Maria Giese Crashes Hollywood’s Glass Ceiling
by Rebecca M. Alvin
Maria Giese came into this world surrounded by people who knew the challenges of a creative life, who understood the benefits of community, and had the courage to make change in their respective fields. Her mother is Rachel Brown, a renowned landscape photographer who collaborated with poet Seamus Heaney. Her grandfather was Lost Generation writer Slater Brown. And her father is Dr. Graham Giese, one of the founders of the Center for Coastal Studies, an organization with international acclaim and importance in the field of marine mammal study, education, and rescue, and a cornerstone of Provincetown’s influence in the world.
“I had a beautiful childhood on the Outer Cape. I was very lucky to live up on High Head, North Truro, the last glacial bluffs on the Cape,” Giese recalls. “We had a traditional Portuguese catboat that my brothers used to catch striped bass and bluefish [on]. We had a lot of great adventures on that boat.”
Giese went to Wellesley College and then on to the prestigious UCLA film school, where she earned a master’s degree in 1994. She embarked on her career as a director in Hollywood immediately. But even after her debut feature film When Saturday Comes (starring Sean Bean and Emily Lloyd) screened at the selective Cannes Film Festival in 1995, and even when she signed a contract with one of the most powerful entertainment agencies in the world, William Morris, getting work as a woman director in the overwhelmingly male-dominated Hollywood studio system proved an uphill struggle for her and her female peers.
Giese, who will be speaking at a slate of events sponsored by the Provincetown Film Society this week, made headlines in 2013 when she got the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to look into the issue of gender discrimination in Hollywood. While previously she had tried to work with her union (the powerful Directors Guild of America (DGA), which represents virtually all directors working in Hollywood film, television, and commercial production) to battle this discrimination, and she had even approached the California Office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), no progress was being made.
For Giese, her personal experience of workplace discrimination was not the only issue. Yes, there is gender discrimination in the hiring practices of Hollywood studios, historically, but the results of those practices reach much farther, affecting more than 50 percent of the global population in denying women access to the powerful storytelling mouthpiece of the world.
“If we think about the media—films and TV and commercials and so forth—that comes out of Hollywood as being our national storytelling, that this is something that defines our national ethos and that contributes in a huge way to the voice of our civilization, if women are disappeared from it, excluded from it, prevented from participating in it, then that’s tantamount to censorship. That’s taking our free speech from us,” Giese explains.
Giese spoke out knowing full well it could devastate her career, but after years of struggle, she recalls the straw that broke the camel’s back came when in 2011 she attended a DGA event designed to help women get directing jobs and was told that because she had not been able to get work for several years, she was now designated in a special DGA category “No Longer Working in the Trade,” and was ineligible for that program.
“I got really, really angry about that,” she recalls, and it lit a spark in her. As a result, she became very active in the DGA, attending meetings and trying to find out “why we were not able to move ahead in our own union; why was the administration and the upper leadership of the Directors Guild so hostile to any speaking out whatsoever?”
While in 1979 six women members of the DGA formed the Women’s Steering Committee to help women directors find work (and they did in fact increase women directors from .05 % to 16 % in just 10 years), the DGA has since combined women and minority directors together in their diversity efforts. As a result, while minority men have increased their participation in the directing field, the numbers for women are not as encouraging. Just this past summer, the DGA neglected to even take up a discussion of separating women and minorities as two distinct groups who require DGA advocacy on their behalf. Although the discussion would likely have led to greater opportunities for minority women, it was effectively crushed. According to the DGA’s own reports, minority males are now directing 16% of episodic television. Women of all races, who, Giese reminds us, are not a minority as we currently make up nearly 51% of the U.S. population, are now directing 17% of episodic television. And when it comes to feature films, it’s even more dire: the DGA reports more than 93.6% of feature films in Hollywood directed by men, (including 11.2% by minority men), 5.1% by white women, and a disturbing 1.3% by minority women.
