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Toppling the Motherhood Penalty - Parental Inclusion Can Benefit Everyone

Posted By Michelle Budnick, Wednesday, September 4, 2019

When you consider the women on your production team, how many of them are open about whether they have children? How early in the hiring process did they disclose this information, and would they have been hired regardless of their family status? These are questions that production moms often ask themselves when they contemplate a career change or interview for a new positionwhich for a freelancer can be frequently.

Mothers working in production know that being open about their family can change the way they are perceived and have a significant impact on their career progression. It’s a phenomenon commonly known as the “motherhood penalty.”

A Harvard University study into the phenomenon concluded the motherhood penalty “may account for a significant proportion of the gender gap in pay.” It also noted, “Mothers face penalties in hiring, starting salaries and perceived competence, while fathers can benefit from being a parent.” In some cases that translates to a father who is a parent being seen as more stable and ambitious, leading to a greater chance of getting a raise or promotion.

Working mothers are often viewed as less productive, more distracted, less stable and less achievement-oriented than their male counterparts. Studies have shown that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired than men or child-free women and offered less money for their work. The pay gap grows larger with each additional child and does not begin to shrink until children are around 10 years old. These penalties can be compounded in the production industry, where the emphasis is on complete availability to work long and often irregular hours. That means fewer opportunities if you’re unable to meet those requirementsor you may face exorbitant childcare costs. 

The presumption that mothers are unable to perform as well as their male and child-free colleagues is based on outdated stereotypes that working mothers won’t prioritize work or will be unavailable when needed. In order to change things, we have to normalize, not stigmatize, production moms. Employers also need to recognize the many skills a working mother develops that are valuable for the production world, such as emotional intelligence, organization, negotiation and time management.

With ages 25 to 35 being career development years and the time when women are most likely to have children, females in production are forced to factor in more variables than their male counterparts when deciding whether to start a family.  

In order to have true equality, women must be able to pursue their careers at the same time they’re having children, instead of being asked to choose which is more important. Progress has been slow, and we are losing a vital voice and a great deal of creative talent in the process.

But there are signs things are moving in a different direction. Galvanized by the Time’s Up movement in Hollywood and a larger shift toward addressing societal inequities, employers are starting to recognize the urgent need to redress the inequity and are seeing a positive impact from their efforts.

Building family-friendly policies around a healthy work-life balance is being recognized as an achievable goal for companies that value their teams. At many workplaces, policies like paid parental leave, job sharing, telecommuting and flexible work hours are seen not just as benefits but as necessities to retain a happy and productive workforce.

In Silicon Valley, a group called Parents in Tech Alliance has formed to create “positive and meaningful change for parents working in technology.” Companies such as Twitter, Lyft, LinkedIn and Salesforce are among the change makers.

When supervising producer Lindsay Liles took a job on The Bachelor, she found a flexibility she couldn’t have imagined when she had her daughter in 2018. “We’re a show about finding love, falling in love and having a family, so it was important for them to support a healthy home life,” Lindsay explains. In addition to meeting her breastfeeding needs, the showrunners allowed her to bring her daughter to meetings and to the set on the weekends she didn’t have childcare. They also moved her temporarily into casting when she was unable to travel with the show. This kind of treatment and respect encourages loyalty from employees who appreciate being accommodated. “Why would I ever want to leave when they have gone out of their way to support me?” says Lindsay.

Other production companies are following suit. Netflix is leading the way with a range of family- friendly policies that take into consideration both parent and baby. While employees are encouraged to have a healthy work-life balance and be present for their children, the company’s bottom line has not been impacted.

Moms-in-Film, a California-based nonprofit with support from Amazon Studios, Panavision and Collab&Play, is committed to raising awareness around inequities for parents in film and TV. They launched the Wee Wagon, a mobile childcare facility designed for use on film sets. The group has also advocated for California-based films to adopt a Parental Inclusive Clause into their contracts, which asks that productions commit to a 50% to 100% subsidy for the cost of childcare for all members of the cast and crew. They offer a handy list of 10 ways to be inclusive and recognize that childcare is the top issue among parents, with a survey noting that 77% of those working in the entertainment industry have had to turn down work due to a lack of childcare.

