“Women Stars Need to Put Their Money Where Their Mouth Is”: Allison Anders on Female Directors and the Indie Film Movement

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Trailblazing Women, TCM’s new series about the historical contributions of women working in the film industry, returns today with a segment focused on “Independent Classics.” The indie lineup is co-hosted by award-winning film and television director Allison Anders.

Her debut film Border Radio , co-written and directed with fellow UCLA grads Kurt Voss (who Anders worked with as a production assistant on Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas) and Dean Lent, painted a picture of the Los Angeles punk scene in the 1980s. Its cast included star Chris D. from The Flesh Eaters, Tex & the Horseheads frontwoman Texacala Jones, Dave Alvin of The Blasters, and John Doe of X fame. Shot on location, featuring cameos from punk landmarks like the Hong Kong Café and Disgraceland, Anders and company cut the film during nights in UCLA’s editing bays (against school policy) while her daughters slept on the floor. Border Radio has since been recognized as an influential chapter in the indie film movement.

Flavorwire spoke to Anders about the significance of TCM’s Trailblazing Women, finding your role models, and how women in the industry can take action against cinema’s gender divide.

Allison Anders, Photo by John Nowak/TCM

Flavorwire: You were part of TCM’s Family in the Movies series for the network’s 2014 Classic Film Festival. And now you’ll be discussing a few indie classics directed by women during the Trailblazing Women series. What do you hope viewers will take away from the series?

Allison Anders: I’m really excited for everybody to see these amazing movies, particularly since they’re very different from each other and [all] have a strong point of view. My hope is that people will realize that women were very much a part of creating the independent film movement. I really hope audiences recognize that, because I don’t think it’s always understood.

Do you have any favorite films or directors in the series?

The first film in the independent series is Wanda , which is absolutely extraordinary and was directed by the actress Barbara Loden, who is also the lead actress in the movie. She wrote and directed this film in 1970, so she didn’t have an independent film movement to support her. She was out there as a renegade on her own. It has a very complex female character — just exquisite filmmaking. In some ways it reminds me a lot of Two-Lane Blacktop , the Monte Hellman movie. It’s of that time.

The next film is one of my favorite films that I saw actually at the time it came out — Girlfriends , by Claudia Weill. It’s a very complex story of female friendship and of two young women who take different paths. It has some of the most amazing and beautiful camerawork, beautiful framing, and fantastic performances by Melanie Mayron, who is now a director herself. It’s another exquisite movie — funny, charming, and sexy.

After that is Martha Coolidge’s classic Valley Girl — an incredible, incredible film. And then you have Nancy Savoca’s totally muscular, amazing movie True Love . It’s an incredible film that also shows these male characters. It’s like watching a Barry Levinson movie from that time, or Martin Scorsese, even. It’s these characters in New York during the early ‘80s and really fantastic filmmaking. Then, there’s my film Border Radio . Each of these films really shows such a distinct voice, but also masterful filmmaking.

Allison Anders directing Fairuza Balk in ‘Gas, Food Lodging’

Let’s talk about Scorsese for a moment. I know that his film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore has a special place for you, because it was one of the only movies made about single moms that you referred to during the making of Gas Food Lodging . Your film portrays Brooke Adams’ character as a mother who is still exploring sex and sorting out her own life. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

That was absolutely a choice that I made. It was based on a book. There was also a script, but not much of that remained. One of the first things I did when I adapted it was to make it my own. In the book, the mother had three children. I thought that was too many. I gave her two kids, and I wanted to give her a sex life. She’s got such a rough time of it, a really tiring job as a waitress, which I had known something about. And she was a single mother, which I had known something about. So I thought, let’s give her a little bit of fun here — and, of course, more complications. To me, it just seemed like part of a woman’s life. But at the time, it was a big deal to put it in a movie.

It was a big deal. That’s why I was excited to see that Wanda was the first movie in the indie slate on TCM. Not only is it totally overlooked, but it also portrays unconventional motherhood. She abandons her family, she’s lost and confused. It’s not a portrait of a mother fighting for her children. It’s an honest portrait of a woman.

