Filmmaker Allison Anders chats with Night Flight about her TCM interview and trailblazing women directors

By on October 7, 2015

We’re very excited about this: our friend Allison Anders gave us an exclusive preview of her interview with co-host Illeana Douglas that will be airing tomorrow night on Turner Classic Movies — on Thursday, October 8th — as part of this month’s “Trailblazing Women” schedule of films. She will be live-tweeting on Saturday, October 10th, 7pm PT, during a streaming Border Radio for “WATCH TCM,” their incredible APP.

Allison talks in detail about two of the films that are airing Thursday night — Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends and Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl (watch a vintage theatrical trailer above) — in addition to her own filmmaking career, which began with Border Radio in 1987.

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Illeana Douglas and Allison Anders

Here’s what it says about Allison at the TCM page for Trailblazing Women:

Allison Anders is an award-winning film and television writer and director. She attended UCLA film school and in 1984 had her first professional break working for her film mentor Wim Wenders on his movie Paris, Texas (1984).

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Dean Lent, Kurt Voss, Allison Anders and Marcus DeLeon

After graduation, Anders had her first film debut, Border Radio (1987), which she co-wrote and co-directed with Kurt Voss. The influential indie film examined the Los Angeles punk scene in the 1980s and went on to be nominated by the Independent Feature Project for Best First Feature, and it recently had its TCM premiere. Anders and Voss would partner again on Sugar Town (1999), another film about the Los Angeles music industry, starring several of their friends, including the lead singer of X, John Doe. Sugar Town was also nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards.

Anders’ other credits include Gas, Food Lodging (1992), Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life) (1993), Grace of My Heart (1996) and Four Rooms (1995). In 2001, Don Cheadle was nominated for an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor for his work on Anders’ film Things Behind the Sun (2001). The powerful movie about the long-term effects of rape went on to garner the SHINE Award as well as the Peabody Award.

Anders is also well known in television for directing episodes of hit shows such as  “Sex and the City,” “Gross Pointe,” “Cold Case,” “The L Word,” “Men in Trees,” “What About Brian?,” “Southland,” “The Mentalist,” “Orange Is The New Black,” “Gang Related,” “The Divide,” “Murder In The First,” “Proof,” and AMC’s “Turn.”

In 2003, Anders became a professor of the Film and Media Studies Department at UC Santa Barbara, and in 2006 she made an appearance in the film documentary Wanderlust. Anders and her daughter Tiffany Anders together co-founded the “Don’t Knock the Rock Film and Music Festival” in Los Angeles. Throughout her career she has been recognized for her achievements in film and nominated for various awards and prizes; other major highlights include a New York Film Critics Circle Award, as well as the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

Anders’s recent film Strutter had its Los Angeles premiere in April 2013, and the film she directed for Lifetime TV Ring Of Fire, on the life of country singer June Carter Cash with singer Jewel in the title role, aired in May 2013 and garnered Anders an Emmy nomination for best director.

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Claudia Weill

NIGHT FLIGHT: The press release for your interview says you’ll be discussing Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978) and Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl (1983), how would you compare and contrast the working style of these two particular directors mentioned?

ALLISON ANDERS: It’s an interesting question because the films were made so differently. Claudia Weill’s film Girlfriends was made super independently before there was any indie movement, almost guerrilla-style although it certainly doesn’t have a guerrilla aesthetic to it, it’s almost pastoral, well it is pastoral, beautifully so.

Valley Girl was made as a teen exploitation film and while ultra low budget for a film at that time, it was made with specific shooting deadlines and within certain confines. The style of the filmmaking is almost like a new wave or power pop song, it has that rhythm to it and the cutting is so fitting the characters and love story. It feels like being in love as a teenage girl. Kinda genius.

NF: According to her commentary for the Valley Girl DVD, director Martha Coolidge was given her first opportunity to direct a feature film because of her “knowledge” of the world of teenage girls, even though the screenplay was written by two men. What do you make of this? In what ways do you think it would have been a different film if the screenplay had been written by Coolidge or another woman?

AA: I think when you see the film you realize Martha made that film her own, especially in light of her body of work. It’s her voice through and through.

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Girlfriends (directed by Claudia Weill, 1978)

NF: Girlfriends exploded on the scene in 1978, winning awards like the People’s Choice award at the Toronto Film Festival, the National Board of Review’s award for being one the top ten films of 1978, USA, and best actress nods for cast members from BAFTA, the Golden Globes, etc. When did you first see it, and how did it impact you and your own voice as a filmmaker?