With a growing chorus of voices calling for equality, the power of visibly pregnant women on set, and high-level actresses advocating for childcare at work, the future looks brighter for mothers in production. In her book, Bossypants, Tina Fey relates that she was writing and producing 30 Rock from her home and bringing her child to the set, making her an outlier. It’s now becoming increasingly easier to envision a future where women in the industry don’t have to choose between their children and their creative ambitions as they work to achieve parity at the top levels of this competitive field.

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Balancing Act - James D. Stern Juggles A Panoply of Passions

Posted By Michael Ventre, Tuesday, August 27, 2019

On the afternoon of June 20, 2019, James D. Stern waited nervously until the moment the workday ended and he could get home, so he and his son could don their team gear, tune in to the NBA draft and wait until pick No. 7.  That’s when his beloved Chicago Bulls—Stern has an ownership stake in the club—would choose. And while the team’s selection of point guard Coby White represents a quality reinforcement for the Bulls’ backcourt, it’s likely Stern may have to keep waiting awhile for the Windy City’s next championship.

But he’s used to waiting. He’s a producer, after all—hardly an instant gratification line of work. Case in point: Murder Mystery, one of Stern’s very latest creative offspring, which debuted in June and became Netflix’s biggest weekend opening ever when it was viewed in 30.9 million households in its first three days. That project, featuring the superstar comic stylings of Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, took about 10 years to get to the screen.

“You get lucky sometimes,” he opines about his business. “Then unlucky. Then you get lucky again.”

Murder Mystery, directed by Kyle Newacheck, is a fish-out-of-water comedy with an Agatha Christie setup about a New York cop and his hairdresser wife who go off on a fancy and long-promised European vacation, only to be ensnared in murder, intrigue and fine dining aboard a billionaire’s yacht. The one-sheet sums it up perfectly: “First-class problems. Second-class detectives.”

Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler in Murder Mystery

“I knew it was going to be huge, honestly, at the first preview,” says Stern, who is currently overseeing the Mike Cahill-helmed drama Bliss, starring Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson, and has several other plates spinning in film, TV and on stage. “It was a 500-seat theater, and nobody left. You can just feel it. When you do enough films and theater you don’t need something to open to know if it’s working or not.”

Stern first encountered the project about a decade ago, after James Vanderbilt’s script was put into turnaround by Disney. From there, the long journey began. It’s a familiar one for career producers: Sink your teeth into a project, and don’t let go until it reaches the screen.

James D. Stern and First Assistant Director
Dan Lazarovitz on the set of
Bliss

Murder Mystery wouldn’t exist without Jim Stern,” explains Vanderbilt, whose credits include Zodiac and White House Down.

“He just refused to give up on it. Refused,” he adds. “He got involved with it 10 years ago and put his money behind it just because he liked my script. The amount of times the movie came together and then fell apart was insane. Everybody gave up on it at one time or another. I gave up on it, and it came out of my brain. But not Jim. Every time another studio passed or we lost another actor or director, he just calmly put the thing back together.

“It’s like he and (producer) Tripp Vinson finally just willed the thing into existence. And I guarantee you if Netflix hadn’t finally come along, Jim would be on the phone today still trying to get Murder Mystery made.”

Like many projects, Murder Mystery came together when it came together. When Sandler and Aniston got on board for their first film together since 2011’s Just Go With It, the rest fell into place. The film was produced through Stern’s Endgame Entertainment, along with Happy Madison Productions and Vinson Films.

“Adam had been interested for a long time,” Stern says, “but because of schedules and whatnot, things did not align. But once he came on it went very fast. Then Jennifer came on and it was fast-tracked.”

Adding to the serendipitous turn was Netflix’s involvement. “For the last few years, we really wanted to do it with Netflix,” Stern explains. “It felt like the perfect Netflix movie. I knew the audience would coalesce around the movie.” Of the 30 million-plus who initially saw the film after it dropped, just over 13 million watched the streaming service in the U.S. and Canada, while another 17 million viewed from abroad.

Script supervisor Ronit Ravich-Boss, Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler, director Kyle Newacheck on Murder Mystery set

But it would be wrong to pigeonhole Stern as simply a purveyor of mainstream comedies and a basketball junkie. He owes much of his success to having a wildly eclectic palette.

