Claudia Weill on Directing Theatre, Film, and Television
Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Marisa Chafetz
May 30th, 2018
Susan and Anne are roommates and best friends. Anne gets married and has a baby. Susan pursues a career as a photographer. The changing dynamics of adulthood slowly erode their relationship with each other, and in turn, with themselves. This is the 1978 film Girlfriends, which was a precursor to the female friendship narratives of the ‘90s and aughts. At the time of its release it not only put a female story front and center, but also touched on normalizing abortion and had an overtly Jewish female protagonist (a taboo which had only been broken by Barbra Streisand a decade prior)—and it was created and directed by a woman: Claudia Weill. It was her first narrative film and would be one of the 82 films by women to compete at Cannes. Claudia made one more film and, along with Elaine May, became just the third and fourth female directors admitted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the other two are Dorothy Arzner, who directed her last film in 1943, and Ida Lupino, who directed her last film in 1966). By the mid-80s, Claudia had moved into directing television and theatre. Currently, she is directing the new play BUMP at EST. I recently spoke with her about the differences between directing theatre, film, and TV; the difficulties of being a female director in ‘70s and ‘80s Hollywood; and what she feels people get wrong about that era.
You’ve been working on Bump for a while. Can you talk a little bit about the development process?
Chiara [Atik] got a Sloan Foundation grant to do a play based on the device that the play is about, the birthing device. The project was originally called Midwife Mechanic. I came aboard when it became a Youngblood brunch play at EST. We did a short play for Youngblood brunch and then when EST decided they really wanted to develop it, Chiara asked me to work with her on it. We’ve done various workshops and gone up to the SPACE at Ryder Farm with a cast.
Chiara’s very smart and very fast in the room, and very confident. She knows what she likes and what she doesn’t like. She’s also very, very open to, “I’m stuck, I don’t know what should happen here, I don’t know what this is about.” She’s very collaborative, too. It’s great to work with someone who’s very grounded and confident, but also very open. You know you’re not going to sway her to something that’s not what she wants, which is the best thing in the world. It allows you to be very free and say whatever you want.
You’ve worked a lot in film and TV. Do you find that you have to get your brain to switch around back to theatre because it is a different means of storytelling?
Yes, I love moving between the three mediums. I love the different relationship you have to a writer or to a producer as a director in the three mediums. What’s always interested me is how to tell a story. How do you go about telling a story? How do you find the emotional heart of it? How do you give it that heartbeat that makes it real and vital, and at the same time find the humor in it, and come at it obliquely. Finding how each story needs to be told differently. I think you collaborate differently in each medium. But the collaboration itself is what’s interesting—the synergy between two people that produces something.
If you had to boil it down for each medium in terms of, “This is how this is different from this one, this one, or this one,” in terms of the way you tell the story, do you have some key things?
Well with film, obviously, you’re dealing in a much more visual medium. You need a lot less dialogue. In the editing process, you often find yourself taking away half the dialogue. It’s even less than you needed. You also discover in editing that you need a lot less exposition than you’d think you do. The story is alive. You can jump right into it. You don’t need to explain. In my first film Girlfriends when we started shooting the film, there were scenes and scenes and scenes about how Susan and Anne had met in college, and then they decided to become roommates, and blah blah blah. It was half an hour of film that ended up boiled down to seven minutes, which is Susan and Anne living together, Anne decides to get married, and ends with a wedding, seven minutes into the film. So much storytelling you thought was vital turns out not to be vital. If you believe two people are in a room talking to each other are roommates, you don’t need to know exactly when they met, who was in art school, and who wasn’t. It has that immediacy.
It’s not that theatre needs more exposition; I don’t think it does. It’s a different way of crafting a story in theatre. You’re working with a different palette. You’re working with a different set of tools. You’re working much more in the realm of imagination and how many different stories can layer into one space. That’s kind of the challenge there.
They recently showed Girlfriends at BAM. You directed it, produced it, and have a story credit. Can you tell me a little about how you made the movie?
I’d been making documentaries for years. I was a camerawoman—I’d shoot them, edit them. I spent years following people around, hoping, waiting for them to say what I wanted them to say. Then months in the editing room manipulating what they had said into what I’d thought, creating a story out of it. It occurred to me that I wanted to do a fiction film—I never thought of it as a feature film. I applied for a grant from the AFI. On the basis of that, I hired [screenwriter] Vicki Polon. The story was loosely based off my own experience, which was that literally everybody I knew was getting married—all my sisters and my friends. Each time you’d be really close to someone and then they’d get married and all of a sudden they disappear from your life. It was also loosely based on my experience of trying to find myself as an artist in New York and dealing with everything that one deals with.
