The week of June 7, 2015

Director Lexi Alexander dismantles Hollywood’s persistent sexism

By Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

In May, the ACLU publicly requested a state and federal investigation into sexist hiring practices in Hollywood, an accusation of systemic bias backed up by cold, hard stats. The ACLU’s announcement and subsequent petition spurred on a conversation that had been brewing for years, highlighted by a recent L.A. Weekly article titled “How Hollywood Keeps Out Women.” Filmmakers even began to take sides on whether the Directors Guild of America was doing enough to promote diversity.

Lexi Alexander is a prominent figure in this debate, a filmmaker best known for directing Marvel’s Punisher: War Zone and British soccer hooligan drama Green Street. Her Twitter presence is a rare glimpse into a world that most of us only experience through a haze of PR obfuscation, revealing hair-raising stories about discrimination in Hollywood.

Shortly after the ACLU launched its petition, Alexander shared her views on sexist hiring practices, her support for file-sharing sites like the Pirate Bay, the dangers of crowdfunding, and why she’d love to direct a Ms. Marvel adaptation starring Kamala Khan.

I think a good place to start would be asking how you became so publicly active on Twitter. It’s unusual to see a prominent filmmaker be so outspoken about controversial issues like gender discrimination, and a lot of people online seem to respond to that.

Well, yeah, it is unusual. Somebody told me last week I’m the only one. Certainly not the only female activist out of Hollywood, but I guess on the level of filmmaking that I’ve achieved. And that’s actually very sad, because I think if more women would be willing to do that, we would achieve a lot more a lot faster.

I didn’t say anything about any political issue whatsoever until about two years ago, when I wrote one blog [post] that I thought maybe three people would read. That got picked up by Indiewire and my friend Patton Oswalt tweeted about it; it just went viral. I guess it was the first time a woman filmmaker just like layed it out like that. Which looking back, it wasn’t actually that totally honest. I mean, it was the most honest people have ever heard about it, but there wasn’t anything in it that was offensive, anyway. Now I’m much more offensive.

So that started it. Then I tried to shut up about it again, but once the lid was off, I couldn’t stop. It’s kind of my Achilles heel, really, because it’s hard for me to look at something and then un-see, or to pretend that I haven’t see it.

Believe it or not, I’m very busy and still developing films and developing TV shows, but it’s hard to do when people have chosen you to be their mouthpiece, you know?

A lot of this seems to be about transparency, like with the Sony email hack and so on. Over the past month or so we’ve seen this Tumblr account, Shit People Say to Women Directors, and people discussing what’s happening in the Directors Guild of America (DGA)—topics that until recently, we obviously wouldn’t know about. Speaking to an outsider, how would you explain what’s going on with the Directors Guild right now, and how people are using social media to try and motivate change?

Well, we’ve worked on this ACLU investigation for two years, and people didn’t quite… Well, they heard rumblings about it, but they didn’t take it seriously. It was a woman named Maria Giese who I often retweet who actually contacted the ACLU, so once they came out with their big letter, what actually happened is a lot of women found the courage to say, “OK, at least now nobody can blacklist me because they know the ACLU’s involved.” So it was almost like a bodyguard.

“I’m very busy and still developing films and developing TV shows, but it’s hard to do when people have chosen you to be their mouthpiece, you know?”

In terms of the DGA, that is still our only arena that we’re not—you know, it’s so corrupted that we’re getting clocked left and right. As a matter of fact, I was just DMing with another reporter about the fact that the DGA killed another story. And they can do that; they have the power to actually call an outlet up and say, “Don’t run the story.” It’s rough, and I think more people are aware because we’ve been talking about it; the ACLU mentioned them. But nobody is even close to understanding what the reality of that place is.

Do you think the ACLU letter is going to make a difference?

I think it will definitely make a difference. That’s why we worked so hard on it, because it’s a civil rights organization who is well known for turning all kinds of civil rights issues around for the better.

The studios are big companies; they have shareholders. They’re actually not allowed to be that discriminating. It’s weird though, because there’s so many levels, the level where the discrimination happens is not often associated with the shareholder corporation level. I’ll hear of these stories where a network will push a certain show to hire more women, but the showrunner refuses because he just doesn’t like women. Like literally a story I heard last week, he will not hire women and the network is like, “But you have to because we have diversity rules.” So there’s still a disconnect because they don’t want to lose the star showrunner because they think he’s responsible for the ratings.

It’s an interesting scenario because it’s not like any other corporation where you just put a mandate in and you say “you have to hire so many,” and people will follow it. Here it’s the case of like, “I’m the star showrunner and I can do whatever the fuck I want to do, and you can’t tell me what to do.”

And of course so much of this issue is going on behind the scenes, so people don’t often understand. Which kind of ties into the other topic you often talk about online: file-sharing. You’ve written a lot about how people have to download films illegally due to things like geoblocking. Would you say that people pirating your movies has actually helped your career?

