You can “have it all”, the call to arms encouraging all modern self-actualised women to fully commit to their careers and families simultaneously, full throttle and with a smile to boot has, as a quick Google search will tell you, become a millstone of societal pressure for many working mothers. Approaching the subject from a comedy perspective, Director/Writer/Actress and new mother Katie Locke O’Brien’s latest short Have It All, punctures this unachievable myth with wry humour and multiple costume changes. I spoke to Katie about making this art mirrors life short and her career changing experience as 1 of 10 women selected for NBC’s Female Forward initiative – the network’s concerted effort to increase female representation in the director’s chair.
Was there a particular incident in your new life as a filmmaking mother which inspired Have It All?
Essentially, once I made it through the newborn phase, Julian was about 4 months old and I realized I had no idea how to be a mom and still be a creator and a filmmaker. I needed to rip off the proverbial band-aid and so I used the HBO Insider Comedy Short Competition for the Women in Comedy Festival as an excuse. They gave a time limit (5 mins) and an opening line and so I came up with 5-6 ideas for what to do and planned to write scripts that weekend to see what felt like the right one.
But then I had a very particular morning, in which I had to bring Julian to a meeting with these producers I’ve been working with for a while, and I got home and it occurred to me that maybe to make my first film with a baby…I just make a film with that baby. I had this initial idea for a sort of Edgar-Wright-y action sequence of us trying to just get out the door. I wrote it in one sitting, sent it to my DP and he agreed that this was what we needed to make.
What was crucial to me was to be clear that the baby is not the enemy and the guys I work with are not the enemy. They’re just trying to be super helpful and supportive during this transition for me. The enemy is this societal idea that any woman can be a mom and have a career and do both without letting any of the cracks show. And there’s so much comedy to be mined just from the everyday Sisyphean task of having a baby and trying to do anything according to a plan!
It occurred to me that maybe to make my first film with a baby…I just make a film with that baby.
Did the rest of production unfold as speedily as the scriptwriting process? How long did the project take end to end?
The whole process was 3 weeks, from conception to turning in. We shot over 2 days. For the first time – mainly because I had such limited pockets of time and attention to give to this – I had no room for second-guessing or being wishy-washy about different options. I knew exactly what it was and I was incredibly precise about framing, what each shot was, the pacing and the static feel of certain things. All to create the feeling of both anxiety and stuck-ness that happens in this story.
I wanted to mirror the military precision it takes to get through all the steps of just a normal morning with a baby if you have to be somewhere at any set time. So the shoot was super efficient and so was the edit. And the result was that I created what is probably the truest, purest expression of my sensibility and voice that I’ve made so far…because I had no time to do anything else, I guess. 🙂
How was it simultaneously being on both sides of the camera for the first time whilst also having Julian on set with you?
My DP Andrew Brinkhaus and my Editor Barret Bowman and I have worked together on a ton of projects at this point so they know my sensibility very well, which was why it was such a tight production and also why I felt better being in it. This was my first time directing myself and it only felt good to me because I trust them to know what I’m after so well.
On the actual day that we shot with my son, I made a huge (likely too huge) deal out of the fact that we were shooting with a baby. We had an intentionally small, tight crew and I emphasized again and again that we’d set up for shots but if the baby wasn’t in a place to do that at the moment, everyone just needed to set up for the next thing – I didn’t want to hear complaining, we just needed to be nimble, etc. etc. And then, of course, we brought Julian in and in one take he gave us like 12 gold expressions and then I was like, “Oh…uh… I guess cut?!” and my DP was like, “Yeah. Moving on.” He was so good and none of my over-prepping for the craziness of shooting with a baby ended up mattering at all.
What was your shooting set up?
We shot in 8K on the RED Monstro with Sigma cine primes, mainly the 24 and 35. Since the home and the environment was such a big part of the story, that wide perspective helped keep that in the frame while staying intimate with this mom and baby. My DP also made the choice to stick with wide lenses physically closer, which was more intimate and connected than long lenses ‘outside’ the relationship and ultimately contributed to the ‘stuck’ feeling as well.
I just made what was my own experience, stylized and turned up to 11 for comedy purposes.
Did you find that Have It All resonated with audiences during its festival run?
