Path of ‘Destruction’: From Film-Critic to Film-Maker

Amanda Mae Meyncke on Thursday, Aug. 30th

This week film journalist and filmmaker Amanda Mae Meyncke takes a look at the uphill battle women directors face in Hollywood through the lens of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women and her own personal experience. In the third of three parts, Meyncke shares her own experiences as a director. [Read the first part of this series here.]

I never wanted to direct. Like many women I loved movies from a young age yet rarely saw films that spoke to my experiences. Which is fine, not every action film or romantic comedy speaks directly to our own personal  experiences, but they often resonate because of some elements of truth that are shared by all stories.

I went to a small private university in Southern California that had a film program, and majored in film production, meeting the people who would eventually give me jobs or work for me in some capacity. While there, I made a few haphazard little experimental films using a point and shoot with some simple voice over. When I did direct something larger it was a short that wouldn’t wouldn’t have been possible without numerous connections from film school, from an entire 40 person crew who worked for free, to the access to our amazing actresses and my tireless producer.

While still in college I realized how hard it was to make movies and decided it was easier to write about them. I got lucky, someone took a chance on me, and I began to work as a critic and a journalist and see movies, conduct lots of interviews with filmmakers and actors. Some of those moments are good memories, such as smoking cigarettes on the balcony of the Four Seasons with Giovanni Ribisi talking about physics or having Gerard Butler wink at me across a crowded room.

In all that time, I only interviewed one female director, Lone Scherfig for An Education. Along with working as a journalist, I continued to work on short films, commercials and music videos as a production designer, wardrobe stylist, whatever needed doing. I went to Sundance every year and wrote about what I saw there. I only relay all of this because it was essential in making me want to direct.

Everything changed for me when I saw Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. It felt momentous, it spoke my language in a way no other film had, so precisely nailing the atmosphere of my experiences. Dunham as a director and performer was braver than I, wiling to expose both her body and her most indecent experiences. She’s taken a lot of heat but she’s just working with the tools she’s been given. “Privilege” gets thrown around a lot, I partially suspect, by people who don’t know how much hard work goes into writing and directing a feature, or really anything. Privilege is like starting ten steps up an enormous never-ending movie making staircase. Making things is incredibly hard, which is why there’s so many critics. It’s easy enough to tear something down, almost impossible to make something fresh, inventive and wonderful. I saw the film in November, went to Sundance in January and wrote the outline for my own short, Destruction Party there, and the majority of the screenplay in the following month. A producer friend agreed to produce the entire thing along with two amazing female producers, and we raised $8,000 through Kickstarter.

It wasn’t easy. The story had come easily, the script was never the problem. Everything else was difficult. I cut oral sex jokes and smoking from my script, and pages of dialogue. I kept some swearing but not as much as I wanted. It was still too long. I hemmed and hawed over the wardrobe, the locations, and stumbled my way through making a shot list with the cinematographer. One night at a bar with the man I was seeing, we stood outside as I spoke of my pre-production woes. He called it a, “once in a lifetime opportunity.” I stood there stunned before replying a bit too strongly that it was only the first of many.

Before that moment I didn’t know I felt that way.

My producer, so generous and understanding the majority of the time, endlessly giving and supportive, accused me at one point of becoming “emotional” when I asked that a certain member of the crew be fired before production began due to their incompetency. The moment stuck with me. I had presented my case calmly, reasonably, and time would demonstrate that I had been correct. The crew member was let go eventually. It was the only time in the process that I was sure would never have occurred if I was a man.

We had cast four incredible actresses, Lacey Chabert (Mean Girls), Amy Davidson (8 Simple Rules), Oona Mekas (The Future) and Vanessa Zima. Directing actors was difficult, I decided to forgo any lengthy rehearsals and had some stupid ideas about letting the scene unfold. Yeah, when you’re Sidney Lumet you can do that, kiddo, but not when it’s your first time out of the gate. On set it was hard for me to get what I wanted, I felt like there was too much to do, and trying to get them all on the same page as far as tone was difficult. I had written an intimate story about four best friends, and that doesn’t just gel by magic. I was constantly worried about time, about trying to get clear audio with planes flying overhead, with making sure we had proper coverage, the list goes on and on.

In post-production the difficulties continued, we couldn’t get the rights to the music I had wanted, so an entire beautiful montage had to be changed. The film had to be cut down time and again, and still came out too long. It badly needed color correction but we were running out of money and favors. Everything was eventually resolved, but with much difficulty.

The film premiered to a room of about 185 of my closest friends and complete strangers, if you’ve never had the opportunity to look out into a roomful of people who are all cheering you on, I hope you do someday. It melted my cynical heart. It was very well received, people laughed at the funny parts and teared up just a bit at the sad parts. It’s not a perfect movie, it’s too long still, and lacks some of the honesty and verve that Dunham manages to capture effortlessly. It’s still thoroughly me, four different women speaking my words in the way that I told them to.

The good that came from the film is easy enough to see, various writing and directing opportunities. In fact, I’m currently casting for my second short and writing several feature-length screenplays. Directing is odd because it’s such a difficult thing to practice out side of a few unique opportunities. So, with support from those I love, I will continue to create my own opportunities.

***

Amanda Mae Meyncke lives in Los Angeles, and writes about movies and ideas for a living.

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