By now it’s a sad but common story; young female directors denied the chance and opportunity to pursue their life’s ambition because they don’t fit the cookie-cutter image of what a “director” looks like. Bethany Ashton Wolf faced that struggle for more than 15 years, making shorts and hard to find indies (including the now notoriously unavailable Don’s Plum). All while trying to step into the ring and prove herself as a writer-director. Her first feature writing-directing job Little Chenier, filmed on the water in the sweltering Louisiana heat, received high praise and festival awards but didn’t find wide distribution. Her first studio film, Roadside’s Forever My Girl, is receiving a far larger distribution and is dramatically different in tone and structure from Little Chenier. A classic love story about fame and family, the film is based on the novel by Heidi McLaughlin, and stars John Benjamin Hickey, Alex Roe, Jessica Rothe, and newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson. We spoke hours after the premiere of her movie, a big moment for any filmmaker, especially one so long in the making.
Lesley Coffin: How did this project, the opportunity to adapt the book, first get into your hands?
Bethany Ashton Wolf: It’s interest to think about now, because I was just on the red carpet at the premiere with Heidi last night. And it feels kind of triumphed for us to be there, holding hands and embracing each other, especially with there being so few female directors in Hollywood. I felt so honored to be among those few working in the business. At the beginning, this was just going to be a writing assignment. I didn’t know Heidi and we’d never even met. It was handed to me by my agent. LD Entertainment had optioned the book and read a script of mine called ‘Other People’s Love Letters,” and based on that work they called my agents and asked me to read the book and come in to pitch my take on how to adapt it. I have so much respect for Heidi as a woman and novelist, but at the time this was just a writing assignment, and I could treat the book and screenplay as two very different things. LD Entertainment made it very clear that it needs to be lifted off the page and I should feel free to make changes which could open it up as a film. And I have to say how brave Heidi is to be willing to hand a stranger over your life’s work and trust them to make changes with your life’s work. I just hope people who loved the book will understand why changes were made and feel they can love the book AND the movie in different ways.
Lesley Coffin: When in the screenwriting process did the opportunity direct the film come about?
Bethany Ashton Wolf: I’ve always felt like a screenwriter-director, and I’d made the known from the moment I came to Hollywood, back when we were still at one percent of the directors. And many years later, we’re just at four percent. And early on I heard things about directing not being for me or “we haven’t seen a writer-director like you.” I was told I didn’t fit the mold. So that fueled me to produce my own shorts and eventually produce my first feature. So I’d been a working writer-director for a decade, but in the indie world, not at the studios. And it happened a couple of times where I’d get a screenwriting job, be attached to direct, and then the project would just stagnate for years. I needed to make a living, but I always felt like writing was the first half, like not directing something I wrote would be like cutting off my arm. They go together. But my team told me, “We know you are a filmmaker, but you need to see if you can work just as a writer. Don’t even tell them you want to direct, just go in as a screenwriter.” And I wanted to see how it would feel to be writing something I thought I wouldn’t be directing, and it was okay. That first script was other people’s love letters, which is still in development at CBS films, but there was a male director attached and I felt okay collaborating with him. And then I took five studio jobs as just a screenwriter, including this film. And suddenly the opportunity to direct came around. They saw my directing reel, were impressed, and asked me to come on board to direct. And that happened about six months into my being hired as a director. And that was exactly what my people thought would happen. It was the organic opportunity which came to me.
Lesley Coffin: When you were trying to break into the business, while making the short films, did you find mentors in the business who could help you get through the doors and vouch for you?
Bethany Ashton Wolf: Honestly, not really. It wasn’t just that I’m a female, it’s that I’m probably considered a very feminine female. I’m a lover, a gusher, a hugger, and pleaser. And it was very hard for people to think of me as an authority, as a leader. And the truth is, while it was probably more difficult to break in because I was a female, it wasn’t just men closing their doors to me. I’d walk into the room and could feel women dismissing me. People suggested I pull my hair back, put on glasses, dress quirky or wear a hat. Look more avant-garde and act colder. But I couldn’t do that, I’d be lying. As an artist, I have to stand in my own truth. You have to do that if you’re going to ask other artists to do that for you. So I was okay if that meant the journey would be longer. But I felt that they dismissed me because I didn’t look like most of the directors around. I felt like those old school ideas about what a director looks like had to break. And after Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker, the rooms changed for me. The dynamics in that room got way easier. And I really found my mentors, my two agents, Sheryl and Debbie. I’ve been working with them for the past five years. And they got the struggle, they understood who I was and they gave me the support I needed. They didn’t want to change me, and got on board for the long journey. They saw the big picture, and that support meant everything to me.
© Lesley Coffin (1/19/18) FF2 Media