Naomi McDougall Jones: Award-winning Writer, Actress, Producer & Women's Rights Activist

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Bio:

Naomi McDougall Jones is an award-winning writer, actress, and producer based in New York City. She is currently in post-production on her second feature film, BITE ME, with producers Jack Lechner (THE FOG OF WAR, BLUE VALENTINE) and Sarah Wharton (THAT’S NOT US), which she wrote and also starred in opposite Christian Coulson (HARRY POTTER), Annie Golden (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), and Naomi Grossman (AMERICAN HORROR STORY). Naomi’s first feature film, which she also wrote, produced, and starred in, was the 12-time award-winning IMAGINE I'M BEAUTIFUL. The film received a theatrical release and is now available on iTunes, Amazon, and GooglePlay (www.imagineimbeautiful.com).  A pilot she wrote, THE DARK PIECES, is now in development for television in Canada after having been named on The 2016 WriteHer List as one of the top 16 unproduced pilots by a female screenwriter. Naomi was one of the writers for Amazon’s prestige series THE NEW YORKER PRESENTS, which premiered at Sundance. Naomi has become an advocate and speaker for bringing gender parity to cinema. She gave a virally sensational TEDTalk, What it’s Like to Be a Woman in Hollywood, which has now been viewed almost 1 million times and can be seen on TED.com. She additionally hosts the podcast Fear(ful)less: Filmmaking From the Edge about her adventures as an indie filmmaker, available on iTunes and GooglePlay.

(Click to watch TED TALK)

How did you get into the industry?

For whatever reason, I came out of the womb telling stories. From the time I was a very small child, it has been my compulsive and constant need to try to interpret the experience of being conscious and human and share that with other people. Originally that was through roping all the neighborhood kids into putting on plays, or writing my “books” as a schoolkid, or creating a spoof radio show with my best friend, but from the beginning, I have always used all possible mediums at my disposal to creatively tell stories and create characters. In that sense, I have always been “in the industry.” In a more defined way, I got my first professional acting gig when I was in high school. I went to college for acting. I fully entered the world of professional film and theater (or began trying to) as soon as I graduated from college in 2008 and have been energetically involved ever since.

Any emerging industry trends?

I believe that film is at the tipping point of a wildly exciting new landscape. For one thing, most films that are coming out of “Hollywood” as we know it right now are genuinely dreadful. The decision makers have blood-wed themselves to the economic model of simply re-making, re-booting, prequalizing and sequalizing every intellectual property to have ever existed. Even when they very occasionally make “new” films – they rely so heavily on existing formulas as to manage to make them pretty equally boring to the rest of it.

This has been their unimaginative answer to the shifting macro-economics of film in the age of internet piracy and Netflix, which has meant diminished domestic revenues across the board. Rather than reduce the budgets of the films they were making (entirely possible as the technology has gotten better and cheaper), Hollywood has, instead, clung to their bloated budgets, which has meant that they are forced now to sell their films more forcefully in every territory in the world, rather than rely on domestic sales for large portions of their recoupment, the way they had before.

If you consider what this means for storytelling, however – making films that will “play” and make sense in every territory in the world necessitates that they remove any and all cultural nuance from the filmmaking. Comedy, for instance, which is intensely culturally specific, becomes impossible to make. Instead, they are left really only with the tools of explosions and the reductive, inane, bang-you-over-the-head dialogue that pervades almost every movie coming out of Hollywood these days.

As a result of this, domestic audiences are largely giving up on film, instead flocking to watch TV shows, which, in a stark contrast, have become the home of inventive, sharp, fresh storytelling. It is worth noting that much of this exciting new TV content has come because, in numbers far greater than film, women and people of color are newly being given the chance to get behind the camera.

The answer here, though, isn’t to abandon film as a form. Rather, Hollywood has created a golden opportunity for independent filmmakers, particularly women whose voices have been, so far, systematically kept out of cinema (if you’ve watched mostly American movies in your lifetime, around 95% of them have been directed by men. 95%!!!).  

