You can direct when he’s done

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“I want to direct an episode! I actually asked at the beginning of season three, at the same time as Michael did [Shanks went on to direct Double Jeopardy] and for whatever reason [mimes her lack of penis with her wiggling finger]…I can’t say that. I’d be so fired…! I’m sure that my lack of penis had nothing to do with it. For whatever reason, I wasn’t allowed to and that’s a source of frustration to me, to be honest. “

From AMANDA TAPPING: Tapping a Nerve Dreamwatch #93, May 02, reprinted with permission at SaveDanielJackson.com.

A few days ago, I wrote about the the percentage of women in Congress is higher than the percentage of women directors, and the impact that male-female ratio has on the creative visions expressed in film. It’s hard to imagine female directors facing more roadblocks than female politicians, so why aren’t there more female directors?

The above blockquote is from Amanda Tapping, a lead cast member of Stargate SG-1 for over eight years. She finally got to direct an episode at the end of Season 7 (airing in 2004), more than four years after she made the initial request. According to Tapping, her co-star Michael Shanks requested to direct at the same time she did. He got to direct an episode at the end of Season 4 (airing in 2001). The question Tapping seems to be raising is why it took her request three more years to be granted. Before you accept that it was her “lack of a penis”, there are a few issues to consider.

Was there any reason for the producers to have more confidence in Shanks’ directing abilities? Neither actor had any directing experience that I’ve heard of, and definitely nothing that shows up on IMDB. Could it be that they only had two episodes in three years that were easy enough for new directors to handle? That doesn’t really wash, considering that the episode Shanks directed was pretty hardcore: lots of action sequences and one of the craziest duplication scenes I’ve ever witnessed, in which Richard Dean Anderson gets his duplicate in a headlock and both of them face the camera. Maybe Shanks had a better negotiating style? Very possibly, although even that bears some further scrutiny in the gender department. And last but not least, did Shanks make a big enough mess behind the scenes that they were reluctant ever to let any newbie director near an episode again? It’s entirely possible, although I can’t help but take into account it was a particularly challenging episode. And generally, when actors or writers get to direct, the rest of the crew fills in the gaps for them, to make sure it all turns out well.

The contrast between Shanks’ episode and Tapping’s interests me. Shanks’ episode killed off a bad guy and dealt with a recurring story arc. Tapping’s was a standalone that had no bearing on the overall series arc. Shanks’ involved a lot of action and a lot of actors. Tapping’s looked like it was done out back by the garbage bins with whomever showed up to work that day. Series star Richard Dean Anderson played two roles in Shanks’ episode; notably, Tapping’s episode is the second in the series’ seven-year history from which he was completely absent. And finally, Shanks’ episode was written by staff regular Robert C. Cooper. Tapping’s was written by… well, Shanks gets the debut writing credit, but rumor has it the staff writers took his story and tacked on the crappy subplot from X-files – in either case, the end result makes you want to repeat the Monty Python mantra “And now for something completely different!” at about every third scene switch.

I asked Stargate fans for some help with this article, and they raised some interesting possibilities (much thanks to Ankh, Graculus, Nialla, watchman107 and Redbyrd). For example, maybe they prefer to give episodes to behind-the-scenes crew members with career aspirations to direct. But that doesn’t explain why one actor got the chance three years ahead of another. Clearly, the producers differentiated between his request and hers on the basis of something, and gender is the most obvious distinction to be made between the two actors.

But there is another distinction between Shanks and Tapping, grossly apparent to anyone who’s followed the show behind the scenes for any amount of time. Tapping is repeatedly praised by the producers for doing exactly what she’s told. She doesn’t waste time on set. She’s so good at delivering horrific sci-fi technobabble that she’s been saddled with about 80% of it from early on. Shanks, on the other hand, could probably be framed as the poster child for “creative differences” (which at one point led him to leave the show for a year), and he’s been known to fight the producers for his artistic choices. For one of the tamer examples, a producer once commented that they gave up writing his character as full of wonder after a few seasons because even when they did, Shanks wouldn’t play it that way anymore.

If you think it’s odd that the more cooperative actor came in last… you’re probably a woman. I know I learned from birth that being cooperative, helpful and supportive was the way to get ahead in life – that’s what all girls are taught. Fortunately, I was also raised to question assumptions: after being the cooperative one who got passed over a few times, then observing dozens more like me, I started to look at women who did not get passed over. And I realized it’s not always that employers prefer men. Sometimes it’s just that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Boys are taught to vocalize their preferences where girls are taught to hint and ask politely. It’s no surprise that men, unaware of the difference in training, often assume if a woman really cared about something, she’d speak up louder.

