The Women Behind the Curtain: A Look at Atlanta's New Mavericks
Quick, list your top ten favorite female filmmakers. Having trouble thinking of that many? Okay, how about five? Still having trouble?
According to a recent study at the University of Southern California, out of 1,565 content creators, women comprised only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers. In a culture wherein women make up 50% of the workforce, high profile positions such as business leaders, doctors, lawyers, and politicians are still portrayed by women in film only 20% of the time.
The American workforce has diversified, but the film industry has not kept up. Women accounted for 52% of moviegoers in 2014, but on screen and on set, you’re still much more likely to see men doing the work and telling the stories.
“Learning and studying these histories is imperative because we're sold cinema history books that highlight cis white men filmmakers, and so at a young age we become societally programmed to think that that's what filmmakers look like,” explains Kelly Gallagher, creator of Herstory of the Female Filmmaker, a short film which played during New Maverick’s inaugural film festival last year.
As one of the most notable recent additions to the Atlanta independent film scene, the New Mavericks organization began as two separate but parallel ideas, and has evolved into a year round program, annual film series, and supportive community for women and female-identifying industry professionals.
It all started a few years ago, when four Atlanta-based female filmmakers met and began to discuss what it was like working in the industry. Their meeting sparked thoughts about providing resources to women outside of their small group. Soon after, the group approached the Atlanta Film Society about pairing up after seeing a shorts block by the name of New Mavericks at the 2014 Atlanta Film Festival. The block featured all female filmmakers and well-rounded female characters, with the goal of becoming an unprecedented creative space for women in Atlanta.
Here, we take a look at the women behind the curtain who have helped to conceptualize and participate in this vibrant community shaking up Atlanta’s film industry.
BRANTLY JACKSON WATTS Writer, director, producer, New Mavericks board member and co-founder
As a multidisciplinary film professional, Brantly Jackson Watts has found herself in a variety of roles throughout the years. “I would say that first and foremost I’m a writer, and then director, and then producer only by necessity,” she says. These days, Watts works with her husband Jon on set and behind the camera. Most recently she has undertaken a new challenge as writer and director for the short film Birthday Cake, which she describes as a “female-driven Southern Gothic film about domestic violence in the South and a woman struggling between survival and the love of her life.”
Watts was one of the four original members of the New Mavericks, along with Jen West, Lane Skye, and Robyn Hicks. Together, they shared career goals and voiced their concerns and the struggles they faced in the industry. “We felt like there was a need for a platform for women,” Watts explains. At the time, she was at work on her 2012 award-winning documentary AKA Blondie, a behind-the-scenes look at Anita Rae Strange, the 50-something exotic dancer at the Clermont Lounge known for both her activism and poetry and her ability to crush beer cans with her breasts.
Watts says that having a community of women behind her has helped immensely in her development as an artist, and applauds the Atlanta Film Festival for creating such unique year-round programming to support women. “It is something that I am really proud to be a part of,” she adds. “I think we are creating storytellers, and at the end of the day, in film, it doesn’t matter if you’re a director of photography, it doesn’t matter if you’re a writer, it doesn’t matter if you’re a director, it doesn’t even matter if you’re a producer. At the end of the day you’re a storyteller. We are teaching women the business of film, and we are teaching them to be storytellers.”
ROBYN HICKS Writer, director, producer, New Mavericks board member and co-founder
“My earliest memory, the earliest I can remember, was wanting to live in the movies," reminisces Robyn Hicks. "Then when I realized they were movies, I wanted to make them myself.” Though impossibly shy as a child, Hicks related strongly to the stories she saw on screen, and hardly spoke until her grandfather jokingly referred to her by the name of one of her favorite film characters at the time: Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
Hicks, currently a graduate student in film at SCAD Atlanta, attributes much of her drive for making her first film, Picture Show, to her grandparents. The short film examines not only what it is like to be a couple in a generation gone by, but also pays homage to small-town southern cinemas which are now, by and large, no longer around.
Shortly thereafter, Hicks received devastating news: her husband, Jonathan, had lung cancer. To help cope with the diagnosis, the couple made a short film titled Que Sera, which screened as part of the New Mavericks shorts block at the 2016 Atlanta Film Festival. The film provides an intimate slice of their lives, touching on their struggles to maintain a semblance of normalcy in the face of such a harrowing illness.
Meeting with like-minded individuals in the New Mavericks program has been instrumental in Hicks’ approach to her new role as director. “We are always eager at New Mavericks to hear from young female voices because those are the stories that we want to help get made,” she says. “Because we are listening, and sometimes it can feel like Hollywood is not listening. That is what I love about New Mavericks.”
