Director Ani Simon-Kennedy — a veteran of commercial shoots and socially conscious projects — screened her second narrative feature, The Short History of the Long Road, at this year’s Bentonville Film Festival after premiering it at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Her first feature, Days of Gray, played at festivals around the world; she has received support from the Sundance Institute, The Tribeca Film Institute, IFP, Film Independent, Chanel and AT&T. Accompanied by producer Kishori Rajan, Simon-Kennedy — who’s based in New York, where she and her producing partner Caitlin Yasko run Bicephaly Pictures — talked to the AWFJ about her film, a road movie starring Sabrina Carpenter and Danny Trejo, and female filmmakers.
Betsy Bozdech: Tell me a little bit about the movie.
Ani Simon-Kennedy: It’s a road trip movie about Nola, who’s a teenager who was raised living out of a van by her father, Clint. And it’s always just been the two of them against the world — two nomads crossing the states — until tragedy strikes, and she’s cast out on her own. And she sets off to meet her mom, who left when she was a child.
BB: What was the inspiration for the film?
ASK: I really wanted to see road trip movies that had a female lead. I feel like there are so many examples in film and in literature of a man striking out and finding adventure and going off and exploring solo, and the versions of those stories that have women at the center of them tend not to end well for the women. And I wanted to see a story about a woman who chose the road and lived to tell the tale and thrived. And then I discovered the subculture of van dwelling — of people moving into their vans and turning them into tiny homes — and I realized that would be a very contemporary backdrop for Nola’s story.
BB: What are your goals for the film?
ASK: Currently? Finding a distributor. In the long term, I think just encouraging more people in general — and especially women — to explore the road less traveled and hit the road and have less fear around traveling solo.
BB: Hopefully things are changing a little bit in that direction after #MeToo. And in filmmaking, too. Do you see that?
ASK: Definitely. Caitlin and I have a production company together. We started Bicephaly Pictures seven years ago so that we could kind of keep the lights on and keep working together and honing our craft and stay independent. And then we bring on amazing producers like Kishori. And so a lot of what we’ve learned to do is to just create our own work and not wait for permission. This is our second feature, and we’ve built a model for ourselves that’s very sustainable because it’s very self contained. And I think a lot of the work that we wind up doing, especially on the commercial side, tends to be very cost driven. And we do a lot of campaigns with companies that are around social change and around women especially. And I think that’s been something that, we didn’t choose it, necessarily, but we’re very happy that the work found us. And it’s been a great time to be a filmmaker.
BB: On the flip side, are there any particular hurdles for female filmmakers to overcome?
ASK: Financing. I think it’s a hurdle for everybody. And in our case specifically, there was a big sense from a lot of production companies and financiers of, “Oh, there was a road movie by a female director with a female lead 10 years ago. So we did that already.” And meanwhile we get another action movie in, like, 30 seconds. … So that’s been a source of frustration for sure.
Kishori Rajan: One thing I want to add that I feel like isn’t discussed enough is that the landscape of moviemaking and distribution is changing so much, and there’s so much conversation about that. But what actually hasn’t shifted at all is how people hear about movies, and art forward independent movies that are festival based before distribution are primarily driven, as they have for the past 20 years, by critical review. And I do think there is a sense of “discovery of a career” that’s more firmly planted with emerging male filmmakers that isn’t in place with emerging female filmmakers. And from the lack of diversity, even within the critical world, there’s an inherent bias that’s really hard to overcome. … I think the big discrepancy is when you see who makes their second and third and fourth movie versus who doesn’t.
BB: Do you seek out or read female film critics? If so, where do you find them?
ASK: Yes! A lot of it is, honestly, with a lot of the publications that we read, reading the bylines. You start to see certain voices championing certain kinds of films and just shining the light on films that wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be getting a lot of traction. And I think that’s a big part of having a healthy ecosystem of filmmaking. Making a movie is hard, but getting it seen is even harder. And I think critics play such a huge, important part in that.
