Yo! I’ve been out of school for just over a year now, and I’m 100% ready to go back and do it again. I mean all four years of it. Perhaps I’m a masochist, or maybe I just enjoyed being out of the work force. But I know a real defining element of the film school experience for me was working with the sharp professors at SMU. This #WomanCrushWednesday, I want to introduce the Depth of Field readers to a favorite professor of both Geenah’s and mine, Paula Goldberg. When she’s not professing, Paula is a writer, director, producer, actor, and most of all a boss a$$ b%#ch who really lets her femme flag fly.
Paula has a special way with people and it’s one that gets her results. This applies to directing, teaching, and literally just having a conversational exchange. She’s honest and bold and tells the stark truth in a dignified and humorous way. This is why I wanted to get started with a little bit of P.G. wisdom on working with actors, otherwise known as fellow humans. DFLY: What would you compare a working relationship with an actor to? PG: Every good relationship comes down to trust and respect. All you really want is to allow an actor to give a truthful performance. Sometimes that’s staying out of their way, sometimes that’s asking the right questions, sometimes that’s creating the right atmosphere, and sometimes it involves manipulation. The last one will only work if you have that trust and respect – both ways. Meaning, if I can’t push your buttons… I won’t be able to access some deep place within you unless you respect me and trust me to take care of you. DFLY: Do you have tips or golden rules for maintaining these relationships? PG: Don’t become attached to a result. For example, don’t try to get an actor to cry in a scene. Concentrate more on what they want. If a character is really going after something, really doing – the truthful, emotional result might surprise you. You may find that a laugh is more touching than crying in that moment.
PG: Spend time prior to shooting to get to know your actors as people. Having a cup of coffee or a drink with them prior to shooting is worth more to me than hours of rehearsal on the material. If I cast you – I think you’re a good actor. I know you have technique – that you will make specific choices, that you have rich emotional life. I have done my homework as well. I know the material, I have a vision for the project. Despite all that – sometimes moments just don’t work. If we have established that trust and respect and I have taken the time to get to know the actor, I will have a shorthand, a way of communicating that will resonate with that particular actor. For example, there was an actor I knew well. I knew her boyfriend was nine years younger and that she had some insecurities around the age difference. There was a moment of desperation she wasn’t getting and I simply whispered in her ear, “Do you really think Kevin will ever marry you?” The dam broke; she allowed herself to go there and she nailed the moment. Afterward, I hugged her. I addressed her deepest fear – it was scary for me, too. But that really is the magic of good actors. They open their hearts, allow themselves to be vulnerable and pull from their own life. They are committed to living truthfully in imaginary circumstances, to paraphrase Sanford Meisner. DFLY: So, in honor of overcoming loads of industry sexism to get where you are, can you tell me about some of the hardships you’ve faced? PG: In 1998, I based the fundraising of my first short film on some pretty awful statistics – that the DGA was only 6% women; that on average it took a man two years to get his second feature off the ground and it took a woman six years between projects. It’s 2015 – that hasn’t changed one bit. Wrap your head around that. In 17 years, there has been no progress in opportunities for women. But I do think we are close to a tipping point. It’s taking a spoonful of sugar to get the medicine down – it’s changing with laughter. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, and most spectacularly Amy Schumer are big box office and they are not afraid to name the sexism and bias.
PG: I have never held a job in this industry that I felt secure about retaining. I have produced five screenplays, I have directed 30 episodes of a TV show, I had a comedy web series produced and three short films picked up for home DVD/video distribution. I have been teaching writing, acting, and directing at a university for over three years and yet in none of this do I feel in any way confident that it will continue. To put this another way… When I directed Undressed on MTV, I was the only woman director at that time on that show, with none of the major crew positions being by women. Since men are always surrounded by other men, their place at the table feels comfortable. As a woman, it’s hard not to feel that you were only invited for drinks and everyone else is staying for dinner. DFLY: I’ve had some women tell me that the best way to combat gender bias in the film industry is to pretend it isn’t there. What do you think? DFLY: Ask yourself when being dishonest has ever served you. If someone gives you advice to put your head in the sand, ask them this: Why do ostriches put their heads in the sand? THEY DON’T. It’s a myth. You can find Paula’s full filmography on her IMDB page (linked to her portrait below), but I want to take the opportunity to discuss one of her works in particular.
DFLY: I remember being surprised when you first showed Inappropriate Workplace in class – it is totally unapologetic. I hadn’t expected you to share something like that with a gaggle of freshmen screenwriting students. A lot of really popular stuff currently, particularly the comedy of Amy Schumer, is bold like this. Do you perceive a difference in reception of female-produced content that is shocking or “crude?” PG: The only thing that occurs to me is that when women work “blue” there is usually a deeper meaning than simply being crude. Schumer’s stuff is provocative, but also calls out s**t. PG: For example, “Last F**kable Day” names sexism and ageism in Hollywood in a way that makes us howl because it’s a ridiculous truth. No one would argue she’s overreacting when she says Sally Field played Tom Hanks’ girlfriend in Punchline and twenty minutes later she was his mother in Forrest Gump. In the parody of Friday Night Lights, she manages to joke and also make us think about rape culture. More often than not, when men are crude – like The Hangover – there is no point to it.
DLY: So before I let you go, I want to ask you about how your industry experience colors your teaching style. How have you taken what you learned in LA and applied it to the industry in Dallas? PG: The main advantage my industry years bring is my access to people who work in the business in LA and NY. I’ve been able to have some spectacular Skype guests and even arrange some mentorships. I like to give my students a responsibility reality check – they may be in Dallas and feel their issue is one of connections. I tell them they now know me and I know people…now their issue is good content – so get writing. 🙂 DFLY: What are the tell-tale signs of a student who is “gonna make it?” PG: [discussing an acting student of hers] He knew how to network – not in an inauthentic way. He never asked for a hand out – it was always a hand up… You can distill all that with that Woody Allen quote – “90% of life is showing up.” DFLY: Finally, why do you choose to teach? How do you approach the task of giving students both the tools for and the reality of working in this industry? PG: I love teaching. I learn something every semester and there are always a few that start off a bit lost and then grow and get it and it’s so satisfying. What a beautiful thing to feel you’ve made a difference in someone’s life…
Visit Paula @ the SMU Dept. of Film & Media Arts
PG: The reality of the business is that it’s awesome. It’s fun and creative. If you don’t feel that way, if you feel it’s hard and soul-sucking and difficult – don’t do it. I don’t understand artists that complain that way. Because what they are really complaining about then is the money. Because you can always write. You can find opportunities to act. Anyone with an iPhone can direct. You are unhappy because you aren’t making a lot of money from it. I’ve known some successful actors. Guess what? The money doesn’t make them happy. Everyone wants to be compensated – but in the end after your basic needs are met, money is just a way to keep score. If that’s your main motivator – you’ll be an unhappy artist or unhappy accountant or unhappy teacher… you’ll just be unhappy. I’ll leave you with something my mother always told me… “Everything is an attitude.”
Rachel Wilson, 2015.