Lexi Alexander, director of the underrated PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008) joins Shaun to talk about activism in Hollywood, pigeonholing, storytelling, Twitter, and what sex has to do with social consciousness.
Below are a few selections from the episode, edited for length and clarity.
On “making the mistake”
I think you can learn more about me as a storyteller, or filmmaker, by watching the film that broke me into the business, which was a 40-minute short film about a boxer. It got me an Academy Award nomination, and otherwise I would have never broken into the club. You look at that film, which is a straightforward drama– it just happened to have a boxer in it. But it’s not a “boxing drama,” it’s a drama.
And the next film– it’s funny, because now I almost say, “I made the mistake,” and didn’t realize what was happening, but I can’t really say that, because Green Street was really good to me, in a sense.
What I did, though, is I wrote another drama, which was really about gang life, and “band of brothers,” and belonging. But I set it in the world of hooliganism, which has a lot of fighting. And what people took out of that- just like Johnny Flynton- they took out, “Oh, she made something about a boxer.”
Then they took, from Green Street, “Oh, she made something about lots of guys fighting.” And that escalated to the only job being offered was something as brutal as Punisher.
I happen to know the aspect of fighting really well, so I thought it would be smart for me to implement it in my storytelling. But I don’t need brutality and fighting in all my films. If you’re familiar with a film called Ordinary People, that’s the kind of film I grew up with, that I wanted to make.
I thought I tricked Hollywood by saying, “look, I’m going to actually prove to you that not only can I make films, but I can also implement things that you don’t think women can implement.” And by doing that successfully, I actually put myself in that draw.
Let me put it to you this way. If I would, right now, be put in a situation where I make the lists, [and I haven’t] dealt in the issues of equality and fairness, and, I’m just, like, “Okay, who do I like? Let’s look at my Twitter list.” I’m going to choose 20 or 30 people who I know can do the job, but I also like them as human beings.
But let me tell you something: that excludes a lot of frat, white boys. [Laughs] That’s why I can put myself into the shoes of somebody who does the opposite; who basically says, “Okay, I need to put a list together of comedy directors. Who’s funny?” And then the next thing you know, you have Judd Apatow in 20 versions, because this is who this person jives with.
On what a director looks like
They have a certain picture of how a director looks, and what that person is like. Even Spike Lee has never quite fit into that look: that Spielberg look, that Quentin Tarantino look. The geek who’s shy, and who one day shows up on set and knows everything about movies, and who spent his free time with his Super 8.
That guy is a really great director, but that doesn’t mean that the woman who directed The Babadook isn’t, or Catherine Hardwicke; Kathryn Bigelow; Ava DuVernay; Spike Lee; Steve McQueen. Any of these guys– they may not look like the ultimate geek who worked in the video store, who’s a white kid. And I think that has to do with risk-aversion; that a lot of these guys who make these decisions are so scared to lose their job.
On unconscious bias
I think I was still in acting school; we were out at this picnic, and suddenly people started betting money on these guys who [were playing] basketball. I remember precisely betting on the tall, black guy, because it was basketball, and they were going one-on-one.
And we had this whole discussion afterwards, because we were all theater geeks. We had this discussion, because he lost badly, and he said, “Yeah, actually, it’s not my best sport, basketball.”
And this young Jewish actor from New York beat the shit out of him. [Laughs] Instinctively, we all did what we did; we just thought, “That’s the guy that’s going to win the basketball [game].”
I think that’s what’s going on. Sometimes it’s exclusion, but most of the time, it’s more like, “Who do you bet on in a basketball game, when you see a young, short, Jewish, Brooklyn kid, and a tall, athletic, black guy?” Who do you bet your money on? And that’s what goes on. It’s not even like it’s based on history.
On “becoming” a feminist
When I say I didn’t see myself as a feminist– this has all been corrected for me, because I educated myself, ever since I’ve been outspoken about this. Back then, when I would say I didn’t consider myself a feminist, it meant– you only called yourself a “feminist” when you’re actually an activist for feminism, whereas now I understand that there really is no “other.” There is either misogyny, or feminism.
