Guest post by Jeni Donlon, Director of Executive Communications at the Kelley School of Business.
The film industry is a tough business to break into, even tougher for women. So how did a young woman born in Omaha, Nebraska and raised in New Mexico make it in Hollywood without any connections? In a word, grit.
Producer/writer Kristin Hahn will share her experiences Nov. 13 at the IU Cinema after the 7 p.m. screening of Tumbledown, the first project from her new Hahnscape Entertainment production company. She also will lead a master class on women in film and business from 3-4 p.m. that day. (Seating is limited to 25; email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a spot.)
In this interview, Hahn talks about what it’s like to be a woman behind the scenes in Hollywood and what advice she’d give to young women and entrepreneurs in general.
But first, some background: In addition to Hahnscape Entertainment, Hahn is co-founder of Echo Films along with best friend Jennifer Aniston. She has served as executive producer or producer for Cake, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Switch, and The Departed, among other films. She won the FIPRESCI Prize from the Amsterdam International Film Festival in 1997 for her documentary Anthem: An American Road Story, which she co-wrote, directed and produced, along with co-authoring a book based on the film. She also wrote a book about her three-year journey exploring America’s religious practices, In Search of Grace: A Journey Across America’s Landscape of Faith.
Hahn has adapted a number of best-selling novels for the screen, including Stargirl, What Alice Forgot, and Dumplin’, which she recently finished filming in Atlanta, starring Aniston and Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$). Hahn, who lives in Los Angeles, also works in television, currently writing and producing a one-hour pilot for CBS titled Seeing.
JD: When did you first know you’d like to work in the film industry? Was there a lightbulb moment or a particular film that sparked your interest?
KH: My lightbulb moment happened in my early teens, watching movies like Tootsie and Terms Of Endearment and Ordinary People with my mom, who loved movies that could make her laugh and cry. And then I fell head over heels for John Hughes. I felt the cathartic power of storytelling and it lit a fire in me. I wanted to be part of creating that experience for others. I understood that movies helped us connect – to ourselves and to each other – so I knew from about the age of 15 that I had to find a way to get to Los Angeles, where these stories were (mostly) being made at the time.
That initial spark I felt as a moviegoer has grown over time into really becoming a “believer.” I believe the right story at the right time can not only change a life, it can save a life. I believe in the medicinal power of storytelling, particularly film as an audio/visual medium people can get lost in, quite literally losing time and space and one’s own limited identity as we’re transported into someone else’s story. Films can show us how to love, forgive, let go, evolve, and understand aspects of the human condition that might otherwise mystify us.
JD: Did you imagine yourself as a writer, director, or producer, or did you envision something else?
KH: At 15, I had no idea which job on that long credit list I should aspire to, I just knew I had to somehow make storytelling my job. And that mission has taken many forms through the years. I think it’s important to encourage young people who want to be in film and TV to think of themselves as storytellers, and not to confine themselves to “actor” or “writer” or “director” or “producer,” because it can be limiting. We’re at a unique time in media when actors are writing for themselves and each other, creating content, and writers are producing and directing and directors are writing.
If you want to tell stories, be a storyteller and let the journey unfold. But make sure storytelling feels like your literal mission in life, like the only thing you were born to do, because it’s not a hobby, it’s incredibly hard work, and being rich and famous isn’t as fun as it looks. Pursuing a career in TV and/or film will be the most challenging – and often disheartening – experience you can imagine. But it will, at times, also be thrilling and deeply rewarding, if you’re able to tell the stories you feel passionate about telling.
JD: Given that Hollywood is a male-dominated entity, were you discouraged by anyone for aspiring to be in the film business? If so, how did you react to that?
KH: There were definitely people along the way who doubted me or who tried to diminish my capacity or who tried to harness my energy and ideas for their personal benefit (at my expense), but those are blips on the screen compared to the support I have found along the way. And no matter the obstacles and the naysayers, I was determined. I felt a kind of calling. And I worked hard – really hard – and I apprenticed and said “yes” to different kinds of jobs to learn the business from various angles, and I became a keen observer.
I proved myself time and time again, and I took risks that scared the crap out of me, and I caught a few breaks along the way. All of which have added up to a multi-faceted career I am so grateful to have had and so excited to build upon now that I have a better idea what I’m doing. I feel like I’m just hitting my stride. I feel like I have real clarity about the stories I want to help bring into the world, and I’ve gotten better at defining that for myself and identifying them when they come my way.
JD: As you were just starting out, did you have a mentor or sponsor? How has that relationship changed over the years?
KH: I didn’t have a mentor per se, but one commercial director I met while I was still in high school in New Mexico encouraged me to go to film school, and that little bit of encouragement was instrumental for me to apply to USC. I got my first job in Hollywood during my first year in film school. I was an assistant to a writer/producer named Bob Ellison who worked in half-hour network comedy. I worked on a number of shows with Bob, including Cheers and Dear John. I was in film school, but my day job was probably the best “film school” imaginable because I got to observe incredibly talented people at the top of their game. I got to see the creation process in action. And Bob helped make sure I got to my film school classes on time (I went to school at night, five days a week), and not many producers would go out of their way to do that for their assistant when the unspoken understanding in Hollywood is if you’re an assistant, you’re on call…. There’s no such thing as banker’s hours in Hollywood.
One valuable thing I learned from those years working for Bob was that I did not want to produce or write half-hour comedy. I loved watching half-hour comedy in its best form (Cheers, Friends, etc.), but that format of storytelling didn’t feel like my native tongue, so to speak. Learning what you don’t want to do brings you one step closer to knowing what you do, and I’m forever grateful for that first job and for the support of a writer/producer who helped me figure out my next step, which became Anthem, the documentary film I co-wrote, produced and directed with a friend of mine for the next two years.
