Expectations around lesbian screen content

I was asked during a radio interview if, as a lesbian filmmaker, I feel a responsibility to represent the lesbian community on screen. At the time I answered ‘no’. I said that I didn’t think it was possible for one project to represent the community. That given the lack of lesbian content available, there was too much pressure on each new offering to be everything to everybody. Imagine if the same was expected of every new film, television show or web series that depicted heterosexual couples. You rarely hear a straight woman complaining: “that’s not what straight women look like”, “those actors aren’t heterosexuals” or “I’m not watching that because those characters aren’t like people I know”. This pressure, therefore, to represent all aspects of the lesbian community in one project is not only unfair, but also impossible. The reason you don’t hear this from heterosexuals, however, is because there is such a wide variety of content centred around heterosexual characters. While clichés and stereotypes still abound, there is so much content available, that each new offering doesn’t carry this weight of expectation.

That’s why we need more lesbian content and more diversity amongst this content. The more stories we tell that centre around lesbian characters, the less pressure there is on each new offering and the more varied the depictions become. The more we encourage women in our community to tell their stories, the more chance we have of seeing characters who are “like people we know”. The criteria on which the content is then judged can shift to areas such as entertainment value, the quality and engagement of the narrative, and the growth and arc of the characters. This is how we’ll get more quality content. 

Which, on one hand, has caused me to reconsider the answer I initially gave to the question: “do I feel a responsibility to represent the lesbian community on screen?” because, in a way, I do. I feel a responsibility to try and create three-dimensional, interesting, flawed characters who may not always do what we want them to, but we at least understand why they’ve done it. I feel a responsibility to try and create well-crafted narratives that not only entertain the audience, but also engage them emotionally. I also feel a responsibility to create characters who aren’t defined by their sexuality, who hold down jobs, pay taxes, struggle with relationships, fight, laugh, cry, feel joy and pain, characters who belong to a rich, vibrant and diverse community, and who, to some extent, aren’t that unlike the heterosexual characters we already see on screen.

By Julie Kalceff


Working with actors

I had planned on talking this week about expectations around lesbian screen content and whether or not a lesbian filmmaker has a responsibility to the community, but I might leave that for another day. During the week, the cast of Starting From … Now! got together to shoot some additional content, actor interviews that we’ll release prior to the start of Season 2. It reminded me of one of the things I enjoy most about directing – working with actors.

I haven’t done a lot of directing. I am first and foremost a writer. I’m most comfortable sitting in front of my computer, alone, unless of course you count the characters as my companions. Writing has its challenges, but I know what those challenges are and I’m better equipped to deal with them. I only started directing because I had trouble finding a director who I wanted to work with. Most of the directors I know are men in their late 20s, early 30s, who have no interest in making the sort of content I’m interested in writing. It got to a point where I was so frustrated by this that I decided to do it myself.

Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m a woman and we're taught not to just assume we can do anything, but I never once thought that just because I was a writer, I could automatically step into directing. Directing is a different skill set altogether. I tried to learn as much about it as I could, I took any opportunities that arose to practice the craft and watch others at work. I still have a lot to learn, especially about working with actors.

I think sometimes actors get a bad rap - divas who think the world revolves around them. I’m sure there are actors like that but, in my experience, I have found them to be anything but. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to work with some very talented actors. The cast of Starting From … Now! is no exception. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in awe of their work. Whether it be on set, or watching back the day’s rushes, I’ve been continually surprised and delighted by what these actors have brought to their roles. It’s not just the way the dialogue comes to life, or a scene suddenly jumps off the page, it’s about their ability to find moments of truth - a glance, a gesture, that instance when the inner life of the character becomes apparent on screen. I think that’s what really good actors do, they find the soul of the character and those moments of truth.

Really good actors are smart, generous, intuitive, and sensitive. They feel, deeply. I admire this about them, and, to some extent, I also envy it. As someone who spends a lot of time in her head, I envy their ability to access and be in touch with their emotions. But I also know how exhausting this can be. Actors may show up after the crew and leave while everyone else is packing up, but, I believe, their job is much more demanding than any other job on set. They have to give of themselves, over and over again. This isn’t easy, and their ability to do so makes them both a joy and a challenge to work with.

