It’s no secret that Hollywood is a tough place to succeed – and tougher still if you are a woman. The discussion is ongoing – perhaps inescapable for those living and working in the industry day after day – and it’s true that efforts are being made to promote inclusion, such as mentorship programs and specific grants for female writers and directors. Still, continuing studies on women in film show a stubborn lack of progress in addressing Hollywood sexism. In 2015, for example, Dr. Stacy Smith at the University of Southern California Annenberg published an investigative report on gender equity in Hollywood, both on and offscreen, analyzing 700 popular films from 2007-2014. The study found that “the prevalence of women and girls on screen has not changed in over 50 years,” and that of the 700 films analyzed, 28 had a female director or co-director attached.
The Annenberg study was key to another investigation, this one driven by the American Civil Liberties Union; the ACLU launched an investigation into the widespread discrimination women have been facing in Hollywood, particularly with the studio system in Los Angeles, and requested further examination from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs to detail evidence of systemic “overt sex stereotyping and implicit bias.”
Any woman who has worked in the industry is familiar with the harsh realities of struggling to find paid work and retaining a certain momentum to keep their careers afloat. But while investigations continue, forums are held, mentorship programs are launched, and discussions abound, the female creative forces in entertainment continue to push on, with or without the support of the Hollywood gatekeepers. Statistics are one thing, but the reality is, Hollywood is full of innovative female creators in all aspects of the industry – and each and every one of them have a unique approach to embracing an industry that is both chaotic and comfortable, rewarding and devastating, or inspiring and discouraging.
Here, I’ve asked several of these talented women to tell me about what inspired them to get started in this challenging industry – and more importantly, what inspires them to keep chasing their dreams.
Angela Parrish, Singer-Songwriter
Angela Parrish is a Singer-Songwriter from Wichita, KS. Her first EP, Faithful and Tall, was released in 2015. She’s also the first voice heard in Damien Chazelle’s hit movie La La Land.
What inspired you to go into the music industry?
I never really wanted to do anything else, other than a life in the arts. I never considered another career beyond something artistic and something involving music…there was always the knowledge I’d wind up doing something like this. At one point I thought I’d go into music education, and I still do have opportunities to work with students, but I knew that I had to give myself a shot at performing full time, because it’s the only thing I’ve really loved to do.
What was the first accomplishment in pursuit of that goal? Did anything make you think, ‘yes, this is the feeling I’m chasing’?
I was a finalist in the John Lennon songwriting competition in 2013, and when I found out about that, a lot of people enter that competition, and even though I knew that I wouldn’t go on the next level of the competition, I still knew that somebody in the music industry thought that what I did was valid. I think that was the first moment where I thought, maybe there’s something to this, and maybe I’m not just giving this a crazy shot for nothing.
Do you remember your first disappointment, or something that challenged you?
There have been a lot of painful moments, but at my first major industry showcase two or three years ago, I was showcasing my music and I was alongside almost all label artists, who had been doing their own music as professional recording artists. They’d been showcasing in the industry for a really long time, and there was a confidence and assuredness that I observed in all these fairly well known label acts and I just wasn’t at that point yet, and I knew that even though I’d been in music a long time, that was the first time I thought there was a big difference between being in music and being in the music industry. I knew that I would have to do that many, many more times before I reached that level of comfort like those artists had. I realized what it was like to perform on that level as a known artist versus someone who was unknown. I was frustrated with myself and my unsure feeling. It went better than I thought, but finding my footing was harder than the actual outcome.
Has there been a moment in your career that you would define as your big break?
La La Land. Having that solo has been the first time that things have felt like they’re moving in a different direction or achieving a different level. That’s the moment to me and I’m really proud of it and I’m enjoying this moment for what it is and I’m grateful for it.
What was it like seeing the movie for the first time and hearing yourself on the big screen?
I was nervous – so nervous that I almost threw up. Which makes no sense, because I’d already recorded it and I wasn’t performing, but I was equally as nervous as a major performance. Maybe because I couldn’t control it, it had already been done. Not knowing what to expect or what it would sound like…but I was also super excited. It was surreal and terrifying and wonderful, a mix of all of those things.
Would you do it again, sing for film?
Absolutely, I would love to do more film and television. I just want to make great art with whatever opportunities come along.
What other firsts do you look forward to?
I would love to write a song for a movie or television show, or write a song used in a musical. I would look forward to that opportunity a lot. Or the first time that I had a song on a major artist release or first publishing deal, first record contract, first major placement in a commercial. I would look forward to all of those things with excitement.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a full length album, it’s called Vehicle, and the first single and first video will be released in the near future. The rest of the record should be out sometime this year. It’s my first full-length – my first album was an EP – and I’m continuing to do some live performances with La La Land.
Yeah, the Hollywood Bowl is doing La La Land live over Memorial Day. It’s going to be really fun and we’re getting ready to work on that. It’s kicking off a world tour of La La Land live, it will be a 97 piece orchestra and jazz ensemble and a full choir. The film will be playing, accompanied by live musicians.
The lyrics to the portion of “Another Day of Sun” that you sang were particularly meaningful to you. Can you tell me about that?