Consider The Old Man and the Gun, released in 2018, which may have been Robert Redford’s swan song as a headliner. Co-starring Casey Affleck and Sissy Spacek, it was based on the true story of Forrest Tucker, a stickup man and escape artist whose career in crime lasted from his teen years to his sunset years.

“It is very much a movie about an artist who does not want to go gentle into that good night,” Stern says of the film, which was written and directed by David Lowery and based on a piece in The New Yorker by David Grann. “It was somewhat an homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. It’s a small movie that went flawlessly. It was a dream for me to get to know Redford.”

Then there’s Stern’s theatrical side. He’s won Tony Awards for producing Hairspray and The Producers, a Drama Desk Award for Stomp and has had many other forays into the footlights. Recently he obtained the rights to Silver Linings Playbook and is adapting it for the stage.

 “Once you get the bug, you never lose it,” he says. “I love the theater. I started in the theater; that came first. The immediacy and electricity—I guess I’m a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. There’s nothing like Broadway. And you don’t have to defray the risks to different territories. It’s all there.”

Finally there is James Stern the political animal. A staunch liberal and brother of former Obama adviser on climate change, Todd Stern, he nevertheless told friends leading up to the 2016 election that he knew Donald Trump was going to win. He discovered more evidence to back up his assertion when making his documentary, American Chaos—which he directed—featuring interviews with Trump voters about why they felt the way they did.

He took flak from some friends on the left for that project, but he felt it was important to explore Trump’s popularity. “I told my daughter Trump would win, and she said I was insane,” Stern recalls. “I said, ‘Come with me and I’ll show you.’” The rest, as they say, is history, which is still playing out with dramatic twists almost daily. Stern also has written and directed other projects, including So Goes the Nation, another documentary, about the 2004 presidential election.

One of the problems with being James D. Stern is that he has a passion for the theater, film and television, a passion for producing, writing and directing, a passion for politics and a passion for basketball—and they are all competing for his attention.

“My ADD,” he says with a laugh, “has served me well.”


- production photos courtesy of Amazon Studios/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

 

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PGA Dodger Day 2019

Posted By Michael Q. Martin, Tuesday, August 20, 2019

 Some 100 Guild members turned out on a beautiful evening at Dodger Stadium for our annual PGA Dodger Day. The Dodgers, who are on their way to a seventh consecutive National League West division championship, took on the Arizona Diamondbacks. PGA members not only celebrated a 4-0 Dodgers win but also enjoyed free food in the Coca-Cola All You Can Eat Right Field Pavilion.

Max Muncy got the Dodgers on the scoreboard with a solo home run in the second. In the third inning, Kristopher Negron singled to plate Russell Martin. In the fourth, the Dodgers tacked on two more runs as Martin singled to score Muncy. Then pitcher Kenta Maeda helped his own cause by bunting in Corey Seager and arriving safely at first. 

As the starting pitcher, Maeda bounced back from several poor outings and put on a clinic as he pitched seven scoreless innings. Caleb Ferguson and Joe Kelly kept the D’Backs scoreless in the eighth, and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for the combined shutout. The exciting day at the ballpark was organized by the PGA Events Committee.

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SUZANNE TODD - The Prolific Producer Who Has a Love of Musicals, Plays a Mean Hand of Poker and is a Game-Show Nut

Posted By Peggy Jo Abraham, Friday, August 16, 2019

Quick—what do mischievous moms, dog parks, memory loss, the Beatles, a white rabbit and Dr. Evil have in common? If you said producer Suzanne Todd, you’ve been paying attention. These are just a few of the themes in the many successful films this creative talent has brought to the big screen. As if making it in Hollywood were not enough, along her journey Todd has somehow found the time to give back in a very meaningful way. Her calendar is packed with pitches, casting calls and shoots, but you’ll also find charity poker games and mentoring sessions on her schedule. Yes, Todd is one of those rare people whom you swear has more hours in her day than you do.

Consider this: she has not one, but three major movies coming out this year. In the fantasy adventure Noelle, Anna Kendrick stars as the daughter of Santa Claus. And Todd is making two films with Adam DeVine: Jexi, co-starring Rose Byrne, and Magic Camp, based on a story by Steve Martin.

