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Inclusive Indie Film Crews: How 15 Sundance Films Achieved Diversity Behind the Camera

Sundance producers and directors discuss the obstacles, perceived and real, about hiring a diverse crew.

"Paddleton" Camera team: Greg Hatton, Nathan Miller, Alex Cason, Tadd Sackville-West, Alicia Pharris

“Paddleton” Camera team: Greg Hatton, Nathan Miller, Alex Cason, Tadd Sackville-West, Alicia Pharris

Patrick Wymore

The Sundance Film Festival made enormous strides this year in terms of diversity, with 40 percent of the 112 films selected having been directed (or co-directed) by a woman, 36 percent by a person of color, and 13 percent by an LGBTQ filmmaker. With greater director diversity naturally comes a wider array of stories and increased opportunities for women and actors of color in front of the camera. But what about behind the camera?

IndieWire reached out to 15 directors and producers who had scripted narrative features that premiered this year at Sundance to have a frank conversation about crew diversity in the indie world: the challenges, the successes, and the need to expand one’s network to make such hires possible. The one common denominator of each of these films is that, early in preproduction, every one of them set a goal of having a more inclusive crew.

The discussion of how they actually got there provides enormous insight into the biggest hurdles indie film faces in becoming truly diverse.

Setting Inclusion Goals

"Selah and the Spades"

“Selah and the Spades”

Sundance

“Paddleton” producer Mel Eslyn: I can’t say we set out with specific goals in mind beyond diversity and inclusion simply being at the forefront of our thinking when we put our team together. Especially because our film stars two [white, cisgender] males, we didn’t want the rest of our team to reflect that.

“Clemency” producer Bronwyn Cornelius: From the get go – starting in development – it was always essential that we have at least 50% women and people of color behind and in front the camera. That should always be the case, and we must all aim to make it so.

“Selah and the Spades” producer Lauren McBride: We were telling a story about young women of color defining themselves on their own terms, written and directed by a woman of color. So we wanted to have women and people of color leading departments across the board.

“Luce” producer Eric Ro: “Luce” is a film that asks difficult questions about the challenges of negotiating power and privilege in our multicultural society. The only way to tell this story is with a diverse crew who are bringing a myriad of experiences to the fold.

“Hala” writer/director/producer Minhal Baig: Because the film is about a young woman’s coming-of-age, it was crucial to have the female perspective represented in how we made our film. We made a very deliberate effort to be inclusive in our hiring. … Our aim was for at least half of our below-the-line crew to be comprised of women, and we far surpassed those expectations.

“Them That Follow” writer/directors Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage: Early on in the crewing process, we pledged ourselves — along with our producers — to achieving gender parity to the best of our ability. We let this intention guide us as we were going to agencies and evaluating their client lists. We simply wanted to work with as many women as possible, and in the end women represented approximately 41% of our crew. And we undoubtedly have a better film for it.

The Challenges

"Selah and the Spades" DoP Jomo Fray

“Selah and the Spades” DoP Jomo Fray

Ashley Bean

“Premature” director Rashaad Ernesto Green: We have to address human nature. People have a tendency to gravitate towards their own. We have to understand that first before unpacking the issue of inclusivity.

“Animals” director/producer Sophie Hyde: There are so many reasons that people are excluded from various spaces, roles, vocations, and so it’s a process of asking why? Why are there no women here? Why is there no one who is disabled? Why is everyone here white? And tackling that. So it’s multi-pronged. For me, each time I do it, I hope I become more aware of what’s missing and seek it out. It’s also about tackling our own unconscious bias and making it conscious. Am I giving opportunities and taking risks on certain kinds of people that I wouldn’t on others? We take risks all the time in film crews and there is a balancing act around this. but it’s a big risk to just keep accepting the status quo as well.

“Relive” director/writer Jacob Aaron Estes: There are more white men working in our industry than any other people. Therefore, white males tend to have longer and more impressive resumes, in a statistical sense. This is a cultural problem that affects the way we hire – since we are hiring from the available talent pool and we care about experience and we care about resumes. Overcoming this is something that is going to take time and take a concerted effort. We need to change culture one hire at a time. Talent and passion have no face, color, gender, or sexuality.

“The Farewell” producer Daniele Melia: Sometimes below-the-line agents and agencies don’t have the most diverse rosters. For this film we looked beyond their lists when necessary.