While I love working with actors, there are times when I find it extremely challenging. These times are often late at night, when we’ve been filming for ten, twelve hours and it’s our third late night in a row. It’s then, when everyone is tired and emotional, when one of the actors will look to me for clarification, for support, for … something, and I’m too tired, and perhaps too inexperienced, to give them what they need. Good actors will push you because they want to do the best possible job they can. They want to deliver what’s needed at that moment in time, but they can’t do that if they don’t know what you, as the director, want. The ability to communicate effectively, with cast, and crew, is key and the ability to do that then and there is what I find difficult. When I’m writing I have time and space to get it right (or as right as I possibly can). Directing is much more immediate. This, to me, is one of the greatest challenges when it comes to directing. It is both frightening and exhilarating.

I’m hoping that the more time I spend on set, the better I become at this. I already feel as though I’ve learnt a lot from shooting Seasons 1 and 2 of Starting From … Now! This opportunity that I’ve had, to work with this group of talented and generous actors, on this project, has been more than I could have hoped for. Working with them, and seeing just what they can do, has made me not only want to keep directing, but to become the best possible director I can.

By Julie Kalceff 

Why a web series?

Since this is my first blog post on the conception of and processes involved in bringing Starting From … Now! to fruition, I thought I’d start by addressing the question I’ve probably been asked most about this project – why a web series?

One of the main advantages, I believe, in making a web series is that there are fewer limitations on who has access to your product. While we’d all love our work to be shown and celebrated by the mainstream media, the chances of that actually happening are very slim, especially if you’re new to the industry or don’t have a raft of award-winning feature films behind you. The same, to some extent, can be said about film festivals. The decision as to which films are accepted into any given festival is made by a handful of people. This means that, no matter how knowledgeable or well-intentioned these people are, the process is undoubtedly subjective. It has to be. No festival can possibly show every film submitted for consideration. What this means is that someone else is deciding who gets to see your film or television series. With a web series, however, filmmakers are able to bypass these gatekeepers. Anyone can put their product, whether it be a web series or a short film, on the internet. No-one is stopping them (but themselves). A web series, therefore, has the potential to reach a much wider audience. It’s then up to the audience to decide whether or not they want to watch your product – the democratisation of content. The follow-on from this is that the audience, should you find one, will leave you in no doubt as to what they think of your series. Their engagement is immediate, often passionate, and undoubtedly honest. If you don’t have a thick skin and are thinking about producing and distributing a web series, I suggest you either reconsider or start to toughen up. 

This access to a potential audience is particularly important if the content you are producing happens to fall outside what is believed to be “mainstream” or “acceptable”. By this, I’m referring to content that offers an alternative to the homogenised representations of race, gender and sexuality that we receive from mainstream media. As a woman and a lesbian, I’m tired of seeing the same gender stereotypes played out over and over again on our television and movie screens. I’m tired of seeing women still, in this day and age, being cast as either the Madonna or the whore. I’m tired of not seeing lesbians on screen or, if they do happen to make it into a mainstream film or television series, they are, predominantly, cast as the victim or the villain. While I’m old enough to know that this isn’t the way it should be, what concerns me most is the message this sends to young girls, particularly those struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. We emulate what we see and what we’re exposed to. This is a major problem and while the odd web series here or there isn’t going to solve this, it at least offers a step in the right direction. One of the most rewarding aspects of this process has been receiving messages of gratitude and support from all over the world, from countries such as Norway, France, Brazil, Germany, Austria and the United States. I know what it’s like, both as an adult and a child, not to see yourself on screen. I know what it’s like to wonder if there’s something wrong with you or if you should just try and be like everyone else. I also know what it’s like to finally find something that offers an alternative. Something that is in no way perfect or an exact representation of who you are, but something that at least lets you know you’re not alone.

And that’s why a web series.

By Julie Kalceff