Women in film and television: Interview with Liz Watts, News

Women in film and television: Interview with Liz Watts

Screen NSW talks to producer Liz Watts (The Rover, Animal Kingdom) about her career, the challenges, the highlights and her thoughts on gender issues within Australia’s screen industry.

Recent research indicates that there remains a significant gender imbalance in our industry. In your career, have you felt it more challenging to be a woman than a man?

Over the years there has been sometimes a questioning of my knowledge or skill or aptitude towards me as a woman. I have often sat in meetings and felt the ‘not being heard’ thing. Of watching I don’t write “I think” too many times in emails as dead giveaways of a female way of thinking/confidence indicator. 

I’ve often sat in meetings and thought “Oh I’m a woman in this situation right now”. Boys’ club, the way men speak to each other often in negotiations etc etc. It goes on, and I see it and have to shift myself out of thinking it, and into a practise of wilful positivity. “I will not let this situation get the better of me,” I think to myself. I’ve been called intimidating, and have had encounters with men over the years who expect me to be their secretary or assistant rather than their equal. An assumption that I will mother them or worse, be their assistant.  Sometimes I’m guilty of provoking that myself. How couldn't I be, when it's plainly a common encounter for many women in the industry to feel like this.

My attitude as a woman in the industry has undoubtedly been shaped by my early experiences in the industry - and indeed even my growing up – I was never ever told I couldn't do something because I was a woman. Once in adulthood though, I noticed a very deceptive underlying assumption that there were things that men did in a career capacity, and there were things that women did. So as a rebel in my twenties I went immediately to the area that was a traditionally held male enclave- the camera department.  I worked for free, on short films, music videos and whatever I could with mostly male cinematographers as a camera assistant. And I must say I was always pretty well encouraged. I also worked for Mandy Walker I remember and thought she was brilliant- and a woman. Very encouraging to me.

I started moving out of shoot only type work into the production area. Again, a brilliant mentor (one of many I’ve had over the years- and usually not in any official capacity) was Sharon Connolly who introduced me to Film Australia in the early nineties. Around this time I’d decided I wanted to be involved in other aspects of the filmmaking and television production process. I wanted to see the development side and the release side of things (let alone post production). I worked for Ron Saunders in children’s television, in amongst doing short films etc, and then formed Porchlight with Vincent and Anita in 1997.

I certainly didn't think I’d be running a business and employing hundreds of people over the next 18 years on documentaries, shorts, features and television production. Business was not on my radar, but there again, I’ve been fortunate to work with some inspiring women who have all contributed to my understanding of working in an industry where time management is kind of non-existent, especially when you’re trying to get a film or something up.


Have you experienced sexism in your career and, if so, how have you overcome it?

I’m not sure I can directly point to one position where I can say easily that I didn't get the gig as I’m woman. I’m not sure there has been. Though perhaps I just don't know about it! Also I’ve been working in my own company for 18 years or something….

I have worked with really supportive men- wonderful colleagues such as the sales agent Wouter Barendrect who shaped a great deal of my international knowledge of the industry early on.

But there is one incident where I was working with a well regarded critically acclaimed female director to pitch on a young adult movie that had as its central character, a young girl. It was an inspiring screenplay precisely because of this and to make something that has a strong, willful, not wholly without flaws character at its centre, who happens to be a girl, would be great. It was also the first in probably a franchise.

The financier had issues with the director’s arthouse background to do a franchise setup movie. But as I emailed through the list of around 30 arthouse male directors that had made the cross-over, I knew we were facing perhaps a little more than just the old art vs commerce argument.


Do you think things are better in 2015 than, say, 20 years ago?

No- not particularly - I’d say perhaps worse as there was a conscious attention given to getting women working in the industry. I am the direct recipient of many very advantageous schemes of yesterday- that were brought together by organisations such as the old Australian Film Commission, WIFT, Metro Screen etc that saw me access experience post education and pre entering the industry in a huge money-earning way. So for instance, I trained in a 6-month documentary course and specifically worked in the camera area and shot a documentary. 

Those schemes are simply not there anymore.


It seems women writers and producers and other technicians are doing well, but there is a dearth of women directors and DOPs. Why do you think that is? 

The biggest hurdle is childcare. Our industry accords absolutely no idea/time/money/understanding to childcare. That we lose women out of the industry as they have children and seemingly none or not as many return is really no surprise given the lack of infrastructure and facilitation of this in this industry…. It's a huge talent drain. We lose directors and we lose DPs. Definitely.

As an area I worked in, I try to encourage DPs where I can- and that's based on talent and not pure numbers as well – Natasha Braier shot The Rover (4 out of 5 HODs were women on that film , Ari Wegner shot our television series The Kettering Incident. It's a skill that is about technical understanding matched with aesthetic refinement and an ability to understand story by visual interpretation. Equally attributable qualities in either a man or a woman. No idea why it shouldn't be an area for women to excel in.

Also importantly, until we have women on our screens in a meaningful way, we won’t be encouraging storytelling by women. And not just swapping a woman in the lead.  We have to be careful not to just replicate genres of storytelling that are selling the same themes over and over again which relate to the male experience and not the female one.   

And perhaps we need to reintroduce the gnarly idea of quotas.

We need to have creative determinism by women  - in all levels of the industry. That's when we would find a true gender variety (as opposed to a gender singularity) in mainstream media and this industry.


Has thinking around gender issues informed your work – in writing room, development etc?

Yes  -we try to keep the mix in there and we work with a big mix and actually a LOT of women writers. We need more women directors - but we are working with quite a few!


Who have been your female role models?  Have you had female mentors or yourself mentored younger women coming through?

Absolutely- I have been inspired by many producers and I have an informal network of really important people- writers, directors, actors, producers and financiers – ie a mix – I have a large informal but vital network of women who support each other and we talk constantly between ourselves. Early on, I was particularly inspired by Jan Chapman, by women like Sharon Connolly, directors like Jane Campion and Jocelyn Moorhouse, and I’ve also absolutely drawn the benefit of mentors who have allowed me to dream and actualise a career in feature and television production.

The sharing of information and experience is of the greatest benefit to people coming up and I EP or mentor women where I can. For example, amongst other things I am working with Emerald Films on their Female director slate which has some really brilliant upcoming women writers and directors involved.


What have been your career highlights and why?
Working with brilliant writers and directors and creators. I’m lucky.


What are you working on now?

Many, many things- Porchlight is shooting Jasper Jones (with Bunya Productions) with the wonderful Rachel Perkins directing. There you go - a brilliant director and a force of nature - who happens to be a woman.


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