AA: I first saw Girlfriends when it came out in the theaters, and I’m fairly certain I saw it in Westwood which would be the place you’d go at that time to see first run art house type movies, even ones made by the big studios, and of course this is a very very independent film before the movement I was part of existed. So independent filmmakers were pioneering and navigating bravely with no safety net that we had in the 90s — a press that identified us as a movement and supported us as such. So independent filmmakers in the late 70s would have been competing against studio film fare as equal players — which sounds great, but no no it isn’t, cause it means the press and public are expecting you to deliver the same thing as some populist film of the day like Grease.

And for filmmakers like Claudia and say Charles Burnett who released Killer Of Sheep that year, hell even Bob Dylan with Renaldo And Clara — where do you put them against even art filmmakers of the day who were already established — like Terrence Malick who released Days Of Heaven that year or Martin Scorsese with The Last Waltz? All to say — these were brave filmmakers charting these waters alone, and one was a black man and one was a woman!

When I saw Girlfriends, the only films I’d ever seen directed by a woman were those of Lina Wertmuller, and seldom did her work focus on being a woman, I loved them madly, but they were anarchic and not necessarily female-centered films.

I longed to see as movies about female friendships as a little girl, and interestingly enough one of my favorite films had been a Disney movie Summer Magic, because Hayley Mills and Deborah Whalley had a complicated friendship which included jealousy and anger but in the end the result was not as complex for these characters cause they were very young and in the end it was Disney so you had to wade through horrendously sexist numbers like “Femininity” to get to the female bond beyond. But I’d take something that looked even a teensy bit like my girlfriends and me wherever I could get it. During my adolescence I was blessed to have seen the marvelous The World Of Henry Orient and of course the Angels‘ movies:  The Trouble With Angels, directed by Ida Lupino, and the next in the series Where Angels Go Trouble Follows, which are all terrific coming-of-age movies on the power of girl friendships which hold up to this day.

Girlfriends was life-changing for me for me, especially at the time it came out, because like the characters in the film I was a young woman, no longer navigating adolescent friendships, but navigating womanhood. Weill’s film spoke to me to my core. I’d never seen a young adult female friendship depicted on screen with warmth, humor, closeness, and total disappointment and anxiety.All without judging the characters! It was deeply textured, the female characters complex and messy, and the story was simple. The shooting was also simple and gorgeous and audacious from the framing to the natural light. Incredibly inspiring.

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Anita Skinner and Melanie Mayron in Girlfriends

NF: Weill directed the film on weekends over a the course of a year, how do you think that changed the film over the course of time and what do you think of taking that much time to complete production?

AA: I would surely want to ask Claudia but I would imagine it was exactly how we did Border Radio a decade later and how no doubt Charles Burnett may have had to shoot his film (cause I believe he was a student at UCLA film school at the time) — you’d be in college classes during the week, and/or working day jobs and getting little bits of money here and there to make your film, shooting when you could get the equipment.

The beauty of being able to shoot this way is you can take all day to get a beautiful shot or play with scenes with the actors — there is no machinery with tight deadlines and no line producer standing by with a watch telling you to move on to the next scene. Filmmakers have lamented since the earliest days of silent film about not having the luxury of time to finely shape scenes or even in some cases to rehearse!

So Girlfriends benefits so beautifully from Claudia having that time to shape her vision for the journeys of these two beautiful characters, and the journey of the friendship itself.

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Kurt Voss and Allison Anders in a photo booth at UCLA

NF: Kubrick said in 1980 that Girlfriends was one of the more interesting American films he’d seen in recent years, do you know if he ever saw Valley Girl or had any other favorite films that were directed by women directors?

AA: I love this. Kubrick gets such a bad rap by some feminists, something which broke the heart of his wife who defended him against charges of being sexist, “He’s surrounded by women.” I personally never felt reviled by women characters in Kubrick films, so I have no idea what anyone is talking about — Lolita is the hero of her journey — charted completely by herself.

So the fact that he responded so strongly to Girlfriends puts the record straight for me. Cause for a man to hook into this film, especially at that time, he’s evolved! Also I can see why Kubrick loved it cinematically — Claudia used these gorgeous long takes — at times when needed — not gimmicky like assholes do it today. She would shoot down a corridor and stay there with the character in the distance, to allow the actor to work against the frame, against the lens as it were. She also used a lot of beautiful natural light — some of the scenes are so deliciously pastoral you want to eat them with a spoon — even when she’s shooting within a cramped NYC apartment.

