Film is a language.
It’s visual. It’s nuanced. It’s complex.
So, while explaining my vision for a scene or a film, I’ve found that references are crucial. A reference gives us a point of commonality, a base for comparison, and a way to communicate with one another while making it. (We’re creating something out of nothing, after all.)
For example, a graphic designer can use a Pantone swatch book to discuss shades of red with people who may be unfamiliar with those specifics or language. (“Is it brick red? Mauve? Burgundy? Ohhhhh, it’s PMS 186 C.”)
Similarly, filmmakers need tangible things to guide our conversations when making something new.
References don’t mean that we’re copying someone else’s work, of course, they’re a guide for the conversation. We’re not setting out to totally swipe another filmmaker’s ideas because (a) that’s disrespectful even if it’s accidental, (b) an echo of an original isn’t special or interesting, (c) you’re an artist who should have your own original voice.
Plagiarism is lazy and disrespectful. Paying homage, hinting at nostalgia, or making spoofs are good, though. It’s a delicate balance and a fine line.
Anyway, this is why I have been studying fight scenes for a long time.
While making AK, we needed references. A lot of references. So, I did a lot of research, looking at women in action scenes.
Here were some of the things I noticed about women in fight scenes:
- Screen time. When women are portrayed in action sequences, they’re not on screen very long. It’s usually a subplot, not a main thread. Unless the movie is actually about the female character, the fights with women in them don’t get too much screen time.
- Staying sexy. The women featured in the action scenes are usually hyper-sexual and/or supernatural. There are very few “normal” women who get to fight. Even when they are normal, they’re still kept in the sexy zone.
- Opponents: Women. In most fight scenes, women are typically fighting other women. Rarely does she come up against a worthy male opponent. Most of these scenes become “girl fights” – scenes where one woman fights another in a sexy way. It feels more like a fantasy than reality.
- Opponents: Men. When a woman gets to fight a man on screen, it’s usually not a worthy opponent. It’s often an injured, drunk, or dumb male. As a result, it’s usually not a very respectable fight. By that I mean, there’s no “warrior honor” like a you’d find in a really cathartic man-to-man, hand-combat fight. And, there’s typically an emasculating or derogatory comment about ALL men. As if she has to be a man-eater in order to win. When a woman does fight a man, it’s rarely hand-to-hand combat. There are usually weapons involved. Unless, of course, the female character is an assassin or psycho, I suppose most of those rules get thrown out. (But, I’m looking for “normal” human being characters.)
- Costumes. Most of the fights involve unrealistic clothing. The women typically have long hair. It’s worn down with big, stylized curls. They wear high heels, and fight in some form of gown or restrictive clothing. Or they’re dressed head-to-toe in tight leather like dominatrix.
Are there exceptions to these rules? Absolutely.
This is – by no means – a scientific or academic exploration. (Obviously.) It’s taking stock of what existed when we started making this movie, not deconstruct or slam anyone else’s work.
My goal isn’t to rant, rave, or rage about these things. I’m exploring what’s been done, so that I can make informed decisions about what I want to do as a filmmaker.
I want to make informed choices, not go into making a movie blindly or haphazardly.
We cool? Good.
Let’s look at some examples.
A FEW OF MY REFERENCES
Example: Furious 7 (2015)
In Furious 7, Ronda Rousey fights Michelle Rodriguez.
Check out this behind-the-scenes featurette where they talk about the fight.
“It’s kind of what I like to call the ultimate expression of girl power,” says Rodriguez as she introduces the featurette. Then, later on, she adds, “There’s not a lot of really great female fights. I definitely take it seriously when an opportunity comes.”
Director James Wan talks about the fight, too.
“I think the trickiest thing for me was convincing [Rodriguez] to do it in that really beautiful red dress,” Wan says in the beginning of the featurette.
Later Wan adds, “The contrast of the environment they’re in – they’re so beautifully done up – to see them just go at it, as hardcore as any of the guy fights.”
Example: Arrow (2016)
Caity Lotz plays the Sara Lance in Arrow.