We indie filmmakers know how to make high quality films for incredibly low-budgets that will, as a result, have no problem recouping domestically – even in the reduced economy. We have the opportunity to make the smart, interesting, grown-up content that can rise up and fill the void that Hollywood has so conveniently left open for us. As this possibility converges with a new “woke”-ness in the general population and an increased desire by audiences to see the stories that have been historically silenced, I believe we are the verge of an explosive and gangbusters-exciting new era of cinema in which women and people of color will get to pioneer wildly interesting and unexplored new modes of storytelling.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

I guess I included my answer to this question in the last one in terms of what opportunities await us.

Certainly, the challenges of the film industry as a whole are significant right now. They include the rapidly evolving distribution landscape and, in the age of Netflix and Amazon Prime, the feeling among consumers that they should be able to watch whatever they want without paying for it (except for their monthly membership fee that comes off their credit card without them having to think about it). We are engaged in a wild west trying to figure out what the best models are to monetize content.

For women, people of color, and other underrepresented voices, there are still the enormous hurdles of systemic and unconscious biases that implicitly and explicitly tells the decision-makers that we and our stories are less valuable, unworthy of the same financing and accolades as stories about white men. However, as I pointed out in my last answer, the incredible slowness on the part of Hollywood to wake up to the fact that those untold stories are the content audiences are now seeking out, provides us with a previously unmatched opportunity to circumvent the existing system and deliver those stories directly to consumers. The internet, of course, now provides us with the means to create and distribute our own films and lessens the power of the traditional gatekeepers.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

As an artist, as you mature, this question of what your vision is for your career can become increasingly difficult to unpack. Most of us become an actor or writer because it is a thing that brings us great joy – that makes us feel more whole or less alone in our lives. That is certainly true for me. As a result, then, as a child or teenager, when people ask you what you want to be, you say, “Actor” or “Writer,” without having any real sense of what that life will mean.

What you come to realize, as you enter into the career itself, is that being an actor or a writer can mean a great many things indeed. As an actor, you could spend your life traveling to regional theaters for months at a time, singing and dancing in musicals; you could live in New York and spend most of your days auditioning and mostly not getting roles and then occasionally booking 1-5 line roles on major TV shows; you could join a theater troupe that travels around to classrooms and performs plays and get to act in that way every day of your life; if you get very lucky (or not, depending on how you look at it), you might become one of the 20-30 people in the world who are A-list movie stars and get to spend as many days of the year as they want of each year on set playing roles of their choosing. All of those people are professional actors, but the day-to-day of their lives bear as little resemblance to one another as a veterinarian and a rock star.

The question I have arrived at in the last few years is what, in my dream life, I would want my days to look like. I have tried to release the idea of “accomplishments” or “goals” or other external markers that will make me look successful to other people at a cocktail party and truly drill down into that original feeling of joy, connectedness, and fulfillment that I felt as a child in those pure moments of creative happiness. The project then has been to figure out how to construct a life that allows me to spend the maximum amount of time doing the things that bring that feeling.

Without question, the richest doses of that creative oneness and ecstasy have been in the process of making my own films – writing and acting and producing them. I have had the outrageous privilege now of getting to do that with my first two features – Imagine I’m Beautiful, which was released in 2014, and Bite Me, which is now in post-production. I feel that, fundamentally, I will have lived a full, happy, and meaningful life if I get to keep making my movies as long as I am cogent enough to do so. The recent hiring of an assistant to help manage my email and correspondence has created a life-changing reduction in the amount of time I have to spend on that stuff and a greater percentage of time in the act of creation, which has been a major positive shift in the direction of living the life of my dreams.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

2018/2019 promises to be an extremely exciting couple of years. Here’s what’s on the docket:

1.    Bite Me: My second feature film, Bite Me, which I, once again, wrote, acted in, and am a producer on, is currently in post-production. We are hoping for an early fall festival premiere, followed by a general theatrical and digital release in 2019. Bite Me is a subversive romantic comedy about the real-life subculture of people who believe that they’re vampires and the IRS agent who audits them. You can see production stills and learn more at www.bitemethefilm.com (sign up for our newsletter there to get notified of release/premiere dates).

