Lexi Alexander: “The point is the principle of equality”

Lexi Alexander tells us why everyone needs to be talking about Hollywood inequality

Lexi AlexanderFilmmaker Lexi Alexander has recently found herself at the forefront of the Hollywood gender equality debate, after a blog she wrote about the lack of it in the industry went viral.

The director of Punisher: War Zone and Green Street spoke to SciFiNow about the opportunities available for women directors, Hollywood’s reluctance to make films about female superheroes, and why independent filmmaking is not a good enough answer.

It feels like there’s more and more discussion about the lack of gender equality in Hollywood. How much impact do you think online debate actually has on the industry?

You know, that’s a good question, I don’t really know if it affects anybody. I think that people in general look at the numbers more than any kind of online noise, because lots of people make noise. I mean, the comic book people tend to complain about every choice, every director and every actor and then they go [to see the film] anyway. So I don’t think people really pay attention that kind of online noise.

I think in my case I wrote one blog that I never planned on anybody seeing that ended up going viral, and now people will actually instant message me on Twitter [to ask] if I could say something about a certain issue! Only because they think I somehow now have a megaphone. I think we have a responsibility and I certainly will, I will actually do that for somebody if I think that person’s making a good point, and I know that because they’re not high profile or they don’t have a lot of followers, that this point will not be seen, then I will actually do it. Does it matter? I don’t know! I have no idea, frankly.

Does it feel like it’s something that people in the industry are still reluctant to talk about?

Well, it depends. The whole women roles and women stories, I mean, if you look at my films I’m the worst offender. None of my movies pass the Bechdel test, you know. This is a tough one for me because I do take this issue seriously, I read a lot about it now, as I try to figure out how to write a screenplay for women I struggle. Because I grew up around boys, either at martial arts or at football, I’m much more drawn to write stories about guys.

I think that equality means that I should be able to do that, because there’s many men, I have a friend, Rodrigo Garcia [In TreatmentNine Lives, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her] who writes beautifully about women in a way that I could not write about women. I think that we should be able to say that. He is better at it. Probably because he is more fascinated by women than I am, whereas I’m more fascinated by men.

But now we have this issue that we don’t have a lot of women on screen. If I write a kick-ass woman, to me it often feels very inauthentic. Being a martial artist myself, and I didn’t just go to some karate school, I trained marines in hand to hand combat, I really know how far you can go with fighting. I would never allow a scene where a woman kicks a 6 foot 4 guy to the head and he drops, and after him three other guys. And so it’s troubling to me that we have to have these women and then over-masculinise them or we make them unrealistic, and it took me a lot to portray women as badass without trying to be guys.

Recently the kick-ass Hollywood heroine tends to be characters like Alice from Resident Evil or Selene from Underworld….

Well, you know it’s funny because I thought about it as I just saw this trailer for Lucy, with Scarlett Johansson, and by the way you should tell Luc Besson that I personally want to interview him! I have so many questions for him. The only film I ever liked in that genre, like “Wow, that is a cool-written character,” was his La Femme Nikita. That for me was just so well done. And I think he really likes portraying strong women.

But what’s fascinating to me, I have a TV show in development that is about badass real-life women, and it’s based on a newspaper article about these real women, but as I try to figure out how to write them realistically, and appealing, there are a lot of obstacles. And it’s funny to me that I see this trailer, and I think, “Wow, for him to write a woman who basically is so badass and so amazing he had to invent this scenario where something sci-fi made her that way.”

I can relate to him in that sense, not wanting to portray a woman unrealistically but still wanting to see a woman kick ass, like that’s what you come up with, or you set it in the Matrix or Resident Evil! You know, it’s always some kind of scenario that makes it believable. But you know, if you look at real life there’s unbelievable stories of women’s courage, there’s stories left and right, it’s just that they don’t go out in sexy outfits and kick five guys to the head.

zoe-bell-raze1
Zoe Bell in Raze

We recently talked to Zoe Bell about Raze, and she told us that there’s no shortage of actresses who want to make these kick-ass action films, it’s just that the films aren’t getting made.

