Through The Feminist Lens: Feature Filmmaker Makes A Difference
Jen McGowan figures that redirecting traffic for 20 blocks surrounding Times Square in order to get just the right angle on a shot of the Taco Bell chihuahua for a national commercial is a metaphor for a lot of things.
Challenges, persistence and creativity just to name a few.
Film director McGowan’s latest feature film, “Rust Creek,” hits theaters nationally next month through IFC Midnight. She studied at New York University in the mid-90s at the Tisch School of the Arts, studying under David Mamet, Bill Macy and Sam Shepard at the Atlantic Theatre.
“This was not in my world view,” says McGowan, who participated in 2017 in the 50 Women Can Change The World in Media & Entertainment through Take The Lead. McGowan says participating in the cohort offers an exceptionally valuable opportunity to network with other women in the industry.
Growing up in northern Virginia, McGowan says her mother was a nurse and her father was working in government, “And there were no creative people in my family.”
A high school teacher encouraged her to try theater and she enjoyed it. So after NYU from 1997 to 2002, McGowan worked in commercial production—lots of high budget ($800,000 budgets for 30 seconds) for clients like UPS, as well as MTV videos for performers such as Carlos Santana and Jewel.
“I didn’t realize until recently that when I was working in commercials, I never saw any women directors. It didn’t even occur to me that it was an option,” says McGowan, whose short film “Touch,” qualified for an Oscar after winning the Florida Film Festival in 2010 and played at more than 100 festivals nationwide.
“In 20 years in commercials, I only worked for three women directors,” says McGowan, who since then has been named a Film Independent Fellow, finalist for the Clint Eastwood Filmmakers Award, recipient of the AWD Breakout Award for Excellence in Directing and one of Vulture’s Women Directors Hollywood Should Be Hiring.
The statistics back up her experience.
In the most recent 2018 report, from Professor Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, “The lack of inclusion on screen is matched and exceeded by the exclusion behind the camera,” Smith says. Across 1,223 directors over 11 years, 4.3 percent were female, 5.2 percent were Black or African-American and 3.1 percent were Asian or Asian-American.”
“The report also examines how characters are depicted on screen, with a focus on parents, relational partners, age, and sexualization. Consistent with previous years, female characters were more than twice as likely as male characters to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, partially naked or referenced as attractive. Teenage (13–20) and young adult (21–39) females were equally likely to be sexualized in films from 2017,” according to USC.
From 2002 until 2005, McGowan studied directing in the MFA program at University of Southern California where she was honored with a scholarship from Women in Film and a grant from The Caucus Foundation.
“That’s what introduced me to filmmaking,” says McGowan, being exposed to this type of filmmaking and wanting to have more influence and control of the material.”
Her first feature film, “Kelly and Cal,” starred Juliette Lewis and Cybill Shepherd. Premiering in 2014 at SXSW, she won the Gamechanger Award. The film was released theatrically by IFC Films to rave reviews.
She shot “Rust Creek” in 2016, a story about a female college student, Sawyer Scott, who survives a nightmare and abduction in rural Kentucky. It will debut in 10 cities in January.
“The most difficult thing about movies made by women is that we have far fewer resources,” McGowan says. “You will not see billboards on this movie.”
Looking for networking, collaboration and support, McGowan created filmpowered.com, an international skill-sharing, networking & jobs resource for professional women in film and television. With nearly 2,500 active members, Film Powered was named Best in LA by LA Weekly, is part of the Sundance Women’s Initiative Resource and was featured in Forbes.
“You have to be patient with yourself in this industry, McGowan advises. “If you are coming into the industry with no contacts and no money, it will take a lot longer.” She adds, that while she was working full time in commercial production, she would wake up at 3 a.m. and write until 7 a.m.
“You need to be structured and self-disciplined,” she says. “You have to have a work ethic in this industry.”
In addition to her upcoming movie, McGowan has created a tv series, “Angelica,” about the last remaining abortion clinic in a small Midwest town. It was one of 12 series selected from 4,000 submissions and the only American project for the MIPTV In Development program at Cannes 2018.
Looking forward to a positive reception for “Rust Creek,” McGowan says, “It’s a feminist film. All my work is feminist. It’s about female rage and audiences will connect deeply to it.”
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