2.    The Wrong Kind of Woman: Dismantling the Gods of Hollywood: A TEDTalk I gave - about the lack of women in film and what to do about it – went viral in late October and has since been viewed nearly 1 million times. Out of that came a deal to write a book expanding the talk and digging deep from both a personal and industry-wide perspective on how, despite all other advances, the percentages of women behind the camera remain unchanged since 1945, the ways in which female filmmakers are finding ways around the system to create their own work anyway, and how we can break through these walls going forward. The book, The Wrong Kind of Woman: Dismantling the Gods of Hollywood, will be published by Beacon Press in Fall 2019. Here’s the TEDTalk: https://www.ted.com/talks/naomi_mcdougall_jones_what_it_s_like_to_be_a_woman_in_hollywood

3.    The 51 Fund: The 51 Fund is a project I co-founded with Lois Scott, the former CFO of the City of Chicago, and have been developing over the last 18 months. When it launches, it will be a venture capital fund dedicated to financing films directed by women and, thereby, bringing women's voices to the audiences hungry for them. Thanks in large part to my TEDTalk going viral, as well as this zeitgeist moment in which we find ourselves, that project is now leaping and flying forward.

4.    The Women in Film Revolution: The women in film movement is wide and deep with over 116 organizations focused on bringing gender parity to film. A hurdle so far has been a lack of consistent communication and collaboration between those organizations. Assessing the incredible possibility of this moment we are in, I have founded The Women in Film Revolution to create a centralized mechanism for leaders of existing US-based organizations working to bring inclusive gender parity in front of and behind the camera in order that they may meet regularly, cross-pollinate, challenge ideas, share resources, inspire one another, ask for help and otherwise support and enhance the work they are already doing to that they all can become more powerful and effective agents of change. Only four months old, we already have upwards of 30 organizations actively participating on a monthly basis. https://www.filmrevolution.me/

5.    The Dark Pieces: A pilot and show bible I wrote are now in development for television in Canada. I can’t reveal more yet, but we expect to have a major announcement to share in the new year.

6.    Untitled Hammond Castle Project: I’ll be spending much of this year hard at work on revising my third feature film screenplay. It is a yet-untitled magical realism piece that explores themes of identity, legacy, and gender through a modern day 7-month pregnant woman’s unexpected encounter with the brilliant, eccentric, and deceased inventor, John Hays Hammond, Jr.

Like I said, it’s going to be a heck of a year. To stay tuned on it all, you can sign up for my newsletter on my website, www.naomimcdougalljones.com, and/or listen to my weekly podcast Fear(ful)less: Filmmaking From the Edge, available on iTunes and GooglePlay.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

The times I have experienced the greatest amount of success in my career have been when I have most full-throatedly spoken and worked from the truest version of myself. Early on, when I was newly out of acting school, I think I spent a lot of energy trying to understand what other people wanted and then doing my best imitation of that ideal. But, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “You have to be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

True success has only come when I finally worked up the courage to say, “You know. I don’t even want to play these two-dimensional female characters I’m killing myself auditioning for”; when I finally found the self-confidence to realize that I might actually have something to say to the world as a writer and storyteller myself; when I then discovered that women’s stories weren’t welcome in the film industry and decided to publicly speak out against that, in spite of the potential harm it could do to my career, because I believed in the importance of change that much.

At the time that I was working so hard to be someone else’s idea of what an actress should be, I and my happiness were only pale reflections. Now that I have (mostly) let go of those ideas and continually moved forward in the truest and most honest way I know how, my life and career have turned into a far richer, more fulfilling, and more specifically personal tapestry than anything I could ever have dreamed.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

Certainly, the biggest challenge I’ve faced was that, once I realized that my true creative bliss lay in acting in and writing films, I quickly also learned that a) I was the wrong kind of woman to get acting opportunities in the current film industry (too smart, too strong, not quite the right kind of pretty) and b) the film industry was systematically uninterested in women being behind the camera or writing the stories that would be told on screen.

Those are pretty substantial rocks to run into in a career and, though it honestly never occurred to me at the time, I suppose a sensible conclusion to have drawn at the time might have been that I really ought to go and find something else to do with my life.

But, because there was no way to move those factors, and leaving the business didn’t strike me as an option, I had to find a way around. In a rather gorgeous way, finding my way around them meant that those things that could have been my downfall, became the very things that have instead formed my career into something far bigger and richer than what I had originally imagined.

Because I was the wrong kind of woman for the roles that existed, I decided to start writing the roles I wanted to play (and see) on screen. Because I did that, I realized that I actually had things to say to the world and truly found my voice as an artist (something I might never have done at all if I’d simply been successful in my original mode as an actress). Because I found my voice as an artist only to be told that my industry didn’t want it because it was female, I began speaking out and found my voice and power as an activist. Because that happened, I have experienced tremendous opportunities, like being asked to give a TEDTalk, which has now led to increased interest in and support for my films and also even more things I never imagined, like writing a book.

