Interview with Tom Donahue: Making An Impact

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Interview by WiM 2023 Intern, Paige Chase, who is also Tom’s Mentee. View Paige’s Profile here.

Tom Donahue is a producer and director, known for celebrated films such as ‘Guest of Cindy Sherman’ (2008), ‘Thank You for Your Service’ (2015), ‘This Changes Everything’ (2018), and ‘Casting By’ (2012).

Paige: What got you into film?

Tom: Oh, God, Star Wars and Jaws! I thought, “Oh, I want to be Spielberg!” I think the important part of that is it had a huge emotional impact on me. I’m looking at this screen saying, wow, they’re representing my point of view, one that I didn’t realize I had or was possible to have until I saw it on screen. I didn’t feel represented in my household growing up. So I understood the power of representation at work in my own life.

Paige: What makes documentary filmmaking specifically, such a powerful medium for story?

Tom: It’s being able to put an audience in the shoes of the characters whose stories you are telling so that they gain sympathy and have empathy for them. Every film I make is about outsiders, people who have been disenfranchised, whether it’s a comedy or whether it’s a dramatic film about social impact, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. You are telling a story. You are trying to get your audience to care. So by the end, you want to imbue in the audience with an awesome need to help those characters, to care about their well-being. If it can shift somebody’s perspective even slightly, I’ve done my job.

Paige: A lot of your work often explores social and political issues. How do you balance presenting an objective view on the subject matter with your own personal perspectives and opinions?

Tom: My personal perspective and opinion are the most important thing, because that’s what drives me forward to have something to say. I don’t just state my opinions. I think politically and strategically —What’s the way to tell this story in a way that brings [people like] my family on board? I think I was lucky, in that sense, to grow up with people who had opposing ideologies to my own, because in my head are their voices saying “that’s bullshit”.

To give you some context: I was thrown out of my house just for announcing that I was voting for Bill Clinton! In my films, I work to try to get to a place where I can find some sort of common ground. This is not always possible, of course. In those cases, I just say what needs to be said as clearly and powerfully as possible. But I always have that skeptical part of my brain asking the questions of the opposition. It’s simply part of my DNA at this point.

Paige: How did you get started with Women in Media?

Tom: I was at the Blue Stocking Film Festival following Maria Geiss, our bomb-throwing activist in “This Changes Everything”, who had helped spur the ACLU to investigate gender disparity in Hollywood. While there, I met Tema [Staig] who was already representing Women in Media, and she told me all about it. I did not been thinking much about below the line representation in my work on the film. Tema really opened my eyes to it. And then, because I asked for recommendations for female crew, she began creating her database around female below the line employment. She asked me to be on the advisory board, and of course, I said yes. I’m very honored to be a part of it.

Paige: Your film Casting By examines the often overlooked role of casting directors in Hollywood. Can you talk about why you felt that this was an important topic to explore and what you learned during the filmmaking process?

Tom: It began when I was asked by a casting director friend of mine if I would consider doing a documentary about Marion Dougherty. And I was like, “Who”? I looked Marion up online [and there was] one interview with her from the University of Oklahoma by a student there, and it was about three pages long. In those three pages, I learned so much about this woman’s career. It was incredibly eye-opening— One, I couldn’t believe her story had never been told. Two, no one’s ever talked about the history of casting as a profession.

There was no gender perspective on it yet for me. It was after having conducted interviews with over 100 casting directors and trying to figure out why it’s the only main title category that doesn’t have an Oscar that it all came together for me. This would not be just another documentary about Hollywood as I began to realize that almost all of those I interviewed were women. The membership of the Casting Society of America was 75% female. The Director’s Guild is pretty much the mirror opposite. The documentary created an impact I never expected.

Cut to 2016 and Lynn Stallmaster (One of the people I highlight in the film) is getting a Life Achievement Oscar. Tom Hanks stands up and says, “This is the first time in the history of Hollywood an Oscar has ever gone to a casting director.” That was quite a moment, though the irony was not lost on me that it was a male Casting Director that got the first Oscar! Five days before Casting By premiered on HBO (in 2013), the Academy announced the creation of a branch for casting directors. The casting directors been fighting for that for 33 years but to no avail. Nobody was paying attention and not enough people cared. Now that this doc was about to premiere on HBO, a doc that would emotionally invest.

Millions on the unfair ways this pivotal profession —and this incredible woman — had been treated, the Academy did what it knew it had to. That’s the power of documentary filmmaking. And it’s what makes the process so very rewarding for me and while I will continue doing it to my last breath.

Paige: How do you think the issue of gender parity in Hollywood has evolved since the release of This Changes Everything and what impact do you hope your film had in raising awareness and promoting change within the industry?

Tom: You never know what your impact is. It’s only anecdotal and not really measurable. All it takes is one female filmmaker or student to go, “Oh, my God, I want to be a director because there’s not enough of us, and I’m going to fight to do that”, for someone to be inspired by your film. I do know that, not just my film, but the work of Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, Maria Giese, Geena Davis, Stacy Smith, Martha Lauzen, Ronan Farrow, the MeToo movement and others, all worked together —from the inside and on the outside — to apply pressure to create awareness and change.

At around the same time we were making the film, the issue exploded on many fronts and some change was instant. Others were not. Now you had the studios giving lip service but also earnestly trying to hire more diversely and trying to cast more diversely. But now, five years on, as I predicted with our ironic title, much of this change is going backward. The title, ‘This Changes Everything’ was not meant to be arrogant. It meant to be like, “No, no one example of activism will not actually change everything. Things like patriarchy and entrenched power structures are not easily changed —not by social media, not by one generation. It requires a continual fight and unrelenting vigilance.

Paige: Do you have any preferred cameras or software?

I’ve been editing on Avid forever. For me, it’s like breathing. It’s like writing. That’s probably the most important skill that I have developed in being able to put a story together. And then in terms of cameras, we’re always changing with the demands of the streaming services. So you go from 1080P to 2k to 4k to 6k to 8k. We’re probably going to be purchasing a C-500 soon, a high-end Canon camera.

Paige: How do you think the festival circuit has impacted your career?

It’s not just about screening your work. I met my producing partner, Ilan Arboleda at Sundance back in 2004, and we’ve been a team for the past 13 years, making all of these films and series together. We were at a party there on Main Street and an agent said, “You two should know each other”. Truthfully, I’ve met most of my key relationships at film festivals (including Tema!)

The most important thing a young filmmaker can do is just put themselves out there, go to film festivals, try to find the party list and learn to be a great networker. And to remember

with everybody you met, to actually follow up.

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