Since graduating from NYU film school, Amy Goldstein has spent her career behind the camera directing everything from music videos (including Rod Stewart’s Downtown Train) to critically acclaimed shorts (Because the Dawn), award-winning features (East of A), a hip-hop musical (Check Under the Hood), and more.
After trying her hand at documentary filmmaking with 2014’s The Hooping Life, she found her next project in the form of British rocker Kate Nash, who first shot to fame in the MySpace era and now co-stars on Netflix’s hit series GLOW.
Joined by producer Anouchka van Riel, Goldstein sat down to talk about the resulting film — the frank, endearing, music-filled Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl — at the 5th annual Bentonville Film Festival.
Betsy Bozdech: Tell me a little bit about the movie.
Amy Goldstein: It’s a kind of rock-and-roll odyssey. We shot with Kate over four and a half years. The movie covers a decade, and it’s about a young musician who got famous very fast at 17. She did a platinum album and blew up on MySpace, and it’s the things she learns from that. She really actually hates being famous. She hates feeling objectified. The press writes very mean things about her weight and her pimples, and they work her really, really hard, and she starts to lose her love of making music. And so she puts together an all-girl band and makes a punk album. [Her label] drops her. And in the movie she has to learn how to be an independent artist because she really wants to stay true to the kind of work she wants to make, and she doesn’t want to feel objectified.
And she fights for girls. She has opening acts that you’ve never heard of that are all-girl bands. She creates a rock-and-roll school for girls and really teaches them to play music and to be empowered in the way that she does. She doesn’t want to be the only one out there. She’s presented by some amazing challenges that you don’t know whether she’ll overcome or not. And we weren’t sure we’d have a movie and that she’d continue to have a career, and she figures a way out that I think is possible for many people. And so it’s a really good tale for artists: “Here’s how you could remain independent and directly deal with your own audience and have a career that you believe in.” By the end of the film, she’s traveling the world. She also gets a job on the TV show “GLOW.” She makes a crazy audition tape during the movie. And it changes her, you know — she works out and gets muscles and meets all these really powerful girls, and it feels like a community and it’s really very, very important for her and gives her the confidence to also stand up for herself. But it also encourages girls — make crazy audition tapes! She doesn’t try to look like everybody or act like everybody, and she’s really herself. It’s a very likable character.
And Kate and I decided to do this movie out of our observation that most of the movies that were getting any attention about women in music were about women that died. And you had to have a very tragic life for anyone to care to make a movie about you, whether it’s Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin. They’re all women who we admire greatly, but why wasn’t it interesting enough to make a movie about them until they died? And it’s also like, “Young girls, you need to suffer in order to make art.” And Kate was committed to staying alive, no matter how hard the things that she was confronted with were. And they really were very painful and difficult, and she stayed clean and she fought for life. And it’s a film that’s full of life in that way. And Kate and I believe we succeeded — and Anouchka — in making a movie that kind of had a conversation with these other films. You can live a crazy, awesome artistic life and live.
Betsy Bozdech: This was obviously filmed over a long period of time. How did you know it was a movie?
Amy Goldstein: On all of our films, we give cameras to our subjects, and if they take to it, we have a movie because they’re getting us access to things — both their soul and to rooms we couldn’t get into. And Kate really took to it. So we knew we had a partner. The film opens with her kind of setting up the camera and making a song, and she was really game and there was an intimacy. But then also because we had a villain — and I can’t really give it away because it ruins the movie — but you know, we had a really good on-camera villain who she really had to take on to survive and get to make music. And that happened while we were shooting. But then again, we still didn’t have a movie until she figured out how to get out of the mess. Your hero has to figure a way out that surprises you. When you make docs, you can shoot for a really long time and you don’t have a movie. And so partly we were lucky.
Betsy Bozdech: What are your goals for the movie? As you said, to inspire young girls to send in audition tapes. What else?
Anouchka Van Riel: We try to make movies at the intersection of pop culture and social issues. We don’t like hitting people over the head with a message. And it’s very important there is impact produced, and that we try to change the world. I think we really try to build a great story and show people a great story that will inspire them. So if a movie inspires you to take action or to change your own life or to be more fearless, I think we achieved something. And it’s a documentary that’s built with a lot of momentum.