For sure! Although sadly in my case it’s not the audience who can give me a career. I’ve always—and this is unrelated to a gender issue or to a women of color or a minority issue—as a filmmaker I’ve always had this issue of making movies that have been hugely popular with audiences—as a matter of fact, young white males—and yet there were always gatekeepers who would give it a shitty distribution or a shitty theatrical release. But my popularity has risen because people have found these films anyway. Every one of my films has basically become a massive hit way after its release, when people in Hollywood weren’t even thinking about it any more.

But you know, the way I came to file-sharing was because of gender equality.

When I first looked into it, why Hollywood isn’t doing anything for women, and I thought, well who would be able to do something? I looked at the MPAA, and the MPAA has said several times, “Well, we don’t know what to do, and we don’t have the resources to do something,” meaning they don’t have money to throw at it. But as I was looking into the MPAA’s financials, not only do they have more than enough money, but they actually spend millions of dollars on lawyers and collection societies in countries where—why do we care if a Swedish kid downloads a movie, or has a file-sharing website? You know, 20 lawyers were hired to put [Pirate Bay cofounder] Peter Sunde in jail. I mean, that money could’ve gone to doing a great diversity academy or something like that.

People think those are separate issues, and sometimes people say, “Well Lexi, you just like to be a troublemaker.” They’re not separate issues; they are connected! It’s all the same kind of One Percent issue of there are some really corrupt people in power. Not only are they running an old boys’ club frat, but they’re also not out in any way to nurture the arts and make filmmaking good. They’re just there to make the most money. They want to have every drop of blood from all of us.

“The way I came to file-sharing was because of gender equality.”

People just have their head in the sand about it, and I can’t blame them; it’s just upsetting that people don’t realize this is all connected. We all could be much happier. If you think it’s about writing the best scripts and getting the best movies, and having a healthy art community with healthy movies and finding all audiences—you’re on the wrong side if you’re on Twitter, bitching to me about how I can be “for piracy.”

Do you often get people saying that you should go independent or go into crowdfunding instead, given your frustration with the industry?

All the time! But you know, I try to explain this to people… First of all, crowdfunding has ghettoized women and POC [people of color] filmmakers.

You look at my DM box, and I literally get like 30 “Please please can you either help fund us or retweet this!” If I were to retweet every Kickstarter request I get, that’s all you would see in my timeline all day. And I have to tell people, who are these people? It’s rarely white male filmmakers; it’s mainly women or minority filmmakers, black filmmakers who send me these requests.

It’s ghettoized those who can’t get into mainstream. They think that crowdfunding is their thing until they start realizing, crowdfunding is not strangers giving you money. Crowdfunding is you using your connections. It’s your uncle; it’s your friends; it’s the father of your friend. Now, where does that take us? It takes us back to the inner-city kid not having enough people in his or her circle. They can barely pay rent.

I’m actually one of those people who could crowdfund a movie, because there’s enough Punisher and Green Street fans who would actually spend money. So let’s say I do that. Then I still have the trouble of distribution.

Yes, I could go VOD (video on demand). But again, I’m not naive enough to think that file-sharers, because they love me so much because I’m pro file-sharing, will pay for it. The Internet is a different arena. There has to be something there that makes you want to pay for it—maybe because it comes out at a certain time and you want to livetweet with other people.

I always give this example of when the World Cup is on, you can get it for free on TV. But oftentimes in Germany, you pay for a ticket to go public viewing: You actually want to experience it with people. Some movies are like that, so if I make a film that I’m just releasing on VOD, chances are not all that many people will pay for it.

What I need is the machine of the studio behind it. If you’re an action director, these movies really cost money to make. You can’t crowdfund a $30 million film, and those films are not even done any more. Then you need to get to the theaters, and the theaters don’t even take independent films any more. When they can have Iron Man on 25 screens, they will have Iron Man on 25 screens. So what you’re asking me is, why don’t you make Coca-Cola, your new cola with a new recipe, and compete with Pepsi and Coke. It’s impossible.

“The theaters don’t even take independent films any more. When they can have Iron Man on 25 screens, they will have Iron Man on 25 screens.”

There’s a myth that crowdfunding is so egalitarian, but when you think about the films that have been successful with it, it’s been things like Veronica Mars and the movie made by the guy who starred in Scrubs [Zach Braff]. I can’t think of one that’s come from a relatively unknown filmmaker.

And that’s the point! This has not made a career for a single person. Not at all. Only for shit that’s already established, that already had privilege putting the person in place.

Nobody questions like, “Why haven’t we heard about this person who broke out of crowdfunding?” It’s not even like startups. Startups have sometimes got this thing like, this guy who made this thing that got bought by such-and-such. We don’t have those stories at all in crowdfunding; it doesn’t work. Because even if you have a good movie, there’s so many good movies that have not seen the light of day.

