An Interview with 25 Year Old Filmmaker Adelaide McDougall
What comes to mind when you think of a film director? What about a producer? A screenwriter?
I see a white male, in his 50s or 60s, sitting in a fold out chair with a screen in front of him and headphones on. I see Martin Scorsese, Steven Speilberg, Quentin Tarantino. In fact, if you type “famous directors” into Google, you will be met with a sea of men. Do it and see for yourself.
This preconceived notion of what a film-maker looks like has never stopped Adelaide McDougall, but it has influenced her first short film, Virgo, which she wrote and directed. Virgo follows female protagonist Andy, who is striving to forge her path as an architect in a male-dominated world. Inspired by Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Certain Women’, Virgo offers a window into Andy’s life, revealing the subconscious and unintentional sexism both men and women can relate to.
I spoke with Adelaide about the journey that led her here, and her plans for the future.
What did you study? Was directing and film-making the first career path you pursued?
I studied a Bachelor of Communications at Massey, so not quite “directing”, although I did make a few hilarious (and terrible) television commercials and music videos through some of my classes.
When I think back, my passion for film actually started in media studies in high school! A group of us made a short film that came second in a New Zealand film competition (clearly I’m still proud of that, ha!). However it wasn’t until after university when I’d been living in New York that I discovered I could turn my passion into a career.
Interestingly, most of the people I have met and worked with in the film industry didn’t have a formal education in film either. It’s more important to get out there and start creating.
Tell me about your time in New York!
The first word that comes to mind when I think of New York is just “WOW”. I was there for nearly two years and there was never a dull day. It’s an incredibly challenging, inspiring, tumultuous, wonderful place and it was the start of so much personal growth for me.
It was in New York that I had the epiphany of wanting to work in film. I spent my first six months moving between jobs, at one point I had three, one of which was working as a bottle girl in a nightclub but I only lasted one week – I couldn’t hack it!
I then landed an internship at a film production company called Transistor Studios. The company was so cool; they had graphic art all over the walls, all the employees were tattooed from head to toe, dogs roamed the office, art was everywhere – it was such an inspiring and creative place. After my first day I wondered how I hadn’t thought of working in film before. All of my hobbies, interests and life choices suddenly made so much sense. It really was an amazing moment, and something I do not take for granted in a world where we have so many choices of career paths and it can often feel overwhelming.
Transistor Studios took me under their wing and offered to sponsor me with an artist’s visa to stay in New York. However I decided not to accept their offer and instead moved home to New Zealand for a period of time. People think I’m crazy, but it was the right decision in that season of my life.
Film-making is seen as a male-dominated profession, rife with sexism and gender bias, did you consider this before embarking on your career? Were there any mental roadblocks you had to overcome before jumping in?
I was very naïve when I started working in the film industry, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, rather in a positive! I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by strong women and was never exposed to any sexism or gender bias. In hindsight, this is really surprising because for a lot of the time I was working at Transistor Studios I was the only female so it would have been easy to become hyperaware that I was a woman. But sexism and ageism didn’t cross my mind, I just knew that I needed to work hard to achieve my goals which is the same for anyone in the film industry, regardless of gender.
It was only upon returning to New Zealand and starting work in the film industry there that I became more aware of the subtle moments of sexism: the offhand comments, the jokes – made by both men and women – that support gender inequality, sexism and ageism across all industries still today. I like to believe people are generally not trying to hurt someone or lend to these stereotypes through their comments, but that is what scares me. People don’t realise how their actions impact others.
This is where my first film, Virgo, began. I was motivated to shine a light on all the little things that people say or do; the seemingly insignificant joke, the inappropriate hand on a woman’s lower back, the self-deprecating humour women use to deflect. I hope Virgo encourages people to become more conscious and empathetic.
Kelly Reichardt’s critically-claimed ‘Certain Women’ inspired your short-film, are there any other female writers or directors that you have been influenced by?
Lena Dunham. She is a hero of mine. I’m constantly in awe of her ability to be such an open book and talk about all the things that we pretend aren’t there – unsuccessful relationships, failures in the workplace, weird sexual encounters, body image, mental health, the list goes on. I can’t begin to describe how important I think this is, especially with social media playing such a huge part in our lives. Instagram is a particularly hectic place for promoting our Insta-perfect lives, when the truth is we’re all on our own wild ride, navigating the many ups and downs of our twenties. It’s sad that we feel like we can’t talk about that anymore, and that’s where I’m going with my next project.
What does the future hold for Adelaide McDougall? What are your big, terrifying dreams? Any actors you’d love to work with?
We all have big, terrifying dreams I think, whether we like to admit them or not! I eventually see myself becoming a feature-length film director and executive producer. Finger’s crossed! But ultimately all I want is to create films that make people feel something.
Film has an incredible gift of allowing people to experience life through another lens, to create empathy and understanding. Through film we can transcend gender, time, race, and step outside of the shell of our lives and experience something truly unique. Take the film ‘Forrest Gump’, which we all know and most likely all shed a tear or 1000 watching. Would we have ever experienced the Vietnam War through the eyes of an American male with an IQ of 75, without that film to help us? Whether films are fiction or non-fiction, we open ourselves up to empathy and compassion for all types of living beings, and I think this can create change in the world.
Right now I’m writing a mini-series inspired by our twenties and all the crazy things that happen in life, it’s going to be fun. I’m hoping to collaborate with a New Zealand TV network on this project. At the same time I’m living and working in Vancouver as a freelancer and my next job is working as the Producers/Directors Assistant on a film. I’m really excited!
I’d love to work with Adam Driver, I love his acting. And Jemima Kirke. And Lena Dunham. Shall we just say the entire Girls cast? I told you I’m obsessed! Ashley Cummings who starred in the New Zealand series Westside is also an amazing actress. She’s going places.