Award-Winning Director Vanessa Parise On Diversity Initiatives & Gender Equality Behind The Camera

Natalie Portman made headline news when she announced “And here are the all-male nominees” for the Best Director category at this year’s Golden Globe Awards. Emma Stone similarly caused a stir when she stated, “These four men, and Greta Gerwig,” when announcing the nominees for Best Director at the Academy Awards. While some were mad that these women dared to call out Hollywood’s glaring problem, it’s more of an issue that the problem exists in the first place, wouldn’t you think?

And don’t for a second think female directors don’t exist in the same number, or equal in talent, to that of men. We have seen enough advocacy about the need for more women behind the camera over the past few years, and as a website dedicated to raising awareness about gender equality, we have published our fair share of articles, studies etc. Frankly, we are tired. But what does get us excited is getting to speak to the women who are out there in Hollywood hustling, doing the work, and showing the importance of the female gaze behind the camera.

One of these directors is Vanessa Parise, an award-winning filmmaker who was named one of the “Ten Female Directors Breaking Stereotypes” by SheKnows media. She has quickly made a name for herself in the entertainment industry, bringing unparalleled creativity and vision to every project she lends her eye to.

2018 is already shaping up to be a busy year for Vanessa. She directed ‘The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar’ for Lifetime which aired in early February.  Based off the book written by Simone Biles, the film follows Biles (played by Jeanté Godlock) through the sacrifices and hard work that led her to win 19 Olympic and World Championship medals and ultimately cemented her stake as one of the greatest gymnasts of all time. Vanessa directed from a script written by Kelly Fullerton. Vanessa’s work can also be seen in an upcoming episode of Tim Kring’s one-hour supernatural drama ‘Beyond’ for Freeform.

As someone who works in Hollywood everyday, Vanessa has plenty of perspective about what it’s like being a woman in the film industry. We got to speak to her about being a female director in the entertainment industry today, gender inequality in 2018, the challenges and triumphs of being a director in today’s climate, and more.

How did you first get into directing?

I come from an acting background. I grew up in NYC and then RI, and I started acting in theater from the time I was a kid. After college [at Harvard], I went to Circle in the Square Theater School Conservatory and then moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t like waiting around for auditions, so very quickly, I decided to start directing. I made my own first feature (starring Alyssa Milano, Sean Patrick Flannery, Talia Shire, and myself), and then a second one (starring Taryn Manning and myself). Those were my training ground for directing.

[Parise wrote/directed/produced both films, which won many awards on the festival circuit.]

Over the past few years we have seen a major focus on the need for more female directors in film & TV. How do you think this national conversation has helped directors like you?

So far, it hasn’t actually helped me. Yes, the conversation has shifted, which is great. More people are aware. But that talk hasn’t yet translated to action. After 2 features, 13 television movies, and 8 episodes of television, I’m still told – often – that I don’t have enough experienced to direct an episode of television. That makes no sense. It wouldn’t happen if I were a man. It does feel like we’re on the precipice of great change. That change means actually hiring more women and minorities. We are ready!

Do you have any thoughts on how to help make that change happen?

I think it will take men who have been working in the system for many years to agree this change is good, and want to help – even if it means giving up something. More and more forward-thinking, awesome men are starting to do this. I went to a talk recently where Viola Davis said, “If you want to make real change, it has to cost you something.” This really resonates for me.

Your recent project, ‘The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar’ just debuted on Lifetime to huge ratings. Congrats. Can you tell us what drew you to this story?

Thank you! I’ve had such fulfilling experiences working with these great women at Lifetime – Tia Maggini, Tonya Lopez, Lisa Hamilton Daly. I think I’ve now directed 7 or 8 television movies for them. So when I was told they were making a feature biopic about Simone Biles, I was immediately interested. Simone is not only insanely talented, but she’s such a courageous young woman. And I appreciate getting to take a movie from prep through shooting, and then editing, music, sound, VFX, color timing, all the way to delivery.

There are a number of major networks launching female director initiatives to get more women behind the camera on TV shows. What are your thoughts on this, and how can networks be more inclusive of women?

I did the inaugural year of Fox’s Global Diversity Initiative a few years ago. It was such a great opportunity to meet a group of kick-ass female directors. But none of us got an episodic directing job coming out of it. The women running the program were awesome, but everyone was still working out how to make the programs effective. Now many of the programs guarantee an episode, so that’s good. It’s gotta be more than a suggestion, but a requirement to hire outside the small known pool.

Tell us about directing an episode of Tim Kring’s ‘Beyond’ series. Your episode has a lot of action, which doesn’t seem typical for women directors. I thought you did an excellent job.

Thank you! I love directing action. And anything with a specific style, an original world. If there’s some humor and some shades of grey in the characters, even better. This show has excellent writing and EPs /cast/ crew, a streamlined organized production, supportive & smart network executives (Freeform). A lot of YES people. All of which allowed me the space to focus on directing.

Would you be interested in directing an action feature film?

Yes please, and thank you [laughs]. But seriously, most of my television movies have had a lot of action. I’d love to direct a movie like Wonder Woman. Or the Hunger Games. Salt. I hope we’ve proven that audiences want to see female-led action movies.

How does the discussion about female directors play a part in the wider conversation about gender equality today?

When we have only 3-5% female directors in studio features and 17% in episodic television, that’s clearly not gender equality. We’re a microcosm of the wider conversation – a clear and shocking example. Time’s Up everywhere on sexual harassment and abuse, and also on discrimination, condescension, and unequal hiring.

For those still not convinced, can you explain why more women behind the camera is not just about ticking a diversity box, but about counteracting the dominant male gaze?

Women offer a different perspective. As do minorities. I come from a Jewish-Columbian-Italian household. Every person brings something unique to her or his storytelling. If we want to tell a wide range of stories so everyone can find something to relate to, we need to have storytellers from every sector to make the stories original, truthful and real.

What would be your advice for up-and-coming directors trying to get over the Hollywood “boy’s club” hurdle in their careers?

DO IT. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Know the business is going to be tough. You have to work hard. But keep at it. Work harder. Because the creative part, the collaboration, the expression – the opportunity to be in the moment and trust your instincts and just completely go for it… that’s incredible. Plus, the world needs you!

What will you be working on in the near future?

Well, that depends how much change actually becomes action! I’m directing more episodes of television. And hopefully directing a pilot. And yes, I’d love to direct a large scale, female-led action film. Stay tuned!


Watch Vanessa in action in the video below, where she also talks about directing ‘Perfect High’.

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