Equitable Cinematography: Director Lexi Alexander on the Politics of Focus

Lexi Alexander’s bio packs a punch.

She was born in Germany, to a Palestinian father and German mother. She’s a former World Kickboxing Champion. She worked her way up from stuntwoman to Oscar-nominated director with her live-action short film Johnny Flynton, a drama about a boxer. Lexi studied at the Piero Dusa Acting Conservatory and traveled to Russia to study the Nikolai Demidov technique, before helming feature films including Green Street Hooligans, Marvel’s Punisher: War Zone, and Lifted. Her television directing credits include shows such as American Gothic, Arrow, Supergirl, and Limitless.

I followed Lexi on twitter (@lexialex) because I’m a feminist film and TV production fangirl and she’s one of the rare 14%, a female director working in Los Angeles. Lexi’s insights into patriarchy and its myriad manifestations— sexism, colorism, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc.— are incisive, often amusing, and always educational. Her presence on my feed encourages me everyday to keep my chin up and my feet moving. She leads by example, quite literally fighting the good fight.

I’ve spoken to many women filmmakers — some more outspoken than others — about the harsh reality they face daily in the course of simply trying to do their jobs. Lexi’s experiences are, sadly, far from unique. What’s noteworthy about the conversation that follows is her unflinching frankness and specificity about how bias permeates every single aspect of filmmaking including cinematography.

As we prepared for this interview we asked ourselves and each other, “What might an equitable cinematography look like?” We don’t have answers. My hope is that this sparks wide conversation. Ours began when she tweeted this thread.



FOCUS


MJW: It blew my mind when I first saw those tweets. The idea that cinematography could be sexist was a revelation. I’d never thought of it that way before. Your tweets instantly opened up all of these questions for me.

Lexi Alexander: Well, I didn’t think about cinematography that way either for a long time, except I always knew that rack focus was unjust. I knew the statistics about how many lines women have, how many lines people of color have versus white men in films. I knew that the rule is you rack focus to who has a line. It’s very simple math. That basically means not only do women not speak for more than 25% of a given film, but for 75% they might not be in focus.

You have to remember I didn’t study cinematography at film school. As a filmmaker over the years, I had to ask cinematographers who are kind to explain to me what they were doing. The reason I found out about deep focus was because I’ve worked with a cinematographer named Alan Caso, on a show called American Gothic. And he casually just mentioned once. “Oh no, no, we don’t rack focus here. I use a diopter. I do deep focus.” 



MJW: Right, right, right.

Lexi Alexander: And you know, me not being one of those film nerds…  So I thought, “What does he mean?” And he explained, “People basically are always in focus.” I almost went out of my mind because, if there’s an option to have everybody in focus, why is everybody not doing this?

 

If there’s an option to have everybody in focus, why is everybody not doing this?

 

Racking focus is a choice. Sometimes there is the rare occasion where racking focus can absolutely be a good choice. For example, I directed a show called L.A.’s Finest and an actress comes into the door and sees a single chess piece on the chess board. Of course you rack focus to the chess piece and then you rack focus back to her because she’s obviously having a moment here that reminds her of something. Those are the moments you rack focus with. You don’t rack focus in an effort to catch this line, then that line.

MJW: Exactly.

Lexi Alexander: I watched a show called Berlin Station, which I was really excited about, right? I watched episode one and I already checked out. They actually didn’t rack focus a few times to the leading actress who was speaking. They just stayed focused on the guys. I was so furious because that takes it to a whole other level.  I never looked at that show again, ever. My anger is still so deep about this.



 


CAMERA MOVEMENT & FRAMING


MJW: I have been rewatching Johnny Flynton all morning long.

Lexi Alexander: You know it was my first thing. I barely knew what cinematography was. I always liked wide lenses and I was putting people in the corner of the frame. I’m not sure if I already knew about racking focus then.

MJW: The part about Johnny Flynton that I was really obsessed with is a 40-second shot right before Johnny comes to the ring and everybody’s waiting for him. It’s a wonderful shot of a woman in cut-off shorts and a tank top holding the “Round 2” sign. It’s a tilt shot up. It looks like the camera is handheld, with a wide lens. By the time the camera reaches the woman’s face, surprisingly, there are all these people around her and none of them is looking at her. She is not a sex object. Everyone is looking in a different direction. I thought that was subversive because that shot is traditionally used to reveal something—on women it’s usually sexual. In this case the effect is like an establishing shot.