Todd’s passion is also palpable when talking about motherhood. As a single mom of three, she knows a thing or two because just like the commercial says, “She’s seen a thing or two.” Once when asked about motherhood tips, she was quoted as saying, “Don’t be hard on yourself, like thinking that you could have done more. Even in small things like making the best lunches.” Now what parent can’t relate to that?

From her own childhood spent watching her favorite movies over and over to the improbable and original way she raised money for her first student film, this is one determined producer. And when Todd speaks of the unique qualities that women bring to filmmaking, you quickly understand her message because, of course, you realize these are the special traits she possesses and brings to her work. And then you’re really, really glad she had the good sense to take a gamble and sit across from Dick Clark on The $25,000 Pyramid. Read on …

Todd on set with the cast of A Bad Moms Christmas 

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You’ve done so many types of movies, and many of them have been hit comedies. What it is about those that makes you gravitate to them?

On the Bad Moms movies that I made last year and the year before, I find that people who continue to talk to me about having seen the first movie and the second movie is that everybody loves to laugh. It’s trying times right now, obviously. Going to a theater and having that shared experience of laughing in a room with lots of other people who are laughing is unique to movies and live theater and just a few other things. But I also find it really interesting when people talk to me, especially about comedy, that usually they’re not referencing the thing that made them laugh the most; they’re referencing the thing that touched them the most—that relatability of the characters and the relatability of the struggle and this idea, in the case of Bad Moms, that we all want to be great moms and great parents, and we all struggle to do our best, and we all judge ourselves too harshly for our mistakes.


Yes, and I can see how that resonates throughout one’s whole life because once a mom, always a mom.

True, and being a producer is in some way like being a mom to hundreds of people for short periods of time while you’re making the movie together. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are a lot of amazing female producers. There are a lot of amazing male producers as well, but I do think there are some aspects to the job that are inherently, particularly female. Mothering and caretaking, and problem-solving and all those kinds of things, I think apply to both motherhood and producing.


Producers wear so many hats. What do you like best about the job?

I generally like all the parts for different reasons. I will say when you’re actually making the movie, it’s probably more interesting than when you’re in your car driving around to the 12 places that you’re going to pitch the movie. That kind of “putting on your tap shoes” part of it is not particularly my favorite. I think really getting into the nuts and bolts of it in a room with a writer, developing the script, being on set with the directors and crew, making it happen in the cutting room, reshaping what you thought it was going to be into what it’s really going to evolve into. All of those, the marketing, the publicity—I like all aspects of it. If I had a least favorite, it’s probably the tap dancing/pitching.


You’ve been such a supporter of women, giving them so many opportunities to create content and to act. How would you assess the situation today in terms of what you’re seeing with female empowerment and influence within the industry?

I think it’s amazing. Maybe this is too honest, but frankly there’s a small part of me that feels jealous. I wish that I was coming out of film school today, because I feel like the opportunities are so very different. When I was hitting the industry in 1986, there were so few women in those top jobs, and few women directing and few women producing. It really did seem, not like an impossible goal, but like a very, very difficult goal. I remember Lauren Shuler Donner being so nice to me and kind of taking me under her wing. And Sherry Lansing, who I’ll never forget—the first time I had lunch with her, and everything that came out of her mouth was just a pearl of wisdom. But there weren’t a lot of women in those positions. When you look at the landscape of creatives, of women now, writers and directors, showrunners and other producers—it really has changed just in the space of my career. I hope that we are moving now into a next phase where the stories that women want to tell aren’t particularly women stories, and it doesn’t just have to be females directing very female movies.


Is there any other big change that you’ve seen in terms of what you do since you started in the business?

I feel like in the last five years, I want to say everything has changed, other than the things that will never change. So the things that will never change are the characters, the stories, the storytelling, taking a look at the human condition and the perspective that we bring to film. But 95% of everything else has changed, even the conversations. You talk about material and it used to be, “Is the story better suited for a movie? Is it better suited as a TV series?” That was kind of it. Now with every story you take on, with every character you come across, you’re looking at, “Should this be a 10-minute mobile series on Quibi? Should this be something direct for the web? Should this be a limited series on cable, or streaming or network?” There are so many different formats now. There are a lot of different ways to make it work, and so you’re looking at everything through multiple lenses of how to do the best version of it. I have projects I’m developing in all these various formats, but it’s also new territory. So it’s both exciting and challenging.


