For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed director-writer-filmmaker-producer Rachel Feldman. This past season she directed multiple episodes of Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds, and The Rookie, As well as the pilot and full season of The Baxters. Feldman is the recipient of the Ravenal Grant and an Athena List winner for her feature screenplay Lilly, based on the life of fair pay activist Lilly Ledbetter. To learn more, visit her website.
Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.
I’m answering these questions in the time of the COVID-19 virus, hunkered down, “safer in place” in LA, wondering how and when our future will return to us.
I’m a mid-career director and screenwriter. I work as a director primarily in one-hour television dramas, and I write pilots and features in a variety of genre.
I work on many things at once, half-baked swirls of imagination juggling in front of me, so that I can grab at any one of them as desired. But the jewel in the crown of my slate is a feature film based on the life of fair pay activist, Lilly Ledbetter, the woman about whom President Obama named his first piece of legislation. I learned about Lilly’s story and optioned her rights, then wrote a screenplay that was an Athena List winner and the recipient of the NYWIFT Ravenal Grant for female filmmakers over 40. It’s been a seven-year journey so far and I’m not stopping until this film is complete. It’s a beautiful and important story and will make a deeply emotional and enlightening movie.
When I first began shopping the project, the responses were similar, “We can’t make a film with a female protagonist. It’s impossible to make a feminist/political film. We might be interested if we could hire a male director.” But I’ve stuck with this because Lilly’s story is so important. Her story is my story, and yours. It’s a film for this moment in time and for girls and women around the globe. #IAmALilly
Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?
Pushing back against the patriarchy is my motivation. And making a great film. The injustice and inequity women face in every aspect of life must be shouted from the rooftops until things change. Certainly, in the past few years, post #TimesUp and #MeToo, certain aspects of our culture have become more enlightened, but Lilly’s story is the narrative of one woman who made a difference for others. Her life’s arc is brilliantly compelling. I’m a filmmaker because I know in my bones that the best way to make change is through compassion. I’m eager to share this woman’s remarkable journey through cinema, it’s rich dramatic fodder. Think about Norma Rae, Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, The Insider, or Spotlight – these were about important subjects but they were also brilliant movies.
Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?
There are so many. Anyone who has survived injustice moves me. The righteous struggle is a theme about which I’m continually interested. But at heart, I’m a romantic and the daughter of a movie lover whose taste influenced mine. The golden age of Hollywood, grandiose movie musicals with high production value including sets, costumes, lighting, great acting —these are the elements that get me excited.
Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
My imagination is always working on many stories simultaneously. I gestate these pods of character, plot, and theme often for long periods of time before they become realized on paper. I liken this process to playing with dolls, a preoccupation that was the genesis for my story making in a primitive form. After a while the plot will focus and I will be compelled to write things down either as an outline or sometimes a first act spills out of me fully formed, and then I stop and have to figure out the rest. I have always felt that I had a weather vane to the zeitgeist, I feel the collective unconscious often before it comes into social clarity. But I am also motivated by image. I draw, I shoot pictures, and sometimes the way something looks evokes feelings that will send me flying into a world fully formed with characters and plot.
Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?
I have 16 projects in my slate that I’ve built up during the past 20 years in several different genres. The industry at large is not a fan of writers who have different voices. The conventional wisdom is that you should focus on one kind of material and for the most part, I do love a twisted, psychological thriller. But I also write musicals, comedy, and romance. I wrote a science fiction screenplay more than 30 years ago and just reverse engineered it as a YA novel. I’m looking for a publisher now.
But no matter the genre, girls and women are and have always been my protagonists and promoting a progressive world, filled with challenging convention is a constant.
Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?
That I’m often ahead of my time with regards to stories that interest me. It’s sometimes a decade or more until the industry begins to make shows from concepts similar to what I had tried to pitch when I was told that no one was interested.
Also, my imagination is my dearest companion and I’ve been living with her for as long as I can remember. I’m a grounded person, a responsible mother and wife, but the images and ideas in my head are vibrant, palpable, and easy to access when I need them.
Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?
I would be the CEO of a thriving production company with multiple productions going at once in features, television, and branded media. I’d be a media mogul supervising a network of storytelling and storytellers. My company name is Dollface Films. Why? I’m from NYC, doll! Dolls were my first actors. And for me, my love of movies and my love of humans is all about the face. Hello there.
Q: What have been big your biggest obstacles in achieving your vision?
1-The conventional, copy-cat thinking of an industry/business that considers itself creative.
2-Dysfunction, patriarchal Hollywood.
Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
I’m a very playful person and fortunately so are my husband and kids. I sing, dance, make-up voices and bad rhyming schemes, I draw and doodle. I take a long walk every day in a lovely park with large trees and open space.
Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?
People pleasing. What a big fat waste of time.
Q: What is your favorite piece of art?
I love a great, classic song. The melody, the lyric, the concision of thought and feeling in one lovely and clever bite. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, The Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein/Hart, you get the idea.
Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?
I’m not good at this kind of question. My mother was a nut case, difficult and mentally unstable, but she brought me into this world and survived so many of her own demons. I don’t exactly admire her but I’m grateful to and for her. She was my first fan – and also my first troll.
Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?
Being a filmmaker who makes beautiful films that move audiences in profound ways.
Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?
Q: What is your guilty pleasure?
I don’t feel guilty about my pleasures.
Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?
Stop worrying about what you look like. Okay, you have big thighs and frizzy hair, just wait a few years,hose attributes will be trending!
Q: Where would you most like to live?
Living in a charming village in France by the sea is a nice fantasy. But my imagination and my ability to sink into story has taken me far and wide.
Q: What is your idea of success?
Not worrying about money. Not having to wait for others to trigger my projects.
Q: What is your idea of happiness?
Being with my husband and kids on a tropical isle with live music and fruit drinks. Or being on a smooth-sailing set, making movies and calling “Action!”
Q: Final Thoughts?
Agents and managers. The gatekeepers of who gets in and who stays out of the creative wheel is a disastrous system. Celebrity is the single most valued commodity in Hollywood, not talent, not skill, not profound, original thinking. After that, sales agents and the perceived value of actors is the next poisonous system that prevents progressive voices and inclusive filmmakers from thriving.