Giese’s father, himself no stranger to standing up against incredible odds, raised her with a strong belief in equality that has sustained her through all of this. “For a girl growing up with four high-spirited older brothers it could be possible to feel overshadowed,” Giese explains. “But my father’s attention to me was always nurturing. He believes deeply in the relative equality of all living organisms, including people, so he always made me feel that I was equal to anyone and that I could accomplish whatever I set out to do. That said, he imbued in me a strong belief in fairness and justice and a commitment to civic duty to uphold these ideals wherever I saw them violated. He has done this himself in terms of conservancy and preservation on Cape Cod. In fact, he’s probably just as much of a badass revolutionary on the Cape as I have tried to be in Hollywood.”
But forcing change is a tricky proposition, especially when your opponent is the entertainment industry, with specific idiosyncrasies that make it hard to find particular culprits. Remember, the studio system was formed in California for a reason, and allusions to the Wild West are not without merit. The complexity of the system for hiring directors makes this an uphill battle for any agency that wants to take on the studios. Jobs are routinely given to directors who have personal relationships with higher ups and in fact, virtually all of the notable women directors in Hollywood who have managed to sustain a career are either married to or related to someone in power, or else they began their careers as successful actresses before transitioning into directing.
“Hollywood has to abide by our civil rights laws just like anyone else,” Giese says.
The ACLU issued a letter in May of 2015 to both the EEOC and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs to launch their own investigations, which they have at the federal and California state levels as of this past spring. That letter was published in the New York Times during the Cannes Film Festival, effectively highlighting the issue for the rest of the world, where Giese says a lot of progress has been made since this story broke.
“All these other countries started making these extraordinary initiatives for 50-50 gender hiring mandates, and they’re happening,” Giese says. She cites New Zealand, Australia, Canada, U.K., and Norway as just a few examples.
Giese’s story, which is the story of thousands of other women in the industry, was well documented in the mainstream press As a result, more and more women in the industry have spoken out, and there is finally some momentum for change, although only time will tell.
In the meantime, Giese is thrilled to be coming back home, a place she sometimes wonders if she ever should have left in the first place.
“When I was a teenager, Commercial Street became the center of my life—from watching movies at ‘The Movies’ to sneaking into the Back Room and Piggies with my best friend while way underage. It was a lot of fun going to the tea parties at The Boatslip during the outrageous late 1970s and early 80s. Most of our nights were spent on the piazza at Sal’s Place where many of us worked for at least several summers. After work, we’d swim in the bay late at night or row around in boats acting out roles in movies that we made up as we went along. I think all of our teen years would have been less bright without Sal Del Deo,” she recalls.
“I also was a huge fan of John Waters’ movies and I loved Divine. I worked for a lot of summers at the jewelry store Galadriel’s Mirror, and for a few of those summers my boss opened a shell shop across from Pepe’s. Divine was my best customer. He just loved shells and I just loved him. There weren’t as many celebrities in town back then as there are now, so Divine was a pretty big deal. I’m sure having John Waters around in my life further inspired my desire to direct—I just probably should have stayed out of Hollywood. I do think L.A. often functions like a creative vortex for young people. And I wish I had not missed out on sharing the lives of all the amazing people I got to know in Provincetown.”
After leaving town this weekend, Giese will be back at her crusade, this time taking the fight to Washington, D.C., with plans for a 2017 Summit on Gender Equity in U.S. Media & Storytelling, with the goal of creating “ a unified non-partisan strategy of federal action and legislative reform to achieve enduring gender equity among U.S. storytellers in accordance with America’s ideal of fairness and equal representation.”
Maria Giese is the keynote speaker at the Women Filmmaker’s Residency Brunch on Wednesday, October 12, 1 – 3 p.m. at Harbor Lounge, 359 Commercial St., Provincetown, and will also speak on the Women, Politics, and Film panel at Waters Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl., on Friday, October 14, 11 a.m. at Sage Inn & Lounge, 336 Commercial St. The panel is a free event; Brunch tickets are $50, with some reduced price tickets available by calling 310.463.1508. Visit watersedgecinema.org for details.