And now you now have to consider so many types of audiences.

True. You’re looking at the different ways in which people consume these different kinds of entertainment, and the person who’s going to watch the 10-minute show on Quibi, most likely on their phone, is a different demographic than some of the other places where you’re going to try and put material out. So then that becomes a part of the conversation. I never try to make anything for someone else. I like to think I’m always making everything for myself. Because if I don’t like it, I don’t want to make it. If it’s something that I wouldn’t watch, I won’t make it. I’m just never going to do that. I wouldn’t be good at it.  But I do think this becomes part of our business decisions now.  What is something that’s interesting to me that would also be interesting to people in these different shapes and sizes of entertainment? Which, like I said, is both exciting and terrifying.


You seem very independent and intent on charting your own course. I read about filming Austin Powers and how someone advised you not to do it because it would basically be the end of your career.

Yes. I had one head of a studio pass and say to me, “You have a reputation as a really nice girl, as a good girl, and this will ruin you,” which is kind of hysterical, of course, because that spawned three movies and a franchise. And I think there isn’t a day that goes by where somebody isn’t quoting one of the many, many memorable lines from those three movies.


Is there any type of film or project you haven’t done that you’re still yearning to do?

I tell you what I’m always trying to do more of because the funny thing is that I’ve only done one: Across the Universe. If you had asked me when I first came out of film school what I was going to do, I would have told you that I only wanted to do musicals. Because musicals are really my jam, my thing, my happy place. I, weirdly, know the lyrics to basically every Broadway musical ever done since the dawn of time.

Todd meets the dreaded Lord Zeedd on teh set of Mighty Morphin Pwer Rangers: The Movie (1995) 


Your sister, Jennifer, and you have been so successful together, and apart. What comes to mind for me is, “What was in the water at the Todd house when you were growing up that led to these amazing careers?”

Jen and I were obsessed with watching movies. We would record our favorite ones and watch them 50 times. I mean, I have probably seen Singing in the Rain from start to finish without stopping a hundred times. Our parents were going through a really bad divorce. We were working hard at our very challenging private school. And we loved movies. Our mom, who worked, would drop us off at this movie theater we had near our house.  On a Saturday we would watch one or two or sometimes even three movies. That was how we would spend the day. 


And those are such formative years when movies can have a big influence on your life.

I think for me it was that time of life we all go through as teenagers. Because being a teenager is difficult anyway and your life is changing, and your body is changing, and the world is changing. And as I said, with Jen and I and dealing with our parents’ divorce, I had so many feelings, so many worries, so many things I was trying to figure out. There was something about movies that gave me this perspective that was so eye-opening, that I could watch a movie and understand something better about myself than I had before I saw this film. I could watch a movie and see a character and understand someone else’s perspective in a way that I hadn’t before. Also just movies make you laugh, movies make you cry. They take you on a journey. Sometimes it’s escapist and a relief from the real world. And sometimes it actually helps you navigate the real world. So I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to be in this space for so long now.


OK, a random question here about something I read and loved, because I’m a big fan of classic game shows. Is it true that you became a contestant on The $25,000 Pyramid to raise money for your student film?

I did. I had a friend who had gone on the show and who had said to me, “Oh, it’s only a day. It’s easy money. Just go.” So yeah, I won the money, and that was what I spent it on. I think I won $28,000. Back then if you went to the top of the pyramid in the bonus round you got $10,000. I did that twice, and then you win a bit of other money along the way. When I did Pyramid, Dick Clark was still the host. After that, because I’m both a game nut and a game-show nut, I went on Password, and I got to play with Betty White, which was really cool. 


Speaking of games, is it also true you’re an award-winning poker player?

Yes, I do play my fair share of poker and have won a number of tournaments and played at the World Series of poker many times. Over the years, after playing so much poker, I started hosting charity events of my own. So we just hosted our sixth annual tournament for a charity that I’m on the board of called Tia’s Hope. It raises money and provides services for children in long-term care in children’s hospitals. We started with City of Hope in Los Angeles, and now we have 11 hospitals across the country. And basically, what we do is when the kids are admitted to the hospital, they get a gift bag which is toys and stuff for them to do and a Visa gift card for their parents. It’s very expensive and time-consuming and painful to have children in the hospital, especially for long-term care.


