Sarah Tither-Kaplan joined me in an interview to discuss the crowdfunding campaign on Seed & Spark for the short film anthology series, Los Angeless.
With just over a week left to raise money for the nine-part Los Angeless series of short films, why it’s so important to get funded?
Sarah Tither-Kaplan: Getting our funding is so important, because from the inception of this project we made a commitment to pay everyone who works on our project a fair wage. So often in micro budget/indie filmmaking people have to work for little to no pay or the infamous “copy/credit”. With the pay gap and exploitation all too familiar to all 15 of the filmmakers on this project, myself included, we are steadfast in our promise to pay everyone fairly for their work. With 9 separate short films and 9 different crews that is going to be expensive, but we believe that it is imperative to set an example of fair compensation as filmmakers. We are raising the money because none of us have the resources to make this project on our own. We purposefully avoided working with anyone who already had a leg up in the industry. We wanted to make sure we gave the opportunity to filmmakers who truly needed it. Rather than looking for investors, and losing creative control, we decided to crowdfund so we could make all the movies on our own terms without having to subject ourselves to the misogynistic power structures of the industry at large. If we don’t meet our goal, we won’t be able to make the project. We took a big risk, but we believe in ourselves, and hope other people do too.
You wrote Beware of the Leopard and Ultra Woman. How much of your scripts comes from real life experiences?
Sarah Tither-Kaplan: Beware of the Leopard is a short version of a feature length script I am working on called Scream Underwater which Ally Sheedy is mentoring me on. Scream Underwater is the story of five women coming forward to out a celebrity sexual predator in Hollywood during the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Beware of the Leopard is the story of a group of women meeting each other in line for a bathroom at a house party and realizing they have all been preyed on by the same man, and ultimately realizing they have to work together to protect the rest of the women at the party. Both the short and the feature are inspired by my real life and things I’ve witnessed over the years. They characters are amalgamations of many real people I’ve encountered, but no one is based solely on one person. These stories are deeply personal, and at the same time based on universal truths we live every day as people trying to make it in a very toxic, and misogynistic industry.
Similarly, you’re directing Freaks and Animals. How did you decide on directing this short rather than the two you wrote?
Sarah Tither-Kaplan: I wanted to give Elizabeth Jaeleigh Davis and Kwanza Gooden the opportunity to direct the shorts I wrote, because I’m a huge fan of their work- I’m a sucker for collaboration, there’s nothing I love more than a group of people coming together to make something and everyone getting a chance to express their own creative voice, and put their signature on the project, I think as long as you have a great team, and you all support and value each other, the end result is always enhanced by cooperative collaboration. Also, I will be acting in those shorts, and haven’t yet mastered the “leading actor directing herself” art yet. I asked Natalie Kabenjian if I could direct Freaks & Animals, because the script inspired me immediately. I was directing it in my head from the moment I read it. The story is about a pole dance/female empowerment workshop class whose leader has built a kind of cult of personality and immediately falls short of the ideals she espouses once she’s not in the spotlight. I’ve been surrounded by charismatic narcissists my entire life, and I’ve rarely seen them portrayed accurately onscreen without some kind of artificial redemption narrative tacked on for box office appeal. This script was unrelenting in an really truthful way. I knew I had a lot to say in this story, and that my vision as a director would add value to the project. I’m so lucky Natalie agreed to let me direct her script and her as an actor in it. I even started taking pole dancing/feminine movement lessons to learn the movement, and the philosophy behind it. I can’t wait to bring this story to life.
When did you decide to become a filmmaker?
Sarah Tither-Kaplan: I’ve always been a writer and an actor, but I used to think I would never want to direct. I remember thinking that for so long, until I realized that it wasn’t because I didn’t “want” to, it was because I didn’t believe I was capable of it. Once I saw Little Miss Sunshine, I started writing screenplays. That movie lit a fire under me that has never gone out. Believing I could actually direct on my own didn’t come until later, but I started making my own projects mostly out of necessity when I wasn’t booking work or getting opportunities to act. I started off writing and producing, and then eased my way into directing by co-directing a short in 2015 called Me Problems with Skyler Wakil. After that short I realized I was fully capable of directing, and the only thing holding me back was self-doubt and internalized misogyny. I have so many ideas, and I’m extremely verbal and visual. Filmmaking is the perfect medium for my creative energy, and I wish I would have believed in myself earlier so I could have gone to college for it. I went to USC for Music Industry, and I had a great time, and learned a lot, and most importantly learned how to do everything myself without waiting for other people to do things for me – so in a way I kind of learned how to be a film producer, I got that “fuck it, I’ll just do it myself” mentality there, which I think is essential for producing indie films, but my degree isn’t reflective of my true passion, and I missed out on making the connections that would have been really helpful.
