Fair Is Fair: Director Telling Story of Lilly Ledbetter, How One Woman Makes Difference
So far seven years in the making, “Lilly,” a political drama on the life of fair pay activist Lilly Ledbetter, is the passion project for award-winning director and writer Rachel Feldman, who is now aiming to begin production.
Since she saw Ledbetter at the Democratic National Convention on television in 2007, Feldman says she thought, “I’ve got to make a movie about this woman. And I have never been interested in a real-life subject. I do extreme, dark, edgy material, but because of my own experiences with gender exclusion in my career,” this project makes perfect sense.
Ledbetter was the plaintiff in the American employment discrimination case Ledbetter v. f Tire & Rubber Co. in 1998. That was because in 1997, Ledbetter was the only woman working as an area manager and she discovered the pay discrepancy between Ledbetter and her 15 male counterparts was stark; she was paid several thousands per month less than the men.
She sued Goodyear and won, but the judgment was reversed on appeal, with the Supreme Court affirming that decision in 2008, as her suit had not been filed within 180 days of the discriminatory action that resulted in her diminished paycheck. In response, Congress later passed legislation that restarted the 180-day clock every time a discriminatory paycheck was issued. This new piece of legislation was called the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
Feldman will begin directing “Lilly,” having recently wrapped the pilot and entire season of the new MGM series, “The Baxters. She is also signed to direct episodes of “Blue Bloods” and “Criminal Minds.”
With three decades in the business as a writer and director, Feldman has directed episodic and long form television for ABC, CBS, NBC, HBO, PBS, Lifetime, SYFY, Disney, and Nickelodeon. She has also written movies for Electric Entertainment, Mandalay Pictures, Cinelou Entertainment, Freeform, and Lifetime Television.
“The screenplay is in good shape,” Feldman says. “Lilly” won the Athena/Black List award for screenplay. Her pilot,” Kinks,” won the 2017 WGA Writer’s Access Project, and the WGA Drama Queens Award for Best Spec Pilot, then optioned by eOne Television.
Now with a major producer signed on to the project, “Lilly” is in circulation to actors to sign on for the roles. “We are out to actors, and waiting to hear, but until you have an actor attached, you can’t go to buyers,” says Feldman, former chair of the Women’s Steering Committee of the Director’s Guild of America, and a former professor of directing at University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Feldman was also a recent participant in Take The Lead’s 50 Women Can Change The World in Media & Entertainment.
“According to this year’s edition of University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s annual study, Hollywood’s progress on representation has been more or less stagnant for a full decade across practically all marginalized groups,” writes Megan Farokhmanesh in Verge.
The 2018 study found that “female speaking roles still clock in at only 31.8 percent as of 2017, a number that has barely budged over the past 10 years. And of the top films in 2017, only 33 percent featured a female lead or co-lead,” Farokhamnesh writes.
“In filmmaking, only 7.3 percent of directors are women. Between 2007 and 2017, only 43 women directed films among those 1,100 studied, and just four were women of color, all of them mixed race,” she writes.
Feldman has been an activist for gender equity in filmmaking for her entire career. “I’m an ardent advocate for gender parity in Hollywood. I champion female filmmakers and am proud that my voice has contributed to progressive change in our culture,” Feldman says.
“I see a fracture in the world, the world has cracked open in a major way. People are no longer talking about hiring women directors, they are actually actively making changes instead of just talking about it,” says Feldman, who studied graphic design at The School of Visual Arts and Parsons School of Design before graduating from Sarah Lawrence College where she focused on writing.
She received her MFA in film directing at New York University where her thesis film “Giustina” won Best Short at The New York and Chicago Film Festivals, garnering production grants from The American Film Institute, The National Endowment for the Arts, & The Jerome Foundation.
At the start of her career, Feldman was a junior art director at Young & Rubicam, then as a storyboard artist and pre-viz coordinator for directors Peter Yates, Brian DePalma, and Jerry Belson. The late Steven Bochco saw one of her short films and asked her to direct “Doogie Howser,” Feldman says.
With a long and successful Hollywood career, starting when she was a child actor for 10 years, with perhaps the most memorable as the voice of Lucy in “Peanuts,” Feldman says, “Now things are different. People are seeking out female-driven projects. I’ve been banging down a brick wall for the last 25 years and now I feel the bricks falling down.”
“Lilly is my main project,” Feldman says. “Lilly is the cornerstone of my slate. There has not been a feature film that has affected the zeitgeist the way ‘Norma Ray’ did.”
Feldman adds, “There hasn’t been a movie since about someone whose personal life, professional life and employment life affects her in a profound way because of the injustices foisted on her, that makes a shift in the world.”
Feldman, who has been writing and speaking about the relevance of not just employment equity, but of the global impact of having female voices behind the camera, is interviewed in the documentary, “Half The Picture,” along with fellow directors Ava DuVernay, Kim Peirce, Jill Soloway, Catherine Hardwicke, and Lena Dunham.
Dedicated to telling the story of Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Act mandating gender pay equity by law, Feldman says this process is about a lesson much larger.
“One woman can make a difference,” she says. “One woman with a spine. She was an uneducated girl from the backwoods of Alabama and she changed American employment.”
Feldman adds, “This is not just an American story.” This story shows, “We all have to keep fighting, we all have to make a difference. Lilly is never going to earn a penny of what she deserves, but she can make a difference for other people.”
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldonwww.micheleweldon.com