I know you were recently honored with the Chrysalis Award and you have mentees at USC. As such a positive role model, can you speak to the importance of giving back, because it seems like you really do honor that a lot.

I really do. It’s so important to me. Through the years, it has shown up in my life in so many different ways. I served for six years on the board of the Archer School for Girls because girls and education are so important to me. I also work for the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement because Alzheimer’s affects women, unfortunately, so much more often than men. We’re trying to figure out why that is and what preventive measures  women can be taking to get ahead of it and understand it better. And Chrysalis is an incredible organization. Anybody who lives in Los Angeles or sadly, in America, understands what a crisis homelessness is. As Chrysalis points out, joblessness is the number one cause of homelessness. What they’ve been able to do for 66,000 people is put them on a path to employment, with support like resume building, practice interviews and job training. There’s something so powerful when you haven’t had this in your life recently or maybe ever. There’s something so powerful, just sitting down with a person who sits across the table from you and looks you in the eye and says, “I believe in you. You can do this. I’m here for you.”  


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She Definitely "Has It" - Tonya Lewis Lee Is A Fighter And Art Is Her Weapon

Posted By Sarah Sanders, Thursday, July 18, 2019

“I do think of my art as my activism,” says Tonya Lewis Lee early in our conversation—and it’s clear this core belief infuses all aspects of the many kinds of work she does. Whether as a producer, writer or entrepreneur, Lee is deeply committed to the power of telling stories that matter. “I’m very fortunate in that I am mostly able to pick and choose the kind of work that I want to be doing,” she says. “I do it with the intention of trying to make the world a better place, of trying to raise awareness and consciousness—especially around issues of race, issues of gender, equity, of health and wellness.


Lee has most recently been shining light on those topics through her work as executive producer for the second season of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, created and directed by Spike Lee (who is, yes, also her husband). The first season, released in 2017, was based on his 1986 film of the same name. Revolving around Brooklyn-based Nola Darling and her relationships with friends and multiple lovers, the film was groundbreaking in its depiction of an independent, sexually liberated Black woman. The second season continues to follow Nola, now grappling with artistic success and trying to balance her ideals with the demands of the corporate world.


While the first season adhered closely to the film, the second branches out, as we “go into Nola’s world and see where she leads us,” Lee says. “For me, it was just really fun to think about and look at a young woman who’s an artist and how an artist figures out how to make it today.  Being an artist is not an easy thing, especially when you’re first starting out.”


The show digs into the difficulty of balancing creative idealism on the one hand with commercial success on the other, asking, “Can you legitimately make money on your art and be true to yourself as an artist, or are you selling out to the corporate structure?”


For Lee, the two ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive, especially in terms of access and reach. “I want [my work] to have commercial success because that means it’s reaching as many people as possible,” she says. That matters to Lee because the projects she works on provide complex, nuanced depictions of people of color—something she believes there should be more of. “Looking at television, looking at film, is how we are informed about who we are, what’s happening in our world,” she explains. “Seeing my children see themselves in this world, this majority-white world that we live in, through television, through books, I realized there weren’t enough books I was able to read that featured kids that looked like them or TV shows with kids that looked like them,” she says. “I want to be contributing to that in the best way possible, as much as I can.”


As another way of bringing politics into art, She’s Gotta Have It also dives into issues of gentrification, something apparent in a Brooklyn that has changed dramatically in the 30 years since the film was released. “Sometimes when I still go back to Fort Greene, I feel like I’m Rip Van Winkle. It’s unbelievable to me how different it is,” Lee says. She explains that showing the effects of gentrification on communities of color was crucial to the remake of She’s Gotta Have It, in a way that ties back to the idea of art as activism. “It was really important, and continues to be important in the show, to show what gentrification is like and what it’s doing to a community. It’s a serious issue and it’s a serious issue for underserved communities. I don’t know what Brooklyn’s going to be like in another 25 years. I mean, is there a world in which we’re able to work together to keep it at least at this point? Or is it going to be completely whitewashed?”


The series does not provide any miracle solutions to gentrification, but Lee says the show does present “an awareness, an awakening, to where they are”—and awareness is a necessary first step toward change.


