Making of a PSA: Interview with Writer/Director Aubrey Smyth

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Writer/Director Aubrey Smyth (center) works with the young actors on the set of Little Leading Ladies. Photo courtesy of Gingersnap.


This is the first installment of a five-part series co-presented by New York Women in Film & Television and Adorama Rentals

Intro:
When fellow NYWIFT member Aubrey Smyth shared her idea to create a PSA inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, I was intrigued. Her idea to depict young girls in their “early career steps” in the industry felt fresh and playful. I know I can trace my first steps of being a writer to blue-lined paper covered in crayoned words no longer than five letters.

Smyth’s short narrative features several young girls from various eras aspiring to be future leaders in the film and television industry, in other words, #BeTheBoss. Recent studies conducted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism reveal “decisive and startling evidence of gender inequality and rampant stereotyping in film and television.” The press has turned their attention this year on the lack of women in front of and behind the camera due to some of the groundbreaking gender in media research being done. The #BanBossy campaign, created by the Girl Scouts of America in partnership with Lean In, focuses attention on the term “bossy” and points out that it’s a negative self-fulfilling stereotype:

When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood.

Sophia Amoruso, fashion icon and Nasty Gal founder/CEO, grabs the term bossy and looks at it differently. Her foundation and new book by the same name, #GIRLBOSS, is all about “encouraging creative girls” (that’s you!) to learn more about business… and building a framework for young women to become successful entrepreneurs.“ Amoruso thinks it’s OK to call girls bossy. Even Tina Fey’s autobiography, Bossypants, isa play on the titled often bestowed upon women asserting themselves and hits back at the idea women can’t be bosses. I predict the dialogue is only getting started.

I thought Smyth’s PSA, Little Leading Ladies, would be a great opportunity to expand NYWIFT’s relationship with Adorama by suggesting we co-produce a short behind-the-scenes series that was both educational and fun. Over the course of the week, we’ll look at the writer/director process, casting, aspects of art direction, and some of the key technical elements that go into shooting a short film. At the end of the series, Little Leading Ladies will get its world premiere. I hope you’ll read along all week, share with friends and colleagues, and utilize your clout to make decisions not only at the box office but also when hiring, to help end gender inequality. 

— Amanda Lin Costa, Producer, Little Leading Ladies

Interview with Writer/Director Aubrey Smyth: 
NYWIFT member Anne LaBarba interviews Aubrey Smyth about her inspiration and her process writing and directing Little Leading Ladies: 

What was your inspiration for the piece? It’s very clever and relatable. Thank you, that was the reaction I was hoping for! I was thinking about how the imaginative ways we play as children develop our personalities and influence our future careers. I was inspired by a quote of Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In that said:

"I want every little girl who someone says ‘they’re bossy’ to be told instead, ‘you have leadership skills’ because I was told that and because every woman I know who’s in a leadership position was told that.”

Right after graduating Pratt Institute I co-founded my video production and post company, Gingersnap. I thought about where my earliest leadership skills came from and laughed reflecting back to vivid childhood memories I have of my brother and I making movies. We would build TV show sets out of cardboard, and he would play the Talk Show Host and I would be filming with the VHS camera. The “Future CEO” character in the video is wearing the very outfit I wore to school in second grade. I would call myself “Business Girl” and have all my friends pretend to be my secretaries. I think Little Leading Ladies is relatable because everyone can describe a childhood moment when your personality was developing and how it can define who you are now.

What was you writing process? Did casting, locations and budgets alter your initial vision? 
I co-wrote the script with my writing partner and mom, Deborah. I love the process of writing with her because we have been finishing each other’s sentences for 26 years. We always write our scripts being aware of what we already have access to and potential limitations. The writing is the easy part!

We needed to find ways to be time- and cost-effective, and decided to shoot all the interiors in one location by using the walls of our Gingersnap office. This seemed easy but it put all the pressure on the production designer (Deborah) to create the set from nothing. But it also gave us control and imagination. It forced us to be creative with simple camera movements and allowed the DP, Bryant Fisher, to invent the lighting.

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Writer/Director Aubrey Smyth paints sets for Little Leading Ladies at the Gingersnap office in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Gingersnap.

How does the process of directing child actors differ from adults? What techniques did you find useful? 
I had experience directing documentaries for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, with children but Little Leading Ladies was my first time directing a narrative with child actors, and I was blown away by their professionalism. I think being strategic by selecting the right child for the role during casting is very important. Since time is limited on set you need to cast a child that understands their character and can adapt to reading the lines several ways.

My method for directing children is to treat them like mini adults. I use comparisons in their life to help them give the proper reactions for the camera. A silly example would be, “Show me the smile you would make if you found out school was cancelled tomorrow.” I give a lot of encouragement and make sure to never say “no” or “one more take.” Every take is a good take, even if it wasn’t, because positive feedback helps them get through any difficult moments.

Where do you see the piece going now that it’s finished? Do you have a target for it? Who do you hope to inspire? 
My goal in creating this video was to promote and celebrate women of all ages in the film industry, and I would love for women to share it amongst each other online. I have been disappointed reading books about the best directors in film and only finding a handful of women on the pages. This video is a statement that women develop as leaders from a young age and it is okay to be the boss. I hope to inspire young women to take on top leadership positions in the media industry. 

What practical advice do you have for a filmmaker taking on this kind of project for the first time?
There are several things I have learned while directing large casts and crews with tight schedules. I need to guarantee my focus is only on the story and the actor’s performance on set, so planning and preparation in advance is crucial. When you’re directing there are hundreds of decisions to be made, so I try not to leave any detail unplanned and know exactly what I want.

Be mindful of the time schedule, but do not feel pressured to move on from a shot unless you have gotten what you need from the performance. You cannot duplicate in post the shot you never got.

And lastly, always remain positive even if something isn’t going your way. I like to be supported by a talented crew with good attitudes. That’s what makes filming an enjoyable experience.

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Writer/Director Aubrey Smyth (left) at a production meeting for Little Leading Ladies. Image courtesy of Adorama Rentals.

What’s the project you’re working on next? That you would like to work on next? 
I love writing and directing narrative branded-content videos for the web. I co-wrote a script for a Lipton Ice Tea competition and it was selected to be produced. We wrapped the shoot last week and it was a comedic narrative video about two little girls and a boy that devise a sneaky plan to have the most epic summer barbecue ever. My goal is to direct commercials, and I am currently co-writing a comedic feature.

Please join us Tuesday when the series continues with an interview with Little Leading Ladies Casting Director Jessica Daniels.

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