She is a very gorgeously, unsympathetic character. Her choices… nobody wants to think of themselves making those choices. And yet, we’re following her story, which is amazing. You’re right along with her, while she’s making those decisions. It’s an incredible film.

You have daughters. Did you experience a situation while they were growing up where you thought that their entertainment, films and TV shows, were lacking female role models?

No, because my daughters found their own role models. I don’t think you can find role models for other people. They have to find what speaks to them. Tiffany, my oldest daughter, when she was four years old she discovered the old Pippi Longstocking movies from Sweden. They played on channel 5, KTLA in Los Angeles. Those movies are extraordinary. She completely hooked into Pippi Longstocking — and Pippi Longstocking is probably the most empowered child in literature ever for girls. That wasn’t even somebody I knew anything about. She discovered it on her own, and I encouraged it. I threw her a Pippi Longstocking birthday party. She wanted them to play the movie so badly. I told her to write a letter. She wrote a letter to KTLA — and they not only programmed the movie again for her, but they also sent her a poster and a little 45 of the theme song that she still has. I made her a Pippi Longstocking doll. She didn’t like dolls, but that was one thing she wanted for Christmas. I managed to find this little redheaded doll at a thrift store and painted little freckles on her face. I put pipe cleaners through the hair and made the braids stick out. I sewed a dress — and I can’t even sew.

Yeah, she found that role model for herself. She’s continued to do that over the years. She’s a great champion for women musicians. She has a blog called Daughters of the Sun, which has all these unsung, pioneering female musicians on it. My other daughter [Devon Anders] found her own heroes as well. We find someone who speaks to us, and then you just run with it. I don’t think that girls are walking around devoid. If you find just one woman, then you’re good.

Allison Anders in Port Arthur, TX on the set of ‘Paris, Texas’

Wim Wenders was one of your mentors. The relationship started when you wrote him a letter and included a mixtape, which I thought was a really great story. I’m dying to know if you remember what songs you put on the cassette.

I think it was a lot of girl group stuff. That’s a lot of what I was listening to at the time. I’m almost certain there was a Shangri-Las song on there, if not several. I do believe I put some LA punk on there, because I remember that became a big deal for him. He was excited to have some LA punk that his friend Bill Weidner might not know. Bill was a real expert on LA punk.

You gave Wim some cred.

Yeah. [laughs]

What did you take away from your time working on Paris, Texas about filmmaking?

There was so much, I couldn’t even begin to use it all for years. Wim gave me the task and the privilege of running lines with Harry Dean Stanton [who played Travis in the film]. I was running lines with him and [co-star] Dean Stockwell one day. Harry didn’t know what was going through Travis’ head when he was not speaking. And I happened to have had a period of time in my life when I wasn’t speaking. I shared that with them. And Harry has since said that the take he used on Travis was from our conversations. I don’t think I ever knew before that — that my personal experience could be used to communicate with an actor and inform a performance.

‘Border Radio’

You made Border Radio after that experience. The blend of punk and noir is interesting. Noir has always been a genre for women dealing with personal trauma and a place to exert their independence or sexuality — similar to punk. How did you want audiences to feel for your character Lu [played by Luanna Anders, Allison’s sister], who is left by this guy to hold everything together while he wanders a beach and gets to clear his head?

Right. [laughs] It’s so indicative of my relationship at the time [with co-writer/co-director and musician Kurt Voss]. It shows up on the screen. There’s this constant tension around who the story is about. One the one hand it seems like it’s about Jeff, who is brooding on the beach. On the other hand, it’s really about her as well. It’s, again, trying to show a portrait of women making decisions that make sense for her. Originally the character had a sister that she communicated with quite a bit. But I don’t think her character suffers. I think audiences believe she’s a real person. She’s not just reacting.

‘Mi vida loca’

Mi vida loca embodies the blend of documentary and narrative that your movies are known for — often inspired by your personal history. Why is this style essential for you in telling the stories of women, and why was it important to tell the stories of non-white women?

