The Women in Action Committee recently hosted a panel discussion at the New York DGA Boardroom featuring directors Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!), Beth McCarthy-Miller (Saturday Night Live), Patricia Lang (NBC News) and Susan Seidelman (Sex and the City) to discuss the many ways to achieve success in the industry.
"What is the measure of success?" moderator Nancy Littlefield asked. "Our panelists have all accomplished a great deal. But was it luck? Was it perseverance? Aggressiveness?"
"They say you can have ambition, perseverance, you can have all sorts of things," answered Patricia Lang. "But sometimes it really is about being at the right place at the right time."
More than likely, Beth McCarthy-Miller appreciates the concept of "right place and right time." After years of working for MTV, right out of college, she was offered a job producing. Initially she was going to accept the position but then two of the directors sat her down and spoke candidly with her. "They said please, please hold on, don't take this producing job," she recounted. "We think you'll make a great director." Six months later there was an opening in the directing department. "That was the best advice that was ever given to me because I love directing," she said. "It's the greatest job in the world, and I'm the luckiest girl in the world to have the opportunity."
Susan Seidelman went to NYU Film School and graduated during the early days of the New York independent scene. "I wanted to direct a movie. I realized I had to come up with something I believed in. Something that I felt passionately about and try to make it happen for myself with whatever resources I had," Seidelman said. "At the time the only resources I had were the connections I made with the students who I had gone to film school with." With the help of her contacts through film school, Seidelman completed her first feature, Smithereens, which was picked up by New Line. Smithereens garnered attention throughout the industry and led to her second feature, Desperately Seeking Susan. "I do think that it isn't luck. It's about creating your own luck and creating your own opportunities."
"You said one word that I picked up on and I feel very strongly about: connections," Littlefield followed up. After moving back to New York from Los Angeles, Littlefield found that her professional contacts to be invaluable. "Every job I got practically was from people I knew from Women in Film, from the Directors Guild, from the film community. I can't stress enough how important it is to make your connections and stay with them because you never know when they are going to need you or you're going to need them."
While luck might have played an integral role along each of the panelists' career paths, hard work and determination played an equal role. Mira Nair described her days trying to get her documentaries off the ground. "It was miserably difficult ... you do everything and you wake up in the morning and really longing for some sort of motivation," she said. She spoke of spending days writing grant proposals for documentaries and working as a waitress to buy film stock. Every year she'd spend six weeks traveling on a Greyhound bus, shopping around her projects. "It was quite lonely to go to independent film centers and show my films and then have people raise their hands and say, 'I saw running water in your movie. Do you really have running water in India?' " Nair said. "I would think to myself, what am I doing this for?"
Was going from documentaries to features a hard transition for you?" asked Littlefield.
"You know I never regard what I do as a steppingstone for something else," Nair replied. "But after many years making documentaries, I finally decided I should make a fiction film because I wanted to have more control of the story." Nair's transition to narrative filmmaking resulted in her first feature, Salaam Bombay! which received the Golden Camera Award at Cannes.
"I'm going to switch over to what we've heard has been a man's world up to this point: the news department," said Littlefield as she turned back to Patricia Lang.
"I knew I wanted to direct but I wasn't quite sure what directing was," said Lang. "When I told my mother that I wanted to major in television she said, 'You've been majoring in television your whole life, how about reading a book?' " During her years at Wellesley, Lang had interned at NBC during the summers. After graduating she became a PA. Years later, when Lang applied to become a stage manager, she was told, very frankly and directly, that they did not hire female stage managers. But Lang persisted and got the position and eventually working her way up to directing the NBC Nightly News and other news programs at the network.
While each of the panelists is well acquainted with the struggles to make a career in the industry, especially those particular to women, they were also very eager to express that perseverance and a sense of purpose are invaluable tools. Toward the end of the evening an audience member asked for advice on changing paths in her directing career. "Start by doing what you know," said Seidelman. "Start by saying, I know this thing, whatever that thing may be. Maybe not technically, maybe I'm not going to know what light to use, but I know this little world I've created and I can do it better than anyone else."