Sheridan, Huston go to war in Birds – The challenges female filmmakers face post-Sundance

This image released by the Sundance Institute shows Tye Sheridan (left), and Alden Ehrenreich in a scene from ‘The Yellow Birds’, a film by Alexandre Moors. (AP)

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan 28, (AP): The cast and filmmakers behind “The Yellow Birds,” an adaption of Iraq vet Kevin Powers’ bestseller that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past week, wanted to show another side of war — that of the lost individual.

“At the moment things tend to glorify war,” said Jack Huston, who plays a sergeant. “It’s great to show a heroes story, but what it does is it makes people want to go and be a hero and it’s not always that simple. War is bleak, it’s tough, it’s brutal. People go home and don’t come back physically and mentally … I had no interest in making a war film. I wanted to make a film about the guys who go to war and what happens to them over there and what they bring back with them.”

Director Alexandre Moors said he, too, wanted to show what happens to “the guys that crack, the guys that run away.” His film, a follow-up to his poetic D.C. sniper film “Blue Caprice,” is a lyrical, sometimes surreal and often harrowing portrait of a few individuals during and after their service, tied up in the mysterious disappearance of one of their own.

Tye Sheridan, who plays a particularly sensitive 18-year-old enlistee, said that the haunting story “really opened my eyes to how damaging it can be to someone.”

“The Yellow Birds,” which does not yet have distribution, is mostly presented through the eyes of Bartles, played by Alden Ehrenreich, who couldn’t attend the Festival due to the production schedule for the “Young Han Solo” Star Wars spinoff.

“I hadn’t seen a contemporary war story told in this kind of tone from this kind of vantage point,” Ehrenreich said in a phone interview from London. To prepare, he and his cast mates read Powers’ novel and learned about the idea of moral injury in a boot camp with Dale Dye, famous for prepping actors on “Platoon.”

But the film is just as much about what happens at home as it is on the battlefield, embodied in the experience of a few of the soldiers’ mothers, played by Toni Collette and Jennifer Aniston, who also produced.

“One of the things that I think is special about the movie is that it really underlines the experience of parents, especially the mothers, whose kids are really young people going to war and it really puts an eye on the experience that these mothers go through,” said Ehrenreich, who was impressed that Aniston wanted to be part of it.

“She’s been America’s sweetheart for a long time and now she’s telling a very different story about America,” he said.

Gender equity in filmmaking must have looked pretty good to the women attending the Sundance Film Festival, which concludes this weekend in Park City, Utah. But for many female filmmakers, coming back down the mountain will mean a return to an industry where the opportunity divide remains far more glaring.


The statistics speak for themselves: At this year’s festival, 34 percent of films were directed by women. In the broader industry in 2016, however, women accounted for only seven percent of directors — down a full two percent from 2015.

“I keep wanting to believe that things have gotten better but according to this latest report, it’s gotten worse,” said director Karyn Kusama, who first came to Sundance in 2000 with “Girlfight” and is back as a part of the anthology horror film “XX.” “It’s definitely worth reminding people that despite incredibly more difficult odds than even their male counterparts have in this business, women repeatedly and routinely face consistent gender bias. I don’t want to believe that it’s true, but if you look at the numbers, it is shamefully true.”

In talking to some of the women at Sundance, no one’s experience has been exactly the same. For some, getting their first, second or third film made has been nothing but positive. For others, biases have revealed themselves in unexpected ways. But all wonder about that next step and whether the same faith will be placed in them as their male counterparts.

Gillian Robespierre made a splash with her feature debut “Obvious Child” in 2014, which eventually led to a production deal that gave her the freedom to be able to quit her day job and focus full time on writing and directing. Her newest film, “Landline,” was acquired by Amazon at this year’s fest shortly after it premiered.

For someone like Eliza Hittman, the trajectory has been a little different. Her first feature “It Felt Like Love” debuted at Sundance in 2013. With each new effort, she tries to push herself to move up another step on the ladder. She came first with a short, then “It Felt Like Love” played in the discovery section. Now, with “Beach Rats,” she’s in the official US Dramatic Competition.

Hittman continues to hold down a job as a professor to allow herself more freedom, but she’d also like to move up in budget and cast. She’s also seen some of her male peers progress faster, like her “It Felt Like Love” cinematographer Sean Porter. People often call her to ask about hiring Porter, who recently shot “20th Century Women.”

“It’s funny that people responded to the sensibility of that movie enough to hire him but nobody would in a way circle back to me,” said Hittman, who is only happy for Porter’s success.

A few first-time directors premiering films at the festival took it upon themselves to try to help be part of the change. Actress, writer, director and producer Zoe Lister-Jones for her film “Band-Aid” hired an all-female production crew.

“I felt that they only way to really affect change was to completely subvert the system, especially in departments where you just very, very rarely see women — in camera and grip and electric especially,” Lister-Jones said. “For me it was about creating opportunities for women who might have less experience.”

Lister-Jones sees herself as being incredibly fortunate, but also notices men getting more and bigger jobs after the festival than women. Colin Trevorrow’s ascent from the Sundance indie “Safety Not Guaranteed” to “Jurassic World” and now “Star Wars: Episode IX” is always cited as the primary example.

“You just don’t see women having the same opportunities or having the same amount of risk put on them,” Lister-Jones said.


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