There are some great workout scenes with her character, and she gets to have some cool fights.
Watching Lotz fight in a sports bra is, to me, much more interesting than the leather costume. You get to appreciate her strength and physicality without it feeling like they’re trying to make her be sexy.
Lotz’s character needs a costume that conceals her identity while fighting crime, and of course that’s not a gender-specific thing. So I get the need for her to wear something different while she’s working out. (Plus, a big part of hero movies and TV shows is selling merch. A leather costume is more recognizable and marketable for Halloween than a sports bra.)
As I mentioned, women usually don’t get to fight men unless they have a weapon. I assume that’s a comment on perceived physical strength. But maybe it’s because honorable men won’t hit a woman. That, too, is a BIG conversation and it’s absolutely worthy of having.
But, I’d like to point out the contradiction in size and how fun it was to explore in The Rundown (2003). The Rock is a big dude. And he gets taken down by a smaller, quicker opponent. It’s hella impressive.
Example: The Expendables 3 (2014)
There’s so much to say about this example: costumes, dialogue, male gaze, etc.
But most of what I would point out is an echo of the things previously mentioned.
Example: Angelina Jolie movies
Angelina Jolie is cast as the action hero frequently.
Tomb Raider movies (2001, 2003), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), and Salt (2010) are pretty great.
Sometimes her characters fall into the sexy trap, but it’s executed well enough. Is that because she’s a bonafide movie star with enough weight to throw around that she could speak up if she felt it wasn’t authentic? Angelina and I aren’t besties, so who knows.
After googling for this blog post, I discovered that they’re remaking Lara Croft and Alicia Vikander (Jason Bourne) will play the lead. I look forward to seeing it in 2018.
Example: Avengers, Black Widow
Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow is pretty amazing. Enough has been said in the media about this character and Marvel’s treatment of her, so I don’t need to add to that conversation. But I love the scene of her in the hallway.
These weren’t the only examples I studied.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll mention a few others:
- Batman Returns (1992) – Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer)
- The Fifth Element (1997) – Leeloo (Milla Jovovich)
- Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004) – The Bride (Uma Thurman)
- Catwoman (2004) – Catwoman (Halle Barry)
- Aeon Flux (2005) -Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron)
- The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – Catwoman (Anne Hathaway)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – Furiosa (Charlize Theron)
What I was looking for are women who get to fight. It was hard to find a female – as a normal human character – in action scenes that don’t use weapons but hand-to-hand combat.
UPDATED (8/2/2016): Friends reminded me of a few that I left out, so I’ve added them to the short list. I didn’t study Terminator or Alien, and plan on revisiting those movies. They’re so great.
After seeking out examples of women fighting on screen, I was a bit disappointed.
There have been a lot of female action heroes on screen. They’re what made me fall in love with it, of course. But I couldn’t quite find what I most wanted to see, which was both concerning and affirming at the same time.
What I’ve noticed, however, is that there are a lot more stories about strong women coming out now.
We shot the movie in February 2016. Right before we shot, Jessica Jones came out in November 2015. While we’re in post-production on our movie, people are having heated conversations about Ghostbusters. And, most recently, the Wonder Woman trailer was released.
These new films and TV shoes give me a lot of hope.
Also, I’m insanely grateful for all of the examples mentioned here and many that didn’t make it into this blog post. Because you don’t create movies in a vacuum. You’re influenced by what’s around you, and these certainly gave me what I needed to make our movie.
It’s also worth mentioning that it’s really easy to be a critic. It’s much harder to make something. That’s why I’m not slamming anything mentioned here because I know it’s tough. There are so many challenges in getting anything made.
What I do hope is that I’ll find the resources (time, money, man power) to continue exploring this subject because I find it really interesting.
It would totally be a dream come true to make a big budget feature about a woman who can fight. I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy, so I’d really like to make something that includes fast cars, explosions, weapons, and fight scenes. I’d love it!
In the meantime, I’m going to keep the Wonder Woman trailer on repeat.