Lexi Alexander: That would be something that would fit into my direction and not even consciously. People might say, “Well, why do you even have a ring girl? Isn’t that sexist in itself?” You could say that, but you also have to go with the authenticity of the environment. I grew up in boxing gyms and boxing rings at fights. Even when I was fighting as a female kick boxer we had ring girls, it wasn’t like they were ring dudes suddenly. The ring girls were always ring girls. You’re in the South. You’re at a cheap boxing event, you’re going to have a ring girl and that ring girl’s probably dieted whole months to do this. She thinks that’s her moment where she’s going to get out of Alabama, right? That doesn’t mean that the rest of that place is in any way more interested in her than they are in Johnny Flynton. I think that’s what’s so interesting.

MJW: Exactly. This shot got me to thinking about your idea of sexism in cinematography, so I just Googled “tilt shot, woman” and all of the stock footage shots of women that came up, all of them with the same kind of shot as you used on the ring girl, are of sexily dressed women smiling into the distance while, you know, curtains are flowing behind them. I found one example after another of these objectifying shots. Then I Googled “tilt shot, man” And the results were all action shots of men doing things whereas the women are just being looked at. I thought that is exactly what you’ve been talking about.

Lexi Alexander: I am and I’m not, because you actually are more aware of that than I am. I catch the male gaze once in a while. For example, there is one TV show that I did where we didn’t make it through the schedule for one particular scene and I couldn’t fly back to Toronto to direct it. It was a scene between two women kind of having a stand-off. And the producing director, who jumps in when the director from the episode can’t come back, directed it. There was all of a sudden these close-ups on a six-inch high heel. Now, you know I wouldn’t have done that.


Lexi Alexander by Aarong Goodwin
Lexi Alexander by Aarong Goodwin

MJW: Right.

Lexi Alexander: He went for that. So once in a while I definitely see that. In another show the DP suddenly framed the lead villain literally in between the two asses of the lead actresses.

MJW: Oh, God!

Lexi Alexander: And I had to say, “Can we not do that? How is anybody even going to look at the villain if there’s two butts of two super good-looking women?” I don’t want that. I don’t want butts that big in the frame. That’s so trashy and so cheap that I don’t even want to work with people who do this anymore.

 

I don’t want butts that big in the frame. That’s so trashy and so cheap that I don’t even want to work with people who do this anymore.

 

I don’t do the shows where this regularly happens. I also think that’s kind of dying out because it’s so tropey that you can’t get by with that anymore.


“BEAUTY” LIGHT


Lexi Alexander: There’s a whole other level where I think cinematography is becoming super, super sexist and it’s not as obvious as the shot of the ring girl. It’s more about how do we frame women versus men. When it comes to how we beautify them, how pretty do they have to be?

MJW: Right. 

Lexi Alexander: There are certain shows in this town that insist on backlight on the actress, only on the actress, okay? And backlight means that they have this halo on them.

There was a scene a DP lit where I didn’t get to rehearse with the actors before. I realized I would like to switch their positions out. It was impossible. I couldn’t switch them even though they were directly sitting shoulder to shoulder next to each other. They had the same skin tone, same everything. If anything, she’s a lot prettier than he was. He was a rough guy with a beard and the DP’s answer was, “No. Because she needs this light.” Well for what does she need this light? For what? Why is it that the actress has this huge backlight on her that she somehow needs, whereas the guy who looks rough with the five o’clock beard doesn’t have to have this light?

People keep saying things like this in front of the actresses. What does that do to the psychology of these actresses when you can’t even switch their position because they need this light — otherwise, “Oh my God, how is she going to look?” That’s a major thing that bothers me.

MJW:  A cinematographer once told me he would use a top light on a man but wouldn’t use one on a woman. Top light was for boxers, for men in situations where he wanted definition to emphasize the cut of their bodies, or their angular faces. He told me that this is not something you can get away with on women. He was not a fan of beauty light, but this was still conventional wisdom.