Feminism just means, “I’m for equal rights for men and women.” That’s it. Therefore, everybody who is for that is a feminist. It doesn’t matter if you’re an activist on it, or not. So, in that sense, yes, I’m definitely, and always have been, a feminist.
There was no need for me to speak up about it, because I didn’t experience this kind of prejudice [in male-dominated activities, until arriving in Hollywood]. And once you realize what’s going on, even then, you don’t want to see it.
It takes some real convincing that that’s what it is, because, I think, for you to admit that it’s about me being a woman, it’s something I can’t change, or also, I don’t want to change. It’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do about it. So it took me a while to say, “Wow, that’s really what it is.”
On making money with an eight-headed monster
At South by Southwest- I brought Green Street there- I won both the Jury and Audience Award. All the distributors were there. They had not come out to see it before, which was odd to us. And there, they saw it: they saw how the audience reacted, they saw the reviews, they saw that it won both Jury and Audience, and none of them picked it up.
And there were several women there- including one of my producers- who said, “If you were Guy Ritchie with that movie, you would already be under three-picture contract, and they would have picked it up.” And I was like, “that’s such bullshit! Why wouldn’t they pick it up?”
That’s why, sometimes when a young guy says, “You make no sense. Why would people not want to make money?” I kind of get where that guy is coming from.
At first, you don’t want to believe it, because you think, “If they would have a chance to make money with an eight-headed monster, they would. What do they care about gender?” I don’t really think that’s the truth anymore.
On the real cost of sexual tension
There’s a story of a famous producer team. I heard from many people, for years, that my movie was mandatory watching at their production company. And I did not get a meeting there.
I was at the [Producers Guild of America] awards, and I saw these two guys walk out to smoke- they’re British dudes- and I was like, “I’m going to catch these two guys.”
I said to them, “What’s up? What did I do? What is it that you don’t like about me? Is it the German-ness? What is it?” And they said, “No, what do you mean?” and I was like, “We had that meeting, and my movie is mandatory watching. You told me you liked mine best. You cast everybody from my movie. But I have no relationship with you, and these two other guys have done commercials for you, TV shows, and one has a movie in development.”
And one of them said to me, “All right. We’ve had a couple of drinks, so we’ll tell you, but you’re not going to sue us, right?” And I’m like, “I’m German, I’m not going to sue anybody.” And they said, “If we had the relationship with you that we have with these guys, both of our wives would file for divorce.”
I laughed out loud, and then I was shocked. And, by the way, this is getting better as I get older. From that point on, you never saw me attractive going to any premiere. I’d make sure that I dressed down, or, a couple of times, I pretended to be gay.
I tried everything to take the sexuality out of the thing, but they make it impossible for you. When I visited them that day, they couldn’t have known if I was gay or not, married or not. It basically doesn’t matter. I didn’t have a penis; therefore I was danger territory.
The ACLU has been working with women directors about getting some clarity of what’s going on. There’s this thing where a lot of guys want to mentor me, and want to fight for a specific job for me. But they can only go so far, because I’ve had an another example of somebody telling me, “Look, I can’t fight for you like I fought for Joe Schmoe that time, because people will think you and I have a thing.”
A lawyer at ACLU told me, “This has been proven; there’s been many studies about this, especially in law. The partners don’t want to mentor younger female lawyers because of the potential rumor of affair.” Can you imagine?
On personal responsibility and excuses
The thing I find the most unfair, when people argue with me about it, is that I’ve done everything right. I came here with literally $2,000 in my back pocket. Nothing more.
I had the craziest job to finance myself through drama school. Then when I wanted to be a director, I said, “Well, how I do that?” So I raised money to do the short film. That one won an Academy Award nomination. You couldn’t have been more of a self-doer. No trust fund money. No parents to fall back on. If there was an instruction book for Hollywood, I literally followed it.
I was that person who would never use an excuse. At that point, I had four different black belts in four different disciplines. I was already teaching the United Stated Marine Corps in hand-to-hand combat. I don’t make excuses.
