Naomi McDougall Jones
Home state: Colorado
Currently based in: East Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY
On how she got interested in filmmaking:
I've been a compulsive storyteller [for] as long as I can remember. I made my first film when I was in middle school, having browbeaten my siblings and some neighborhood kids into participating. It was a fairly trippy, time-traveling, universe-jumping affair.
My medium for wanting to tell stories professionally has transmuted from being a ballerina (elementary and middle school), musical theater actress (high school), theater actress (college and the first several years beyond), to getting frustrated by the lack of roles available for women and starting to write plays. Those [plays] started getting produced in New York (sometimes by me, sometimes by other people). Then I realized that making theater in New York generally limits your artistic conversation to a pretty small and specific audience, so I [became] captivated by the idea of writing and making a film where I [could] expand that artistic conversation to audiences around the world.
I don't think I'd fully committed to the idea of myself as a filmmaker until I was riding home on the subway after the first day of filming on my first feature, Imagine I'm Beautiful (which I wrote, acted in, and was a producer on). I vividly remember sitting there, grinning like an idiot, and thinking, “Oh yeah. That's it. That's what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
On the making of Imagine I'm Beautiful:
The idea [for the film] came [about] because two close friends of mine had (separately) gotten out of relationships with people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) within a six month period. As those relationships unraveled, they began to tell me about things that had been going on inside them. I was floored— not only by the shocking nature of the things instigated by these mentally unwell people, but the degree to which my friends who were mentally stable had agreed to and gone along with them. It revealed something to me about the nature of interacting with people with mental illness in real life versus how you normally see [mental illness] portrayed in films.
In a film, the audience is normally “told” shortly after meeting a mentally ill character—either by creepy music or weird lighting or observing secretive, weird behavior—that that character is “crazy.” The audience, then, instantly separates from them and subtly feels like, “Oh, they're not like me” or “I'd never go along with that.” But, of course, real life isn't like that...In real life, you meet someone and assume they're operating under logical parameters and, because of that, you really can fall down the rabbit hole with a person and into their mental illness before you realize anything is going on. Your own sense of logic and reality just gets very slowly and subtly shifted underneath you until you suddenly discover that you're upside down. I was interested in seeing if we, as filmmakers, could do that to an audience. If we just introduced them to a set of characters with no indication that one of them was “ill” or “untrustworthy,” how long could we get the audience to stay on her side?
The idea that we were going to make a film at all happened because Caitlin Gold (a fellow actress with whom I had [attended] the American Academy of Dramatic Arts) and I had concocted this plan to write and produce a web series in order to get our SAG cards….We realized how much of filmmaking just comes down to being intensely organized and disciplined, which we both are. As actresses, we'd been on so many sets that were poorly run—where the script wasn't very good or the director didn't know how to talk to actors—and experienced how utterly frustrating it is to be hired as an actor and to have no control over the quality (or content) of the projects you're working on. The experience of doing that web series completely de-mystified the filmmaking process for us, and we both thought, “Well, god, we can do this!” We didn't know that we shouldn't have been able to pull it off, so we just did.
On her second feature, Bite Me:
This one’s a subversive romantic comedy about the real-life subculture of people who believe that they're vampires—and the IRS agent who audits them. We are set to go into production on Bite Me later this year. As with Imagine I'm Beautiful, I wrote the screenplay, serve as a producer on the film, and will star in it.
(Editor’s Note: You can sign up for news about the film here. Naomi’s also giving an in-depth, brutally honest window into the process of making a film above the micro-budget level through week-by-week, live updates and interviews on her podcast, Fear(ful)less: Filmmaking From the Edge, which is available on iTunes and GooglePlay.)
Her advice to fellow filmmakers:
I think it is vitally important that we acknowledge to women entering the industry that there are deeply entrenched biases against female filmmakers and their stories. Young female filmmakers need to understand that there are large, systemic roadblocks, as well as a constellation of small, everyday, unconscious biases on the part of the decision-makers that will add up to the reality that they will have to work harder and be better than their male colleagues to have their careers progress half as quickly.
Today, in 2017: women direct only 18% of even micro-budget films, 12% of films in the $1-5M budget range, and a measly 5% of all studio films.
It’s important that aspiring female filmmakers understand that, because, otherwise, they will work so hard and so well and still watch their male colleagues careers move faster. As a result, they will quietly begin to internalize the idea on a personal level that it must because they themselves are not talented enough or their stories are not interesting.
On how the film industry is changing:
Unfortunately, despite the phenomenal amount of conversations, panels, and articles that have happened over the last three years or so (only the most recent phase of this battle), the industry has shown almost no movement in the actual number of women being hired. There have been a lot of gestural PR moves... but in terms of the actual number of women being hired to write and direct, the numbers have gotten worse than they were 3 years ago. I'm worried that people are beginning to get tired of having the conversation (I feel you. I'm getting tired of having the conversation) and that the conversation will go dormant again without anything really changing at all. Now is the most important time to push harder than we've ever pushed to force real and lasting change.
The good news is that there’s a small but mighty number of women (and men) at various levels of the industry committed to doing the work. A few weekends ago, I attended the Women's Media Summit in Provincetown, MA, which was a gathering of the minds on this subject. We spent the days hashing out an action plan for what will have to happen in order for real change to follow. You can read a summary of that weekend here, and there will also be a paper published in the summer outlining the action steps proposed by the summit.
On the the directors that inspire her:
Ava DuVernay constantly takes my breath away. Not only did she brilliantly and strategically storm the bastille for herself—first by gathering a massive network of contacts within the industry by working in publicity, and then by making one after another brilliant indie film on a shoestring budget until they finally let her in to play in the big time. She has also remained blatantly outspoken the entire time about the biases and injustices exhibited toward women and people of color in this industry. Most importantly, as she has gained power, she has wielded it like a sword to make sure that she gives opportunities to other women and people of color behind her. I hope to live my life by her example.
On the book that stuck with her:
I read Jane Eyre for the first time in the 5th grade and I absolutely couldn't put it down until I finished it. (I remember even reading it in the hallways as I was walking between classes.) I identified so deeply with poor, plain, awkward, loner Jane. Reading it felt like being understood at a time in my life when I was not. That experience solidified for me the importance of stories: a little girl in the 1990s in Colorado, reading a book written by a woman in the 1860s in England, and suddenly feeling less alone. That is nothing short of magic.
On who she would like to share a meal with:
Realistically, Ava DuVernay, but more obtusely, Queen Elizabeth I. She must have been a helluva woman to stay in power the way she did at that time, and I would love the chance to try, even for an hour, to understand how that kind of fierceness exists on a practical level in a human being.
On her new fund supporting women in film:
There is absolutely no question that women have a harder time financing their films than men do. One of the most important steps we need to take in order to finally (finally) move the dial toward having 51% female directors (ya know, to reflect the fact that we are 51% of the general population) is to help them get access to financing to make their films.
I can't talk too much yet about this fund, which will be launching officially late this year/early next, but if you go to our website, you can sign up for Filmmaker Updates to receive all of the latest information as it’s released. It is a hell of a lot of work, but a great privilege to be part of trying to make women's stories equally heard. ★
Imagine I'm Beautiful is available to watch on iTunes, Amazon, and GooglePlay.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.