It would be no new headline to write that Hollywood still has challenges with gender equality. The casting couch may once have been something of infamy, but the allegations against Harvey Weinstein for which he is currently on trial certainly seems to have signalled a change in what is acceptable behaviour.
The truth though is that there is still some way to go for gender equality not least for actresses but also female directors. A new report, Thumbs Down: Female Critics and Gender, and Why It Matters, by San Diego State University’s Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film highlighted that male reviewers outnumber female reviewers by two to one. This affects how women directors and films about women are perceived. Movie reviews are far from gender neutral and they’re more likely to review movies featuring male protagonists rather than female ones, and when they review movies made by female directors, they are less likely than female reviewers to mention the director and to offer positive comments about their work.
The New York Times in a recent interview with film director Kimberly Peirce around the release of Carrie suggested this as one possible reason that Hollywood doesn’t tend to champion the type of films many female directors prefer to make. Their report mentioned that Peirce thought the industry was “built for commercial compromises and easy paychecks, not the kind of personal, character-driven films she favours” a statement The Independent suggested “might be seen as code for a certain gender dynamic, in which a studio system fixated on profit will prioritise crowd-pleasing entertainments”.
Within this backdrop, how then can a woman born in Derbyshire become a Hollywood producer and film director with 8 film credits to her name most notably Maybe I’m Fine (2018), The League of Legend Keepers: Shadows (2017) and Pretty Outrageous (2017). We set our alarm clock and made sure we were by the phone to speak to Elizabeth Blake-Thomas in her LA home to get the real story of her success.
Elizabeth: What’s interesting about my story is that it is much easier if you are part of some kind of industry dynasty that can help you. I had nobody in my family that was in this. Nobody. So when I first started taking drama, it felt very strange. My school didn’t even have drama GSCE as an option. When I was younger I became interested in the industry from being on the stage myself. I was 10 years old and got the lead role in “Larkrise to Candleford” at the Nottingham Playhouse. There was always this attitude that I was a wee bit older than my years. I never let anyone say that I couldn’t do it or that something wasn’t possible so I set up my own theatre company at 16/17 and ran a company based in Derbyshire (The Nouveau Theatre Company) and I had 25-30 young people at one stage and we would put on performances and shows. I just did it – literally just did it without being taught. There was something innate in my whole system that just said “You can do this. Don’t think you can’t.”
I went to University, and the only reason I went was because my dad said that I should. I have no regrets but I don’t think it was right for me. I was told that you need to get a degree and a proper job because that’s what people do. I took drama and English and I hated it; I never went to any of the lectures as I preferred the business studies lectures. I was working and earning and running my theatre company which was much more enjoyable than sitting learning how to be a tree! Then I decided – because again, I was constantly being told that I needed to get a proper job, that if I liked drama and I liked performing a bit that maybe I should be a lawyer or a barrister. I started a post-graduate degree in law which I very quickly realised was not what I wanted to do and I still had a huge interest in drama and wanted to do something along those lines.
Then, I think, fortunately for me, I had my daughter, Isabella, and she was the one that really started to focus the drama side for me when she came to all of my drama classes and theatre companies and I realised that she really had a skill and enjoyed it. I thought she should have a go to see if she was any good. Well, she got her first job presenting a show on CBeebies. At this point I had no interest in the TV and film industry, I didn’t know enough about it. I was supporting my daughter and that was my job and that’s what I did.
When Isabella was six, I was told about this amazing drama course in New York. I thought, “well I’d like a holiday in New York and this would be brilliant for her and we should go to that”. Whilst we were at that course, someone there mentioned there was a similar course in LA. I remember thinking “LA, that’s like Hollywood, we can’t actually go there – that doesn’t really happen does it?”’ That was nine years ago now.
I remember thinking “Oh my gosh… LA… that’s so far”. Going from Derbyshire to London was a big step, then London to New York was a big step. Going to LA … that’s just not what you do!
From the moment we arrived in LA and my daughter got an agent, it felt right to be here and to be a part of this to support her, although I’d still not decided what I was going to do. While being with Isabella on her films and TV shows, I got to know a lot of the crew and to understand what was happening on set. Without realising it, I was literally, through osmosis, learning everything.
It was only two and a half years ago when we’d been living here for a few years for Isabella that my ex-boyfriend, director of Soul Surfer and the Miracle Season said to me that I should be director – “a film director?” I asked, “how do I do that?” – he said “you just say you are!” That was the moment when I made the decision. I feel I’m coming into it quite late at 37 and it might be a bit late to start afresh but…
From my initial conversational exchanges with Blake -Thomas it is clear she is a woman who knows her own mind and has the passion and courage to see things through. However people tend to have a way of exaggerating the highlights and playing down the struggles and challenges they faced that have helped define them. History is littered with people who have overcome challenges in their life to achieve their goals and Blake-Thomas’s story is another one to add to the list.
