Happy, tidy holiday movies are a bit of a secret obsession for many of us (made all the better if directed by a female filmmaker). Heading into winter and with hearts heavy and psyches weighed down by politics and general news — a colorful, fanciful, fun-to-watch movie can be the right recipe for hopefulness. Leaving the leader, Hallmark, aside (who unfortunately dented its popularity this week by removing a sweet, Zola lesbian wedding ad from its channel — cue heavy heart mention above & subsequent reversal) even Netflix is doubling down year-over-year with its holiday content (yes, we love the A Christmas Prince franchise).
No one is more surprised by the phenomenon than Shannon’s sister-in-law, Letia Clouston. An award-winning director of multiple genres — from comedy to thriller and action to scifi — Letia has also found herself a doyenne of the Christmas romance. With last year’s A Christmas for the Books in the lead up to Christmas (…on again this year); Married By Christmas (now called The Engagement Clause); and A Dog Walker’s Christmas Tale — Letia is a bone fide holiday romcom pro.
With so many other genres under her belt, we thought December might be a great time to talk about the whimsy of holiday movies and how Letia became part of the pack. As well as the more serious topic of how female filmmakers struggle; with the Golden Globes and Screen Actor’s Guild award nominations largely excluding well-reviewed, well-liked female-directed movies. In a year where there was so much female talent to celebrate, it has been particularly stinging. And for female directors, such as Letia, who are already a rare breed, it can be beyond discouraging.
So we talked to Letia this week about her experiences, hopes and motivations to continue pushing forward in her field. And our discussion was well-timed having come exactly four years after a comprehensive review of women in Hollywood by the New York Times that Letia participated in as a female director. So, we wonder, what is it like and what has changed?
Here’s what Letia told us about life and work as a woman in Hollywood:
I love directing thrillers and horror but it’s always fun to direct a holiday film. These movies are a popular part of the holidays for a lot of people and it’s nice to contribute to that. Plus, my little nieces and nephews get to see them on TV! I also have to say that, since I live in LA, it’s a really nice opportunity to work on a set full of snow, even if it’s fake.
The comedy in the tragedy has always fascinated me. People find the humor even in the most dire of situations. It’s a common coping mechanism; and I use it frequently. So in every one of my films, whether it’s horror or romance, I look for the comedic moments. I love making people laugh, and it also helps the audience connect with the characters.
I went to the American Film Institute (AFI) for my MFA in directing in 2008 and was one of just four women out of a director’s class of 25. Now, women make up half the numbers there, which is a huge improvement. I’m currently a member of Film Fatales, a group of professional female directors. We have over 500 members in NY and LA alone, not to mention hundreds in other cities around the world.
Starting out in this business, I always felt a bit alone, like I was on an island with my career choice. But joining groups like Film Fatales has shown me just how many female filmmakers are actually out there. They are significantly underrepresented in this industry, so the common perception has always been that there just aren’t that many of us out there. So I’m glad that’s changing, even if it’s not going as quickly as I like.
The biggest challenge is getting the gig — getting someone to believe in you and feel like their money will be well-spent. And while I would love to pretend there is one big bad guy at a desk saying no to anyone marked “female” on a list; the truth is it’s a systemic problem. Agents wouldn’t submit women for jobs, because they believed a woman would never get the job, producers didn’t hire women because they weren’t being submitted as options, and they believed the studios would never approve, and studios were never seeing women’s names on their lists…so the cycle just continued.
I’ve had so much support from other women in this industry. All of the films and projects I’ve been hired for were either the result of another woman’s referral or from a woman directly hiring me. I also have fantastic women mentors, who provide me with loads of wisdom from their experiences. And my managers are an amazing team of women that help me navigate this incredibly competitive and challenging system as a female filmmaker.
I’ve directed three films since the women and hollywood article; so, for me, I’ve worked steadily since. For sure, I’ve seen more initiatives to hire women and create more diversity of late. Numbers have gone up to prove this — the number of television episodes directed by women went up to 31% this year. Despite the ups and downs (this award season notwithstanding) I’m hoping the trend continues.
t’s important for women to amplify each other— like the way FromAtoSHE does! I follow other women directors on Twitter, like and retweet their successes. Money talks, especially opening weekend numbers, so it’s also important to rent/buy/stream women’s films and leave reviews. There’s a lot of movies directed by women to see…and simply enjoying them makes a big difference.