‘Punisher: War Zone’s’ Lexi Alexander on Challenges Faced By Female Directors
No matter how supportive you might be to the idea that genre movies need to be more inclusive and diverse, it can be easy to fall back on timeworn, provocative arguments to make your case. But filmmaker Lexi Alexander, an outspoken advocate for equality in Hollywood, is uniquely capable of cutting through all of that rhetoric – perhaps not unlike the dozens of foes her antihero dispatches in the wonderfully bloody Punisher: War Zone. Speaking to the overlooked human dimensions of the moviemaking industry’s double standards, she clarifies the ways in which women and non-white directors have gone overlooked and underrepresented, without resorting to polemicizing and, perhaps more effectively, without merely complaining.
Alexander reached out to me in February in response to an interview I conducted with American Psycho director Mary Harron, in which I reductively referenced Alexander in a question about the challenge for female filmmakers to find work. A few weeks later, she was kind enough to participate in a thoughtful, in-depth conversation about her efforts, in particular on her blog, to be an industry advocate. What was originally intended to be a brief chat evolved into a discussion about the need for change in terms of equal access, and institutional and cultural perception of women and minorities in entertainment as Hollywood moviemaking continues to exert its influence around the globe.
In this first installment of a two-part interview, Alexander discusses Hollywood preconceptions about directors, how those work against women, why she’s speaking out about the problem, and the domination of the young-adult genre by male filmmakers.
Spinoff Online: Maybe just to get started, for the purposes of like someone who might not understand, what has been misinterpreted in characterizing your blog posts as an expression of frustration with being able to find work?
Lexi Alexander: Well, somebody forwarded me your interview with Mary Harron, who I love, and all of a sudden I see my name in one of your questions and I believe it was phrased, “Lexi Alexander recently wrote a blog about her frustrations of finding work.” And you weren’t the only one, but I think it caught me off-guard in that moment because I had thought I had clarified it before. And I kept reading over it, thinking, where did people see that this was in any way even slightly [about work] – because the bigger point of it was so much more about the status quo and what’s going on. And [the original blog post] was really kind of motivated by a union meeting I went to, and the constant studies and articles that come out about the bleak numbers. It feels like the few of us who are actually out there working don’t exist, if people constantly keep saying, “Where are the women directors?” And then on top of it, it was just about a different subject. I think had I done it about me not finding work, a much better time would have been after I made the movie Green Street Hooligans and people were writing that Hollywood will be knocking, this woman can’t be stopped, and watch where she goes – and then nothing comes, and all I get to do is the Punisher. That’s the time when I should have written, “Look, this is fucked up, and this happens because I’m a woman.” Because people kept comparing me to Guy Ritchie, and I can’t see him having a movie like Green Street that brings both jury and audience awards, and then not getting anything following up. But I think it might have been [I didn’t write it then] because I also was not interested in the subject. So now it’s just really important that this blog was written. But I also think it’s a little bit unfair to those who do send me work, some of the, how would you say, like smaller studios that are big fans and are always sending me stuff. And I notoriously pass on certain things that are very much in the field of Punisher. And so it’s unfair to them if they think I’m out there saying I don’t get work.
Absolutely. I especially went back and I reread the blog post, and I totally understand that it is about sort of diagnosing or describing the way that the industry does not support diversity and equality. Is there a specific solution to this problem, or do you feel like there is a way that Hollywood will get around to doing this without having for it to be a confrontation?
No, to be honest, and a lot of us are discussing it with each other. And that’s the sad part about it. I think we have — and I can speak as part of the “collective we” now, but in the past I didn’t share this belief — because remember, it was years and years of interviews where I stated that I don’t believe there’s gender discrimination, and when I was starting up my thought was that Hollywood worked with anybody who makes the money. Isn’t it just about who is the best? Because they don’t care if you’re an eight-eyed monster if you make the money, frankly. That’s what I thought. I didn’t understand the kind of how deep gender discrimination and sexism even subconsciously goes. Like, the idea that, to them, a director will always look like Quentin [Tarantino] or Steven Spielberg or a young Spike Jonze. And even if they’re not aware of it, they cannot get over that if you’re kind of like the cool young guy in the baseball hat, and preferably you worked in a video store, it’s hard to get past their kind of deep-rooted picture of what a director looks like. And I think in the meantime – and this is what the numbers tell us – it has gotten so bad that agents would refuse to sign women, even if a woman has a movie that wins a festival or that gets good reviews at a festival. It’s not as likely that she gets signed as a guy. A guy will be hunted by the top five agencies. So we’ve gone so far with it and it’s gotten so bad and the numbers are so small, that now to remedy it we have to literally now be drastic, I think. We have to get a type of quota going so that people see. And the women that are now coming in are not just the usual hacks without experience. They’re actually really solid directors and writers. And guess what? They’ve been out there all along.