The character that I sang for leaves her hometown and hops on a bus with no money and goes for it to try and make it in Los Angeles, and I did that when I was 26, I left Kansas with a car full of my belongings and very little money, and just went for it and left things behind and started anew with no real footing. I knew a few people but not a lot and I had to make it work. I feel like it was kind of an autobiographical song because I had gone through a similar thing. I felt like I related to her story and it was like I was singing about my own story.
Another Day Of Sun
I think about that day
I left him at a Greyhound station
West of Santa Fé
We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true
Still I did what I had to do
‘Cause I just knew
Summer: Sunday nights
We’d sink into our seats
Right as they dimmed out all the lights
A Technicolor world made out of music and machine
It called me to be on that screen
And live inside each scene
Without a nickel to my name
Hopped a bus, here I came
Could be brave or just insane
We’ll have to see
‘Cause maybe in that sleepy town
He’ll sit one day, the lights are down
He’ll see my face and think of how he…
…used to know me
Sydney Freeland, Writer/Director
Sydney Freeland is a Writer/Director from Gallup, NM. Her first film, Drunktown’s Finest, was made with the support of the Sundance Institute labs for screenwriting and directing and premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Her second film, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, was financed by Netflix and premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is now available for streaming on Netflix.
What was it that inspired you to work in the film industry?
Filmmaking didn’t really exist for me growing up. I’m from Gallup, and the film industry is non-existent out there. When I grew up I was exposed to more traditional mediums like painting, weaving, silversmithing and drawing. I went to school to study painting and drawing, then in college I was exposed to all these other things – computer art, animation, photography, creative writing – and in my final semester I took a class just called “video” or something like that, and I thought wow, this is what I want to do, specifically because it combined all those other mediums into one. From there I applied to film school, got an MFA in film, then moved to LA in 2007 and started working in production.
What was the first big moment in your career?
Getting into the Sundance labs.
That’s where you made Drunktown’s Finest, right?
Yeah, I did the Sundance Native lab first, then got into the screenwriters lab, then the director’s lab. Getting into the screenwriters lab was a big one, because up to that point I had been writing the screenplay in a vacuum. You hope that somebody somewhere will be drawn to it, but I had submitted it to several labs and programs and was constantly getting rejected. You get rejected, you go back to the drawing board, you revise and make it better, then when I got into the screenwriting lab, that was a big turning point.
Had you had other shorts in festivals before?
I’d probably done about 25 short films. When I moved to LA in 2007 I was working primarily in camera and editing departments, and in between those jobs I’d make a short film and work on my script. So there was this experience I’d been able to get working in production that really informed my process.
What was it like going to Sundance and seeing your film on the big screen for the first time?
That was…it’s so weird, because…it took so long to get that first feature made, about seven years, then when we finally had the money we only had 15 days to shoot the film. It happened so fast; we shot the film in July and August that year, edited in September, October and November, then in November we found out we got into the festival, and then two months later, we were there. So it was 6, 7 years trying to get it made, then in a relatively short time frame it was at the festival. It was very surreal, because I went from trying to get the film made to referring to it in the past tense. I don’t think the reality of it hit me until two years after the fact. I specifically remember going to the festival in 2016 and going, “I think we made a movie.”
Seeing it on screen…there’s nothing that can beat that.
How did you go about making your second feature?
One of the good things about being in Sundance is it gives you an elevated profile. Coming out of the festival I was able to sign with a manager. Then 8 or 9 months after the festival, he sent me a script called Deidra and Laney Rob a Train by a writer who was just graduating from AFI. I read the script and I just fell in love it with it. What initially drew me to it was having the kids grow up next to the train tracks. I grew up in Gallup in a neighborhood next to the train tracks. I met with Shelby [Farrell], our sensibilities really lined up, so we shopped it around and got some producers on board, then we pitched it to Netflix, and they financed the film completely up front. We were able to shoot it last summer in Utah. Again, it was a tight turn around, we shot it in July and August and then submitted to the festival.
Do you remember a setback or disappointment that made you question going into the industry?
I think the fact that there was so much rejection…one of the biggest learning experiences I had was getting used to rejection and accepting it as the norm. That’s the reality, it is so competitive and when you have one job and 99 people who want it, it’s actually normal for you not to get that job. When i was working on production early on and sending my resume out, I couldn’t get an interview. It got to a point where for every 20 resumes I submitted, if I could get one call back, that was really good.
What was it that made you want to keep going?
I just wanted to be on a film set. It didn’t care in what capacity, I just wanted to be on a film set. With Drunktown, I just wanted to tell a story. It sounds kind of silly, but my desire to tell the story outweighed my desire to walk away. That’s not to say I didn’t think about it – you’re seven years into writing a screenplay and it’s easy to tell yourself “you’re wasting your time” or “it’s time to do something else.” That’s tough. That’s where having people around you who can support you, that’s where it comes into play. If you get knocked down 100 times, you have to get up 101. I’d get knocked down 99 times, and on that hundreth time…for me, it was my dad. He’d say “give it one more shot.”
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a sci-fi project on my own, I’m working with the writer for Deidra & Laney on another sci-fi project, and I’m interviewing for some other potential jobs.
What other big firsts do you look forward to?
Now the goal is to get a studio film. Netflix was a very small, it was very much an independent film. Now trying to move into that studio system and get a full blown studio film.