The Women’s Panel at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival offers an unmissable opportunity to focus on the craft of notable talents behind the scenes and, in some cases, below the line in Hollywood. The Lobero Theatre was packed for this year’s smart, engaging discussion on Sunday morning. Publicist Madelyn Hammond, who is herself an industry powerhouse and has facilitated the panel for the last 15 years, led a Q&A with the lineup, many of them 2018 Oscar nominees: Darla Anderson, producer of Coco; Ru Kuwahata, director of Negative Space; April Napier, costume designer of Lady Bird; Tatiana Riegel, editor of I, Tonya; Elaine McMillion Sheldon, director of Heroin(e); and Lucy Sibbick, prosthetic makeup artist of Darkest Hour.
Sibbick spoke first, about the laborious process behind Gary Oldman’s physical transformation for his multi-awarded role as Sir Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. She recounted how Oldman’s head had to be shaved three times on each day of shooting before his wig was placed. Oldman was a consummate professional; during the three-hour prosthetic makeup process, “he sat there like an absolute mannequin, dead still,” the London-based Sibbick said. Along with her Darkest Hour team, Sibbick has been nominated for an Academy Award this year, and viewers can look forward to her upcoming work on the next season of Game of Thrones.
Kuwahata discussed the conception and production of Negative Space, the Oscar-nominated stop-motion short she made with Max Porter. The five-minute film, which adapts Ron Koertge’s poem of the same title, depicts a figure packing a suitcase with the perfect efficiency taught to him by his father. Koertge’s work resonated immediately with Kuwahata, she explained, because “it was my childhood” — her father, a commercial airline pilot, had his own routinized approach to packing for work. Kuwahata shared her excitement that she had just that morning received funding for a full-length feature about her time at boarding school in Los Olivos and gave a shout-out to her Dunn School art teacher, who was in the audience.
Hammond introduced Riegel with a clip of the stunning scene in I, Tonya in which Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) accomplishes the notoriously difficult triple axel jump. Riegel commented that her approach as an editor is to “assemble scenes based on what I think is real and true to the performance,” and advised a budding filmmaker in the audience that the key to a good director-editor partnership is finding someone who “understands the story you want to tell.” Riegel noted that she had been enriched by the mentorship of Quentin Tarantino’s longtime editor, Sally Menke, nodding implicitly to the importance of women mentors for successful women in Hollywood. Riegel has been nominated for several awards this year, including an Oscar, for her work on I, Tonya.
Anderson was perhaps the most high-profile participant on the panel, having produced multiple Pixar hits, from A Bug’s Life to Toy Story 3. Last year’s beloved Coco, she remarked, presented several unique challenges: as the most musical film for Pixar ever to have tackled, in not overwhelming viewers with the intricate detail of its Land of the Dead, and in telling a story that required treating the culture from which it originated with precision and dignity. She highlighted the work of several members of the production team as well as the cafeteria manager at Pixar, a “fifth-generation Mexican American” who served as a cultural consultant.
Napier recalled how her collaboration with Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig seemed foretold when they met for the first time and showed up in the same outfit: “ a white button-down men’s shirt, high-waisted black pants, lace-up oxfords, and a black backpack.” To outfit the film’s characters, Napier worked with Gerwig’s personal memorabilia from 2002-era Sacramento, where Lady Bird is set — candid photos, Gerwig’s high school yearbook, and her journals. Despite not having come of age at that time, Napier noted, she felt that “everyone knows the story [of Lady Bird]. I was Lady Bird. Simone de Beauvoir was Lady Bird. George Sand was Lady Bird.”
Sheldon was the only panel participant to speak to nonfiction filmmaking, and, in particular, its sometimes distinct funding structure. Heroin(e)’s story, she said, was shaped partly by receiving a grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting targeting film projects by and about women — hence the documentary’s all-female leads. The film spotlights three women in Sheldon’s home state of West Virginia who are directly addressing the state’s opioid epidemic with empathy and tenacity. “I feel a responsibility … [being] from the coal fields,” Sheldon professed of her relationship to the women’s stories and their setting. Heroin(e) has been nominated for an Oscar this year, for best documentary short.
Toward the end of the conversation, Hammond made a note of the ongoing 50/50 by 2020 initiative to address gender inequity on Hollywood sets. Otherwise, however, only a cursory mention was made of the gender-driven concerns that the industry is currently grappling with, and the panel’s inclusion of only one woman of color deflected recent years’ attention to issues of race’s intersection with gender in Hollywood. The lack of discussion about these critical topics was somewhat disappointing, but it also allowed each participant to stand out for the merits of her work alone.