That’s true, and there’s of course the fact that sometimes an actress will get a role like this, like in a lot of the young adult movies, the girl is supposed to be this badass fighter and as she fights with her trainer who’s training her to fight, she literally looks like she’s doing tai-bo, like some kind of high-impact on him, and I was so upset about it because it’s not necessary. Because first of all there is Gina [Carano] and Zoe and the women you should cast if you want it to be authentic, and if you’re casting an actress then you really have to consider shooting it in a way that the stunt woman can sell it for her or you have to cast the kind of actress who’s also not a size zero and you know that she breaks a bone as soon as shin hits on shin.

There’s also films like Gravity, where the studio was hesitant about Sandra Bullock leading, so you have a mega-star like George Clooney in support. 

Yeah, and I’m probably the only person to ever say this but I kind of wish the roles were reversed in this movie! Even though I know everybody considered this to be her movie, and by the way I’ve discussed this with others and they all think I’m crazy, so full disclosure nobody agrees with me on this, but I felt that she was like whining and helpless and he was the big saviour. It was just, I kept thinking “I would have cast this the other way around!”

Halle Berry in Catwoman
Halle Berry in Catwoman

There is the feeling that every time we point out how successful a female-led film is, there are people waiting to point out when they fail.

Oh yeah. I mean, we could look at this forever, like Catwoman and Aeon Flux, which by the way, this is my biggest frustration about this, because people will never analyse the entire picture. It doesn’t matter if it comes to which director got hired, or what comic book property it was, they just look at “Oh yeah, you had a female lead and it failed, we did it twice and we should never do it again.” They don’t consider what kind of property it was. What was Catwoman? What was Aeon Flux? What was the audience for that property before it came on screen, versus The Dark Knight or Iron Man? And then nobody says “Well what [budget] does the filmmaker of a film like Catwoman get?” You think he gets as much as Batman? No way. Same with Aeon Flux. Everybody compares 200 million dollars vs 20 million dollars.

I’m for fair competition but when you look at the fair competition you have to analyse everybody’s background, you know? What are the circumstances? Somebody is running a race in the desert without any water stands and the other person is running comfortably in a forest in shadow. This is what nobody wants to talk about. I sometimes don’t understand if people are really that ignorant about it or if there’s this thing of “I’m not going to go so far.”

The lack of female superheroes is obviously a big part of the debate at the moment…

Yes, of course. And I always get on these lists that bloggers make for every comic book movie about a woman. Why, I’m not sure, because I don’t even think I’m qualified, but of course people assume. I get Wonder Woman, Black Widow, it’s always the first thing they come up with is my name. And I don’t think people realise how much of a risk that is, you know, I don’t actually think I have the balls to do that again.

Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle in Punisher: War Zone
Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle in Punisher: War Zone

How was the process of working with Marvel on Punisher: War Zone?

Well, you know the making of it was actually…Even though I had those budget issues and even though I had to constantly call and say “Wait a minute, you’re taking another million, another million,” those were the kind of arguments. But they did kind of like my pitch for it and there wasn’t much in production that ever held me back, it was the marketing team that turned the whole thing into a sour experience. I knew before I brought it to them, people had told me, “Be careful.” The marketing team, their nickname is Mean Girls. They’re known to bully filmmakers. And I kind of wish I wouldn’t have heard that because, when you hear something like this, automatically your guard is up and everything is like you’re waiting for the conflict, and there’s probably a lot to that, but they refused to listen.

They refused to listen to any input I had, which is strange to me, because as a filmmaker you live with the fans and the film for so much longer than the marketing team. The marketing team has to switch every two months to a different property so why would they not listen? They shot down everything that I suggested, they released it at a date that I begged people not to. I mean, I had my agent call, “Please, please, please don’t release it in the Christmas month,” and I had no chance.

