Amy Adrion on the making of Half the Picture

Amy Adrion’s documentary prioritises the female perspective and shines a light on gender discrimination in the film industry.

This piece is from our continuing coverage of Sydney Film Festival over the next month. Check out the rest of the content here

Half the Picture is an aptly timed documentary that uses in-depth interviews with female filmmakers to highlight the systemic sexism plaguing the film industry.

The film, which is also Adrion’s first full length feature film, began pre-production in the summer of 2015, around the time the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) began an investigation into gender discrimination against female directors in Hollywood. At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union labelled the lack of hiring of female directors a “systemic failure.”

The film started out as a self-financed endeavour where Adrion and her husband David Harris, the film’s other producer, purchased cameras and equipment on credit cards.

“We bought cameras…and all the bits and bobs you need to make a movie on a small scale…and that was very scary [spending that money],” she said. “I knew that I really wanted to make this movie and if I was going to make it, I needed to make it now.”

Having the equipment and a small crew of around seven for every interview afforded the team the freedom to make the film on the go. “We needed to have a small camera package…so when Ava DuVernay’s people call and say ‘Ok, she is available next week,’ we could actually accommodate that.”

Adrion started off with two directors she knew could interview, Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) and Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight). From there, word of the film’s production spread through her network and the networks of her interviewees. Adrion says this created a “mini army” of people who put her in touch with female directors they knew. . The result was interviews with more than 30 female filmmakers and directors including Lena Dunham (Girls), Mary Harron (American Psycho), Sam Taylor-Johnson (50 Shades of Grey), Jill Soloway (Transparent) and Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry).

By the time the Weinstein scandal broke in October 2017, the film was well into post-production. But the revelations of accusations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour by men in Hollywood did have an effect on the documentary’s editing.

“At one point, we had a clip in the film where a director talks about Harvey Weinstein…as a sort of kingmaker producer,” she said. “And in another clip we had Matt Lauer…we had a clip of Charlie Rose…we had a clip with Jeffrey Tambor…so we had to cut all of these people out of the film.”

Adrion’s first experience on a film set was as a production assistant for the 1998 independent film Next Stop Wonderland. She recalls the memory fondly: “I was working on a movie and I was absolutely in heaven.” Next Stop Wonderland ended up going to Sundance, the same festival where, in January this year, Half the Picture had its premiere.

Although she has now found success, Adrion says after graduating with a Master of Fine Arts from UCLA, she faced the familiar difficulty of procuring finance for a film. Adrion says she questioned,  “Am I doing something where I’m going to keep trying and will never ever succeed? That’s not really an option when you have a mortgage and children.”

Although women make up 50% of all film school graduates, the statistics remain discouraging, with females making up only 4% of all directors. The problem extends into the hiring of women in any key behind the scenes roles; in 2017, it was found that 30% of films employed zero or one woman in key behind the scenes roles and only two to five women were employed for 59% of films.

Adrion believes there are generations of women filmmakers who have wound up moving into other fields “because no matter how hard they tried and how hard they worked, they never got those breaks.”

While Half the Picture undoubtedly functions as an exposé of the challenges faced by female filmmakers, Adrion emphasises the film aims to recognise the work created by these women; it operates foremost as a “celebration of their artistry”.

The fundamental message of Half the Picture is as relevant today as it has ever been, yet only in recent years has the issue of gender inequity and discrimination in the film industry become prioritised in the social, cultural and political mainstream. Adrion notes that the women [in this film] are the tip of the iceberg and it’s definitely a legacy of women behind each other.”

And the importance of the work of these filmmakers cannot be overlooked. Ava DuVernay was the first African American woman to win the Best Director award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and the first woman of colour to receive a budget of over $100 million to direct a live-action film; Sam Taylor-Johnson previously held the record for the highest grossing opening for a female director for Fifty Shades of Grey (Patty Jenkins now holds the record for 2017’s Wonder Woman), and Gina Prince-Bythewood will direct the upcoming Marvel film Silver & Black, making her the first woman of colour to direct a superhero film.

While gender inequality in the film industry remains pervasive and omnipresent, Adrion’s documentary highlights the voice of female filmmakers and adds to the growing force for cultural change.

Half the Picture is playing as part of the Sydney Film Festival on Thursday June 14th.