CRYSTAL JIN KIM Writer, director, New Mavericks filmmaker
If you ask Crystal Jin Kim to describe her career aspirations, chances are you’ll get a complex answer. Kim is a multidisciplinary artist, with passions that span from painting to advertising, and now a passion for film. Her first short film, Jin Jiu, which was her senior thesis project at Northwestern University, was selected to play at the 2016 Atlanta Film Festival during the New Mavericks shorts block. The story follows a moment in the lives of a mother and daughter as they attempt to connect with one another, and is a gentle exploration of both childhood
“I was imagining what it would be like for me to be a mom,” Kim explains, describing a scene in which a young daughter is sulking under her bed as her mother tries to coax her out. “It was just a very compelling image to me of how I think we are with our parents, or just even people we are about or are close to us. I think we want to know that they care, and we want them to come and pull us out.”
Jin Jiu has screened at not only the Atlanta Film Festival but also the National Film Festival for Talented Youth in Seattle and the Asian Pacific American Festival in Washington, D.C., just to name a few. Crystal has been invigorated by her experiences, but is not blind to the challenges that await her as a young female creative in the industry. “When people see me, I think sometimes they don’t think I’ve touched a camera before,” she explains. “At the same time, more and more people are aware of what’s going on, and more women are being really bold about it and building these networks where we can help each other, and I think that’s awesome.”
Writer, director, producer, New Mavericks board member and co-founder
“I think Atlanta is a really great place to be,” says Jen West. “I feel like voices from the Deep South are something that people have not been exposed to as much, so I feel like there’s this energy in Atlanta that’s contagious, and electric.”
West acted as producer on the short film The New Orleans Sazerac, which won this year’s Audience Choice award during Atlanta Film Festival’s WonderRoot series and showcased at Cannes soon after. The film follows the history of the eponymous cocktail and is the first in a series of five cocktail-specific shorts that West and her partner James Martin intend to create.
“The dynamics of what a story is are changing, and the dynamics of the subject matter are changing because of who is leading and pushing the story forward,” West says. “I feel like it is very special to be a female director and writer right now—a female anything. People are making an honest attempt to find talent and to give them attention and to support their projects. I especially think that’s true here in Atlanta. I can’t really describe it; it is a magical thing.”
West has big hopes for what’s to come, and specifically what the organizations that support women in the industry are doing for the city. “Watch for the rise of the female director in Atlanta, especially the independent female director,” she says with confidence. “I know of at least four or five big indie films that are going to film here in the next two years that are directed by women, and they have a great shot of really putting Atlanta on the map in indie film. I think there is going to be more and more conversation around what women are doing in Atlanta.”
Writer, director, producer, New Mavericks board member and co-founder
“I always thought I would do something creative,” says Lane Skye. “But I imagined myself more as a novelist rather than a screenwriter and a filmmaker. That was mostly because when I was growing up I didn’t see film as something that real people did; it felt like something these magical people in Hollywood did and you kind of had to be born into it.”
As a Georgia State University student, however, Skye realized that working in film was an attainable goal and eventually began collaborating with her husband Ruckus on small film projects and music videos. With experience came confidence, and bigger projects.
In May, Skye and Ruckus were panelists alongside Molly Coffee, Ebony Blanding, and Danielle Deadwyler for an event called “The Creative Struggle is Real,” where they offered advice to audience members in the midst of their own projects and careers. “There’s a certain sense of community and support and a feeling of being safe in a group of women,” Skye explains. “On a lot of film sets you’ll walk on and you may be the only woman or one of only a few, so it’s nice to come into a space filled with female filmmakers where you don’t feel like a minority.”
Creative director of the Atlanta Film Society, New Mavericks board member
“I always had a natural pull towards film, especially having grown up in the suburbs in a little bubble,” says Kristy Breneman. “Film was a way to escape and see the rest of the world when I was not allowed to go out and see it for myself.”
Breneman’s tastes grew over time with outside influences. Darker works like Donnie Darko and Buffalo ‘66 had always appealed to her, and she began to see films in a new light, apart from what was accessible on cable or in major motion pictures. Upon moving to Atlanta and enrolling in the graduate level film studies program at Georgia State, she began attending screenings and got involved with film networking events. Eventually, she became Community Outreach Coordinator, and later Creative Director, of the Atlanta Film Society.
“As a woman sitting in the theater, you want something that reflects your own story,” says Breneman. Though she works full time with the Atlanta Film Society, she also remains a central figure in New Mavericks, with roles including programming for the Atlanta Film Festival, organizing the New Mavericks Film Series, facilitating monthly networking events, and constantly working to encourage young women in the industry.
“I think with the film industry growing at a rapid rate here, it’s important for us to have programs like New Mavericks to make sure that history isn’t repeated and that women do have a substantial place in the industry here,” she adds.
Senior Shorts programmer of the Atlanta Film Society, New Mavericks board member
A lifelong film lover, Christina Humphrey cites her grandmother’s early influence as what led her to love the medium as fiercely as she does today. Growing up in Georgia, she’d look forward to regular visits to her grandmother’s home in the South Georgia countryside. “She was an avid library visitor and I watched a ton of classic films back then,” Humphrey recalls with fondness.