So from that aspect it wasn’t a great experience, and then you have a box office failure. And even once it turned into this big cult hit…I don’t know if you ever read Patton Oswalt’s review about it. I think he brought me out of the darkness because for the longest time I was sitting thinking “Wow, could I have been so wrong?” Because you’re isolated; you hear some people talk about it but most critics hated it. And so I was shocked! I thought “Oh my god, maybe I’m really not good at this!” And then he wrote this thing and somebody sent it to me, and even at that point I had stopped reading reviews about it, he said “Please, just read this.” And I remember literally crying because I thought “Oh my god, I’m not crazy!” Beucase you really start doubting everything about you, your entire like “Do I have the skill to be a filmmaker?” But once it turned into a cult hit, it’s bittersweet because that’s almost worse than making a piece of shit movie!

Well, we’re big fans at SciFiNow!

Thank you! It’s funny, I love Punisher fans.

It does seem quite staggering with so many comic book movies that Marvel and DC haven’t made a female superhero movie since the 00s. 

Yeah, you know what, frankly I don’t get it. Especially with Wonder Woman, which is such an icon. They’ve already spent so much money into the development of the film of it, and David Kelley made the pilot which couldn’t have been cheap. I don’t know what is the deal is, why they can never greenlight any of these movies. I’m also confused though, but there are so many opinions on female characters and just when I think “Oh this one’s good for us,” somebody will write “Here’s why it’s not good for us.” You are right, though, I don’t even know how they get away with this whole not making Wonder Woman and not making Black Widow movies. But I have fewer answers than you probably.

Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, directed by Debra Granik
Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik

It’s interesting, too, that we’re seeing so many male filmmakers going from making one or two low-budget movies and suddenly getting these mega-budget franchise movies.

Yeah, that’s the biggest…listen, I could fucking wear a t-shirt about this, this is the biggest thing. And the problem is when I speak out people assume I’m complaining about my own situation. Even when a script like that comes to me, and they do still come, I get the occasional “We’re making this comic book movie dahdahdah” and I get many other thrillers and stuff like that, I don’t want to make a movie like that anymore. Frankly I don’t know if I have another opening weekend in me, but when I speak out, I speak out about all the women who have these amazing first time films.

Winter’s Bone, why is Debra Granik not the biggest director we’re talking about? I don’t understand, this to me just blows my mind, Winter’s Bone put Jennifer Lawrence on the map, Debra Granik made that happen. Jennifer with all my love and I respect her as an actress, how is she worth more than the director who put her in her first meaningful film and got that performance out of her? Debra Granik should be on every 100 million dollar film immediately.

And then there are tons of others, but what you do see is the guy whose movie never made money and had some splash at Sundance. There’s a million examples of that, you know, of how these guys get pulled out of oblivion.

The amount of women filmmakers who go into oblivion, some of them don’t even get funded any more after really good films at festivals. There’s a certain guy that comes to Hollywood and he looks like a director, like he just walks into an agency and everybody instantly sees dollar signs because he just looks like a Spielberg or Tarantino, you can compare him to the ones that made a shitload of money. That person, even though they made an indie film that made no money, even if it didn’t get awards or great reviews they will fuel him to the point where they have a 100 million dollar young adult property in the theatre that could have not really failed in anybody’s hands to be honest. And by that point he is that A-lister but I honestly think they don’t even know how the fuck it happened. And the unfortunate part is they actually believe in their genius. Then what happens is when you don’t realise that you’ve been basically put in that position and you start believing your own hype, you know, that’s when you see these people make these movies and not listen to anybody and fail one after another. And it always happens, it doesn’t seem to stop anybody.

There are lots of women directors currently working in the independent film world who have been doing consistently good work…

Well, you know, I want to stop people talking about how great it is in the indie world and how women just find their home in the indie world. Every time I say that it makes me puke. Also, this whole thing about “Oh! Crowdfunding is the answer to all of the women in film’s problems!” No, it isn’t, and here is why. Not everybody wants to make a $500,000 street film with two people talking.