Cornelius (“Clemency”): It seemed to come down to basic numbers of people available. We made a REAL effort, and still had a difficult time. As a low budget indie, you are looking for incredible talent at a lower fee, which already shrinks the pool, and there do not seem to be quite as many women or people or color in all of the various departments that are experienced. Thankfully, there is an increasing amount of diversity in talented crew, but “Hollywood” needs more!

Baig (“Hala”): The producers and I made a concerted effort to solicit referrals and recommendations outside of our immediate circle. While it might have been easier to simply hire our friends and people we knew personally, it was important for us to expand our hiring pool to diverse, qualified candidates that might not otherwise be in our social network. That was a very, very important part of the process, as many directors and producers would stop at their personal relationships. All of our key department heads were our first-choice hires and I had not worked with any of them prior to this film. Now that I have, I recognize the importance of searching beyond my own circle. It took a bit more time and effort to do this work, but I would argue that all of that was worthwhile as we were able to hire the most qualified candidates for every role.

Behind the scenes of the "Premature" set.

Behind the scenes of the “Premature” set.

Laura Valladao

Eslyn (“Paddleton”): When you are working low-budget indie style, a good rule of thumb is to work with who you know — because low-budget shoots move quick and with less resources, and having a team that has a shorthand is extremely helpful. But here’s the thing, when you look around at “who you know” and they aren’t a diverse group, then you’ve got a problem.

“The Sound of Silence” producer Michael Prall: If we’re not able to afford rates that compete with studio films and TV, then the pool of talented crew members is smaller. It’s the reality of independent production. … A smaller pool inevitably limits our ability to choose between crew members of equal talent but varying gender, ability, and race.

Cornelius (“Clemency”): We were a union shoot, which I would say posed its own challenges, as a number of women and people of color we looked to hire were not yet members of the relevant union. In addition, as unions have lists of crew they want you to go after first, it can be contradictory to the diversity profile a film is looking to meet. I would say this was one of our biggest challenges. We need more women and people of color in the unions in ALL departments, so we do not perpetuate the problem.

McBride (“Selah and the Spades”): There is a ton of exceptional talent out there, and it starts with a decision to look for it. Otherwise, the path of least resistance will almost always result in a non-diverse crew.

Melia (“The Farewell”): Word of mouth! Our production designer Yong had worked with [director] Lulu [Wang] on her short film, “Touch.” Our cinematographer Anna was introduced to us by Yong as they’d previously worked together on a feature. They’d both previously worked in China which was a bonus for us.

“Ms. Purple” director Justin Chon: It was very easy [to hire a diverse crew] because it’s the only way I operate. Ninety percent of my crew worked on my previous film “Gook.” [For] the new hires most of them were from referrals from other peers and filmmakers. … Choose people based on long term relationship potential rather than job to job. This allows for diversity to be more fluid because there is a working relationship in place.

"Ms. Purple" crew

“Ms. Purple” crew

courtesy of Justin Chon

Ro (“Luce”): Finding a diverse crew started with our department heads. We made a conscious effort to solicit resumes for a diverse crew when we reached out to the agencies and found incredibly talented women and people of color for our department heads.

Green (“Premature”): The department heads are who control the level of inclusion. It’s all about who they’ve worked with, who they feel comfortable working with, etc. Hiring diverse department heads pretty much guarantees you’ll have a diverse crew. If you don’t do that, then it takes a conversation about intention and inclusivity. But people don’t like to be forced to be inclusive. They’re usually inclusive by nature. Most importantly, people like to work with people they’ve worked with before.

“Troop Zero” directors Bert & Bertie: We found some incredible women to head up the majority of our departments. The male department heads that we hired fully embraced our wish to diversify and instead of taking the road most traveled, went out of their way to ensure that we crewed up a great deal of women and people of color.

Eslyn (“Paddleton”): It’s starts at the top and trickles down. As a producer, you should constantly be vocalizing to your department heads that diversity is important to you. Make sure it’s important to your whole team.

“Sonja: The White Swan” producer Synnove Horsdal: For us building a diverse crew means being conscious of this over years and building relationships and talent over time.

