It’s the year of the female director at Sundance 2013
Film Festival • “Sundance this year is kind of a ladies’ club,” says actor/filmmaker Lake Bell.

By SEAN P. MEANS

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: January 29, 2013 02:19PM
Updated: May 5, 2013 11:33PM
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Filmmaker Jerusha Hess (center) checks a shot on the set of "Austenland." The movie has been chosen for the U.S. Dramatic competition of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy Sundance Institute

Park City • As a teen, Lake Bell learned how a voice can reveal or conceal a person’s identity.

When she was 13, Bell said, she often flew as an unaccompanied minor, shuttling between her divorced parents in Florida and Manhattan. On some flights, said the actor-turned-filmmaker, she would coerce the flight attendants into letting her deliver announcements on the PA system.

“I loved the idea that you wouldn’t be judged by what you looked like,” Bell said. “Maybe people would chuckle, maybe people wouldn’t notice and just think I was a stewardess.”

Finding a voice and figuring out how to use it are at the heart of Bell’s directorial debut, “In a World … ,” one of the best films playing at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

No longer dominated by male voices • Bell, who also wrote the script, stars as Carol Solomon, a Los Angeles vocal coach whose ambition is to become a voice-over artist for movie trailers. It’s an industry dominated by male voices, with one of the biggest belonging to Carol’s father, Sam (Fred Melamed).

“This being my first film, I used it as therapy — working out daddy issues,” joked Bell, an actor familiar to fans of TV’s “Boston Legal” or the medical-show spoof “Children’s Hospital.”

Bell said she tried to break into the voice-over business when she moved to Hollywood. “I thought: I don’t have to be a hostess in a restaurant, and I could make the big bucks,” she said in an interview in Park City. “Obviously, I got there and you just can’t go in into someone’s industry, and I became a hostess in a restaurant.”

Bell also inserts, a bit sneakily, a commentary about how society considers voices, male and female. “The message that omniscient voices are always male is an interesting conversation,” she said.

Meanwhile, she’s “plagued by women who have this affliction, this vocal virus, this ‘sexy baby’ vocal virus.” Bell hears this vocal trend everywhere, as women talk with an upward lilt — as if every statement is a question — that sounds submissive and degrading.

“I’ve literally not been able to hire someone when they have come in and had that voice,” Bell said. “I don’t want anyone representing me who has that.”

Exploring the egos of the voice-over industry also brings a nice symmetry to Bell’s character. “For a woman protagonist who’s trying to find her voice figuratively, I thought it was kind of a great thing for her to do it literally,” Bell said.

Making their own way in the industry • Bell’s is one of many female voices being heard this year at Sundance. Eight of the 16 directors in the U.S. Dramatic competition, for example, are women. Of course, women aren’t equally represented in the ranks of independent filmmakers, yet the numbers are higher here than in Hollywood at large.

According to a study released early this week by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film, women fill 29.8 percent of the top jobs on films (director, screenwriter, producer, cinematographer and editor) that played at the Sundance Film Festival from 2002 to 2012.

In the same jobs on the top 100 box-office films in that same decade, 4.4 percent of those spots are filled by women.

More than 43 percent of those surveyed in the study said that the biggest barrier to women filmmakers’ career development is that men by-and-large control financing.

“A lot of this boils down to money,” said Naomi Foner, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter whose directorial debut, “Very Good Girls,” premiered at this year’s Sundance. Since Hollywood’s emphasis is on the opening-weekend grosses, and the audiences on those weekends are dominated by teen boys, “they make movies for that audience,” Foner said. “It might be that women don’t go out to the movies because they can’t.”

Finding financing — and mentoring • Stacie Passon, director of the lesbian sex-worker drama “Concussion,” said she and her wife don’t get out to the movies often because they have kids.

“I’m a V.O.D. [video on-demand] person, every single night,” Passon said. “I mean every single night.” Passon’s movie was bought at Sundance by TWC/Radius, an arm of The Weinstein Company that employs video on-demand as part of its release strategy.

Getting money for a first film is difficult, said Eliza Hittman, who made her debut “It Felt Like Love” (playing in the Next program) on a shoestring. “There’s not a lot of people who are going to get behind your first project.”

For Utah’s own Jerusha Hess, making her directing debut at Sundance with the comedy “Austenland,” it helped to have the right woman in her corner: Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, who was the film’s producer. “She’s a name with money symbols beside it,” Hess said.

Another way to foster women filmmakers is mentoring, said writer-director Lynn Shelton, who premiered her latest film, “Touchy Feely,” at Sundance.

Female students have to be encouraged, Shelton said, “to say, ‘No, I do have a voice, and what I say is important.’ ”

Shelton and Bell said are looking forward to a day when no one makes a big deal about how many women filmmakers there are at Sundance.

“Sundance this year is kind of a ladies club,” Bell said. “But both genders are very excited to be here.”

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