An hour with Rachel Talalay

This past Saturday, with great thanks to the Director’s Guild of Canada and the council at VIFF, myself and other local film buffs filled the theater at the Vancouver International Film Centre to hear Rachel Talalay speak in regards to her experience as an internationally acclaimed director.  This was part two in the Master Class series put on by the DGC and VIFF.  

Rachel’s resume is mighty impressive and I want to outline some of her credits before we keep on about what was discussed in the class.  This will give you some context around the topics and gives me a moment to brag about sharing space with this kick-ass woman.  

Rachel, like so many people who have found their niche in film, started out on a very different path.  Born in Chicago and raised primarily in Baltimore, Rachel studied applied mathematics at Yale and worked as a Computer Programmer at John Hopkins University before getting involved in Film.  

Some of her early credits as a Producer include the 1988 rendition of Hairspray, the third and fourth Nightmare on Elm Street and Cry Baby.  Believe it or not, her Directing credits are even more impressive and I’ll only list a few or we’ll never get to Saturday’s event.  Rachel can be credited for bringing the cult classic masterpiece Tank Girl to life.  This makes her one of the most bad-ass women to currently walk amongst us.  She was also the first American to be asked to direct an episode of Doctor Who and was the first female to direct an episode of Sherlock.  The woman is a power house.

Rachel walked onto the stage at the Vancouver International Film Centre with an air of humility and warmth.  Despite her notable list of accomplishments, there was next to no ego that accompanied her in the spotlight.  She seemed kind, approachable, grounded and really hard working.  She was like a real-live human being.  Over an hour, she shared her experience as a Director and gave the audience some great advice and strong words to walk away with.  

The audience had a high ratio of women film makers, some of whom had been jaded by the lack of equality represented in the industry.  Rachel found a dignified way of navigating these topics while directing the conversation away from a “man-hating” zone and into a place of putting priority on what we can do together as women to slowly change the stigma.  As I sat, I felt incredibly fortunate that I was entering the industry at a time when a push for women was present.  To hear about a time when women weren’t being let into the work environment, and even more insulting, that it was being put to them as a favour (“these guys don’t know how to work around women, trust me, you’d be happier not to be put in that environment.”) is appalling.  A world of gratitude and thanks goes out to the hard working trail blazers that made it possible for me to walk into a job today without having to immediately fight for my worth as a result of my gender.  It’s not perfect yet, Rachel explained in a simply-stated undramatic way.  For example, she noted that in her experience, a man with less experience can walk onto set with little to no plan of action.  He can ask the crew and his team for ideas before moving into set ups and it is seen as “collaboration”.  If a woman were to walk onto set with the same mind-set, she would be seen as “unprepared” or “incapable”.  She understood the frustration that accompanied this but refused to let it jade her experience.  At the end of the day, she would walk away from a project with more know-how then those who came unprepared and no one could take that away from her.

For a few minutes, she also discussed the destructive and competitive nature that can arise between women who are fighting for the few opportunities that get handed our way.  One visual I found to be particularly strong was that of a crab sitting in a boiling pot.  If there is one crab in the pot, it is screwed.  It can’t get out.  If you add a second crab to the pot… well now we’re talking, now we have a chance.  But so often, rather than helping one another out, we scramble to step over each other, wanting to be the first out.  The crab who was used as a stepping stool then pulls the other crab back into the pot, not wanting to be left behind.  This is something that needs to stop.  If we work together, we can pull each other out of the pot.  No one needs to be left behind in a pot of steaming death.     

She spoke of preparation.  I’ll mention one quote because I found it particularly fitting.  Rachel said “I love prep.  Because at some point, the project is perfect.”  The little control freak that hangs out in the corner of my mind loved this quote and laughed heartily at it’s honesty.  Prep, she explained was about creating back up plans.  Because the fact of the matter is, you will never have enough time and something will always go wrong.  

Rachel is an individual who has worked hard to get the opportunities she’s had.  The credits she’s acquired did not land in her lap without effort.  She pushed for projects she wanted to be involved in and took every project as an opportunity to learn more and put more in her tool belt for future use.  It is through her history of doing that she has developed this specialized skill set.  One that allows her to think critically and outside of the box to effectively solve problems and create dynamic stories that genuinely use the visual aspect to enhance the emotional telling.  She is a woman without excuses and on that note, I’ll end this entry with my favourite quote from the afternoon.

On attitude and taking on a project:  “This is the assignment.  And your job isn’t to make excuses for why it can't be done, but to figure out how to do it.”