McBride (“Selah and the Spades”): Because one’s network is the key factor in how these teams come together, the onus is heavily on producers and department heads to have inclusive networks and to be intentional about prioritizing diversity. I think as we continue to see more people of color and women directing and producing films, crews will naturally diversify. It starts at the top.

Location Matters

“Hala”

Prall (“The Sound of Silence”): Our producers have years of experience hiring crews and putting staff together, so this was not the first time we’ve thought about it, and we were delighted at the wealth of talented women and people of color in various crew positions in New York City.

Estes (“Relive”): When we decided to stage the movie in South Central LA, diversity of crew in terms of “race” naturally followed… because we were working in South Central LA, there was a diversity of people who were hired to work our locations or paid location fees, etc.

Baig (“Hala”): It can be challenging if you’re shooting in a location where there may not be crew members trained in the specific roles you’re hiring for and you can’t fly people in from Los Angeles or New York, but the onus is on us as filmmakers to train diverse crew so they can get the experience and training they need.

We hired a union crew in Chicago, which is a big production hub. We had a very trained and diverse pool to hire from as a result. Many of them had come off of working on various television shows, like “The Chi,” “Shameless” or Dick Wolf’s Chicago trilogy.

“Top End Wedding” co-writer/associate producer/actor Miranda Tapsell: Mainly availability [was our biggest hurdle]. Our cinematographer is highly sought after in Australia, especially for comedy. But also, we weren’t filming in Sydney or Melbourne, which is where most films are made. We had to travel crew from Adelaide to the isolated places we shot at. Australia is huge!

“Troop Zero” Directors Bert & Bertie: The majority of our crew were local to New Orleans and from our experience, there is an incredible pool of diverse talent in Louisiana.

Advice for Women and POC Crew

"Luce" team: Anna Lomakina, Julius Onah, Eric Ro, Larkin Seiple

“Luce” team: Anna Lomakina, Julius Onah, Eric Ro, Larkin Seiple

Jon Pack

Estes (“Relive”): Go make yourself available to work with a mentor, learn from the mentor, ask the mentor to help guide you towards your ultimate career goals.

McBride (“Selah and the Spades”): It all comes down to network. I think it’s important to take every opportunity to meet people that are producing and directing features, and stay connected to them.

Eslyn (“Paddleton”): If you are starting out, I always say, go after producers – do whatever you have to do to get on set. I always tell people that producers are a way better doorway into the industry, than directors. Because a good producer will see your drive first and foremost, and hire you based on that. You can learn the skills you need for whatever discipline you choose, but you can’t teach drive and passion. If you have it, no matter who you are, show that drive.

Chon (“Ms. Purple”): Be proactive and clear about what position you’d like to fill. If it’s a position you haven’t done before work as an assistant and learn everything you can.

Ro (“Luce”): Don’t be afraid to share the uniqueness of your POV and personal experiences. As a producer of color myself, there are things we have to offer that aren’t being seen or heard right now and are so valuable not just to the experience on the set, but they inform the storytelling as well.

Baig (“Hala”): The biggest, most important aspect of being hired is your personal relationships. A lot of crew are hired over and over on the same projects because they get familiar with each other. If you do get hired onto a production, take it seriously. Form a good relationship with your peers, but also the department head. The department head makes the hiring decisions, so be in their good graces. If you’re just getting started, try reaching out to crew that you respect and ask if you can be a trainee. If you’re working on the production side, get to know your first assistant director. Once a production wraps, thank the people that worked with you. If you find a creator’s work that you enjoy, reach out and ask if you can be a part of their future projects. This requires a lot of persistence and emotional resilience, but once you make strong relationships, you will get asked back on projects and you will be thought of for future opportunities.

If you’re going in for an interview with a director as a department head, be prepared. Know your characters. Have a strong take on the story and what you can offer. I respond the most to an emotional connection and a strong story sensibility, but I can’t speak for all directors. Their hiring decisions are complicated by a lot of factors.

Melia (“The Farewell”): It may seem like a no-brainer, but have a strong representation of your recent work readily available. When I was introduced to Anna, I was not familiar with her cinematography, but she had a website where I could instantly explore a sampling of her extremely strong narrative and documentary work.

Tapsell (“Top End Wedding”): Don’t be scared to ask for things. I used to be. When I realized the worst thing that I could be told was no, I could live with that.

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