Emboldened by the dismal statistics about women in the film industry — where the paltry number of crucial behind-the-scenes jobs has not increased since 1998, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University — some filmmakers are actively trying to fill their crews with women in positions like camera operator and key grip.
In her keynote address at the South by Southwest film festival this spring, Jill Soloway, the creator of “Transparent,” called for just that kind of staffing across the ranks, a tactic she has employed with the largely female crew on her latest series, “I Love Dick.” Shows like Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar” have also set a precedent by enlisting only female directors, and some creators prefer having a female-centric crew when the subject matter involves sensitive issues like gender identity or sexual assault.
Jessica M. Thompson, the writer-director of “The Light of the Moon,” an indie drama about the aftermath of a rape, wanted her story told only through “a woman’s gaze,” she said. A majority of her production staff was female, especially so that her star, Stephanie Beatriz (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), would be comfortable. “I felt so taken care of,” Ms. Beatriz said.
But even with willing filmmakers, hiring more women is not always easy and comes with a perceived risk: If the project doesn’t succeed, there is only one gender to blame.
“The eyes on us are often much more judgmental, and the eyes on us are often much more unforgiving,” the director Mira Nair explained in the documentary series “The 4%: Film’s Gender Problem.” She added, “The so-called mistakes that are absolved in several male directors — oh, you know, that was a bad movie for him, he’ll be up to better — are not the same standards that are handed out to women.”
Women are also second-guessed on the set, both Ms. Beatriz and Ms. Lister-Jones said. “People are much more impatient with a female director than with a male director, generally speaking,” said Ms. Lister-Jones, who is best known as a sitcom player. (She’s currently in the CBS series “Life in Pieces.”)
On “Band Aid,” the second-guessing came from her own hires as well; even women who headed departments weren’t used to choosing from a female-only roster for their team. “Women, I think, have internalized a lot of the doubt that is cast upon us,” Ms. Lister-Jones said. “And I noticed that in the hiring process. Like, ‘Who’s going to drive the truck?’” (A woman who drives a truck, was her reply.)
In some cases, female crew members came with less experience, because they hadn’t been offered the same opportunities or encouraged as much as their male counterparts — a cycle that Ms. Lister-Jones, Ms. Thompson and directors like Ms. Soloway and Ms. DuVernay hope to break. (Though women are regularly employed as hair and makeup artists, costumers and script supervisors, research by San Diego State found that women make up just 1 percent of the gaffers and key grips in the industry.)
As a first-time director without much Hollywood standing, Ms. Thompson didn’t have the sway to get an all-female crew. Ms. Lister-Jones, who has jointly written other features, pulled it off, but, she said, her financial backers wanted to know everyone she hired — an atypical level of scrutiny. Though they were ultimately supportive, her staffing choices were among the first things they discussed, she said.
To Mr. Pally, her “Band Aid” co-star, the all-female environment was more accepting and productive. “Being vulnerable and whatnot, in front of all those women, it was just easier,” he said. Collaboration also flowed more readily. “Men are sometimes a little bit more bullheaded,” he said of typical sets led by male directors. “If someone comes in and offers an idea, it doesn’t come across as toward the common good, it comes across as against the original idea.”
The sex scenes played differently, too. “No matter how professional the people are, it’s like 99 percent of the time, someone is going to say something wrong, or it’s going to be awkward,” Mr. Pally said of male crews. On “Band Aid,” he said, “when I was the naked one, I definitely didn’t have the same feeling of being judged. It just felt like another one of the scenes.”
Dressed or not, Ms. Lister-Jones said, as an actress she finds scenes that express sexuality challenging. “I always struggle with having that many male eyes on me and what that means in terms of my own objectification on that set, how it shifts the way that I’m viewed for the rest of the time I’m on that set,” she said.
The women-only crew made a difference. “It was so freeing, to have all female eyes on me,” she said.
For Ms. Thompson and Ms. Beatriz, the female point of view was paramount in dealing with sexual assault in “The Light of the Moon.” Too often, rape has been depicted onscreen in “these gritty sexy shots,” Ms. Beatriz said. “And that’s not what rape is.”
In their initial discussions, Ms. Thompson told Ms. Beatriz that on her set, women would feel that they had a say in the way every scene was made. “There was a sense of empowerment, from the P.A. all the way up to the cinematographer,” she said, referring to production assistants.
Her film, which won the audience award for narrative feature at South by Southwest this year and is due out in the fall, tracks Ms. Beatriz’s character in the weeks after her assault, showing the toll it takes on her career and relationships. (Disclosure: A star of the movie, Michael Stahl-David, is a friend of mine.) Both Ms. Thompson and Ms. Beatriz said they made the movie because they knew survivors of assault. “We have a responsibility to the people that are going to watch our work,” Ms. Beatriz said.
Shooting the rape, and even the consensual sex scenes, was way outside her comfort level, she said, but the female crew eased the way. “Ideally on every project I do, at least half the crew would be women,” Ms. Beatriz said. “But I don’t live in an ideal world.”
After “Band Aid,” Ms. Lister-Jones had a quick return to reality, too, when a production member texted from her next project to say that she was the only woman on that crew. “Nothing had shifted,” Ms. Lister-Jones said, dismayed.
And merely calling attention to the inequities is not enough to correct them, she added. It can even backfire: “You get that checkmark, like, ‘not sure if it’s worth having a mouthy broad on set,’” she said.
Instead of voicing a complaint, “Band Aid” was “doing something about it,” she said — proof that the system can change, but “it needs to be really deliberate. It’s not going to happen by accident.”
Using information in a handout photo, an earlier version of a picture credit with this article misspelled the surname of the photographer. She is Kayla David, not Davis.