Meryl Streep and New York Women in Film and TV combine forces for women writers
It started with just three women.
Kyle Ann Stokes, Elizabeth Kaiden, and Nitza Wilon, co-founders of IRIS, a collective of women filmmakers, met through their children who attended the same public school in Manhattan. They got to talking and realized that they shared common career goals. Individually, they’d had their share of rejection, of course. Each of them knew all too well what it was like to struggle alone as freelancers in the entertainment industry. It was hard, as Kaiden put it in a recent interview, for women over 40 “to catch a break.”
Talking about their struggles helped.
“I’ve always had an old-fashioned desire to have a salon,” said Wilon. So the trio started meeting regularly in her Upper West Side apartment to share war stories. “At some point we recognized that this problem”—the exclusion of women over 40 from the industry—“wasn’t just about us. Everyone is frustrated. This was an epidemic that was bigger than just us.”
Kyle Stokes was inspired by Michaela Walsh, who was a founder of Women’s World Banking. She told Filmmaker magazine that the group “saw a parallel between the old boys’ club of banking and Hollywood. So rather than trying to fight against the established system, we knew we had to rely on ourselves and try something new.” Stokes suggested the idea for Writers Lab, an opportunity for women writers over the age of 40 to work one-on-one with established screenwriter-mentors during a weekend-long retreat in upstate New York.
The collective took their plan to Terry Lawler, executive director of New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT), part of a 10,000-member-strong network with 40 chapters worldwide. The group gladly signed on.
Next, they needed money. Their proposal was sent to some 50 organizations, companies, and individuals, but mostly all they got back was “radio silence.”
And then lightning struck: three-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep announced that she would personally finance the Lab’s inaugural year. (“As if we didn’t already love her enough,” says Wilon.) Word spread, and within six weeks of the announcement, IRIS and NYWIFT had received 3,500 screenplays from women vying for a spot at the first Lab, far more than they’d ever dreamed. (Full disclosure: I was among the applicants.)
In response to the flood of submissions, IRIS decided to raise the total number of selectees from eight to twelve; the winners’ names were announced earlier this week.
“The letters we got,” says Wilon, “the personal statements, the unbelievable level of education and talent.…It was mind-blowing. We just sat there and said, ‘How can we help all these women?’”
And then came the task of reading through the massive number of applications.
A total of 30 readers—IRIS members and volunteers from Writers Guild of America East—offered their services free of charge. Each and every script was seen by at least two judges, and some of the finalists were evaluated by as many as seven readers.
Wilon alone says she read about a thousand scripts.
“It was tough. We talked about…Is this a lottery? Or is this for people who’ve worked very hard and had doors shut in their faces for years? The answer we came up with was both. It’s for people who showed a promising voice, depth, thoughtfulness, and just wrote a great script.”
The result was what Wilon calls an “enormously diverse group” of twelve women ranging in age from their 40s to their 60s. There was even one 84-year-old finalist. “We have racial diversity, LGBTQ diversity, and geographical diversity,” she adds, although quite a few applicants were from New York and both Northern and Southern California. Some were experienced or beginning screenwriters. Others were journalists or novelists new to the film genre. “Many do have years of knocking on doors,” adds Wilon. “But one comes from the Midwest and works at Whole Foods. She said, ‘If I have to walk to New York, I’m walking. I’ll start now.’”
One of the women who was selected, Peres Owino, a native of Kenya, works as an executive assistant in a Los Angeles entertainment company and says that her love affair with the industry didn’t start out easily. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay in 1999 with a degree in performing arts and political science, she hitchhiked to Los Angeles with a friend.
“I had $10 to my name,” she says.
With acting jobs hard to come by, Owino took matters into her own hands by adapting Shakespearean plays with African characters so that she could perform them herself, playing both Hamlet and Lady Macbeth in local productions.
“As time went by,” she says, “the realization dawned on me that if you’re gifted with the ability to create content, in addition to acting, then there’s no excuse for not spearheading your own career.”
In fact, her recent documentary, “Bound: Africans versus African Americans” won the Lena Sharpe Women in Cinema Award at its 2014 premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival.
“It makes sense to me,” she adds, that women should connect with one another. “Standing with and for other women is really big for me.”
So what will happen when Owino and her cohort gather together at the Wiawaka Center in Lake George, New York, this September?
“We’re going to cram in as much learning as we can,” says Wilon. “Learning about writing, how to pitch, development, distribution.…We’re pairing up people one-on-one for intense discussions, panels, and there’s also going to be a lot a fun.”
“I’ve been researching all the ladies who are going to be there,” says Owina, “and they’re women who’ve achieved such tremendous success. There’s no way you cannot walk out without being infused with something, awakened with something.” Part of her is not sure how to feel, or whether she can even believe this is all real. “When you’ve been at this for so long there’s a fear that you will not live up to whatever expectation that’s put on you,” she says. “Part of me just wants to prove myself.”
Wilon is already dreaming about the Lab’s future.
“The three of us would love to have enough money for an office, where we can start to develop all the other ideas we have about how we can continue to serve this population.” And her wish list goes on: “We want to have our own studio. And I’d love to go to other countries and help them to develop Labs, to give them a handbook.”
But for now, the founding members of IRIS are simply feeling vindicated.
“We’ve always felt that the cult of youth was just not fair,” says Wilon. “There are all kinds of articles out there about how [women] over 40 just can’t swim in the zeitgeist…These are women with experience, with soul, with knowledge, and they’re creating unbelievable characters and exploring worlds in a way that shows heart and depth.”
She laughs, adding: “3,500 women. I want to have a party for them all.”
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