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Independent Spirit - Jennifer B. White '88
by Noah Leavitt
It was 3:00 a.m. and Jennifer B. White '88 was in the midst of directing her first feature film when she suddenly found herself sprinting through her home and jumping over two of her crew members.
White was trying to reach one of her young actresses who was struggling to stay in character as the crew prepped for a shot in a small, hot, and crowded room. That's not why White was concerned though. It's what she heard over her headset as she worked outside that prompted her sprint - male crew members advising the actress, talking to her about her motivation for the scene, directing her.
"That's a no-no," White says. "There's a hierarchy, like the army, in film production for a reason."
That moment illustrated for White exactly why so few feature films are directed by women.
"It's hard as a woman. I'm 5'2'', and it's easy for men on set to just lapse into, 'I'm taking over'."
Despite obstacles such as that 3:00 a.m. sprint through her house, White joined the select group of women who have directed a feature film. While that is notable, White just wanted to do what comes naturally to her: tell a good story.
Her debut, Mary Loss of Soul, which she also wrote in a three-week burst of creativity, recently won Best Picture and Best Director at the Boston International Film Festival. The film is a supernatural thriller centered on its main character, Mary Solis, who vanishes from her family's lake house, eventually returning home without any memory of the traumatic events she experienced-and without part of her soul.
Throughout the film, Mary's family tries to determine if she is suffering from something known as "Loss of Soul" or if something more sinister has occurred.
"I came across this idea of Loss of Soul and soul retrieval and it's been around for thousands of years in cultures all over the world," White says, explaining the inspiration for the film. "It takes her family a while to figure out what's going on. You wonder through the movie, is this really happening to her, or is she making this up, did she do something really bad? Or did something really bad happen to her? Loss of Soul is something that a lot of cultures believe really happens, and it manifests as a mood disorder."
This is not your typical horror film-White says she'll never make a "slasher" film-rather it's more of a psychological guessing game for the audience.
"It's more of a slow burn where you're trying to figure out what happens, more than blood and guts, which I tend to steer away from. It's more about what's happening in a psychological way or a supernatural way. I like to write things that have layers to them, what we call cross-genre; so you have a mystery mixed in with a ghost story."
Mary Loss of Soul represents a natural progression in White's writing career-including a stint as a tagline writer for other Hollywood films. Before writing Mary Loss of Soul, White authored three novels-each anchored in the supernatural. Although it may seem like a strange subject, White views it as a way to build connections with her audience.
"I think that there's something human in the supernatural. Something like 70% of Americans say that they've experienced something supernatural, and that there's something [else], whether it's ghosts, reincarnation, all these things that we lump into paranormal. I think it's not so much a supernatural or paranormal experience, as it is a human experience. We all live, we die, and we all wonder what happens after that."
White's focus on the supernatural works because she's a storyteller first. She says she was writing full novels at the age of 11 - admittedly not her best works, peppered with phrases such as "wicked awesome" - inspired by her mother, who was also a writer. Once White arrived at Curry College, that creativity only blossomed further.
"I really liked the idea of being a big fish in a small pond," White says, reflecting on her decision to attend Curry. "Curry College fed those creative juices. It was mostly the whole team of people, the Communication Department was great, and the Art Department too. It sounds strange, like they shouldn't go together, but that's exactly what you do when you make a film, it's about the artistry of seeing things and putting it together. It's words meet moving pictures, so these things informed the beginning [of my career] for me."
While at Curry, White also built important relationships that are still valuable to her today. One of those is with Stew Huey '85, co-producer of Mary Loss of Soul. White and Huey met at Curry but drifted apart before eventually reconnecting about a decade ago. White worked with Huey writing those aforementioned taglines for films - another key step that has helped White perfect her storytelling skills.
White is also helping current Curry students break into the film industry. Samantha Valletta '14, a communication major worked as a marketing intern for Mary Loss of Soul.
"Samantha was great, and she had a lot of ideas. She's young, and it's great to talk to somebody who is young and learn about what's interesting to her, at her age, because that's my target market for this film. She fits that demographic so it was great to have ideas come from her."
White also embraced the role of mentor, saying it's an easier role than people might think.
"I think that the best thing to do is just to be yourself and to inform them what you've done, or where the pitfalls are for them, or what's coming around the corner. They're there to learn and help you, but if you just give them your life experience, I think they're going to catch on and learn."
For White, this mentoring approach extends beyond individuals. As she has progressed through her career, White has learned all about the unique challenges facing women at every level of the film industry, and now she believes she is in a position make changes from within.
Only recently, in 2009, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director. Despite that success, women are noticeably absent from leadership roles on Hollywood film sets. According to the 16th Annual Celluloid Ceiling Report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women accounted for just 16 percent of directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2013. Women made up only six percent of all top grossing directors - a three percentage point drop from 2012.
Seeing how the impact of this gender discrepancy manifests in films can easily be assessed through something called the Bechdel Test. Applying the Bechdel Test to a film is simple. Next time you're watching a movie, think about this criteria: does it feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man? Sometimes there is an added requirement that the women must have names. Most films actually fail this test, but you might not realize it until you looked at a movie closely. And for White, this illustrates the problem women face, not just in the film industry, but in entertainment in general.
"Take female comedians," White says. "We've got Tina Fey and Amy Pohler, so you think 'we've got all these funny women, what's the problem?' Until you realize what it took for them to get there."
But the Bechdel Test does offer a glimpse of positivity for directors like White, and other women working on independent films.
"On average, films that pass the Bechdel Test have been found to have a lower budget than others, but of comparable or better financial performance," White says. "In other words, indies are doing it more."
White's Mary Loss of Soul is a prime example of that.
"My film, even though you don't notice it until you notice it, is mostly a female cast, and I did that intentionally, and yes they talk to each other about things other than a man. And they have names, and they use the names frequently."
Even with films such as Mary Loss of Soul, female directors are working against decades of history in which male leadership on set was the standard. Think back to White's 3:00 a.m. sprint through her house - her male crew members did what they felt was natural.
"It's not that they're trying to do something devious," White explains. "It's just that they don't think about what's going on on set sometimes."
That's why White believes the best way to narrow the gender gap in the film industry is by changing it from within. She believes it must start with actresses embracing, and pursuing, roles that have typically been male dominated. If a female actress can change the perception of who an action star must be, then it may pave the way for new opportunities for female directors. The key here for White is that other women must take the initiative - they can't wait for a casting director to think outside of the box.
"My female actresses say this all the time, 'why aren't there more roles featuring women?' They've got to do some things too. What if they walked into an audition and took the male role? Salt [an action film starring Angelina Jolie] was originally written for Tom Cruise. Why not flip it upside down and say let me try the male role? We've got to start making change, kicking up the dust a little bit."
That's exactly what White is doing-kicking up the dust and being vocal. She's an active presence on Twitter and Facebook, making the case for females in Hollywood, and sharing stories that illustrate both successes and the need for change. White calls herself a visionary, believing that she is leading by example in showing that female directors deserve a greater presence in Hollywood. Her dual wins at the Boston International Film Festival have only inspired White about her future prospects - and the future of other female filmmakers.
"It's rewarding because you feel like you go through so much to get there, and to know that people respond to what you did - it's reinforcing."