800 Words, Westside bosses commit to fixing director gender balance

Erik Thomson and the 800 Words cast are back for season three.
South Pacific Pictures

Erik Thomson and the 800 Words cast are back for season three.

Growing up, Caroline Bell-Booth was told she could do anything boys could do. She could run as fast as them, she could be as smart as them, she could try just as much as them. She says there was never the suggestion she needed to sit down and be quiet, never the implication she couldn't have a go a whatever the world threw at her. Life was one big equal-opportunities playground.

Now she's a grown-up, that jungle-gym has become a little uneven. And as a grown-up, female, television director, it's so wonky she and other women in her position need a little help rewriting the rules to give them a boost up to the same level as her male playmates.

Bell-Booth is one of two female directors at the helm of the third season of 800 Words, a joint production between South Pacific Pictures here in New Zealand, and Australia's channel Seven staring Erik Thomson as an Aussie widower who moves his family back to New Zealand to regroup.

Caroline Bell-Booth never had female role models to look up to, but she's proud to inspire young women starting out.
South Pacific Pictures

Caroline Bell-Booth never had female role models to look up to, but she's proud to inspire young women starting out.

"Woman doing job" is usually a bit like "dog bites man", but this season, there was a resolute push from SPP and Seven to have women make up 50 per cent of their directing team - a big step considering the massive, industry-wide imbalance between women and men.

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The formal, public pledge for equal gender representation came after SPP chief executive Kelly Martin realised that between shows including Shortland Street, Westside and The Brokenwood Mysteries, the number of women being employed as director - or lack thereof - was fairly shocking. One statistic Martin shares lays it out in black and white: out of 42 hours of television drama being made by SPP, only two hours were directed by women.

Kelly Martin, CEO of South Pacific Pictures, says the television industry wasn't doing enough to ensure a fair gender ...
South Pacific Pictures

Kelly Martin, CEO of South Pacific Pictures, says the television industry wasn't doing enough to ensure a fair gender balance in director roles.

"I just hadn't clocked it, but when we did run the numbers, I did not feel good about that," Martin says. "We weren't doing a good enough job."

It wasn't something she could just trust to the universe to fix.

"This idea that things are getting better - it's not going to happen unless if we are continuously vigilant. The older and more experienced I get, the more I see it, and if I'm in a unique position where I can have an impact on a certain area, then I should - because it's something I actually give a s--- about."

NZ On Air CEO Jane Wrightson.
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

NZ On Air CEO Jane Wrightson.

She's right to care. Internationally, Reed Morano was the first woman in 22 years to win the Emmy for Best Director in a Drama Series for her work on The Handmaid's Tale.

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Here at home, the numbers didn't make for pleasant reading either. According to the the 2017 NZ On Air Diversity Report, women made up just 10 percent of television drama directors here in New Zealand - a percentage point down from 2016.

NZOA chief executive Jane Wrightson says while a gender balance is not required for funding, they are keenly watching the way the industry approaches the situation.

Helena Brooks says it can be hard to see where you fit in a male-dominated industry.
South Pacific Pictures

Helena Brooks says it can be hard to see where you fit in a male-dominated industry.

"We could get to the stage where we consider [a commitment to gender balance within the directing team] as a funding criteria, which we don't now. And even that would start changing things. It would start forcing the conversations, and that's the most important thing - getting it on the agenda and keeping it there," she says.

She sights Martin's public promise to change things as "another roadblock kicked out of the way", and 800 Words is the first production to see the first real impact on the directors themselves, and the wider industry.

"I didn't have any female role models when I started out. All my directing role models have been male. And that makes me really sad," Bell-Booth says. "But it makes me really bloody proud that there might be young women, who think, 'She's doing it, so I can do it' about me. I'm incredibly honoured to think that might actually happen one day."

800 Words is a joint New Zealand-Australia production.
South Pacific Pictures

800 Words is a joint New Zealand-Australia production.

Helena Brooks was the other female director attached to 800 Words in the initiative. Like Bell-Booth, she's worked extensively as a director, but it's often been on commercial projects or smaller productions, and often ones they've created themselves in order to be able to run the show.