BB: How do you see female film critics’ perspectives differing from the men?
KR: It’s a complicated question, because I think the idea of gender perspective is a trained thing more than a biological thing. But let’s assume we all have certain gender constraints. I think it’s the patience for a more meandering or subtle female lead, or a more unorthodox or non-normative perspective that females are less phased by inherently. So just by knowing yourself, knowing your mother, knowing your sister, there is a sense of knowing that it’s unremarkable — in a positive way! — that someone could do this. I have done other movies with female directors where there is a “But why? Why not more? Why not this? Why not something more dramatic?” Like there’s just a certain narrative training that has happened through our culture of how women should react to something. And I think female critics inherently have more patience with things that don’t adhere to that. And I think that’s incredibly formative in terms of how we understand that.
ASK: There is no monolith of the male critic versus the female critic. But I think a lot of the female critics that we read and that we love have both that sense of patience, but also wanting to dig deeper, past a lot of the more obvious themes that are more on the surface. Because we’re women, and typically we’ve only ever been women. We’ve never known what it’s like to be on the other side. And so it’s a given that it’s easier to get past the question of “why a female lead?” And “why is this story important?” So you’re able to move past that to just “what is the story about?” and the sort of questions that get offered more quickly to male filmmakers when it’s a male lead.
KR: My last point is, I think one thing that’s happened recently that I still don’t view as real progress — and it’s often from a male director’s point of view or male critics championing this — is female protagonists who are “breaking the mold” by doing things that men value as physical accomplishments being seen as “this is a sign of we’re on equal playing fields.” And for me, the real victory is not that women and men both get to be superheroes. It’s that, why are we viewing this as strength, and why are we still viewing everything from that male gaze of this is important, this is impressive? We don’t value what we as a culture have viewed as soft skills as being powerful. And that for me is the real glass ceiling to break. Great, let’s have more women kicking ass. But why do we value that so much in a physical sense? The fact that we’re still valuing physical strength as the best thing to achieve is still viewing things through a male perspective. And I think female critics can help shape that.
ASK: And on the directing side as well, there’s the sense that “bigger is always better,” and your next movie needs to have a bigger budget and you constantly should be striving for a bigger canvas. And I think there has been this trend that has emerged of smaller indie male directors making their first movie and then they’re directing the next Marvel, they’re directing the next Star Wars. And there’s this sense of “what an amazing accomplishment!” And I think it’s important that female directors be given the same opportunities, but also recognizing that that paradigm of “bigger is better, and everyone in their heart of hearts wants to be directing this enormous action movie” comes from a very male-driven system.
BB: Do you have a favorite female filmmaker, besides yourself?
ASK: It’s just an endless list. This film in particular definitely owes a debt of gratitude to Kelly Reichardt and to Agnes Varda. And there are just so many filmmakers working right now whose movies I love. Like Lulu Wang and Chloe Zhao. And Rebecca Miller — the first set I ever worked on was The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. And then I worked on Julie Taymor’s The Tempest.. And so for me, it’s like I only ever see female directors running the show. I grew up hearing about Alice Guy-Blache, who was the first female director.
BB: Did you see the documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché?
ASK: That’s my mom’s movie! She’s here right now.
BB: Oh! We just covered it a couple of weeks ago for the AWFJ.
ASK: Amazing! She’s the co-writer and one of the executive producers — she has spent most of her life researching Alice. And I think it absolutely shaped my trajectory, because even though Alice Guy-Blache is not a household name, she was in my household. I learned about Méliès and the Lumiere brothers and Alice, and they were all on equal footing. And there wasn’t a sense of the sort of Christopher Columbus thing of “we discovered the first!” She was always there — which I recognize more and more how unique that was. And my mom was a curator at the Whitney and restored a lot of her early films, which resulted in a show and a book. And that’s what led the director, Pamela Green, to find her. And then they’ve spent the last seven years making this documentary that’s now in theaters. Go see it!