With Mi vida loca, I happened to live in their neighborhood, in Echo Park. And so that was what was around me at the time. It would be a very different movie living in Echo Park now. [laughs] Most who were in my movie and lived in Echo Park are still there. Many of them are. I didn’t really look at it in terms of them being non-white. I looked at it in terms of me being white living in their neighborhood. The reason I did the voiceover was so it wasn’t my “voice.” The voiceovers, for me, helped them to tell their story. I didn’t make the movie without getting copious notes from the neighborhood, including the music, the clothes, everything. They were very, very involved. There were personal things for me, too. They related to me, too, because I had a very similar background. I was raised working class… actually, I wouldn’t even say working class, I would say poor. I was raised by a single mom, and a lot of them were raised by a single mom. I was a welfare mother myself. I knew what these young mothers were going through financially. There were a lot of similarities.

Madonna in ‘Four Rooms’

I just rewatched your Four Rooms segment with the witches, which is so great. You made the film during an interesting time — and I’m going to focus on Madonna, although there are several great actresses in that segment. You made the movie when Madonna was just getting deeper into her film career, with Evita soon to follow. And she was kind of switching gears creatively. People were questioning her and suggesting she had become too transgressive. Did this influence the way you portrayed her?

Interestingly, with Madonna, that call came from Harvey Weinstein [co-founder of Four Rooms distributor Miramax]. He wanted to work with her and asked if I wanted her in my “room.” I wanted her in my room, because that whole room, that whole segment, was about female archetypes of power. Each one of those women represents an archetype of female power that you would see in mythology. With Madonna, she was the holy grail. Madonna has gone through every archetype of female power. She’s been the mother, the whore, the virgin, and the mystic. At that point, she hadn’t done them all, but she was the mother lode of archetypes. To me, it was really gold. I don’t know that people necessarily got that from the segment, but that’s what it was. In fact, I think the whole movie is really about power.

People wrote it off, the whole movie, because it didn’t do what they wanted it to do or something. They didn’t want to see that as Quentin’s movie at that point [Quentin Tarantino, who directed the “Man from Hollywood” segment in the anthology]. They didn’t want to see any of us doing that movie. It was a weird time, when people actually wanted you to do what they wanted you to do. It was like, “Shut up. We’re trying shit out. We’re developing our voices. Leave us alone.” It wasn’t supposed to be for anyone else. It was for us. And then it got bigger. It was just friends working together, that’s what it was supposed to be.

Illeana Douglas and Allison Anders, Photo by John Nowak/TCM

You worked with Illeana Douglas on Grace of My Heart . Illeana is, of course, hosting the series. She recently spoke to me about working with women — collaboration and mentorship. Are there any women you’re hoping to work with creatively?

Illeana is such a tremendous host. Oh yeah. I mean… god, there’s so many actresses I’d love to work with. I consider Martha Coolidge something of a mentor to me. Certainly on Things Behind the Sun she was a mentor. I went to her when I made that movie, because her first movie was about her rape [ Not a Pretty Picture ]. And, of course, with Things Behind the Sun, I was talking about my own rape. I went to her for how she approached the material and that subject. Hers was even more biographical than mine was. Mine was very personal, and it’s got autobiographic elements. I shot it in the house where it happened to me. There are a lot of women I look up to so much. Even young women filmmakers, I’m astounded by their work.

I hear a lot of actresses these days lamenting about roles for women and saying that more women should be behind the camera. But when big stars say that and they haven’t worked with women directors, I wonder why they don’t demand a woman director. It’s really weird. I wish more journalists would point that out. Women stars, we know that they can decide. Big stars can have director approval. Why aren’t they sticking up for women directors and saying, “I want this woman. I want a woman to direct it”? Women stars need to put their money where their mouth is. They don’t have to hire me, but they should be demanding a woman director to direct them. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of bullshit — especially, if you look at their credits, which I have done with a couple of them and thought, “Well, that’s interesting. How about working with a woman director? Because you haven’t.” They need to put up or shut up.