to me. I heard this from many other women before. I asked the specific woman who worked on the show and she said it was absolutely true. “We were all afraid of him. He sabotaged us left and right.”

I don’t know what happened with that lawsuit, but that’s an issue. Shit like that happens. Sometimes the show doesn’t hire enough women. Sometimes, like “Grey’s Anatomy,” they do, but maybe they don’t make certain that everybody treats the women the same. There is a specific show I remember that three women who were interviewed, we all interviewed for the show and all of us were told that the lead actor hates women directors. That’s what you get told. It’s not like somebody doesn’t tell you that and makes up some other shit. They tell you in the meeting that “we’d put you that show, but that actor is not good with women, he just doesn’t like them.” It’s lethal. Nobody bats an eye. You can’t do that in any other industry except in ours.

Is there a reason why people get away with it in Hollywood versus any other industry in the world?

I think that is what the ACLU is trying to figure out. I think that is why they’ve come forward and said that Hollywood is getting away with this when they shouldn’t. The laws are for Hollywood as well. 

I wish they would do a thing where they say, “everybody has to do this thing and then they can become a TV director.” For somebody like me, who was a former athlete, going from white belt to black belt to qualify in small tournaments to get to the big tournaments. I thrive on actual rules. This fucking bullshit here is the wild wild west.

It’s funny; the ACLU pointed out to me that I am kind of their favorite case when it comes to this because for the longest time TV people would say we don’t hire feature directors because they can’t work under this budget and schedule. I didn’t even realize this, but they told me, “You are different because you started your career with a 40-minute film that was nominated for an Oscar [and] was shot in five days for $35,000.” It was them who had to point out to me, that the excuse doesn’t work with me because a 40-minute film is basically a TV episode right. They make up their own excuses. What it will be is who knows who, that is what it comes down to. Then they get the one token woman and the one token black director.

The DGA has a training program that I know a lot of people apply for, but that’s for assistant director work?

We don’t even have that because ADs go from assistant to second-second to third or third to second-second and then first AD. Us directors don’t have any kind of ladder like that. We go from nothing to being director. For example, Mark Webb, who made “500 Days of Summer,” he had to make some money because “Spider-Man” took some time. He was put on five pilots. Well, I had a movie, “Green Street Hooligans,” that won SXSW and was the big talk of the town. There wasn’t a single chance that I could get any kind of pilot. They just wouldn’t let me in. It was just not happening.

I once got a tweet from a woman in Portland who has three kids and they watched some show on Nickelodeon called “Kickin’ It.” She said she is very into feminism and she said, “I always see male directors on this show that my three daughters watch, and I was wondering, couldn’t you direct an episode of this?” I said to my manager, just for kicks we should call that showrunner up, tell him who I am, because obviously I have a background, and I’m a director, and my first short film was about boxing. My people called up Nickelodeon, saying, “Hey, Lexi would like to direct an episode.” In any other world, that’s a complement to them and they would go, “Holy shit, yes.” That is what anybody would think. But the guy didn’t even want to take a meeting with me.

It was a male showrunner?

Yes. I sent back a letter to this woman. I said, “Here is the reality of my industry. I can’t even take a meeting, but the general public thinks I’m too good for it and I wouldn’t do it.” What nobody knows is I can’t even get a meeting on Nickelodeon because it’s such a perk business. It’s all about, “I’m giving it to my friends to get them some jobs.”

You mentioned, in your first email to me, that you were worried about saying too much?

I pretty much told you everything. [laughs] This is always my problem — that I don’t have a filter. I am actively trying to get on different TV shows. There’s part of me that is an activist for the cause of getting equality. There is the other part [that] you also have to be on set and not have them worry that you are a walking lawsuit. It’s an issue, because oftentimes — especially since I have been that outspoken — there is this thing where I am actually achieving something by them hiring women. But if they do need to hire women, they certainly don’t come to me because I’m this loudmouth. I’m trying to find the balance. 

The fact is there are numbers that back up everything you are saying.

At the same time, I am still a director. I am an activist for this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t put my hat on and just be a director. I think that is a good way of saying it. There’s no reason to be afraid of me.

Check out Lexi Alexander’s Twitter account at @lexialex, and look forward to her upcoming episode of “Arrow” next fall. 

READ MORE: A.C.L.U. Takes on Hollywood’s Bias Against Women Directors (And Women Directors Respond)

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