One of the things that wasn’t clear to me when I read the pieces was when you talked about another female director saying, “I’m one of the boys, and I am not trying to distinguish myself.” How important is that distinction to you? I mean, is it a matter of going, “I am just like everybody else?” Or is it that you feel that specifically women’s voices are not being either supported or heard or encouraged?
Well, I’m sure you know I’m a woman who makes very male-oriented movies. So I’ve never looked at it from the perspective of like, “Look, you have all these dumb action movies because you don’t ask women to direct them.” That would be wrong. And I think I made a movie that killed more people in the first act than any movie in the last 30 years! So I’m looking at it in general, in the way they see us – the female directors as an investment versus the guy. I mean, in some studios if a woman is announced on a movie, somebody told me that there’s a proven fact that the shares drop. So this has gotten into the collective consciousness now and this is a really dangerous thing. I would like to be just a director. But somebody asked me just the other day on Twitter if it bothered me if I’m called a female director. And, you know, I don’t think it does at the moment, because I think we need to be aware of how rare it is. I mean, the lists that go out that you guys don’t know about and nobody really ever digs for them, directors’ lists on certain movies, they barely have women on there. And if it’s a token woman, sometimes they even discuss – and executives told me they discuss in the room to put the woman on that they know is either booked at the time or they know will say no to this. So now they look like they have a woman on, but they also know she won’t ever say yes to it. And so in my opinion, there’s so many of you guys out there that are writing good stuff in entertainment, but I feel like nobody digs. Nobody actually goes, “What’s going on there?” It’s funny because I’ve been thinking a lot about Mary Harron – I mean, just imagine if a man would have done American Psycho. How much do you think this man would have worked? And this is the thing that nobody does: Nobody compares careers. Like, this is really what made me aware of it, was if you kind of compare directors that started with you. Like, I was often compared to people, like, either the English guys, or I remember when I first went out on meetings, I was compared to a guy named David Gordon Green.
Yeah, you look at him, and he has made some films that reminded people of this film I made called Johnny Flynton. This was at the very beginning of my career. But then you look around and you start realizing, oh, the same rules don’t count for him as count for me. He can have a flop and continues to work – I can’t. Those kinds of things. Mary Harron, it’s unexplainable to me that she didn’t get one movie after another. I mean, the quality of American Psycho reminds me of Memento, and look at where that guy is.
As a matter of fact, in the introduction to the Mary Harron interview I did for Spinoff Online, I sort of postulated that if Bryan Singer were the director of American Psycho, what might have happened? I was drawing that comparison.
Yeah, oh, absolutely. And I think that it’s kind of hidden, like nobody talks about it. I don’t think everybody’s completely aware of it. I mean, this is my profession and even I myself didn’t notice this until I was in the middle of my career, when I suddenly went, wait a minute. That guy who started with me didn’t have more films that made more money or won more prizes. And quite the contrary, there’s a few who actually had a lot less critical acclaim, if they go up the ladder like this and yet it wasn’t like that for me, and you find, like, 10 examples of them, and then you look at other women and you see the same thing, that’s when you start seeing a pattern, and one that I think is very dangerous. And that’s why I’m so offended that the people think it was because I’m not finding work. Could I use more work? Am I not getting the things that I always dreamed of getting? Of course. But I can’t say that that’s not also happening to a lot of guy directors. But the reason I’m speaking out now and which I really blame other women for not doing in our industry, is now I’ve spoken at colleges. I’ve met young, you know, 18-, 19-, 20-year-old girls who want to be filmmakers. And I feel like we have a responsibility. And I think some of us have to actually fight to remedy this. Otherwise there’ll be a lot of broken hearts. And frankly I’m not sure that we want a film industry that is run completely by white men.
When I interviewed Mary, I sort of prefaced one of my questions to her by saying, “I’m sort of sorry that I even have to ask this, because I wouldn’t ask it of a male filmmaker.” But the idea of having a female sensibility as opposed to a male, I would never ask a male filmmaker, or maybe almost never, about that idea. What is the conversation that you think needs to be happening or what questions do you feel like need to be asked and to whom in order to get this conversation going in a more productive or constructive way?