Elizabeth: I’ve been a single mum for I’d say, well from the beginning I guess but I was married, but the last six years, I’ve been fully single and have done everything myself. When I did have Isabella, it was hard and it was a shock but I knew it was meant to be for me. I was a bit of a lost soul. I didn’t know where I wanted to be. I’d come from a divorced family, I’d latched on to this man I’d met at university who was also studying at the same time. We’d found ourselves in this situation and we had to make the best of it. Now I believe that it was the best thing for us and I made the decision to keep Isabella. I focused a lot of energy on Isabella and I know it was one reason for our marriage breakdown but also because of the industry I’d put her into. She had got this job and my husband and I at the time both agreed for her to do this. It wasn’t as if I knew that she was going to get it but we did it and it just made my daughter and I much closer because we had that common interest. Suddenly she couldn’t be at school full time because she was off doing jobs and filming. I was away from home with her and there was no normality. I’m a bit of a nomad and I like to travel. I loved that we were suddenly being given all of these opportunities and that my daughter was doing well. It was hard, and at the same time, I was running my classes and had set up my business and trying to earn money and there was nobody that understood that.
Too often people blame life for the things that have not gone right or as planned. The enlightened however focus not on the negativity but use the cards that life has dealt them to take them on a new or slightly different journey. It’s clear in talking to Elizabeth that the flip she made started her on her own journey towards realising some of her own ambitions.
Elizabeth: People often think and presume incorrectly, that this [film directing] was what I’d always wanted to be doing. Actually, I probably did but I didn’t know that this was where I was heading or what I should be doing. You go into a situation where you are constantly getting backlash from family or friends because of the industry into which I’d put my daughter but I was letting it happen naturally. Of course, if there was an audition, I could have chosen not to take Isabella but she was doing well, so I did. When I started to home school her, I had a friend accuse me of abusing my child because I decided to home school her!
There are times now when I look back fondly but there were times when, say Isabella got a job, and I was supposed to be working and I’d have to find people to cover my class. When we were out here in LA on a job and she was eight years old needing to go to sleep, I’d be sitting on the bathroom floor working. This is the stuff that no-one saw – the unglamorous side of things; keeping in touch with everyone and making sure that everything that was necessary was done, following up on working, writing. I’d be sitting on that bathroom floor with the little light on so that she couldn’t see or be woken up. We’d have one bed when you’re on a set – one bedroom and a bathroom – and she was too young to be left. It was very hard. You’d be up all hours because I was still trying to juggle the English life and the American life. That was tough and trying to make a marriage work that wasn’t going anywhere, not having the support of my ex-husband or the family.
Winston Churchill famously said during the height of the Blitz, when World War II was about to be lost, to “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It is often the turning points in our lives that help us on to a new path. For Blake-Thomas her path led to directing 7 feature films in 2 years but what were the turning points that led her to this path?
Elizabeth: There are probably three or four. One of the first was when I was younger and my parents divorced. I saw groups of friends that had families that were all together and I felt slightly disillusioned, I believe that they had the perfect family and therefore I thought that was what I wanted. Therefore, because that’s what I saw, that’s what I then sought. That’s why I then met this person at university and we had Isabella.
I’d been told by my father that when it came to my acting, I wasn’t very good – he actually said those words – and that I needed to get a proper job. I thought “Oh my God – I have to prove that I can do what I’m going to do and look after myself.”
Coming to LA and fighting everyone’s beliefs at how stupid that was and how detrimental to Isabella it was going to be and all of the negatives, I again had to prove everybody wrong. Any time in my life where I’ve had to prove to people, it gives me an incredible strength and power to succeed even more.
I suppose when my ex-husband asked for a divorce because he’d met someone else. He’d met that person who could give him the 2.4 children, range rovers and dogs. In that moment, I allowed myself the time to grieve for the loss of the marriage.
When my ex-boyfriend said I should be a film director, that was my ‘Ah – you can do this’ moment.
Looking from the outside in we can all be mistaken in thinking that the relationships we see around us look rosy. However, all relationships are unique which is why in some way all relationships could be considered dysfunctional. Experiencing this throughout her life has provided Blake-Thomas with a rich bank of personal experiences to delve into for inspiration with her writing and directing. One may even ask that if she had not had the difficult journey in life so far, if she would have achieved her success as a film director?
Elizabeth: Yes, you draw on anything you’ve experienced in life. I am often using stories I have experience of. They will be relationships between father/daughter. I didn’t know who my biological father was when I was growing up and I met him when I was 19. It had a huge impact on me without me knowing it. So father/daughter stories really affect me. Husband/wife stories and definitely acknowledgement of “what you think should be versus what is”.
When I’m writing I create what I call my ‘vomit draft’ of a script and then I get someone to edit it. This is because the first version is where you are writing organically about what’s real and you then have to ‘movify’ it a bit. It’s through my experiences in life that I draw on to write. That’s why I wrote my book “Arabella” and that’s why I’m turning it into a film at the moment. So I really enjoy turning experiences into films because they are then from the heart. This also flows through into my directing of actors as I can really understand what’s going on and get them to grasp the truth behind their acting.
If I’d had a life where I’d known my family and they’d stayed together, I’d been given money, the surname was Spielberg, then I don’t think I’d be as interesting a director as I am!
