To say that I am impressed with writer/director Emily Abt is an understatement. I've been a fan of hers since I first saw her documentary All of Us about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in African American women which was released in NY last fall and broadcast on Showtime on World AIDS Day on December 1st. Here are some questions she answered about the film.
We became email buddies and while we live about 15 minutes away by walking we never met until last month when she appeared on a panel on women directors at the Women, Action Media conference in Cambridge, MA.
Emily's star is on the rise. Her first narrative feature Toe to Toe made it into Sundance, she was named one of Variety's 10 Directors to Watch in 2009 and she got great agents. She even has her own production company - Pureland Pictures with employees and an office.
But Toe to Toe didn't get a buyer out of Sundance and now a couple of months down the road she is still trying to get a distribution deal. I have no doubts it will work out.
The thing about Emily is that she's a feminist through and through and wants to make movies about issues -- women's issues. Lots of people's eyes glaze over when they hear that someone wants to make a movie about issues and assumes that it won't be good and/or too tough to watch. Yes, some are tough to watch and feel like homework, but Abt's films are not like that. Movies about tough subjects can be done well as Abt's work shows us.
Toe to Toe tells the story of two high school seniors, one African American, one white. One poor, one rich. One who has it together, one who is out of control. They might seem like cliches but the performances are so truthful that all doubts are quickly erased.
Tosha (Sonequa Martin) is a poor African American girl in a private prep school who is pushed by her grandmother (Leslie Uggams) to believe in herself and her ability to get into Princeton. She also encourages her to play lacrosse because no African American girls do. It is on that field that she meets Jesse (Louisa Krause) a troubled, sexually provocative white girl who has been kicked out of many schools. Jesse and Tosha are drawn to each other and become friends even while the outside world is conspiring against them. But like most teenage girls they also compete. Their friendship is messy, and at times disappointing and destructive. But they try, which is more than can be said for Jesse's busy single working mom (Ally Walker) who is so oblivious to her daughter's needs and desperation that you want to throttle her.
What I liked best about the film is that Abt is unafraid to be challenging and deal with issues that most films skirt like promiscuity, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases and most especially race and class. I would love for this movie to be seen by teenagers everywhere with a group discussion afterwards.
The director answered some questions about the film and her Sundance experience.
Women & Hollywood: Toe to Toe tells the interracial story of two very different girls who are able to overcome their differences and be friends. Why was it important to you to tell an interracial story?
Emily Abt: I'm intensely interested in race relations so the film is inspired by the surprising fact that interracial friendships end at age 14 for 87% of Americans - that really goes against how we like to think of social dynamics in our country. We're all inspired by the Obama presidency, and what it says about our country, but what are we doing to change things in our own personal lives? Are we really feeling that much closer to, and empathetic with, people who are truly different from ourselves? I see great social value in race related conversations so I created the characters in "Toe to Toe" to dramatize the subtle yet insidious tension that threatens interracial alliances. Through Jesse and Tosha's relationship I hope to create a roadmap for how authentic dialogue between races could sound: these girls don't shy away from conflict with each other, they get it out in the open where it can be resolved. As audiences observe Tosha and Jesse going 'toe to toe' they will hopefully be inspired to take a deeper look at their own interracial friendships or lack thereof.
W&H: How long did you work on this film?
EA: It took many years of steady commitment to get the film off the ground. Part of what took so long was the lack of development funds so I've always juggled paying gigs with my more idealistic, long-term projects. The funding part was what took the longest. One of my investors would only move forward if she knew we had knocked on every other producer's door beforehand, so that's what we did. I think I know every independent producer in the New York area because chances are I've begged them for a buck or two.
W&H: Not a lot of directors work in both the fictional and non-fiction worlds. What do you like best about each medium and why are you able to work in both arenas?
EA: I love creating both so I jump back and forth between the two forms. Creating documentary films, especially the low budget, social-issue ones, really teaches you about resilience and courage - how far are you willing to go, how broke are you willing to become, in order to tell this story. It also teaches you to not take yourself too seriously as a filmmaker or you'll explode from the stress; you have to embrace happy accidents and roll with the punches - and this ability carries over beautifully to fiction sets as well. Your actress is throwing a tantrum about her wardrobe? Your lighting set-up just fell apart? No problem, you could be trying to capture crucial shots of your moving-target subject during a crowded parade in New York City with 3 more minutes of battery while lugging all your camera gear at the same time. Ah, instant perspective.
The process of making documentaries, and having the opportunity to learn from my own mistakes, has definitely been my greatest teacher. Not only in terms of the filmmaking process, but also in the way that it has given me access to incredibly rich environments and characters that continue to inspire my writing. If you watch my films back to back, you may see a documentary subject that shows up as an actress in one of my narrative shorts or a line of dialogue in a scripted piece that was clearly borrowed from a real person in one of my docs.