It’s sort of been like a magical (non-flesh-eating) hydra. Every time one opportunity was cut off, three or four have sprung up in its place, until, at this juncture of my career, the rather one-dimensional success I imagined myself having has proliferated out into this incredibly complex and exciting multi-headed beast.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

My “customers” are my audience – whether they be for one of my films, the book I’m writing, my podcast, or anything else I make. My worst nightmare for my audience would be for them to watch/read/consume something I’ve made and sort of feel mildly pleasant the whole time and then go, “Huh. That was interesting/good/pleasant,” shrug their shoulders and utterly forget about it by the time they’ve gotten home.

In anything I make, my goal is always to in some way challenge, affect, provoke, move, or change every audience member. My goal is not necessarily to get them to “like” the thing – though, certainly, I am always mindful of making it entertaining as well as impactful – but rather to make them consider a new perspective, like a character they initially hated, hate a character they initially liked, leave the theater with a joy they didn’t enter with, or think about their own life differently in the context of what they’ve just seen. In some way, even a minor way, I want to fundamentally and irrevocably transform them.

Not everyone likes that. That’s fine. I would rather make something that 50% of the audience hates and 50% of the audience loves, but everyone is still thinking about a month later.

How do you motivate others?

When I am hiring someone to join a project or a team, I am looking for the person who is as hungry to participate as I am – who is equally committed to setting impossibly high standards and then leaping up to meet them. I don’t hire someone until I’ve found the right person and then, once I’ve got the right person, I fully step back and allow them to do their job. I am someone who works very, very hard at whatever I am doing and will not accept from myself anything less than a rigorous artistic standard, so possibly other people who are working with me feel that and are motivated to match it.

In terms of motivating someone to do something that they may not be instantly inclined to do, like, say, invest in a film of mine, my strategy is always to listen closely and thoroughly to who they are and what they are motivated to do and then, where possible, help them to see where my goal and their goal can be one and the same.

Career advice to those in your industry?

I got into this a bit several answers back when talking about how I have found success for myself, but the biggest gift I think you can give yourself is to let go of your own and other people’s ideas of what indicates a successful career as an actor, writer, director, etc.

This is an extremely difficult thing to do – I know well how hard it is. The first hurdle is that, if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been secretly practicing your Oscar speech in your bathtub since roughly the age of 7. You’ve spent your growing up fantasizing about what your life would be like, long before you ever actually entered the industry and had even the faintest clue what the reality would be. Most of us cling to those childhood ideas long into our careers and far past the point that they are useful to us, because we were told to “never give up on our dreams.” You shouldn’t give up on your dreams, but you should give yourself the gift of flexibility on the details of them as you learn and understand more about what you actually want from your life.

The second hurdle is that, even if you manage to release your own ideas of success, artists are in the particularly unfortunate position of constantly having strangers question their validity and worth in the most maddeningly casual and condescending ways. On an airplane or at a cocktail party when someone says they’re a doctor, the person to whom they are speaking usually says something like, “Oh. Wow. What kind of doctor?” or “Where are you a doctor?” Saying that you’re an actor, on the other hand, usually provokes a snidely skeptical glance and some question like, “Really? Have you been in anything I’ve seen?” or “Have you been on Broadway?” Which, in turn, usually results in the actor muttering some vague response and quietly sliding off into a spiral of self-loathing that continues a great deal longer than the conversation.

Release all of this.

If you have to, at cocktail parties, lie and say you’re a plumber.

Remember back to those first pure impulses that made you want to be an actor, writer, whatever. Locate within yourself that unadulterated creative bliss. Figure out how to construct a life that allows you to experience that the most often. If your industry doesn’t want to give you the opportunity to experience it, create the opportunities for yourself. Re-invent the entire industry if you have to or ignore the one that exists and go build your own. Make your stuff. Tell your stories. Suck the marrow out of the experience of creation. Find a way to get it to audiences for whom it will mean something. Re-arrange the details in whatever way you have to, to make that possible.

The rest of it is noise. It really, truly is.

https://twitter.com/NaomiMcDougallJ