So Vicki wrote a beautiful 30-minute film, which ended up in the first seven minutes. We shot it with money from that AFI grant. And then it became very clear that we wanted to know what happened to Susan after Anne got married. It’s like, “Oh, I’m interested in these people, I want to see what happens next.” I kept applying for more grants, and got like $20,000 from New York State Council for the Arts, and $50,000 from a bicentennial film grant. This was in 1976. Then, I raised a little money privately. Vicki just kept writing the full script, and then we started filming again, like a year or so later, continuing with the same story.
It took us a few years to make the film. We kept running out of money, kept having to start and stop again, not enough money to edit, not enough money to pay basic things, like SAG minimum. I didn’t have a lawyer or anybody, so I’d go to SAG and talk to them about it and say, “Look, I can’t pay it, what can we do?” This was before independent film was really happening in New York, so there weren’t a lot of precedents for this. I said, “What if I pay, 50 percent of SAG minimum, and then if I sell the film, I’ll pay an additional 100 percent.” So I’d go to the different unions and make deals like that, so that we could use SAG members, and use really good actors.
The whole process took a lot of time. By the time I finished it, the first screening was in Rotterdam, at an avant-garde film festival that had invited it. By that time, I had been working on this film for so long, it was kind of like an albatross around my neck. People would say, “You still working on that film?” Around that time, answering machines were invented. I got an answering machine so I didn’t have to talk to people.
When it screened at Rotterdam, I was in the audience and people were laughing like crazy. I was completely confused, I thought they didn’t understand English or something was wrong, because I had forgotten that it was a comedy. It had become such an albatross to me that I lost my own understanding of the film. It was a great gift that that audience gave me back, which is like, “Oh yeah, right. This is a comedy, that’s what I was making.”
Based on that, I went to Cannes to screen it to the Cannes Film Festival, and they accepted it. Then, I came back here, still owing tons of money to tons of people, and showed it to the distributors in New York, and nobody wanted it. So I went to L.A., where I’d never been before. Again, I didn’t have a lawyer, I didn’t have any representation, I didn’t know people in studios. I literally checked into a hotel and looked up MGM and Warner Brothers in the phone book. I would call the big number and ask, “Who’s in charge here?” I didn’t even know what to ask. They’d say, “Production or distribution?” So I’d say, “Distribution.” Then I’d get somebody from distribution and I’d say, “I made this little independent movie, and it’s been accepted at Cannes, and it just screen at Rotterdam, and would you be interested in seeing it?” Within a week, it would go from the lowest level person in distribution to the head of the studio. It would get screened up. Within about ten days, there was a bidding war between three studios for the movie. That’s how it got sold. I was luckily then able to pay everybody. I mean it didn’t sell for a lot of money, don’t let me misrepresent this, but at least it got out there. It sold to Warner Brothers and they did a really nice job releasing it worldwide. It gave me the opportunity to make another feature, so that was great.
In the last few years, the film has had a bit of a resurgence. How does that feel for you? Does it feel at all like, “Where’s everybody been for the last…”
What feels really good is that it still seems to be relevant. That the story doesn’t feel dated, and that the emotional heart of the film still feels relevant even though it’s so many years later. I think there’s also a certain curiosity because it was from a different era, when [New York City] was pre-Soho. But mostly it’s very gratifying that the emotional heart of the film is something people still identify with. That’s great.
You went on to make another movie and direct TV, but do you feel like if you were a man…
I would have directed more features?
Yes. Do you think things would have been different?
I think it’s possible that things would have been different. There were many factors. Making Girlfriends was a completely original experience because it was like making a film with all our friends and just trying to figure out how to do it. Getting people to do stuff for you for a very little or for free or favors is the kind of thing you can’t really ask a second time. Making a film in Hollywood, particularly in the early ’80s, was a very #MeToo kind of experience. I was working for Ray Stark who was known to be an incredibly difficult man, anyway. And myself and Elaine May were the first women around directing since Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino.
The idea of a young woman, particularly one who was, at the time, attractive, being the boss of all these guys on a set—because the director is really “the boss” on a set—was very challenging for people. Consciously or unconsciously, there were many efforts to undermine my authority. So it was not an experience that was altogether pleasant. I’ve never been a careerist, it wasn’t like, “I’m going to make 100 feature films and that’s what I have to do.” I approach things more like an artist. What’s always interesting to me is telling the story. If it was going to be so hard to do it in Hollywood, I wasn’t about to put myself through that again. It was too abusive and too difficult.