Amy Goldstein: I think that there’s something hybrid about this film. It really has a very, very strong story. We use Kate’s songs to tell the story, so we have musical numbers. We kind of leave the tradition of documentary filmmaking, both by Kate filming herself in a very personal way and by having these musical numbers. Often she’s still in them, but it’s getting — in a sometimes a humorous, sometimes painful way — into what’s happening to her, but kind of leaving behind what you think a documentary film is. And I’m very excited about films combining fiction elements with nonfiction.
Anouchka Van Riel: I think what we’ve seen on the festival circuit — we’ve done a bunch — is that it’s very inspirational to young girls, regardless of whether they want a career in music or not. They just see a woman who is very authentic and fighting for an authentic voice, and it’s not manufactured content. And to that point, in the music industry, you are aware of a lot of very powerful women — like Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry — but it’s a very uneven field. There was a USC Annenberg inclusion initiative to do a big study about movies last year. And they did a new study this year about the music industry, and it’s dismal. There are a lot of stats out there. One of them that always strikes me is that 9% of all Grammy nominees, between I think 2013 and 2018, are female. And you don’t think about that because you see big, powerful women out there. But the field is uneven across all areas of the music industry. Even at a concert, usually the audience is majority male. And in the film, the DJ who gave Kate her break talks about how he was surprised at the beginning by how young and how female her audience was. And when we were filming, oftentimes we saw a mother and her teenage daughter going to Kate’s concert, which was amazing.
Amy Goldstein: Kate is really the first artist who plays rock and roll and is female to have this huge female audience, and you see that in the movie, and it feels really great, and she gets women to come and stage dive, which is very empowering, and to rush the stage and become part of the show. I do think we’re having this conversation with these [musical] numbers. She’s made an announcement: Her new album will be produced by a woman. A woman has never won any of the music awards for producing. And so Kate has gotten some companies as sponsors, because women don’t have access to all the equipment. And I think that was really thoughtful of her. I think she noticed in the movie that all her producers are men — and her whole band is women. It’s a lot of work to find a woman producer, and it’s good she’s going to do that work.
We’re about to sign with a good platform, so I think our film will be accessible, and that’s only the beginning. And festivals are a way that you really interact with the audience, and it’s really great. We’re going to Sheffield in England, which is a big documentary one, right after this. And then we’re going to New Zealand. We’ve been invited to tons, and we’re going to as many as we can, because we don’t get that privilege of seeing it on a screen with an audience outside of festivals.
Betsy Bozdech: What do you think are some of the more difficult hurdles for female filmmakers to overcome?
Anouchka Van Riel: That’s how we started the movie, by the way! Within the second minute, we see Kate being interviewed, and a woman asks her, “what is the most difficult hurdle being in the music industry?”
Amy Goldstein: And she says “how long do you have?”
Betsy Bozdech: Yeah, that’s what I hear when I ask this question to female filmmakers.
Amy Goldstein: That’s partly why I made this. I had very early success. I went to graduate film school at NYU, I graduated number one, my film played at Toronto, I got a feature. I was very successful. But there is genuinely a glass ceiling. I don’t know if I just would’ve made any movie, no matter how offensive, maybe not. But if you care at all about what kind of stories you tell, there is a ceiling. Geena talked about it yesterday [at the filmmakers’ retreat] to us — it hasn’t gone up from 4% for four years or eight years or something. There is absolutely no good reason that I’m not making any movie I want to make, so it’s horrible. And having so many [female filmmakers] here at the festival, it’s like, “It’s so great that so many women are making documentaries.” But it’s because you don’t get paid, you know? That’s why women are making documentaries. I had a movie that got bought by someone, and it wasn’t brought out.
And my brother’s a film journalist, and he asked, “why don’t you make a documentary?” And I’m like, “I don’t know how!” But then we followed six hoopers for six years — it’s called The Hooping Life — and we met all these crazy people whose lives were so much better once they embraced the hoop. And I was like, “okay, I’ll make a movie.” And then these other movies just kept coming to us.
But it feels impossible to make a living as a filmmaker if you’re female. Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar and can’t get a job, you know? … My first agent asked me if I would go to meetings as a man. I would be disguised, and she felt she could get me really good work. But I couldn’t even find my way around. I’d never been to LA. I was so lost. I was like, “I don’t know if I can manage to find my way and pull that off, but you know, it’s a really good idea.”
Betsy Bozdech: Well that’s how female authors used to do it, right? Write under a pseudonym.
Amy Goldstein: Right. But that’s if I didn’t have to go to a meeting!