Another way Lee is helping bring about change is making sure the She’s Gotta Have It writers’ room features many women, like Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (who also produces). Having women on both sides of the camera also matters. While Lee gladly acknowledges that Spike created the character of Nola, she’s been excited by the guidance that women creatives have been able to provide, and what that has brought to the show. “We wanted to put flesh and bones into who she is,” she says of Nola. “And men don’t know what they don’t know,” she adds with a wry smile. “It was really important to have a room full of women—full of strong women—who were willing and unafraid to say what we really thought about what it means to be a young woman today. To Spike’s credit, and the other guys in the room, I think they really came to understand that.”


Helping a director realize the most fleshed-out version of their vision is a large part of what Lee views her work as a producer to be. “A producer’s job is to really be able to listen to a director’s vision, understand what it is they’re really after and figure out how to help them get there,” she explains. Lee was enthusiastic about having that director be, in this case, her husband; while both have been in the business for years, the initial season of She’s Gotta Have It was their first time working together. “We found our groove and how it works, how we work together,” she says. “And I have to say, I really did enjoy it. Even though there were moments, I’m sure, where I was like, I’ll never do this again!” she laughs. In general, Lee’s admiration for her husband’s work and values is apparent, especially in the ways he has opened doors for new, diverse voices. “He’s brought a lot of people with him, and I respect that immensely, and I want to do the same: work with all kinds of people who are trying to do the same kind of work that we’re trying to do.”

 

Tonya Lewis Lee and Spike Lee on location reviewing footage from season 2 of She's Gotta Have It

In order to make more of that kind of work, Lee launched the production company ToniK Productions with her partner, Nikki Silver, in 2012. They have since produced several films, including Monster, which premiered at Sundance in 2018. While producing independently can be challenging, Lee

says there are also rewards. “As independent producers today, it’s not easy. You’re sort of out here on your own,” she explains. “But the flip side of that is that we do get to do the work that we want to do, in the way that we want to do it, with the kind of people we want to do it with. It may take a little longer and be a little harder, but you know, we fight the fight.”


And fighting is important to Lee, in a way that, again, comes back to art as activism. “It’s a battlefield out here,” she says. “What’s my part? How am I fighting? Because it matters to me. The sacrifices that were made for me to be here, matter. And so, what am I doing to further the human race?”


It’s a question that clearly guides the work Lee does away from television and film sets as well. “I joke with friends, especially in these days, we need to be army-fit. Because if someone says run, I better be able to run. I don’t want someone to have to put me on their back. I want to be able to carry my own weight. And I’m a survivor, we all are survivors—we’re here. So, being mentally, physically and spiritually strong is critical,” she says.


Indeed, Lee has been a public health and wellness advocate for many years. In 2009, she produced the documentary Crisis in the Crib, exploring the issues of infant mortality in the United States. She later launched Movita, a wellness brand offering organic vitamin supplements that address the specific needs of women. In addition to advocating for women’s health, Lee also aims to demystify health practices more generally. “The bottom line: eating well, moving your body and getting your sleep is everything. And when you’re young, if you can start doing that and make it become part of a habit, then you can continue to do the work at the level you want to be doing it … for as long as you want to be doing it.”


Lee practices what she preaches: she meditates, eats a mostly vegan diet and exercises regularly. In fact, members of the She’s Gotta Have It crew would frequently encourage each other to go to the gym after wrapping for a day. “I’m like, my god, if the camera operator can be in the gym after he’s been holding that camera all day, then I should be able to do that!” she says with a smile—though not for vanity’s sake. In addition to the practicality of taking care of one’s body for career longevity, Lee insists that self-care has a political component. She admires writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde and cites her quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”


“I do love that, because again, it goes back to art as activism,” she says. As part of that self-care, Lee says she is also working on “going with the flow of life” and not letting herself get stressed about intense production schedules. “I try really hard to be kind to myself,” she says. “I’m at an age where I know what I can deal with and what I can’t. And if I can’t,  I’m not going to deal with that.”


As for other words of wisdom, “My advice for producers would be find your team, find your people,” she says. “I think it’s great to have collaborative partnerships, people that you trust, who you build relationships with, who you enjoy working with.” She also says to remember that things take a long time: “Never give up. You just gotta hang in there. And if it doesn’t work one way, you’ve got to figure out another way.”

 

 

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