 

We’re not even supposed to be into the two genders. We’re supposed to be non-binary. We’re supposed to be asking, “What is gender?”

 

Lexi Alexander: It drives me crazy in a world where we’re not even supposed to be into two genders. We’re supposed to be non-binary. We’re supposed to be asking, “What is gender?”  Now, I don’t want to take it so far, but I’m having a tough time. I know many men, especially actors who in my mind have a much more feminine look than a look that I would describe as masculine. Why would you say we’d never use a top light on women, but it’s okay on men? That cannot be true. What you should say is, “Top light can be used on some people, but not on others.” That’s a statement I understand, okay. I would still push for us portraying more flaws.

Europe is much better with not making people flawless on screen because I think they understand the danger. But what we are doing in America is sexist, horrible bullshit. It’s evil to say that we will never ever let a woman on screen have flaws, but we are okay letting men have flaws.


LENS CHOICE & BACKLIGHT


MJW: What role does lens choice play?

Lexi Alexander: Well, the next thing that bothers me is long lenses versus wide lenses. So I’m really a big fan of wide lenses and sometimes that’s a matter of taste. I think long lenses are really in bad taste and they became more popular when we started to go to places like Vancouver and Toronto to shoot and tried to make it look like Los Angeles. Long lenses put everything out of focus in the back. And so when you’re trying to sell a big street as Sunset Boulevard, but you’re really in Vancouver and you don’t have money to production design this whole street and make it look like Sunset, what you do is you throw it out of focus, right? And you just make sure that the actor in the front isn’t out of focus. That’s how I believe out-of-focus backgrounds really became popular.

MJW: That’s so interesting.

Lexi Alexander: Yeah. I don’t know how this happened, but all of a sudden everybody in TV thinks that’s the way to make people look pretty.

They’re going into locations where the background actually should be in focus. For example, they’re shooting a show in L.A. for L.A., and they’re renting Venice Boulevard for $100,000 a day and they’re still throwing everything out of focus. They don’t even get the production value of the location because in their mind long lenses are prettier than wide lenses, which is ludicrous. It’s really ludicrous.

Look at anything Dante Spinotti does. Wide lenses are a big deal.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The Coen brothers are up big on everything. You know, they have a whole thing about how they are able to establish a character within seconds because they just put an actress behind a desk and they have certain memorabilia around her. They have established the whole thing within seconds because they’re on a wide lens. This is in the industry where wide lenses were always the classiest thing to do and TV’s kind of trashing us.


The Coen Brothers' "True Grit" | Wide Establishing Shot
The Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” | Wide Establishing Shot

But now we’re coming to the women versus men thing. I come on the show and I say, “We’re doing a close-up with a wide lens, see? Just take the camera on this 18 millimeter lens and we’re going to come really, really close to the actress.” Then you have a DP say in front of the actress, “Oh she, she’s not gonna look good on this.” The DP doesn’t say this about anybody else, not about any of the rough-looking guys who all look like they’ve been on a bender for three weeks. The DP only says this about the woman. Let’s be honest, because we don’t even have actresses in this industry with wrinkles. They’re all flawless and these DPs will stand there and tell me, “You can’t do this to her. She’s going to look horrible.” It drives me crazy. What do you think it does for them? I’m about to explode on a set when that happens again because what is the DP actually saying?

Now, there are people with a round face who actually need a wide lens versus a long lens. And there are people with very, very thin faces who yes, may not do well on wide lenses. But you know the thing that you cannot say is that all women look bad on wide lenses.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


So I went online and I actually tried to find some shots for you to show you this. Sure enough, I go on Shane Hurlbut’s blog. He gave an example of Quinn in Into the Badlands. He takes Marton Csokas, who is one of those guys with a great, great face. And again, I don’t want to trash the dudes here, but this guy’s face looks like, you know, he’s seen a million battles, ok?


"Into the Badlands" | Examples from Shane Hurlbut, Hurlblog
“Into the Badlands” | Examples from Shane Hurlbut, Hurlblog

MJW: Right.

Lexi Alexander: He’s making a point, “You can use a 35mm lens on him and that looks great, but it’s not great on women.” And then he gives an example of that beautiful actress, Emily Beecham, who plays The Widow on the show — this beautiful, flawless woman — and says, “Yeah, see on HER a 35mm wouldn’t work unless you pull back and shoot her from the chest up.” He says basically that in black and white.