There’s actually women who want to make great fables, maybe there’s a woman who wants to make a Pan’s Labyrinth or her version of Star Trek or a Harry Potter. And it could be an original or it could be an adaptation, it doesn’t matter, not everything can be done for one million dollars. And have you ever tried raising 30, 40 million dollars on crowdfunding? I don’t think so. But what people are saying, “Oh, women have crowdfunding, women should just stay in indies,” means that everybody can make money and can make a living and the movies they want if they have a penis. If they don’t, they can stick to filmmaking as a hobby.

Because I can tell you this, on a million dollar film, I’ve made them, you don’t make money. You cannot actually make a living with it. Filmmaking is very here or there, you either make a shitload of money or you make nothing. I mean, every independent movie I did, including Green Street, I put money into the production and didn’t get anything out of it. So what we’re saying is that it can never be a profession for women and people need to stop saying that.

Do you think that there is a solution?

I’m not sure in America. To be honest, in Europe and I’m not sure why the Brits haven’t done it, I know there’s an overall EU movement on this, especially the movies that are financed through government money, there needs to be a quota. They just can’t descriminate against women and against ethnic minorities. I think that’s starting to happen. Now what you’re going to have in the beginning of that is rather shitty movies from some of them, because again you’re basically putting the kid who’s never had a real bike against Lance Armstrong who has a team of doping doctors. So you have to consider that, even with a quota, the people who don’t get the work, they need a little bit of time to catch up because they don’t have as many chances right from the get-go coming out of film school, that most guys have. But I think that’s the only thing that’s going to help. It’s just as simple as that, you know, when there is a profession where there’s more people than jobs, there is no such thing as fairness.

I always say it’s a sandbox, it’s like we’re kids and the boys it’s kind of ingrained in them and I kind of respect that because I’ve always been around my brother and his friends so I do get in the sandbox myself and snatch the toy out of your hand. But in this case there are more of them, they’re faster, they have a system set up. As you do in a sandbox you need the kindergarten teacher to come and say you guys need to share! In America the government doesn’t step in. There’s no government funded TV or movies here so I don’t know if they’re ever going to solve this here. What has happened is that women have moved in droves to TV.

Jenji Kohan's Orange Is The New Black.
Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is The New Black.

Do you feel like the situation is better in TV?

Slightly, yeah. I feel like there isn’t that…because we have Shonda Rhimes and Jenji Kohan, I almost feel as though we have a few JK Rowlings, you know? We have a few women that represent “Oh, they made a shitload of money.” So the executive doesn’t look at us as somebody who doesn’t fit the description of somebody who doesn’t make money. It has become much more like “Well, let’s listen to that person, what does that person have to say?” So yeah, it’s much more fair whereas I think in film we really don’t have any woman, we’re talking about Anne Fletcher, but we really don’t have that one woman who makes one blockbuster after another.

And even if we do, that is the funny part about film, Catherine Hardwicke did. She did, and people told her after that film, “You don’t have to worry anymore, it won’t go back to anything else.” Because for men, if you make that one film that makes a shitload of money and you set up a franchise like Twilight, you don’t have to worry anymore. That’s why M. Night can make another 10 bad movies and never get kicked out. It just is what it is. But it didn’t count for her. She’s back to where she was before Twilight.

I guess because everybody looks at it like this is a rich person’s problem, or, like all people in Hollywood, we don’t look like we need help. Especially if you listen to the news and you see this discrimination in other countries, we don’t even compare to the women at Walmart trying to get equality, but equality, it doesn’t matter where it is. It doesn’t matter whether it’s about a CEO who makes three million dollars a year but the male CEO before her got five million dollars a year, we may think “Why would I stand up for this fucking millionaire?” but that’s not the point. The point is the principle of equality.

You can read more from Lexi Alexander at her blog.