I came back and started doing a lot of theatre here in New York, early plays by Donald Margulies. I brought his first play to Joe Papp and we did it at The Public and then a second play at the Manhattan Theatre Club. There were all these great new young playwrights. It was fantastic to work in a world where it was just a writer and actors and the theatre and that was it. It wasn’t like “the studio” and movie stars and all that stuff. And it felt much more creative and much more pleasurable.
Then I got into TV, and that was really—that was a very exciting time because it was the time of Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. All of a sudden, there were these wonderful writers and there was much more interesting work happening in TV than there was in features. And it was much easier, also, to just go to work. By then, I had also gotten married and had two small boys, so I was much less interested in having to have an albatross around my neck for several years. I didn’t want to fight the kind of fight you have to fight if you’re going to go out there and do that. It just didn’t interest me. Now, if I’d been a guy, I can’t answer it. If my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a trolley car. It’s like, would it have bothered me less? Would I have been more ambitious? It wouldn’t have happened to me if I’d been a guy.
20 years ago or something like that, when Julianna Margulies was leaving ER, there was a big uproar because NBC had offered her a humongous amount of money to stay. And people were like, “Oh, that would have made you the highest paid woman on TV. It would’ve been such a win for women. How dare you walk away?” When it was just you and Elaine May, did you feel anything like that? That kind of pressure?
I didn’t. I tend to have blinders on. I think it’s the only way, particularly in films. It’s like being a thoroughbred, you wear blinders because you have to keep looking straight ahead. You can’t be looking at what is this person thinking? What is this person thinking? What is this person thinking? If you do, you won’t focus on your story, on the thing you’re doing, the thing you’re making. So I wasn’t particularly self-conscious about that. I didn’t feel like I was God’s gift to women. I got a lot of publicity because of being one of the first women directing in hundreds of years. I was glad for that because it allowed me to keep working.
When I started directing television, there weren’t women directing television either. Although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I was breaking frontiers there too.
Throughout all that, did you feel like you had people to talk about your experience?
No, no. There certainly weren’t any role models. Elaine and I were in very different worlds. She was really part of L.A. and I came back to New York. I really didn’t know who to talk to. I didn’t even understand what was going on well enough to even talk about it. You sort of accepted that you were treated like that, it was just the reality that you weren’t taken seriously and that you were treated like a chick. You have to figure out how to maneuver around that and keep making your movie. It was a lot of obstacles to doing the work, but if you focused on it and you reacted each time somebody said something or did something, you wouldn’t have the energy left to do the work.
Going back to one of the things you were saying when you were talking about Girlfriends and it being based on your own experience, where everybody was getting married and you’re on more of a professional track, as a female director in the ’70 and ‘80s, did you find anything isolating even beyond what we were just talking about? Just in the sense of going off and doing something that is professional that requires a great deal of focus and attention?
I felt like a freak. I felt like a freak to most of my friends, to my family. It’s like, “What are you doing?” You sort of disappear for long periods of time into a piece of work and reemerge and so much life has gone by and you’ve not been a part of it. And it was difficult to keep working once I had children in the same way. It wasn’t about being able to afford daycare. It was the psychological. There was a lot more pressure then to be at home with your kids. Also I wanted to, and it’s not like I wanted to direct another feature, but I would do some TV and then I would get back in the carpool line. I wouldn’t parlay this to that to that.
What do you feel people get wrong about women who were working in that era?
I think they don’t realize how hard it was to do this work as a woman. How little support there was, and nobody to talk to about it, and how lonely it was. I think they see the success of it; they don’t understand the cost of it emotionally. I think that the cost of it emotionally is part of the reason that I moved from making films into theatre and TV, which, at the time, was much more gratifying—shorter commitments, more intense artistic work, less modulated by somebody like Ray Stark coming on the set and saying, “Claudia, you’re not wearing a bra today,” as he’s running his hand up my back to see if I was wearing a bra, saying that in full voice in front of the whole crew. Who wants to deal with that? If that’s what it meant to make a feature film, was it really worth it?
I feel good about the body of work that I’ve done, and the fact that it’s in several fields. Also, I discovered in the last ten years that I love teaching. And so teaching has become a big part of my life, too. I taught for many years at UCF, USC and CalArts, and now that I’m living in New York I taught at Columbia and The New School and next year at NYU. I find that I love mentoring. I love teaching. And I find that I learn so much and it’s so stimulating that it’s become an important part of my life. It’s that part of you that wants to pass it along.
I don’t feel that I got dealt a bad hand. I don’t feel bitter. I feel like I was lucky enough to do all that work, still have two kids that I adore, and to keep working the whole time, and have this new thing with teaching in addition. All in all, I feel good about it.