"Into the Badlands" | Examples from Shane Hurlbut, Hurlblog
“Into the Badlands” | Examples from Shane Hurlbut, Hurlblog

On that last show I was on, the big rule was low angle up, never on the women. It’s okay on the guys, but not on the women. It doesn’t look good. Once again, why are you saying this? A low angle shot can be unflattering on many people, yeah. It depends on how their chin is formed. But you know what, they can be just as unflattering on men as they can be on women. What Hurlbut was saying is that we are not accepting unflattering ever from women. That is a huge problem. If you are letting men have flaws but not women, this is incredibly dangerous for the rest of the world outside of a TV set. I don’t understand how people don’t make that connection in their head. The guys can be looking rough with the double chin, with wrinkles and everything. The rougher the better. We’re going further and further with that.

I want to say to these cinematographers, “Explain to us why —  what is it with you guys that makes you think women have to always look like they’re in this kind of art halo with backlight on, on a lens that doesn’t make them too old or too haggard?” What they’re basically saying to us is that women at all times must look perfect and almost ethereal.

 

What they’re basically saying to us is that women at all times must look perfect and almost ethereal.

 

MJW: And a weird kind of sense of perfect, right? How do they define “perfect?”

Lexi Alexander: It’s ethereal. That’s all I can think of. Someone not of this world. Their standard of beauty is so beyond. You know, it’s not realistic. It’s almost like in fashion design. They’ve decided that no women should have hips or breasts because they wanted walking clothes hangers.

I can almost understand that. But what we’re doing here in cinematography now is, in my mind, misogynistic psychological warfare because we’re setting a beauty standard that is impossible to achieve and realize. I know many famous actresses that almost don’t want to go out of their house anymore because without a backlight and without a long lens, they just don’t look like they look on screen.

We’re getting so dangerously into a surreal world. I feel such great compassion for these actresses: millions of people see them on screen every week, and when they go out to a restaurant with their kids, more often than not somebody will say, “Oh, she doesn’t look good in real life.” It’s not like these actresses are stupid. They hear what these people say out loud and then some magazine is printing it. Sometimes on set these actresses would ask me, “Why do my selfies never ever look good? Even if I’m standing in set light?” It’s because we’re using so many tricks that you can’t even take a photo of yourself anymore with your kids in your free time that makes you feel good because you’re so used to seeing yourself in the backlight. Everything else is now unfortunate on you. And the psychology of that is just mind-blowing.

MJW: Ultimately, bottom line, what is it that you would want young female fans to really get about sexism in cinematography?

Lexi Alexander: Well, it’s all about educating them.

I think the biggest thing for young women to know is that we’re messing them up psychologically. We already did this with the magazines. Remember we had campaigns about how airbrushing women’s images in magazines was messing up girls, right? But nobody says anything about these TV shows that do the same thing with a halo light and long lenses. We’re doing the same thing if day in and day out you see these women who magically have a halo light on the back of their head, whereas the guy next to her doesn’t have one. We’re being trained to say if an actress doesn’t have a completely flawless face, then clearly when she goes out during the day, she’s ugly. That makes all of us who don’t have a TV show ugly, and that’s really bad for women’s psychology.


In a recent study, “Boxed In 2017-18: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television,” Dr. Martha M. Lauzen studied shows across all platforms including the major television networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) and streaming services (Netflix, Showtime, etc.)  Among those considered:
      • 97% of had no women directors of photography
      • 86% had no women directors
      • 76% had no women editors
      • 75% had no women creators
      • 74% had no women writers
      • 25% had no women producers
      • 22% had no women executive producers

MJW: So when you talk about what’s flattering, I know exactly what you mean by that word. We can agree what it means when we say a look is flattering, or it’s not, or that some people can pull something off but other people can’t. That seems to me, though, like the slippery part where we all supposedly know what each other means without having to define it. How do we just mutually know what is flattering?

Lexi Alexander: That is the big problem because we are in the middle of defining it and it’s so dangerous. Who’s to say?

