Women Working Below the Line Hollywood
Catherine Ledner for Variety

When Rita Lundin was working as a driver on “Men in Black 3,” the message from her Teamsters coordinator was blunt: We don’t like to work with women.

“He told me he wouldn’t be able to sleep, thinking I wasn’t going to make it to the set and that I wouldn’t be able to do the job,” she says.

It didn’t matter that Lundin, 55, was a third-generation member of the movie industry, and grew up on the sets of films and TV shows, even appearing as an extra on “Gunsmoke” when she was a girl. Nor were her prior credits as a driver — an impressive list that includes “Iron Man” and “The Hangover” — enough proof that she could handle a job that required her to move massive trailers, set up generators and keep the stars’ cushy offscreen homes clean and in shape.

“Being a woman, you have to work twice as hard,” says Lundin, noting that by the time filming was done, the Teamsters wanted her to keep working in the city. “Men get hired because they have a license. Women get hired because they know how to do their job.”

Lundin’s struggle with institutional sexism may be more overt than many, but though progress has been made, the movie business is still a man’s world. Rare is the woman in below-the-line jobs who doesn’t carry a few scars.

Illustration by Borja Bonaque for Variety

Anna Behlmer has earned 10 Oscar nominations while working as a sound mixer on such films as “World War Z,” “Star Trek” and “Blood Diamond.” Yet she still recalls one particularly nasty incident on the 1992 movie “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” when a member of the editorial staff walked in, pointed her out, and said, “What the fuck is she doing here?” After answering that she was the sound mixer, he told her, “Like hell you are.”

“Can you imagine that stuff now?” Behlmer asks. “He was just a grumpy old guy, and he tried everything to get me kicked off the film. I was so stressed out I lost six pounds.” Eventually, her credits spoke for themselves. “All the silliness stopped after my first (Oscar) nomination,” Behlmer says. “People stopped doubting I could do the big movies after that.”

Yet the numbers suggest that women still have a long road to travel to achieve equality. Exact statistics on employment throughout the production fields are hard to come by, but those that exist are not encouraging: In 2013, women comprised 2% of composers, 4% of sound designers, 9% of supervising sound editors, 2% of special effects supervisors, and 5% of visual effects supervisors on the 250 top-grossing films, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

The indie world is slightly more diverse. Of the 1,163 people working behind the camera on 82 U.S. films at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, almost 30% were women. Females comprised 19.7% of cinematographers and 27.9% of editors on those productions.

As the numbers suggest, sexism still exists. And when it bubbles up, it helps to have a tough skin.

“The best thing to do is to defuse it with humor, and remove yourself from whatever situation you’re in,” says Lynda Reiss, a 55-year-old prop master who has worked on “True Detective” and “American Beauty.”

Reiss believes the threat of legal action has made people behave better than they did when she first broke into the business. It doesn’t hurt, she adds, that there are now more protections in place. “They make you sign a million pieces of paper, and we have production meetings where we are given anonymous lines to call if something happens,” she explains.

Sandra Adair, 62, has spent two decades editing indie auteur Richard Linklater’s pictures, including his current release “Boyhood,” with the two forming a tight bond in the close-knit Austin, Texas, film scene. “I raised my kids over the 22 years that I worked with Rick,” she says. “I dragged them to the cutting room when they were sick or had to go to the dentist. He’s always been very family-friendly and considerate of the fact that I was a working mom.”

Getting those kinds of creatively fulfilling jobs isn’t easy, she stresses. “Women have to work harder and speak louder to get noticed. It’s still a bit of a boy’s club, and it doesn’t feel as easy for a woman to climb the ladder as it is for a man.”

For those women who moved into sound design, visual effects work and other below-the-line occupations in the early days of feminism, the reception could be blistering. Just ask Mary Jo Devenney, a 61-year-old production sound mixer.

“When I first started as a boom operator, there were not very many women, and it was deemed acceptable for people to come up behind you and tickle you while you were booming,” Devenney recalls. She says that whenever she got a job, people assumed she was the girlfriend of someone on the production, or married to the mixer.

Anecdotally, producers and production staff say they are running into are a greater number of women on film sets and among post-production crews than in the past.

“When I started in this business 15 years ago, most artists and technicians were male, but I’m seeing more and more female compositors, supervisors and programmers,” says Stephanie Allen, the head of Paramount’s visual effects division, who adds that the ratios of women to men have also improved.

Indeed, there are statistics that suggest a growing equality in some fields. IATSE 695, which represents sound technicians, television engineers, video assist technicians and studio projectionists, among others, reports that over the past two years, the number of female union members in those fields has increased by 25%.

Other entertainment unions and professional organizations are trying to boost equality, but despite those efforts, women still account for a smaller slice of the membership than men. The Visual Effects Society, for instance, pegs the ratio of female members at 15%-20% out of roughly 3,000, while the Intl. Cinematographer’s Guild, Local 600, says women comprise 13.6% of its 7,400 members. “It’s not a secret that women are extraordinarily under-represented not only in visual effects, but in the entertainment industry at large,” says Eric Roth, the society’s exec director.