Well, what I’m waiting for really is, I’ve seen it happen once in a while, but I think that the fact, and especially having done a comic book movie, I realize there is a certain mass out there in Twitter and social media – everybody’s much more involved in the process of making movies. It’s not like in the old days anymore, where nobody knows anything about a movie until it comes out. I mean, everybody from day one, it’s we’re making this movie and who’s on the shortlist. And I always think it’s very funny to me, because once in a while somebody from a comic book blog would put me on a list: “There’s really nobody better [for this] than Lexi Alexander.” And these are not the kind of people I think would even know who I am or hang out with me, and the fact that some 18-, 19-year-old kid who’s, like, a comic book geek thinks that I’m the best director is so progressive. I mean, that is the world we’re dreaming of, because he doesn’t see gender and it’s probably not even a cool thing to do. He just sees that I’m the best director for it. And so this happens. I’m on this list and then other people say yeah, you’re absolutely right. And they get completely ignored. And I’ve seen this consistently. I’ve seen this about black directors or Hispanic directors. And then somehow the studio will go with the kind of name nobody thought of because he doesn’t even fit in the genre, but it’s safe for the studio because it’s one of their boys, one of their in-house kind of guys. And they totally ignore all of the blogs out there. But what I think needs to happen is people out there need to realize that they have the power. If they put down a director that you don’t believe in, don’t go, don’t buy the ticket. And I think you would be helping all of us so much.
I don’t know how specifically you feel comfortable talking about this, but I feel like we assume or we hope that the Christopher Nolans of the world, these male auteurs that we associate with these giant blockbuster movies, have this deep emotional attachment or this deep passion for them. Are there super heroes or characters or properties that you have had that kind of passion for that you would love to have been able to do – your version of The Dark Knight or some character like that?
Yeah, but here’s what’s funny. I’ve said this honestly on podcasts, I’ve said this several times: I was never a comic book person, and I actually said I often wonder that if that isn’t a bad choice, for the studio to go with somebody who openly said in a meeting, “Look, I didn’t read these comic books.” But see again they don’t really care. They wanted somebody cheap and I was available (laughs). So the comic book has never been my world, and frankly I think that Chris Nolan and Zack Snyder are, like, the real comic book guys, and I think most of these guys are much better for comic books. But here’s for example a genre, the young-adult genre. In my career it just started and I’d unfortunately already said yes to Punisher, and I said yes because I needed to take a studio film. And so I just missed the time where young-adult was getting really big. But if you look on my iPad, I probably have every young-adult book out there that’s ever broken into the top 200 books on the bestseller list. I read them consistently in several languages, before they even come out here sometimes. And so that, to me, is a genre that, I would have loved to [explore], and on many of the movies that are out there now. And I just heard the other day [from] a manager whose clients just took on a young-adult project. And I don’t want to name who this director is, but I happen to know that that’s not his thing. Like definitely that’s not his thing. He would never buy a book like that. It’s just not something that is in his interest. And so I said to his agent, hey, what’s up with so and so? Is he suddenly interested in YA movies? And his agent said, “No, it’s just the only thing I can get for him right now. He’s a little bit in director’s jail.” So I have to sit on the sidelines. And by the way I’m not only talking about me. I would bet you there are hundreds of women, because young-adult literature, I would say more women read it than men, more girls read it than boys. And they’re usually written by women. And yet again, somehow we have managed to diminish that Twilight made money and it became a thing. It turned into all white men. I think there’s a good Tumblr you should check out, called Hollywood Boys Club. And that’s the first time I’d seen it. Like, I couldn’t actually believe it, that once they became moneymakers, they went to these guys – look at this list of these guys and tell me who you think has Hunger Games in their library. Or any of the others, The Fault in Our Stars, and any of these films that these guys are doing – it’s just like we’ve all literally been sidelined and kicked out. Instead of coming to the women who actually read these books, now it’s become a money game. Now it has to be the same white guy who’s doing Batman or whatever. So that’s what’s frustrating.
Well, if I may just follow up then, is there a young-adult series that you especially love, whether it’s past, present or future that you care enough about that you think that you could like really knock out of the park?
I would say if I tell you there’s a certain series, then it becomes, like, this thing that everybody writes again and again and again with different headlines, and so I feel like I’m stepping into a bad area. But I can tell you this: Pretty much all of the prominent ones, the sci-fi ones, I’ve read them all and I didn’t read them with making a movie in mind. I read them because I’m a fan. So yeah, I mean, I’m interested in pretty much all of them, but I mean, I don’t even go in these meetings because I don’t know if I would get a meeting, frankly. And I don’t go in because I know they don’t want to hire me for them. So it’s kind of a lost cause.
The discussion concludes on Monday.
EDIT: May 5 @ 9:45 AM PT: Spinoff has edited some aspects of this interview for clarity.