When I look at French actresses and they have all their wrinkles, to me, that’s like for every wrinkle there’s a story. For every wrinkle, there’s a lover that she’s left or who’s left her. Many French actresses are very like, “Do not touch my wrinkles.” My European friends will just say, “Oh my God, you come to L.A. and everybody has botox and you cannot have faults.” We are really defining this and you’re right, we shouldn’t.

Part of why I had to stop doing stunts so early — I mean I always wanted to stop because it was painful — but I had to stop so early because I was a size eight. I could barely get to size six. Size six was really the lowest I could get. Well, this was during Ally McBeal time and the actresses were all like size minus four.

MJW: They were tiny.

Lexi Alexander: They all went into this like anorexic phase and I couldn’t cover anybody anymore because I looked like an elephant next to every actress I doubled. And so the weight is a whole other issue, like who are we to say that, you know, only size zero, size two is acceptable? Everyone is considered fat in Hollywood. Why? I find full-bodied women much sexier. I think we have kind of messed ourselves up.

I know what I like, and what I don’t like, but I sometimes am on an L.A. set and I’m shooting a show. I look at the screen and I’m suddenly going, “Oh, that’s not flattering on her.” But you know what, it’s not flattering in the space that we have established, okay? And I wouldn’t have thought that when I still lived in Europe. For example, thighs. All of a sudden I have this thing where I’m trying to cover up an actress having bigger thighs than the others. Then I’m thinking to myself,  “I’m an athlete myself. Why can’t we have a woman with actual real thighs on a show?”

 

I think with airbrushing, the general public noticed and they started realizing it. I don’t think that the general public understands the tricks of cinematography.

 

We are doing it to ourselves and I think we have to start talking about it. We’ve talked about it with magazines when they started airbrushing things. We have not talked about it on shows because here is the danger: I think with airbrushing, the general public noticed and they started realizing it. I don’t think that the general public understands the tricks of cinematography.

MJW: I think you’re absolutely right there. I think the general public might notice some tricks of cinematography. J. J. Abrams’s lens flares in Star Trek, for example, became a meme in popular culture. Everybody makes fun of them because once you see them, they’re so obvious. But the general public doesn’t notice most cinematography tropes because they’re meant to be completely invisible to the viewer for the most part.

Lexi Alexander: Correct. Correct. So if you are asking me what do I want girls to know, what do I want women to know? I definitely want young women to pay attention to this because to them it becomes more of a physical problem. It’s warfare in my opinion. It is truly warfare, and I want them to be aware of this. I want them to be aware of the fact that there’s a lot of tricks being used to make an actress look a certain way. And those tricks are not used on the men.

Women must think that, “Oh look, they hired these three people who look like real people, but these three women are 10’s.” No, they made these women look like 10’s. They don’t accept anything other than 10’s for the women in that world. But they don’t do that with the guys:  they don’t use the backlight on the guys, they don’t use that lens on the guys. That’s the issue. Women need to know that these tricks are the airbrushing of our industry and they need to know that this is not real.

Even guys — I want them to be aware because for them it’s bad too: this body dysmorphia that we are doing to women, we’re doing it to everybody. It’s not okay to think “This is now considered beautiful whereas this isn’t.” It messes up men as much as it does women.

MJW:  So where does this come from?

Lexi Alexander: Men.

MJW: (laughing) Well, yeah. Exactly.


THE DIRECTOR AND THE DP IN TV


Lexi Alexander: I never wanted to learn anything about lenses. I just wanted to have a cinematographer and tell them, “Here is what I want this to look like. Here’s what I want this to feel like.” In the movies, DPs, very much their goal is to achieve what’s in the director’s head. In TV it’s like they want you to fail. It’s a whole different game.

MJW: In TV, for example, I think of Scandal where Paul McGuigan was brought in as a director to set the show up. I guess he worked with the DP, Oliver Bokelberg, so that when other directors came in after him, the look was already established.

Lexi Alexander: You still have to put your own touch to it. In TV, the relationship between the DP and the director is much more antagonistic because the DP is there for the marathon. They know the crew, every episode. The director comes in and then they’re gone in two weeks. The director is not somebody who hires everybody on the crew, like I do on movies, so there’s a lot of resentment going on. This is also why so many DPs in TV have switched over to directing. It’s a little sad because in my opinion, you know, cinematographers want to be cinematographers because this is their art, right? I can’t imagine somebody like Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki] or Dante Spinotti saying, “Oh, I think now I want to direct.” It would be ludicrous.

