Four years ago, Zoe Lister-Jones made headlines by hiring all-female crew for her directorial debut, the musical comedy “Band Aid.” That was a much bigger deal back then than it is today, when behind-the-scenes inequality has become a perpetual hot topic in Hollywood, but “Band Aid” stands as an early example of what’s possible when the person behind the camera makes an effort.
Lister-Jones doesn’t take credit for pushing the idea of all-female crews into the zeitgeist, but the film had a measurable impact on conversations about gender equality on set. Other productions have tried similar hiring schemes, from indies like Marianna Palka’s “Egg” to Ava DuVernay’s series “Queen Sugar,” which has only hired female directors for four seasons running. The most recent iteration of the Celluloid Ceiling study found that percentages of women working in key behind-the-scenes roles on the top 100 and 250 grossing films has increased each year since “Band Aid” was released.
In subsequent years, though, Lister-Jones said she faced some trepidation from Hollywood brass when it came to lining up her second feature, which this week arrives in the form of the long-anticipated franchise sequel “The Craft: Legacy.”
“I don’t know how it impacted the things I was being offered,” Lister-Jones said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I can say that in my subsequent projects, I think there was fear when it came to what my expectations were when it came to hiring practices. The system is just so deeply broken and I’m happy that the conversation has continued and become even more expansive, speaking about race particularly and racial inequity below the line, as well.”
Change may be incremental in Hollywood, but Lister-Jones said she has seen improvements to the system over the last four years, if only because industry brass realizes that people are paying more attention than ever before. “I do think there is a motivating force that was completely absent before,” she said with a chuckle.
In the process of scrambling for crew in production-heavy Toronto, Lister-Jones was unable to secure an all-female crew on her sophomore effort, but “The Craft: Legacy” did manage to have women in charge almost all its departments for the shoot. For the joint Blumhouse-Sony production, the director brought many of her “Band Aid” compatriots with her, including DP Hillary Spera, editor Libby Cuenin, production designer Hillary Gurtler, and producing partner Natalia Anderson. The end result does bear a distinctly feminine touch, particularly for the way it taps into the nuances of teen girl friendships and the role of toxic masculinity that creeps into the plot.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures
As a fan of the original 1996 cult hit that followed Catholic school outcasts banding together to make magic, the filmmaker said she aimed to construct “a departure from the original, but still paid homage to it.” (“The Craft” director Andrew Fleming serves as a producer on “Legacy,” and Lister-Jones said he was a “wonderful source of support” who made himself available for shop talk and even stopped by the film’s Toronto set, much to everyone’s delight.)
“I came of age in the ’90s and I, myself was a weirdo,” Lister-Jones said with a laugh. “I shaved my head when I was in seventh grade and I wore Doc Martins and spray-painted them silver and was just definitely other-ed and bullied and misgendered. When ‘The Craft’ came out, from a pop culture standpoint, it felt very revolutionary to me. It was very much ahead of its time.”
She based the premise of the sequel on her own teen experiences in a single-parent household, run by her mother (the artist Ardele Lister), who had a close bond with her daughter but also brought new male companions into their dynamic. That’s an idea that takes literal shape in the film’s opening moments, when witch-in-the-making Lily (Cailee Spaeny) and her mother Helen (Michelle Mongahan) move in with her mom’s new boyfriend Adam (David Duchovny) and his three teenage sons.
For Lister-Jones, the idea of using her experience with men entering what she billed as “a divinely feminine and distinctly feminine space” seemed like fertile ground for a film that’s essentially about the power of women. “I really wanted it to be about women in community and the collective over the individual,” she said.
Feminine power is the heart of the film, and Lister-Jones needed to give it a fearsome adversary. “There is a much larger and more nefarious force that women can be banding together to try to dismantle,” she explained. That’s toxic masculinity, but with an empathetic edge that adds both real nuance and biting humor to the forces the teen witches ultimately need to face down.
“I wanted to look at the ways in which toxic masculinity is also causing a lot of pain to men,” Lister-Jones said. “I think there’s a new generation of young men that give me hope, so I wanted to see that represented on screen while still dealing with the shadow side of toxic masculinity.”
The filmmaker said she did a lot of “really not fun” research into the world of Men’s Rights Activists to better understand how to build the characters who end up being proponents of such lines of thinking. “The MRA research was a true bummer,” she said. “There’s something about these figures that are part of the current landscape that feel more terrifying because they’re very sort of academic and falsely vulnerable in their approach.”
But the director also wanted the magic to feel relevant to the story. Lister-Jones said that three of her stars — Gideon Adlon, Lovie Simone, and Zoey Luna — were already practicing witchcraft before they joined the film. “They came in with such a complex and nuanced approach to the themes in the film and to their characters’ entry points in the film,” she said.
Spaeny, who was not into witchcraft before the film, soon joined the trio, and that bond has stuck. “They still have a group text called ‘Coven’ and they are their own little coven,” Lister-Jones said. “They do new moon rituals and full moon rituals and work with crystals. They were doing all of that in Toronto as we were shooting, so there was a lot of life imitating art, art imitating life, which is one of my favorite things to witness.”
The production also hired a trio of occult consultants — Pam Grossman, Bri Luna, and Airen Fogel — to provide insight into how budding witches might build their rituals. “When we were trying to figure out what objects we’d be using in these rituals, they were really helpful because they all were also teenage witches,” she said.
That attention to detail extended to other elements in the film, as well, including a scene in which Spaeny’s character masturbates while thinking about a crush. The production hired an intimacy coordinator and Lister-Jones filmed the sequence on a closed set, all the better to make it an easy experience for her young star. And, yes, having more women behind the camera helped, too.
“I wanted Cailee to feel extremely comfortable, because it is such a vulnerable thing to portray,” Lister-Jones said. “I think the fact that I have exclusively worked with a cinematographer who is a woman, it is intentional when I’m telling women’s stories. Not that the opposite can’t be true, but to know that the person who is lensing you is also aware of the vulnerability of that experience as a woman was important to me.”
It’s the sort of scene not often seen in escapist teen films, which often aren’t interested in this sort of female pleasure. “My intention in putting this on screen was to do it through the female gaze and so whatever that experience meant to her, it didn’t have to live up to what she thought it should look like. In fact, it shouldn’t,” the filmmaker said. “I didn’t want to be putting that on screen in a way that felt like it was for the consumption of men. I wanted it to be for the consumption of women and to feel that it represented that experience authentically.”
Lister-Jones’ quest for authenticity also harkened back to Fleming’s original film, and the sequel is studded with some nifty callbacks to the original. (If you want to see a new spin on “light as a feather, stiff as a board,” you’re not going to be disappointed.) “I think it was just that fine line of creating a story that could stand on its own while still creating little Easter eggs for original fans to be able to get a kick out of,” Lister-Jones said. “I distilled the most iconic moments for me.”
She laughed. “They are just so much a part of the — no pun intended — legacy of the first film.”
A Sony Pictures and Blumhouse Productions release, “The Craft: Legacy” will be available on digital platforms and premium VOD on Wednesday, October 28.