JD: There has been a lot of talk in Hollywood about the gender pay gap and the lack of prime roles for women. Mostly this discussion has focused on actors. But of the 94 producers who have won a Best Picture Oscar since the Academy Awards began in 1929, only 10 are women, and only one woman has ever has won Best Director: Katherine Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker.
Is this a consequence of fewer women in those roles, or are female directors and producers not taken as seriously? Is the gender pay gap also evident at this level?
KH: Most of my relationships with fellow producers are of the independent variety. Most of the producers I know – male or female – do not generally make very much money because they are essentially independent contractors who are making films they care deeply about and therefore are usually kicking half their fee back into the movie they’re making. This should not be the case, but it’s often the reality. I have a literal “support group” of sorts of independent producers because it’s such a specific breed of passionate storytellers, and we understand each other’s plight, male and female alike. Occasionally one of us will make a movie “for the money” or somehow get enough financing for our independent project that we can actually be paid in a decent way, but it’s the exception to the rule.
JD: What kind of responsibility do you feel toward women in the industry as a female producer?
KH: I love working with women, and I feel a great responsibility to do an excellent job as a female writer/producer and to support other women in my industry. There is no doubt that a very gradual gender shift is happening in all departments of filmmaking – a greater awareness around proactively creating more opportunities for women who are, of course, just as qualified and talented as their male counterparts, creating a more balanced playing field. And it’s not just women who are creating these opportunities for other women, it’s quite often men who have hiring power who are making a point to support and mentor women starting out in the business, be it in the camera department, art department, locations department, etc.
Change is slow, but change is definitely happening. On this most recent movie I produced and wrote (Dumplin’), the ratio was very balanced between women and men, if you factor all cast and crew. As female storytellers, we need to just keep kicking ass and telling the stories we feel are ours to tell, and the barriers will come down faster with each woman who doesn’t let anything stop her.
JD: The latest news out of Hollywood, of course, is that of Harvey Weinstein. Sexual assault and harassment allegations continue to mount against the movie producer, who has been one of the most influential people in Hollywood in the past 30 years. The news has led many women — and men — to speak up about what some say is a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and abuse of male power in Hollywood that goes back to the beginning of film.
Given the current news and the increased awareness of gender parity and diversity issues in Hollywood – and people’s increasing willingness to speak out about them – do you see this as a tipping point for women in the industry?
KH: I definitely see this as a greater awakening of sorts. The awareness around boundary-crossings of all kinds is suddenly at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds in our business. I’m glad women in our industry will now feel more emboldened to speak up and speak out and report these assaults and harassment with less fear of backlash; that shifting tide is a great behavior modifier in and of itself. And I think the very real consequences surrounding Harvey Weinstein’s behavior is instigating a ripple effect of awareness around the more subtle forms of sexism that can be quite pervasive – the passing comments, the jokes in meetings that are cringe-worthy, the way female characters can often be written in gratuitous ways, the more veiled misogyny that results in the inequitable percentages of female-to-male directors, producers, etc., certain double-standards, and the unequal pay issues that a lot of high profile actresses have recently exposed. Overall, people in Hollywood are more on alert, watching themselves, thinking before they speak and act, realizing they will be held accountable, and not just men, but women, too.
But this topic of gender inequality in Hollywood has been a headline in our town for at least the last few years. That’s when I started to notice it was a bigger topic of interest and conversation, not just among the “working class” of Hollywood, but among people in positions of power. Studios started going out of their way to hire female directors, writers, DP’s, etc. Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, is a byproduct of that “shift,” and the first Marvel movie to be shot by a female DP, Rachel Morrison, is the soon-to-be-released Black Panther.
So change is tangible, and that change in mindset includes us as women in positions of power, including the power of the pen. We aren’t immune to being products of our environment, “ingestors” of our culture, of internalizing this misogyny in certain ways or playing into the gender stereotypes ourselves. For example, finding ourselves writing female characters in gratuitous ways or automatically describing certain characters like a scientist or a law enforcement officer or a president as male – often without even realizing it. So the greater awareness around this issue of degrading women and somehow seeing women as “less than” is, I think, happening for both men and women as we start to see it more clearly and talk about it openly.
JD: Throughout your career, you have taken risks and made leaps of faith to create some of your enterprises, including one company that you forged in your garage. What advice would you give a young entrepreneur who wants to create his or her own business?
KH: Most of the things I’ve done in my career, I’ve taken the “figure it out as you go” approach. When my gut instinct is to do something, but I’m scared to do it, I just jump in and remind myself I will figure it out because I did the last time I jumped in without knowing what I was doing. So, having survived a few jumps, you start to trust in the process and trust in yourself. That said, being a passionate observer has been my net for those leaps. I pay close attention to others who have mastered what I want to master. I study their work, I read about or watch how they do what they do. I find people who inspire me, and I use that inspiration as fuel. And I choose things (in my case, stories) that I am 1,000% passionate about, because starting and sustaining anything is hard work.
It takes endurance, and there will be days when you really dislike and resent the thing you once loved, and you can go through moments of doubt, but if you started out loving that idea without reservation, then you will make it through those moments of resentment, exhaustion and doubt. So I guess my best advice is to put your energies toward something that truly excites you, find other like-minded people, and go for it.
Writer/producer Kristin Hahn will be at IU on November 13 for a master class and the screening of Tumbledown, which she produced. This screening is sponsored by the Kelley School of Business and IU Cinema, a partnership that is supported through the Cinema’s Creative Collaborations program.
Jeni Donlon is director of executive communications for the Kelley School of Business. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from IU and is back home again in Indiana after working as an editor for newspapers in Texas, Florida and Tennessee for 22 years.