And also Claudia Weill achieved what Kubrick seldom could — very naturalistic sex. “Casual nudity” — as Illeana describes it in our chat — it’s so part of life. And even today — with all of our contrived nudity via porn selfies for sexting and just ridiculous hurried over the top hungry sex scenes in TV and movies — seeing this casual, natural sex and nakedness in Girlfriends is a little shocking. Cause it feels like it’s not done for the camera, we’re watching people living life.

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Allison Anders (center) with some of her Grace of My Heart cast: Patsy Kensit, Illeana Douglas, Bridget Fonda and Lucinda Jenney

NF: What do you think of her other films, like It’s My Turn (1980) with Jill Clayburgh, Michael Douglas and Charles Grodin?

AA: Hmm you know we discuss this in the chat on TCM, Illeana has so much great info on this, so hopefully that will be answered in that discussion. Look, I am not sure what happened but in 1980 to be a woman director on a studio film with everyone freaking out that you don’t possess the same fierce authority they expect from blowhards they’re used to working with — this continues to happen to this day — I’d imagine it was really rough in 1980 to feel that your authority as an artist was being recognized as powerful, even if you weren’t yelling at everyone.

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NF: A lot of women directors make a big splash with theatrical releases but often end up working in television, what do you think is the reason or some of the reasons why that happens? Is it the same for male directors too, or a particular pathway open to women directors because other pathways are closed off?

AA: Depends on when we’re talking about. I know Claudia Weill, Donna Deitch and later Martha Coolidge were again some of the pioneers to take that leap to TV in the 80s and 90s. And at that time, TV wasn’t considered cool. Ironically to be working in TV in the 80s, whew — that was the truly fat time financially for residuals! Once again, Claudia Weill and Martha Coolidge were paving the way for women directors.

Now it’s cool to work in TV, and everyone wants to because it’s so hard to make movies now, and we’re still in the second Golden Age of TV content. And while it’s lucrative, there’s so much to watch — it’s dizzying. But everyone wants to work in TV, male or female. Still rougher for women directors but I have to say — a LOT of shows and networks will go out looking for women directors now. I know cause I get approached for those jobs, and I don’t care WHY they’re looking for a woman director, I just say yes.

NF: The ending shot from Valley Girl appears to have been inspired by The Graduate, about the consequences of your decisions… do you think it has the right ending, or is there another way the film could have ended?

AA: Martha Coolidge is one of the smartest filmmakers I have ever known. She’s not only fearless as a filmmaker and a woman, but she has a deep knowledge of film history and pop culture. So, all to say — she ended that movie exactly as she wanted to, and it’s perfect.

Valley Girl really captures a time and place so specific to So Cal — the divide between The San Fernando Valley and Hollywood. (Hey even in my own home that divide lives — a few days ago my boyfriend Terry Graham who lived deep in the Hollywood LA punk scene in the early late 70s early 80s made a dig at me for living in Van Nuys at the time! I flipped him off as any good Val’ would do.) [NF Note: Terry was a member of L.A.’s The Gun Club]

But the movie is also accessible to ANY American teenager or anywhere else — the idea that there is the socially accepted popular girl and the rebellious boy from the wrong side of the tracks is timeless.

And like Girlfriends, in Valley Girl is the female point of view driving the movie — even though it’s a romance, we are inside the female character’s inner conflicts — she’s in charge of the story. Martha was also hooked into the power pop punk new wave scene in LA so the soundtrack is fabulous.

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The Valley Girls at the beach: Deborah Foreman, Heidi Holicker, Elizabeth Daily, Lisa Antille, Michelle Meyrink

NF: Your topic for discussion was “Independent Classics,” and the press release says “including” Weill and Coolidge (they were the only two listed), but were there any other directors you discussed or would have liked to have spent more time discussing? Any particular films that resonate with you personally? Any particular directors?

AA: Oh yes! There are five films discussed on this evening — one is of course my first film Border Radio and then there are two others.

Nancy Savoca’s 1989 independent film True Love (another Sundance winner) which is mind blowing to see again now these years later — it is such exhilarating confident filmmaking. Not only are the female characters and how they interact with each other amazing and so entertaining, but THE GUYS — it’s like something pulled from Mean Streets or a Barry Levinson movie — really fabulously detailed and sharp great dialogue. And some gorgeous realistic and sexy love scenes. Nancy made stars of Annabella Sciorra and Ron Eldard with this film.

And then there’s a gem Wanda by Barbara Loden made in 1970 which was recently unearthed and re-released by actress/filmmaker Isabelle Huppert and we all owe her the moon for this discovery and for sharing it with the world. There is so much to say about this remarkable film and Loden’s performance as Wanda, a really fucked up woman who makes choices we just hate — and yet — you cannot help being on her side. It’s uncontrived and raw and riveting. For me — it’s one of the best films ever made, ever. So, all I can say is — you need to see that one without a doubt, DVR it if you must, but see it.

