Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Interview with Filmmaker J.A. Steel
One of the few female action film directors in Hollywood, and one of the first western women to study the art of Muay Thai kickboxing in Thailand, J.A. Steel rocked the film and music industry in 1999 with her first feature The Third Society. Steel drew on her experience in working on at least two dozen other feature films to write, direct, produce, edit, and music supervise the 35mm film which was released by Warrior Entertainment in 2003. The Third Society has won Steel numerous awards, including the 2004 Bare Bones Film Festival Indie Auteur and Best Soundtrack awards. Past projects include directing and hosting for the documentary television pilot Dive the Deep Blue and starring as the alien bounty hunter in Ford Austin’s Cerebral Print. Steel’s award winning second feature, Salvation, was released in June 2008 by York Entertainment. Currently, Steel recently completed her third feature, Denizen, for release in 2010.
Fatally Yours: How did you fall in love with the film industry?
J.A. Steel: I was about three. There was a TV show called Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I would sneak out of bed and sit on the stairs, peering out of the bars on the railing. I couldn’t really hear the TV – but I do remember seeing the images and remember being really, really, scared. Sometimes my parents would catch me and put me back in bed. Usually, after watching the show I would have nightmares and have to fess up that I had snuck out of bed. No matter how scared I was – I kept watching and sneaking out of bed.
Fatally Yours: How and when did you get involved in acting and filmmaking?
J.A. Steel: I started acting very young in church plays. As soon as I could hold a pen, I was writing stories. In third grade, we did a skit based on Grease. I wrote it, directed it, and had a small role in it. Ever since then I wrote shorts plays and even a novel. I wrote my first feature length screenplay when I was 12 based on Buck Rogers: In the 25th Century. I wrote my first original script at 13. At 17, I went to USC film school’s Filmic Writing Program. In my junior year, I had to take an 8mm film class, which I blew off and failed. At that time in my life, I could have cared less about editing, lighting, directing, and acting. I just wanted to write.
I interned for Silver Pictures on Hudson Hawk and The Last Boy Scout. I then interned for a season on Tales from the Crypt. I learned more from my internships than in any film class. Film is a craft where you have to learn by doing – there is no magical book one can read or class anyone can take.
I held all the jobs on The Third Society my first feature start to finish because I couldn’t find anyone who shared the vision of a kick-ass chick action movie.
Fatally Yours: You are one of the few women to direct action films. Why do you think there are so few women directing films in the action and horror genres?
J.A. Steel: Directing in such a male-dominated genre is really, really, hard. Most of the support positions (Cinematographer, Gaffer, Key Grip, etc.) are all men. The foreign buyers are men. The financiers are men. And unless you are married (or divorced) or otherwise related to a male in a power position in the film industry – the odds are stacked against you. As a director you’re dismissed to the realm of romantic comedies or drama or any other emotionally driven genre.
Blowing stuff up and killing people is an area in human history that has been typically reserved for men. Few women have risen to the ranks as world famous dictators or serial killers.
It’s hard enough to get any film made – let alone face the internal pressures of your own crew not believing you can do it.
Fatally Yours: Have you faced any challenges/discrimination in the film industry because of your gender?
J.A. Steel: I once had a buyer at a European film market tell me he would absolutely NOT buy any of my movies because they were directed by a woman.
I’ve had crew problems. I had a stunt coordinator in The Third Society tell me I couldn’t do a fight scene because I was girl and he was afraid that I would get hurt. It was kind of funny because at the time I held a professional full contact fighter license from the State of California, and actually got in the Muay Thai ring and fought. He was not asked back for part of the shooting and I had to take over some of the stunt coordination.
I’ve been told by agents that they wouldn’t represent me as a director/writer in action/horror because they couldn’t even get Kathryn Bigelow work (this was before Hurt Locker).
Fatally Yours: As a female filmmaker, do you feel films directed by women are different than those filmed by men? If so, how are they different and why?
J.A. Steel: It depends. Is the script written by a man or a woman? A script directed by a woman, written by a woman will be different than a script written by a man and directed by a woman. As well as any of the other combinations.
Generally, women will take a more emotional approach to the characters. However, there are some really good male directors out there – James Cameron is one, who can really create an all ‘round good film.
When you are writing for action/horror you have to follow to a certain extent the conventions of the genre that you have chosen to work in. You are also limited by your target audience and their expectations of the genre.
A good genre film is a good genre film.
Fatally Yours: In your career, have you noticed a change in women’s roles within the film industry?
J.A. Steel: Not really. It’s quite tragic. I’ve noticed a couple new names in the past few years on the romantic comedy side and drama. Women still aren’t in the power positions in the studios or in corporations as a whole. And the disparity in wage earnings doesn’t help with the financing side of indie films either.
Fatally Yours: What is your main goal as a filmmaker?
J.A. Steel: I really just want to blow shit up. I want to get inside your head as an audience member without you knowing I’m getting inside your head. I want to be Hitchcock, terrifying audiences with something like the shower scene in Psycho. I want to have audiences go – “that was a damn cool movie” without the fact that I’m a chick ever being mentioned.
Awhile back the press called me the “female Roger Corman for the 21st Century”. I hope to live up to that honor. Corman propelled the B-movie genre into the mainstream. I want to keep moving the genre forward. Hopefully, we can get away from all of the horror remakes of the classics and come up with something new.
Fatally Yours: What women in the film industry do you admire?
J.A. Steel: Kathryn Bigelow of course. I remember seeing Point Break in college. It was the first time I ever believed women could direct action.
Fatally Yours: If you could work with one actress/writer/producer/director/etc. in one of your films, living or dead, who would it be and why?
J.A. Steel: Barbara Stanwyck. I remember her from reruns of the cowboy show Big Valley as a kid. I always remember her standing on the porch of the house wielding a very large gun. To me she is the quintessential “chick with a gun”. She was a really good actress. I would love to have her being a gun wielding granny against some army of the undead. In my last feature, Denizen, I would love for her to play the main female character’s grandmother.
Fatally Yours: What inspires, influences and motivates you?
J.A. Steel: I am inspired by everyday life. I’m always in the wrong place at the wrong time. I take everyday stories and experiences and turn them into films. “Denizen” was based on my real life scuba diving experience in Lake Tenkiller, Oklahoma. I also have a very supportive core team at Warrior Entertainment for my projects, and a family who loves me for who I am and keeps me motivated and working hard.
Fatally Yours: What are your favorite horror films, books, etc.?
J.A. Steel: Anything Hitchcock. I love the original Nightmare on Elm Street. Aliens. The Exorcist. For books, Stephen King – but he gives me nightmares so I have a tendency to shy away from his books. My buddy, Vince Churchill, writes horror novels. He’s the only horror author I’ve read lately.
Fatally Yours: What upcoming projects can you tell us about?
J.A. Steel: We currently are working on another action film, Take Out Delivery, about a female assassin. Operation Overlord is a sci-fi/action/horror film. But since our budgets are still limited to what we can scrap together, Take Out Delivery is going to be next. Overlord needs the help from some capital investors.
Fatally Yours: Where can people find more info on you?
J.A. Steel: They can check out the Denizen trailer on http://www.WarriorEntertainment.com as well as check out all my movies and upcoming projects.
My personal website at http://www.jasteel.com
My Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J.A._Steel
My Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/JASteel
MySpace at http://www.myspace.com/maverickjasteel
Twitter at https://twitter.com/jasteel