There also are issues with compensation, argues Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film and an Oscar-winning producer of Paul Haggis’ 2004 drama “Crash.” Studies show that females who work as executives, directors, producers and in other leading posts are paid less than male colleagues. She believes the compensation picture could brighten if more women were in positions of power.

“The people who run the companies have the ability to set policies,” Schulman says. “They need to make it the rule, not the exception, that women make the same amount of money for the same jobs, and get the same guarantees as men.”

Today, only two of Hollywood’s major studios are run by women — Sony Pictures’ Amy Pascal and Universal’s Donna Langley. DreamWorks’ CEO Stacey Snider, who previously oversaw Universal Pictures and was president of TriStar Pictures, is expected to help lead another studio when she goes to work for 20th Century Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos as soon as her DreamWorks contract expires at year end.

Devenney says the issue isn’t that men get paid more on a particular movie, but that women are better represented on lower-budget, lower-paying jobs, and struggle to get hired on the more richly compensated, blockbuster productions. “That’s the glass ceiling,” she says.

Some women, particularly those in the rising next generation of female crew members, don’t blame sexism for the second-guessing they encounter. Take Holly Hosman, a 31-year-old grip. At under 5 foot 4, 125 pounds, she admits that she doesn’t fit the mold of the big and burly men who are usually tasked with rigging lights, moving equipment and shouldering hours of physical labor. Sure, she says, she draws stares when she shows up on set, but she’s not willing to ascribe the reaction
to her gender.

“I think it’s size-ist,” Hosman says. “If I was a broad-shouldered lesbian, it might be different, but when you’re straight and small and cute, people don’t know what to do with you.”

Like Hosman, Karen Goulekas (pictured top) is a rarity in her line of work — a female visual effects supervisor. But she says she has never had difficulty getting promoted during her three decades in the business — and she has a resume to prove it, with such films as “Looper” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” In fact, she doesn’t believe chauvinism is responsible for the unequal hiring of women.

“If you stop and have children, it changes things,” she says. “If I had small kids, and had to pull them out of school so I could go work in South Africa or London, I don’t know if I’d be doing this. Right now, my husband (who also works below the line) can always get a job on a film where I’m posted. We can be fluid. The hardest thing we have to worry about is bringing our cats.”

Maintaining a work-life balance is difficult, given the grueling hours on sets, with shifts that often start before dawn and end late at night.

But those who embrace this line of work find ways to cope. When a film would take her away from her Los Angeles home for prolonged periods of time, Reiss would fashion a scavenger hunt for her daughter, complete with clues that the youngster could deduce. She also made tapes of herself telling stories that her daughter could watch.

“The hours are primarily what kill you,” Reiss says. “Early on, I realized, I can’t go to every soccer game, but I’ll make sure I’m there for the big games, the graduations, the first days of school and other milestone moments.”

Catherine Ledner for Variety

Peggy Names (pictured above), a 64-year-old boom operator, remembers working so late into her pregnancy on the Bette Davis movie “The Watcher in the Woods” that the Oscar-winning legend grew concerned. “She wanted to be sure that the production had the number of the nearest hospital in case I delivered,” recounts Names. “She was worried about me climbing up and down the ladder.” The hours may be long and the sacrifices great, but there are rewards for being involved in a collaborative and creative medium, whether the work is done in the editing suite, on the soundstage or on location.

“It’s tough; it’s rigorous,” Names says. “I’m pushing carts uphill, up sand dunes in 110-degree heat with sand blowing in my eyes, and I’m still smiling and thinking, ‘This is great.’ ”

While under-represented in general, women do dominate certain departments, such as makeup, wardrobe and script supervision.

Andrea Ulrich, a 34-year-old script supervisor who has worked on “Person of Interest” and “Noah,” says she is always pleasantly surprised to see a female grip or member of the electrical team, but she doesn’t think gender dynamics will change much. Being a grip is basically a blue-collar job, she notes, adding, “I’m not sure how many women want to work on a construction site.”

Women in production say they consider it a mission to mentor their young counterparts trying to break into the business.

“I have an open door policy when it comes to career advice, because a lot of people did that for me,” says Jennifer Bell, head of visual effects at Universal. “You need to guide people, and provide access to areas of the business that might not feel accessible.”

Despite making strides, some women in fields such as visual effects and sound are upset that more progress hasn’t been made. Victoria Alonso, 49, is one of the success stories, having climbed the ranks to become Marvel Studios’ visual effects chief and a producer on films such as “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” When she broke into the business, she estimates there was one woman to every 100 men on a visual-effects crew. Today, she feels that percentage has grown to roughly one in every 10 — but adds the figure is not enough. There needs to be a change in mind set, she argues, and it must come early in a child’s life.

“It has everything to do with (starting) when our daughters are 3 or 4 years old, and telling them there are other things to do than playing with dolls,” she says. “Every night, I tell my daughter she’s excellent at math. We can change the next generation.”

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