Of the top 100 grossing films of 2017, women represented only 8% of directors, 10% of writers, 2% of cinematographers, 24% of producers and 14% of editors. Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win the Academy Award for Best Director and only five women have ever been nominated (Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Bigelow, and Greta Gerwig). When you see statistics like these you can imagine the difficulty it must be just trying to make it as a director in Hollywood, so directing seven films within two years is no mean feat.
Elizabeth: I was given advice that once you’ve made your first film, make your second, make your third, make your fourth… So I just knew that I had to as I’d seen the struggle if you don’t keep on going. There are people who make one film and then live off that for four or five years, not financially, but in the sense of “oh, I’ve made a film”. That first film which I managed to make required me to be driven to deal with the negativity around whether I could do this. Even the person funding the movie had doubts about the timeframe I’d set out for the project. So I wrote and shot the film from concept to the end of the shoot in four weeks because I knew that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be given that opportunity. I surrounded myself with people who were good and I’m also not naïve to think that it was going to be brilliant because, if you don’t do it, then you’re not going to learn from it. Once I’d done that first one, that’s when you say, okay, now for your next one. I’m about to go out to the BAFTA LA Britannia Awards and I’ve made this happen through my work, through my networking, through people and constant hard work every single day.
I’m addicted to what I do and I’m a very healthy eater. I’m a vegan as much as I can be. Some might say well that doesn’t give you the energy but I’m very slight and don’t have sugar. I’m conscious of what I eat. It’s also a bit of a control thing. Again, this is a huge thing that I’ve only just been able to acknowledge publically in the last couple of weeks which is that I’ve had an eating disorder for as long as I can remember. You can’t control anything else in your life but you can control what you eat.
There is no doubt that making it as a female director in Hollywood is a great achievement in itself and being in the 8% of female directors of the high grossing films is being a member of the vanguard. But in today’s multi-cultural world one has to ask the question why it is that the statistics for women working in film and TV in LA are so unbalanced?
Elizabeth: I think it’s down to a number of reasons. Firstly there just aren’t as many females in the industry anyway. I think a lot of females leave the industry to have children and it’s hard to get back into it. I do also believe that they weren’t all given the same opportunities. Now my experience of this having only been in it two and a half years is that the number of mentors and people that I work with and who support me and, let’s say there were 50 of them, then I’d say that 49 of them are men, which is why I mentor a lot, all of the time and have people shadow me on set because you absolutely need to learn in real life.
A couple of years ago I didn’t think to myself that I could be running a studio but now, having a daughter who is now seeing me do it, she is now already at that stage where I can say you need to be running Sony in a couple of years. That wouldn’t have been a discussion in the house before so I think that change has to be taken into consideration but it will take generations to change.
Also, for people there is also the issue of quality because you need to learn. Put me in a film studio now and get me to direct a $300m film – I’ll do it. Ask me to do that when I’d only shot one film, then I would have been insecure and I wouldn’t have felt that I could do it. I needed to learn this. The trouble is that there aren’t many female directors like me who have just completed their seventh feature film.
There is also an ego aspect to it. Because what is failure? I’m not afraid to say that I’m making film for $5k versus $5m. To me it is the same amount of effort but it’s just other people’s concept of things. Some might go “God, that’s not a real film” and I just think “well, of course it’s a real film. Anything is a real film if you’ve got real people doing it!”
If movie directors are the storytellers of the popular media we consume, then their role comes with some responsibility for making us stop and think. Their philanthropic endeavours outside of directing also sets and example to us. This is not lost on Blake-Thomas and she is in good company with the likes of Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, Rob Reiner and David Lynch all who take their philanthropic activity seriously.
Elizabeth: Yes, that’s right. I shot a film about the Romanian orphanages. I really like working philanthropically. Everything I do really does have a purpose; it’s either going to make a difference to somebody in their life because they’re on my set working on it, or, maybe because my subject matter is going to affect people. There always has to be a bigger picture to what I do than actually just shooting a film.
Well its now 2am in the morning in the UK and we’ve learnt a great deal about Elizabeth Blake-Thomas who has candidly shared her aspirational journey from Derbyshire to Hollywood. A journey that shows change happens by just deciding to do something; and a journey that is by no way yet complete…
Elizabeth: I’m shooting a film in two weeks with a working title of “Sixteen”. I might call it fifteen because it’s basically a coming of age story and Isabella will be starring in it. It’s about what goes on in that year from 15 to 16.
I love working with Isabella. We work well together as we have an amazing synchronicity together and it’s doing what we love. I’ve got a couple of films in the pipeline for next year, one is called “Morning Shine” with Katrina Bowden – it’s a love story. I’ve been given another Tom Keneally script and the producers are a British Company called GlobalWatch. The film is called “Fled” and it’s an epic Australian ship film which will be wonderful for me to direct.
If I could hit ten; I’ve made eight and I’ve got the other two, then I feel that as Malcolm Gladwell stated that, researchers having settled 10,000 hours as the magic number for true expertise – then I feel that I would have done my 10,000 hours, my – ten features which will allow me to say “yes, I know what I’m talking about, I can do this”.
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