Spotlight: Allison Anders Filmmaking Masterclass

Tom Symmons reports from the Allison Anders Filmmaking Masterclass hosted by Birds Eye View in conjunction with MUBI, at the beautiful Regent Street Cinema…

Seminal director and screenwriter Allison Anders was in London recently promoting the 25th anniversary re-release of her highly acclaimed coming-of-age film Gas Food Lodging (1992), and gave a special Filmmaking Masterclass at the Regent Street Cinema. During the 90-minute session (moderated by Mia Bays, director of Birds Eye View), Anders discussed her long and varied career in film and television, sharing valuable insights into many aspects of filmmaking and the film industry, as well as her passionately held beliefs on the need for greater female participation in film and television.

Anders’ career took off while studying at UCLA film school – where she produced her first feature Border Radio (1987), about the LA punk scene (on a micro budget of $2000), which was well-received by critics and established her as a talented, up-and-coming filmmaker. Impressed by her debut, an independent film producer based at UCLA asked Alison to look at a property he owned: Richard Peck’s novel Gas Food Lodging.

The producer had financed a screenplay but was not happy with it. Such were the parallels with her own circumstances, Anders “couldn’t believe she had not written” the story of a divorced mother and waitress struggling to raise her young teenage daughters in a small desert town in New Mexico. The young writer/director was no stranger to adversity, winning a place on UCLA’s prestigious film programme and putting herself through college as a single parent. It’s this personal experience that helps imbue Gas Food Lodging with grit, honesty and compassion.

Chief priorities for Anders when revising the screenplay were developing strong female characterisations that challenged gender myths and stereotypes, and a narrative that highlighted serious issues rarely touched upon in film. Anders, for example, decided to “give the mom a break” by reducing her children from three to two… and giving her a sex life, a refreshing change from the mutual exclusivity of single motherhood and sexuality typical of Hollywood film.

With regard to the mother’s promiscuous eldest daughter, Anders drew upon her own experience of sexual abuse by providing context for her behaviour and ensuring she is not simply depicted as abandoned. The “boundary shattering” experience of a gang rape determined that “acting out is not her choice,” stated the filmmaker. Moreover, and again challenging conventional representations of abused women, the teenager’s personal trauma does not preclude her from finding intimacy with a young British geologist.

Throughout the movie, humour is the coping mechanism that alleviates the bleakness of the character’s lives. There is self-awareness too. No one is turned into a victim. Similarly, while the chief cause of the womens’ troubles is abandonment and abuse by men, Gas Food Lodging evinces a fondness for the central male characters and love interests. This is part of the film’s enduring appeal – that it succeeds in making a strong feminist statement without anti-male sentiment.

Anders’ subsequent film work also gives voice to the female experience: Mi Vida Loca (1993), Four Rooms (1995), Grace of my Heart (1996) and Sugar Town (1999). Her discussion of these films, however, focused on issues of reception and distribution. For example, the reception of Mi Vida Loca – a film centering on the relationship between two teenage girls growing up in a poor Hispanic neighbourhood of Los Angeles – illustrated a divergence between the mixed response of the predominantly white, male critical establishment and that of non-white audiences who historically had been hugely under- and misrepresented in cinema, and whose enthusiasm for the feature attested to its authenticity.

With Grace of my Heart and Sugar Town, it was the vagaries of distribution Anders reflected upon: a sudden personnel change precipitated a “nightmare” situation that she was powerless to influence, whereby her films slated for release were “thrown away” by the new guys who wanted to disassociate themselves from their predecessors. This is a common problem, but with experience Anders has learned not to be too despairing, stating that despite such set backs films will “eventually find their audiences”, typically through video and television.

Anders concluded the masterclass with an in-depth discussion of the persistent gender imbalance in the American film industry. The issue of gender inequality provided the impetus for the Miramar Women Filmmakers Summit, an all-female conference Anders organised in Santa Barbara, California in 2000. The event afforded its 250 attendees a private forum to vent their frustrations with the barriers faced by women pursuing a career in film.

As the statistics demonstrate, each year has been no better for women struggling to get ahead in the “man’s medium”, as Anders has it. This was not always the case, she pointed out, referring to the many pioneering and successful female filmmakers of the silent period, including the “girl wonder” actor/director Lois Wilson, as described in a trade paper at the time. Since the success of “boy wonder” Orson Welles, Anders bemoaned, this has been an accolade almost exclusively conferred upon men (by men).

Women have made greater inroads in television in recent years; since 2000, Anders has blazed a trail in the medium which is now her primary source of work. So-called quality television is also threatening to surpass film in respect of quantity and popularity. “Whoever’s in the driving seat tells the story,” stated Anders, referring to the need for more female writers and directors to “get behind the wheel” and “veer off”, so that more female stories can be told on both the big and small screens. Her motto and message to other aspiring women filmmakers: “Go for it, girl!”

So we must and shall…