Betsy Bozdech: Or like “BlacKkKlansman.” You could make a movie about it!
Amy Goldstein: Absolutely! I was thinking of making that movie when I met Kate. But it’s painful for me to keep thinking about it, so making a movie about someone in the music business, I could still tell that story — and it’s a little more interesting to watch someone make a song than a movie. Watching filmmaking isn’t very interesting. But watching someone make a song is actually really, really interesting. I have a bunch of friends that have made movies about women in the movie business, and it just makes me so sad that I just don’t want to think about it all the time, and I’d rather make movies. But it’s a huge problem. It makes no logical sense. Women are probably in many ways better at making movies, and so why we’re being discriminated against in this way I haven’t a clue.
Betsy Bozdech: Have you seen any positive changes in the #MeToo era?
Amy Goldstein: I’m in an organization called Film Fatales. It’s all across the nation and in many other countries. It’s a volunteer organization created by women in the film business. It’s for people who’ve at least directed a feature. And the way we help each other and the way we’re organizing — I’m at this festival, I think, because of them. … And we organized, and it’s more like the ’60s. “What can I do for you? What can you do for me?” And I feel through them it may change. It’s the most hopeful I’ve ever felt.
Betsy Bozdech: That’s great. Is there a woman or a group of women that you think should have their story told on screen who haven’t yet?
Amy Goldstein: Oh my God! Hundreds! There’s 5,000 stories — and not just of women, but of people of every background that are invisible in cinema.
Anouchka Van Riel: Stories of underrepresentation and stories of power, too. Usually very powerful women have to take a very unusual path to get to where they get. Recently I saw an article about a woman who was the first captain of a cruise ship. And that’s a story I’d like to tell.
Amy Goldstein: There’s also a woman who’s a dictator of a country. I’d like to tell that story. I really just want to tell stories about the people that you don’t see on the screen. And we’re very committed. I mean, the hula hoopers weren’t getting a lot of attention.
Anouchka Van Riel: And it’s a subculture started mainly by women.
Amy Goldstein: It’s really the first kind of hip underground subculture jump started by women. And they really became entrepreneurs, and they make a living. We found someone in South Africa who uses fire hoops to help people that have been sexually abused. Very surprising things.
Betsy Bozdech: Do you read female film critics? How do you think their perspectives differ from those of men?
Amy Goldstein: They’re just better, man. I think that they’re noticing things in movies that often go unnoticed. I think that they’re heralding the stories that people are paying attention to. I think they’re funnier. I think they have a broader vision. Not even intentionally. I don’t know if you’ve seen [What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael]. We saw it at the last film festival. The movie’s crazy. In undergraduate school, I totally studied Pauline Kael. Yeah. There’s not enough [female critics]. I think only women should review movies, actually.
Betsy Bozdech: The one book of film criticism I remember having in the house growing up was Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies. So I’ve known her name since well before I knew I was going to end up doing this. Maybe that’s what inspired it all! Who knows? Who are your favorite female filmmakers besides yourself?
Amy Goldstein: I’m close with Agnieszka Holland. Getting to watch her work closely — she’s amazing. And I’ve gotten to go on shoots and in the editing room with her, and she’s kind of a mentor to me, so she’s definitely the closest person that I know. But Kathryn Bigelow — I love all her movies. Who’s your favorite?
Betsy Bozdech: I really liked the Be Natural movie. I just saw that a few weeks ago and wrote about it for AWFJ. That’s been in my head ever sense. And I just watched Charlie Says, Mary Harron’s latest, and that was creepy but good. For the AWFJ, I’m watching more than one a week, every week, to find our Movie of the Week features, and so I see almost all the small, femme-centric movies that are available.
Amy Goldstein: We’re really proud of this film. And I think it’s not a film just for young women. On the festival circuit, most of the audiences are retired, and we’re really thrilled how much it’s resonated with them. I haven’t seen the audiences here yet.
Betsy Bozdech: I’ve been here twice before, and in my experience they’re very receptive and they eat it up. I’ve been to several film festivals, but the positive vibe around this one, even though it’s smaller, the whole mission of inclusion and diversity I think is really great.
Amy Goldstein: They did a retreat the last two days, so lots of people came, and talked to us and it created a very, very warm feeling between filmmakers.
Betsy Bozdech conducted this interview at the 2019 Bentonville Film Festival, and it was first published on AWFJ.org in May, 2019.