In either case, there’s still gender bias. Whether it’s the producers actually sitting around thinking men are more important than women, or whether it’s a culture that trains girls to beg and boys to demand, the end result is often the same. It’s just that when it’s cultural, you can often overcome it by learning alternate ways to express yourself.

But I’m still no closer to figuring out why we have so few female directors.

Comments

  1. marina says

    I’ll try to answer your question. I’m a theatre director but we’re addressing the same issue. The key problem is mentorship. There are few positions available for “young” directors. With so much money and time at stake, producers want to have experienced people at the helm. So the way to get producers to take a chance on you is to have an established director take you in, train you, and basically vouch for you. It’s a risk for the established director as well because their time and reputation is on the line too. Since the majority of directors are men, and people tend to feel most comfortable around people like themselves, it becomes a major roadblock for a female director trying to break in.

    In theatre we’ve made major strides in the last 10 years towards equity. I suspect a lot of that has been driven by the need to widen the range of voices so that our art form still has relevance in this multimedia society. The crisis that hit theatre with the arrival of television (contrary to Hollywood’s complaints it was theatre, not film, that took the hit in the long term) required a group of male directors to take a chance on mentoring women. Those women in turn are mentoring the next generation. But even then, I believe our numbers are at about 25% or so as opposed to film/tv at 10%. It’s a slow process.

    As for this particular instance, there are a lot of factors in play. If you listen to the commentary on Tapping’s episode, you find out she had directed theatre, although it is unclear if this was prior to her joining Stargate, or at what level. I do know that I have not been able to determine that she ever directed at a professional level. Shanks came to Stargate directly from the most prestigious theatre company in Canada (the Stratford Festival) where he had been apprenticing for 2 years prior to the show. He also played Hamlet, considered the Mount Everest for actors, in the break between the second and third seasons where he worked with a well-respected director who works at theatres across Canada and is also an internationally renowned playwright.

    Strictly looking at the resumes, Shanks appears better trained based on the caliber of work and artists he had been involved with. (Although there is chapter and verse to be written about the tendency in Canada to value professional acting experience over director training when choosing new directors.) However, I do realize I am talking theatre, not film/tv.

    There are two more elements I see at work with this decision. One is that Shanks had struck up an intense professional relationship with Anderson, who also was one of the show’s producers. (Anderson has said on many occasions that Shanks is the scene partner he feels he does his best work with.) The other is that Shanks’ character was being put on the backburner. The combination of the two most likely led to Shanks being fast-tracked to the director’s chair. (It is interesting to note that he has not returned, unlike Tom Welling of Smallville, who took 5 years to get his chance yet returned to direct in the 6th season. It appears that on Stargate, you get one chance only.)

    Tapping, being favoured with storylines that focused on her character that season, did not have either the high-level person championing her or the perception that she needed to be placated. One could argue that it was Shanks’ return and the resulting attention that convinced the producers that Tapping needed her shot at the director’s chair.

    As for the difference in the two episodes? I may be biased, but I believe that Tapping’s episode was actually the more difficult. Shanks had many things blowing up and was surrounded by a team that does that kind of technical shooting all the time. Because of its action-packed nature, there was less for him to screw up. The only truly difficult part was shooting the duplication work. Tapping, by contrast, had an episode that was completely character focused. It plays out in a series of duets with very little action at all.

    If you listen to the commentaries by other directors for the series, most of them don’t have a clue about what the actors are actually doing in a scene. They’re too busy focusing on what they’re doing with the camera during the shoot and seem surprised when they watch the finished product and see what the actors put in. In an episode that relied so strongly on acting, most of them would have been lost. The episode played right into Tapping’s theatre-directing experience. In the commentary she talks a lot about creating mood and needing to find ways to move the action forward, which is something Shanks was not called upon to do. I personally think the episode plays well (it’s one of my favourites of the season, one I get more out of each time I see it) and a lot of that is due to her sensitivity to the story and her fellow actors.

    And it was the final episode shot of the season, which could be read either as very important or as an afterthought.

    I hope this rambling provides some illumination. I do agree that getting more women directors is important. I’m less convinced that gender bias was at play in this particular case.

  2. marina says

    I have some further thoughts. When a long-running television show brings on new directors they usually promote from within the show. These are mostly from the pool of associate producers, directors of photography, and the writing staff – all of which are predominately male. Productions assistants, wardrobe and make-up are predominately female but rarely do those positions offer the opportunity to progress to directing. It is also rare for the actors to direct more than a couple of episode. If directors from outside come in, they have usually worked with one of the existing stable of directors on another show – again, predominately male. This presents another roadblock to increasing the number of female directors. The ones I do know work mostly in independent film and television, where the gigs are few are far between and the pay is much lower.

    The solution? I think there needs to be a crisis to force a different way of thinking. That’s what happened in theatre. But what that would be, I don’t know.

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