First of all there’s market oversaturation. You look at iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, and holy mackerel, the choices! And what do you have to go by, one logline? I bet some people just say, you know, “I don’t have time for this, I actually have a life.” So what do they do? They go to the one that everybody talks about. Instead of finding in the jungle the one thing that you may like, you go to the thing that you’ve heard about. Like Mad Max, Avatar, Iron Man. But even for the people who don’t necessarily like comic book films, they’ll go see something during Oscar time because they suddenly hear about these Oscar movies.

It’s unusual to hear a director voice their frustration like this. Do you ever get to a point on Twitter where you just think, “I’m going too far”?

You know, I’m kind of past that now. There was a time when it wasn’t always me tweeting as me. There was a time when I actually asked three of my feminist peers and said, “look, people seem to rely on me being on Twitter, and I’m in Belgium speaking at the E.U. parliament, can you take over my account?”

Those were the times when you don’t hear statements from me; you hear more like retweets. They would look in my DM box and see somebody said like, “This thing came out about women directors,” and they know exactly that I’d retweet that, so you see a retweet. Because it’s really a thing. People will email me concerned, or call my manager if I’m not on Twitter for a day. It’s become this thing where I don’t know how to leave that place, because like you said, there’s not a lot of people like me, I guess on the level of how far my reach is. Or how people take me seriously.

It’s literally to the point where people send me like, “I’m not afraid to tweet this but if I tweet it, it won’t matter as much as if you tweet it.” So I would say a good 50 percent of my stuff is not original. It’s me saying something like, “Yeah, she’s right, this needs to be out.” And then I’ll tweet it because apparently that has more weight than somebody else.

“Everybody loved the script. Everybody. But the idea that there’s a positive Arab on TV literally makes people go white in the face. Chalk white.”

Now, at a certain point—and I’ve talked about it with my managers—my work has definitely suffered. I can’t deliver my scripts fast enough, and sometimes, like this morning, I said I’m doing this interview, but the rest of the day I’m going to work on finishing this script that I have to deliver. But then somebody will tweet at you with the most outrageous, outrageous article and then it’s like, I can’t help it!

It’s to the point where I was really hoping when other famous women started speaking out online… After the ACLU thing, I was hoping this could mean I could chill. But there was two days where I thought I could take off completely and just see if I could slowly back out of this space, and people have contacted my manager because, like, they needed to get hold of me because of this documentary about women directors who were erased from history. And my managers were like, “Look. Lexi, if they’re calling here now…” So it’s an issue, and I have to deal with it at some point.

On that note, who would you recommend to follow on Twitter? Other filmmakers, or people talking about the topics we’ve been discussing. You mentioned Maria Giese?

Victoria Sadler and Cat Cooper from England. Melissa Silverstein from Women Directors in Hollywood; she has a blog at Indiewire. Heather Matarazzo is an actress who speaks out about this stuff now. There’s a hashtag now that Melissa has started now called #seehernow, and they also have a Twitter account.

There’s also ReBecca Theodore. There’s a lot of great black women who manage to do both, like support Black Twitter but also support women in film.

It’s important that we don’t only focus on white women getting into film, and that it’s also an effort to look like, OK, where’s our Asian female filmmakers, and overall minorities? In my other life that I don’t get to talk about as much, I’ve been trying for five years to get any kind of positive Arabic character on TV and in the movies. That’s actually even more impossible than getting a woman to direct a big studio film.

I had this one TV show [that] the script itself sold four times at turnaround; everybody always loved the script, but it has an Arabic lead. To be honest I did a modern-day rip-off of Hercule Poirot, but instead of a refugee from Belgium, it’s in the present time and he’s from Jordan and runs a gas station in New York. Everybody loved the script. Everybody. But the idea that there’s a positive Arab on TV literally makes people go white in the face. Chalk white.

So is that something you’re still shopping around now, or have you moved onto other projects?

I’ve written another one now about a woman, but no, I’m still shopping around that one. That’s a finished script, and, as a matter of fact, Sam Worthington’s company was the last company who optioned this script and tried to get it on the air. Since then I kind of paused it and said, “OK, clearly nobody’s ready for this; I need to wait.” But that’s still there, and we’re always bringing it up to people. I’ve since then written one about a Palestinian girl but because she’s kind of a superhero; that probably has even less of a chance.

I don’t know, if Kamala Khan can sell well, there’s possibly an opening for a female Palestinian superhero. I know a lot of people would be hyped for that to happen.

Well, but that’s the thing. Even Kamala Khan… I was making a comment about that because people always ask me, “Are you going to be upset if you do not get to do Ironfist, or the reboot Punisher?” And I’m like, no. Literally, they can do all the comic book movies without ever asking me; I’m not upset unless they make Kamala Khan without asking me to direct. Then I would be upset. But she’s not even in the pipeline to go onscreen, to be honest.

I think the problem is, people are hyped, but we’re not working for the people. The gatekeepers do not work for the people.

Correction: A previous draft version of this article misstated the nationality of Alexander’s planned television series. It is Jordanian. 

Illustration by Max Fleishman