It doesn’t appear to be easy being a female filmmaker in the industry when it seems like all the men are getting more opportunities. Has this been the case for your own career?
Sarah Tither-Kaplan: It’s true, it is very hard, and the industry certainly hasn’t changed in this last year as much as people think it has. I don’t come from a lot of money either, and that’s been a real challenge to be able to support myself financially while also making investments in my own career so I can create content that serves as “work samples” to prove to people what I can do as a filmmaker. I work constantly at trying to establish myself, and yet, it’s still very difficult for me to get anyone to take me seriously, and when I was booking acting work regularly it was mostly because I was willing to say “yes” to whatever the men in charge wanted even if it was degrading or exploitative. As women, there is a certain amount of abuse of power we are expected to endure- it’s labelled as “paying our dues,” but it’s really being exploited under the guise of being given opportunities to work. Of course, no amount of abuse of power should be acceptable, but these practices are so ingrained in the industry, that there’s really often nothing we can do to stand up for ourselves if we want to keep getting jobs. You just grin and bear it, because you want to work. I saw a woman get fired for standing up for herself on one of my first big jobs, and I realized very quickly that if I wanted a career as an actor, and eventually as a filmmaker, I would have to play by these terrible rules, just because I’m a woman. We’re disposable to the men in power, and until those men stop abusing their power AND don’t have any enablers left- women enablers included- this industry will not change, and will continue to be much more dangerous for women who are just starting out. The biggest challenge for me as a filmmaker has been coming to terms with the fact that I have a lot of trauma from those years of being taken advantage of that has made me see myself as less capable than I am. When so many people were telling me I was replaceable if I didn’t bend to their will, I started to believe it. I lost my voice for awhile. I’m getting it back now, by surrounding myself with women who uplift me and share my experiences, and actively work to destroy the systems of oppression around us, but every time I hear about another abuser “coming back into the fold” my heart breaks all over again for all the other talented, ambitious, visionary women like me who just want a shot at a career, and are still being told that they don’t matter, and still have to navigate an industry full of enablers and abusers. I’m optimistic that we can reclaim our power and change the industry for the better, but it is going to take a lot longer than the news cycle, and it’s going to require a lot more of the people who are complicit to stop being complicit. It’s also going to require a lot more powerful people to take chances on women who are just starting out. We need to see women directors getting big feature deals like men do without having to prove themselves for decades, and we need to see women getting second, third, and fourth chances like men do, and we need to see women getting their movies funded at the level and scale that men do. Right now, that rarely happens for women, and makes it so much harder for us to get our careers started. And most importantly, we need to destroy this notion that there aren’t “enough” female directors/filmmakers/screenwriters, there are PLENTY, we are EVERYWHERE, there just aren’t enough people in power giving us opportunities. I have 14 other female filmmakers right here on this project, and if we had the budget for it, we could have had a hundred. Just from the pool of women filmmakers we know personally. There’s no excuse for not knowing women filmmakers anymore. I know I speak for a lot of women when I say I love Marvel movies, Harry Potter movies, franchises, etc.- I love genre films, and I’d love to direct those kinds of projects as well as my own.
What else are you working on?
Sarah Tither-Kaplan: Scream Underwater is the feature project I’m developing with Ally Sheedy. I’m currently looking for other producers to come on board. I am telling the story of five women coming forward to out a sexual predator during the #timesup and #metoo movements, because it is my story to tell, I lived it, and continue to live with it every day. So many powerful men are rushing to produce content about the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, and they have access to the resources to get those stories made, but they aren’t their stories to tell. It is essential that we elevate the voices of the people who have actually lived through these traumatic events, to make space for them in the industry, to welcome survivors back when they have been driven out by fear and intimidation. We are already making space for abusers to come back, and we have barely scratched the surface of what’s been going on in this industry, the open secrets, the coercion, enabling, and abuse. There is so much work still to be done, but I’m so excited for the future of women in this industry. We’re going to do great things. We just need the chance.