All my work, whether it's fiction or documentary, is rooted in journalistic research and truth. David Simon (the writer and creator of "The Wire") is a God to me because his work drips of realism and I love that. When I watch films I want to be as close to those stories and characters as possible and for me, the key to creating that strong link with your audience is realism. Anything that rings false on the screen, anything that makes your viewers say "no, I don't believe that," pulls them away from the strength of the story you're trying to tell. And I'm a fiend for the truth in real life too. Ask anyone who knows me, I'm definitely a straight-shooter.
W&H: You tell stories of women and girls on the margins, stories most people aren't interested in. Why is this important to you?
EA: My parents raised me to believe that "with privilege comes responsibility" so the films I make are an extension of my deep belief in, and commitment to, public service. I'm also a feminist and that influences the characters I portray and how I choose to portray them. But all these claims of altruism must be taken with a big grain of salt. The moralist Samuel Johnson once said "To act from pure benevolence is not possible for finite beings. Human benevolence is mingled with vanity, interest or some other motive." I think my other motive is to tell my own story, in different ways and through different characters. I've always felt that women, myself included, need to stand up for themselves and each other more. I love creating films that inspire them to do that.
W&H: How was your experience at Sundance? Did it live up to your expectations? What if anything was surprising to you about Sundance and what has happened since then?
EA: Sundance was everything I dreamed of and more. I had no idea how filmmaker oriented the festival was - they really do their best to treat you like a queen! Before going, I got some great advice from fellow filmmakers Anna Boden, Chris Zalla and Laurie Collyer about how to approach the experience and that was a big help because all the attention you suddenly get from agents, managers, press, etc can feel a bit overwhelming at times, especially after toiling away in obscurity for so many years beforehand.
I was of course disappointed that "Toe to Toe" didn't inspire an all-night bidding war that resulted in a big-money advance for the film's rights, but I think I did good job at keeping the business side of things in perspective. I brought a big posse of loved ones - my hubby, my brother, my parents and best friend - and we made sure, along with a lot of the film's cast and crew, to have ourselves a good ole time. I also loved connecting with the other filmmakers. One of my most special memories was the brunch that Robert Redford hosts for the filmmakers. You get there by taking this incredibly beautiful bus ride through the hills of Utah. Then they present you with this incredible spread which you can hardly get enough of because you're enjoying chit-chatting with other filmmakers too damn much. I'm a huge fan of a lot of my peers so I felt a little star-struck at moments but then you realize these folks are on the exact same crazy ride you're on. You share the whole heaven and hell experience of being a filmmaker, and soon you can't get enough of each other's on-set anecdotes. Then Bob starts talking and you realize that he's just the coolest man ever. I was truly inspired by the words of wisdom he shared with us that day and have since revisted the scribbled notes I took during his speech.
In terms of what's happened since Sundance, I now have wonderful new agents - Charles King and Ava Greenfield of William Morris - for whom I feel very thankful to have in my corner. Over the last few months it's been meetings, meetings, meetings and I've learned a ton about the ways of Hollywood in a short period of time. I'm very excited about numerous opportunities on the horizon and I fully intend to build on the momentum that my agents, Sundance and the "Variety Top 10 Directors to Watch" award have provided me with. I'm still in the midst of weighing various distribution options and while there haven't been a plethora of big-money offers, I feel hopeful that the film will be released in the way it was meant to. Rena Ronson and Jerome Duboz, the film's sales reps from William Morris, have been very faithful to "Toe to Toe", and to me as a filmmaker, so I feel that the film's destiny is in the best hands possible given these tough economic times.
W&H: Did you notice any difference between how the female directors were treated and how the male directors were treated?
EA: There is a 'boy-wonder' phenomenon that often seems to happen at Sundance despite the festival's demonstrated commitment to women filmmakers. This year's was Cary Fukunaga - so talented! So nice! So cute in his skinny jeans! That said, I'm no hater (the guy is super talented) so I'd rather focus on what us ladies can bring to the table when we're given a chance. No matter how sensitive that filmmaker dude is, chances are he's not going to nail the women's perspective like I can. The key for us women writer/directors ('self-generators' they call us in Hollywood) is to create material that reflects our personal values as women but that also has real commercial appeal. We have to embrace the business aspects of the game and collaborate with development and studio executives (especially the women in those offices) to ensure that our work gets as broad an audience as possible. Recently I've been trying to get more advertising work and one of the things I point out to the powers that be at these companies is that it's in their interest to have more women creatives. Women are the ones who do most of a household's buying so hire a woman to get in that shopper's head and you'll get a much more effective campaign. In other words, my motto these days is: Don't hire me because I'm a woman, hire me because I've got a unique perspective that you've been missing.
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