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Martha Coolidge

NF: Martha Coolidge was given some early encouragement by Francis Ford Coppola and she later supported other directors, many of them women — is there a particular thing about women directors mentoring other women directors — or is that unique to specific mentoring types who just happen to be women, because they recognize it’s not an easy path to getting a film made and so they help out others who just happen to be women too? Is there a “sisterhood” of directors?

AA: Let me just also sing Martha’s praises a little. This is a woman who made her first film in the 1970s Not A Pretty Picture about her own rape. It won the top prize at Sundance and when I made my film about my own rape two decades later it was Martha who I went to for guidance, and she was so smart, so generous and pulled no punches — I could not have made my film Things Behind The Sun without her input. She was also the only female president of the Directors Guild Of America, and during her term helped shed light on women directors struggles greatly.

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Martha Coolidge and Deborah Forman, Valley Girl (1984)

And yes, while most of us of my generation and the ones before us were mentored by male directors (in my case Wim Wenders and later Martin Scorsese and in television Chris Chulack), now luckily there are a lot of us women directors to encourage the new generation of women filmmakers. But the one thing I HAVE TO SAY about mentoring — it must come from the person wishing to be mentored. I personally think mandating mentoring is a bad idea for any artist. I feel, to find your voice, you need to seek out someone you admire and who has what you want to get in your work and you need to gather up the cojones to go ask to be mentored by them. Mentors will not, and should not, come looking for you. You have to take that risk.

Lena Dunham, a huge fan of Girlfriends, hired Claudia Weill to direct an episode of HBO’s “Girls” in the first season and that really made my heart swell for Dunham.  A lot of people talk a lot of outrage at women directors not getting enough work, but few put their asses on the line to make sure they hire us!  Dunham did.

NF: Can you tell us anything specific as a takeaway for your interview? And, we’d like to know more about your relationship with TCM, and whether this is a new relationship and we can expect to see more from you in the future (your films, more appearances)?

AA: I came to be involved with TCM via Twitter! Yeah, well, what happened was I found out someone had programmed Border Radio for my very favorite network of all time, on my TV 24 hours a day, TCM. So I wanted to find out who had programmed it and thank them. I couldn’t figure it out on their website, so I took to Twitter and found the dear culprit with the post punk heart TCM programmer Mille De Chirico. From there we became friends and I also became friends with TCM programmer Scott McGee who was running the TCM Twitter account.

From that friendship, when they launched the TCM Film Festival (“my Coachella” which is what my daughter Tiffany named it for me) I was asked to present a film and I have felt blessed to be a part of the TCM family ever since. The inclusion of women in the discussions on TCM has been a longtime coming but wow — they have really pulled out all the stops on this series.

“Trailblazing Women” (which is the coolest title, right? Who doesn’t want to be part of that?), the whole series is so inspiring. When you look at the TCM website and see that wall of male directors faces turn into the 52 of US women filmmakers, it made me well-up, seriously. I was so deeply touched. These films are extraordinary and every discussion Illeana Douglas presents I am so so looking forward to. Last Thursday, the first night was the first of the series of some brilliant silent films by women directors with early film historian Cari Beauchamp riffing with Illeana on this incredible time when women were directing and producing movies and running studios before we even had the vote!

And by the way: men reading this — forget ‘chick flick’. That’s not what any of these films are (I’m not even sure I know what that is — generally I think they’re films made by dudes with big female stars). These are films guys who love movies, music, great inventive storytelling and naturalistic sex want to watch. So men, man-up and tune in cause this is some great filmmaking for all your senses.

And lastly let me just say what a marvelously perfect host Illeana Douglas is for this series. She’s so incredibly wise, funny and her knowledge of film is righteously deep and comes from the love and obsession of movie history. Listening to these discussions between films you will learn so much and it’s fascinating!

And I know there is always this twinge for some feminists who say, “But why do we need to be ghettoized into a ‘women filmmaker series’?” Yeah, I get it. But, getting this gorgeous spotlight on the movies of our foremothers and our sisters and our little sisters coming up — it’s SO MOVING! Not just to us — but to so many women who want to make films, want to see themselves on the screen, who want to learn more. Seeing the hashtag #TrailBlazingWomenInFilm light up social media, there is something to be said for living in a ghetto this fucking rich.

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Illeana and Allison a few months ago in Denver for a screening at Alamo Drafthouse of Grace Of My Heart

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.