The best part, I think, is that at the time, I just made what was my own experience, stylized and turned up to 11 for comedy purposes. You’re isolated at home for a lot of the newborn phase so I had no idea if this would resonate with other moms but as soon as it screened for the first time, every woman in the audience (and some dads too!) came up to say first what they loved about the film and then immediately share their own stories from that time when their kids were babies. It has hit home for so many parents out there and so many women who are up against this crazy standard – that’s been my favorite part of the whole process.
You’re part of the inaugural class of NBC’s Female Forward directors initiative. What’s been your experience of that programme and how do you feel it’s helped you to develop as a director?
YES! Female Forward is life-changing. A lot of ‘diversity programs’ have existed for many years at many of the studios, but this is the first (or one of the first at least) that doesn’t just give you exposure – it gives you a job. The reality is that at this point, thanks to #MeToo and Times Up and the work that led up to it, we’ve reached the moment in which all of the shows have a mandate to get more women behind the camera. But the joke of that is that the number of women who’ve been given enough experience to get those jobs is like 9…and they’re booked for five years. I have friends who are showrunners who had difficulty getting female directors with the right experience, even when they were making the effort to hire women.
NBC is actually committed to solving that pipeline problem in a tangible way. The structure of the program is that they chose 10 women (I think they had about 1000 applications), each of us is paired with a show and we shadow 2 episodes of that show…and then direct the show. Some are already underway…I’m working on A.P. Bio, which just went into production for season 2, so I’m shadowing now and then I’ll direct episode 208 in December.
It’s amazing. By the holidays, I’ll have my first episodic credit under my belt and I’ll be a DGA member. There are so many female directors out there who are talented and hungry and it’s just been next to impossible to get the door open. I come from independent filmmaking but some of the women in the program have credits that should’ve made them a shoe-in long ago to work in TV and the doors just stayed closed…until now. It’s a huge deal.
It wasn’t the traditional path but I did all the things that felt right to me at every step and somehow that actually worked out.
The other thing to mention is just how incredible the entire diversity division at NBC, led by the incomparable Karen Horne, has been. Leading up to the shadowing, we had a series of workshops with powerhouse directors and showrunners (Paris Barclay, Lesli Linka Glatter, etc.) that were incredibly helpful in terms of the unique challenge of directing episodic. But even more so, it’s been empowering. Everyone at NBC and everyone on the shows is so behind this program and is doing everything to make sure that we succeed so that it can continue and more women can have this opportunity.
I also had the unique experience this year of getting the NBC love from two sides, because simultaneous to my Female Forward acceptance, I also found out that Have It All was selected as one of 15 semi-finalists for NBC’s Short Film Competition. Only after the selections did Karen (and Grace Moss and Jandiz Cardoso) realize that I was on their radar from both sides and that experience too was unbelievably supportive and empowering. When they say they’re committed to getting these new, diverse voices and these new creators out there, they mean it.
I also just love how all of this came to be for me and I’m really proud of the particular trajectory things took. For the last 2-3 years, I’ve known I was passionate about directing – specifically directing comedy – but whenever people would tell me that the way to get there was to shadow directors on sets…I felt resistant to that. Whenever I’d hear that, I’d just find $500 and a Saturday and go make another short. So coming into Female Forward, I just had a lot of my own independent work – several shorts and a couple of pilot presentations – which had done well at festivals and whatnot, but it certainly wasn’t what I thought was necessarily ‘legitimate’ industry experience.
But in the end, the huge benefit of that was that I had a portfolio of work that clearly showed my voice – my perspective as a director, my comedic sensibility and my eye – and they could see that and find the value in it. So now, I’m shadowing specifically as preparation to direct my episode and that feels like the best learning experience possible. I’m also pinching myself that my first DGA directing job is on a single-camera comedy, which is exactly what I want to be doing. It wasn’t the traditional path but I did all the things that felt right to me at every step and somehow that actually worked out.
What new projects will we see from you in the future?
I just wrote and directed a commercial that will be out around the holidays. My episode of A.P. Bio is my focus from now until the end of the year. Shadowing and prepping for that and doing everything I can to make it great. In 2019, I hope to turn that into more episodic directing. I’ve got a couple of writing projects in development and then in the midst of that, especially having seen the impact Have It All is making, I’m so inspired to make my next short (or feature??) because I can’t ever go too long without making my own things as well. I think no matter what’s to come, I’ll always be looking for opportunities to find $500 and a Saturday and shoot something. That’s my happy place.
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