They are not inexperienced newbies that the bosses are taking a punt on. However, according to Martin, that's exactly how some decision-makers see the chance to employ someone other than the status quo.

"These two women in particular have hours and hours and hours of experience in directing and people still think it's a bit risky [getting them to direct shows like 800 Words]. Men in the same position haven't been seen as as much of a risk.

After working on 800 Words, Helena Brooks has gone on to direct a block of The Brokenwood Mysteries.
South Pacific Pictures

After working on 800 Words, Helena Brooks has gone on to direct a block of The Brokenwood Mysteries.

"We have to stop and question - if that was a man, would I be so hesitant?"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brooks strongly supports such a formalised step to ensure gender equality isn't just a pipedream.

"I've always been a believer in affirmative action, and it is the case that things aren't going to change naturally - some things do need help.

"I've always had the challenge of being small with a very squeaky voice," says 800 Words director Caroline Bell-Booth.
South Pacific Pictures

"I've always had the challenge of being small with a very squeaky voice," says 800 Words director Caroline Bell-Booth.

"When you have a male-dominated industry, whatever it is, as a young woman, if you can't see your gender doing it, sometimes it's hard to picture yourself in that position."

From her experience at NZOA, Wrightson says most of the excuses she's heard for not hiring women range from "the ridiculous to the somewhat inept", including mums not being able to work unusual hours right through to a lack of experience - "but these women can get the experience, they are not stupid...it sounds a little like 1965 a bit. But it is complicated - all these issues are".

There will undoubtedly be some kick back to SPP and Seven's joint initiative in an industry as small as New Zealand's, where opportunities to direct are shrinking rather than growing thanks to smaller funding levels and more people looking for roles. But Martin says the end goal means it has to happen.

"It's a lovely idea that it should just be 'the best person for the job', but that means men doing all the directing forever because they are the only ones getting a go. I don't buy that, and it annoys me. I don't think men in this industry are sexist and have actively shut women out - I just think they don't think about it...they don't have to.

"And I really respect those guys and the work they do and we will continue to use those experienced directors, but we need some women who are considered experienced, too."

Both Brooks and Bell-Booth believe they do see directing slightly differently than their male colleagues - but that's okay - and given the type of television New Zealand is increasingly making, and how many women watch drama on screen, they say it is "crazy" that more women aren't telling stories from the female point of view.

But Brooks does comes across people who believe she won't be able to do the job because of some vague, stereotypical notion of what women are like. For example? Women are too emotional.

"I would say your emotions are a good thing when directing - they are a big part of what makes a show compelling to watch, whether it's laughter or tears or fear or empathy. You could ask why has directing been relegated to a male role, if, being equally stereotypical, men aren't as emotional?

"I know I've had to work really hard to get to where I am. All directors work hard - it is a challenging role - but male directors don't have to be up against sexism."

For Bell-Booth, it's been her physicality that has often ended up being the talking point, rather than her ability.

"I've always had the challenge of being small with a very squeaky voice. At first, people think that's something they can trifle with. They are mistaken and increasingly more so as I become cantankerous. But every female director has the story where someone thinks they are the costume girl.

"Even the fact that people refer to me as a 'female director' or 'woman director'... whether I'm male or female doesn't really influence whether I'm capable of doing this job."

While the door might not be wide open across the board, Martin is going to keep pushing the window open for teams that are more representative of society and the stories they're making. 

She has committed to continue employing a 50/50 split on the director's chair for the next season of Westside, and SPP are also working to increase the cultural diversity within their staff.

"I'm the CEO of a production company - have I encountered a glass ceiling? Well I'm doing okay, thank you very much. But I can see, very clearly, that it is much harder for women and I will continue to state that and I feel strongly that it is something we need to address.

"We've got to broaden things out and open the doors to a wider range of voices.

"Diversity is always going to be on the table. And if we are not [succeeding], there needs to be a really good reason why."

 - Sunday Star Times

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