After relocating to Atlanta, Humphrey landed an internship with the Atlanta Film Festival and worked her way up to her current role as Senior Shorts Programmer. In 2013, she programmed the first official New Mavericks shorts block as part of the Atlanta Film Festival, adopting the name passed down from the festival’s administration and higher ups.
Humphrey curated a screening of rarely seen and difficult to access historical short films by women at the inaugural New Mavericks Festival in 2015. “It blew my mind,” she says, describing the array of films she uncovered. “We were robbed of knowing about these women; it’s awful. But it’s also fine, because we are making up for it.”
Writer, director, producer, New Mavericks filmmaker
Carrie Schrader’s career has spanned from writing screenplays to directing shorts and web series. Most recently, she wrote and directed the biographical documentary The Founders, which premiered at the New Mavericks block of the 2016 Atlanta Film Festival and won an Audience Award for Best Feature Film. The film was conceptualized by Charlene Fisk, an award-winning documentary director.
“Charlene and I had met on a web series that we were working on and had some friends in the industry,” Schrader says. “She kept saying, ‘come work on this documentary, it’s a golf documentary!’ and I was like, first of all, I don’t do documentaries, I haven’t done them since I was really first starting out. And second of all, golf? A movie about golf?” Her incredulity dissipated, however, as she learned more about the story and its quirky and compelling characters.
Together, Schrader and Fisk created a film that was a mixture of narrative and documentary, detailing the relatively unknown history of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. “As a female, I thought I had known all of my heroines, my icons, the people who had made way for me as a feminist, but I didn’t know what these women did,” explains Schrader, noting that by forming a professional sports organization (the only one like it at the time), the LPGA helped set the stage for other women to break constructs in all areas of society. “They were not supposed to be out there playing sports; they were not supposed to be making a living; they were not supposed to be touring around the country on their own making money,” she laughs. “That was simply unheard of.”
Fisk and Schrader have set out to make a difference in the industry with the launch of their new boutique production company, Mighty Fine Pictures. “Our goal is to continue to tell stories that help support an environment where we really strive to hire a lot of women,” Schrader explains. “That’s what we have to do to continue to train and to create a powerful infrastructure to support all women.”
Cinematographer, director, New Mavericks filmmaker
“I wanted to do a piece that was inspirational,” says Charlene Fisk, who began conceptualizing the film that would eventually become The Founders in 2012. Her need for a narrative screenwriter is what led her to the creative partnership with Schrader.
Fisk’s passion for film has led to a successful career in production. She spent years working for PBS as a director of photography and editor and won her first Emmy for editing at the age of 26. “I consumed everything that I could to get to where I needed to be,” she says. During her time working for high profile productions, however, Fisk began to notice some upsetting trends: “There were no women around me. None. Zero. I didn’t see another woman doing anything but maybe producing, and even then I was so excited the first time that I worked with a woman producer, which wasn’t until I was in my 20s. I had so many terrible experiences with male producers, just horrible, that I was like, ‘Is this how it’s gonna be forever?’”
So how can the industry’s gender imbalance really change? “I think they need to be proactive,” says Fisk. “There can’t be this, ‘oh, I didn’t think to hire a black shooter,' or 'I didn’t think to hire a female shooter…’ It needs to be, ‘I need to think about hiring them first.’ And that’s not the attitude. Because opening up to those things is better for the film, and better for us as creative individuals. The climate on set, and the climate inherent within filmmaking, is a collaborative process.”
Film student at SCAD Atlanta, New Mavericks intern and filmmaker
At only 23 years old, Brit Wigginton is a young face with a fresh perspective on the local film scene, but she has already experienced her fair share of setbacks. She describes the experience of creating her short film Violet, the story of a young runaway she wrote for her senior thesis project at SCAD: “When I first turned my script in...my professor who supervised my senior thesis said it wasn’t a film. He said it couldn’t be made, it was a terrible script, and I needed to write something different.”
Fortunately, her professor’s negativity was not enough to discourage Wigginton from pursuing her concept, and she decided to find a way to make her film despite his protests. “I didn’t want to have to make something else to satisfy the opinion of a 50-year-old straight white man,” she laughs. “So I was like, ‘okay, I’m just going to do this anyway.’” Though it was against the rules to work on unapproved projects while in school, her strong concept and passion encouraged some rebellious students from the sound department to secretly help bring the film to fruition.
“At my school, my entire department is basically like 80 or 90% men. It’s really hard, because everything that’s not about, like, aliens or space or the future, they aren’t going to like it. They don’t take you seriously,” says Wigginton. “So I just feel lucky that I’ve been able to find more supportive environments, so I don’t get totally beat down and not inspired, or feel like I can’t do anything.”
At the end of the year, Violet screened at SCAD’s student awards ceremony. It was a success, and got nominated for a number of awards, surprising and delighting students and faculty alike. This achievement, buoyed by a recent internship with New Mavericks, has honed Wigginton’s interest in operating behind the scenes. She now hopes to pursue a career in development for TV, and credits her success and passion to the women who have encouraged her throughout the years.