I had a world champion title, and three European titles. I think I’d been a German champion for the past ten years by that time. I’m not the person who makes excuses and says, “It’s not my fault I don’t win at this; it’s these people’s fault.” That is not my attitude.
You are looking at an accomplished athlete who started here from scratch, without any money, any family support. And I’ve done everything right, and I still got stopped, massively.
On being “difficult”
You leave an agent, because another agent tells you, “It’s the agent’s fault that you’re not making it.” Then you start leaving that agent, and then that agent starts a fight with you, and you fight back, because you’re thinking, “Why are they fighting with you? It’s their fault you don’t have a career.”
So you start blaming agents and lawyers for it. Now, this “reputation” thing starts, and your career’s not doing well, so you suddenly become much more afraid that anything you do will be a failure. Now, you start arguing more with people, because you’re ruled by fear, and not by confidence.
When you’re a woman, this thing starts where– “crazy,” “hard to work with,” “life is too short,” “she’s really difficult.” This “difficult” reputation has been following me for a while.
Becoming a champion, being on a national karate team, which is all about respect, and honoring your coach; coming here, training the Marines. Even more. Military, right? So, all of this, and nobody’s ever called me “difficult.” But suddenly Hollywood starts. I’m “difficult.”
You start thinking, “I am difficult. I shouldn’t have said this. I should have never said that.” But then there’s that other thing, where people– my agents would advise me, “Look, Lexi. You’re a young woman. They will underestimate you, so make sure you have confidence.”
Well, how do you not speak up, or represent your vision strongly, and then, on the other hand, be a walkover? But then, if you’re not a walkover, you’re difficult? A woman, a psychologist, once said: “it’s a cage of oppression, where everywhere you go you bang your head.” And nothing works. And that’s where you find yourself.
On setting an example
When I get into a fight with somebody specifically, it’s not that I have nothing better to do. Sometimes I’ve sat in meetings, where I shouldn’t have been tweeting, and I’ve been tweeting, and I’ll tell you why.
When I have a fight with a specific misogynist- or a bully, or somebody who’s really mean to me, and somebody who curses me out, or who says something very downgrading- it’s not what’s happening on Twitter in that moment that’s important.
What’s happening with my DM box is that it fills with 20, 30 messages, mostly from young women, some even teenagers, who say, “You are my absolute hero. You give me so much hope. Until I followed you on Twitter, I didn’t know any women who spoke back to guys like this.”
And these are American women, not Arabic women. These are women here; teenagers who have been so intimidated by bullies in school, and GamerGate, and Facebook, and whatnot. They’ve never actually seen a woman say, “Come at me. Let’s bring it.”
Unlike me, these women did not train Marines in hand-to-hand combat. I mean, if somebody starts doxing me, I will literally stand at my doorframe and wait for them. I have no issues about that, and I’m pretty sure that none of them will show up. But that’s not for them, and I don’t advise that to other women.
The more messages I get, the more I feel like I have to do it. It’s not that they all have to be fighters, but a lot of the women- through no fault of their own- a lot of them became victims, because the threats were so outrageous. But I feel like there was part of me that was able to say, “Not always. Not always. I will actually call some of these people on their shit.” And it’s empowered a lot of young women.
Some girl wrote me the other day that, after she heard me say to this guy, “Nobody tells me to tone it down,” she told a boy in class that, “Nobody tells me to shut up, you shut up.” And she’s never said this before. So people have to consider: I’m not only there for myself, I’m sometimes there for other people.
How Did This Get Made? #20: featuring Lexi Alexander and Patton Oswalt discussing Punisher: War Zone.
Chicks Who Script Episode Six: Lexi Alexander and the Power of Determination: Lexi discusses a variety of Hollywood experiences with fellow women in the industry.
Celluloid Ceilings: Women Directors Speak Out: a Bloomberg documentary about gender inequality among Hollywood directors.
The Ramaa Mosley Motion: DENIED: Lexi Alexander tweets from a Directors Guild of America meeting.