MJW: Right, right.

Lexi Alexander: But now it’s this thing where a lot of these DPs say, “These directors come in for two weeks. They get twice the money we get. We do all the hard work.” So part of it I can understand because I think what they do work-wise is not in balance with what they get paid versus what directors get paid. But what I hate is the director-DP relationship is lost where DPs would just say, “Okay, what can I do for you? What’s in your head? What do you want to bring to the show?”

MJW: Right.

Lexi Alexander: Because there’s an established look and then there’s what you do with it. I had to learn about all of the stuff that I usually just explain to a cinematographer in film. I had to learn how to give exact directions with lenses. When I said, “I want this to feel really epic, really wide. I want her to feel really alone in the frame,” they would never do this. So now I have to say, “I want to be on a 14mm lens. I want her to fall off the frame.” That’s when I started learning all those things.

MJW:  I want to talk more about the hostility you face, and why you had to learn the lens talk. Obviously sexism plays a role in everything to my mind. When a woman director comes on set and the DPs hear “epic” out of her mouth, how do they translate that? Is it that they weren’t trying to be cooperative, or is it that the sexism is so deep that they can’t imagine translating what a woman says into something that’s not what they’re used to visually?

 

I think there is a basic resentment between directors and cinematographers in TV — male or female — just because of how the hierarchy is set up versus on a movie. I think that unfortunately, because of sexism, women get four times the aggression and four times the humiliation and four times the obstacles.

 

Lexi Alexander: I think there is a basic resentment between directors and cinematographers in TV — male or female — just because of how the hierarchy is set up versus on a movie. I think that unfortunately because of sexism, women get four times the aggression and four times the humiliation and four times the obstacles. That makes it incredibly hard. But I do know that male directors get it as well.

I mean, these DPs, it’s their show, they’ve been on it from the start. They don’t want some guy, or some girl, let alone a girl or a woman of color to come in there and say, “Well, why don’t we try this?” And again, part of this is they’re really the captain of the show. They’re holding the look. They’ve established the look. They work on the show every week. Here comes the guest director who goes, “Hey, why don’t we try this?” Well, you know, if I would be the DP who’s holding everything in check and trying to make the show, I’d, too, be like, “Oh yeah, ‘Why don’t we try this?’ You think we haven’t thought about this? We haven’t done this because we could barely make our day as it is.” So it’s the setup. It’s not made for directors to come in and for DPs to have the freedom to realize their vision. That’s just not TV. So again, it’s a structure that’s not for nurturing the relationship that the DP and the director usually have on movies. It’s a little bit different.


Lexi Alexander on the set of "Supergirl"
Lexi Alexander on the set of “Supergirl”

With women directors it’s definitely so much harder. They don’t even look me up. On the last show this DP came in to introduce himself and he opened his iPad and it was very hard for me not to laugh because he said, “I don’t know how much you know about using color, but lately I’ve been using these colors.” And he showed me all these shots and I thought, “Am I going to tell him that I’m literally known in Hollywood for making one of the most colorful movies?” And he’s showing me this blue and green he used for the first time. He says, “I’ve never done this, but I’ve started to think this is really nice. Blah blah blah.” It was really an interesting experience because I thought, “How am I going to explain to him that this is what I do? He’s probably seen my work way before this.”

MJW: Have there ever been times when you’ve broken through and actually been able to do something that you felt was really interesting in TV with a setup like that? What does success look like in that environment?

Lexi Alexander: I think it did happen on that American Gothic series with a female show-runner named Corinne Brinkerhoff. I may have been one of the first women directors who popped up. I directed episode eight in her first season. She told everybody I delivered an episode the way she had always pictured the show. I didn’t have some kind of miracle translator. I just listened to the woman. She had very specific preferences. She referenced Broadchurch; she referenced all these other shows. She gave me certain moods and I instantly had a picture in my head of what she wanted because a) I watch all these shows and b) I understood why she wanted it.

It was the one time where I understood the show-runner’s vision more than anybody else, and I also had the DP who was not only willing, but absolutely game for delivering that vision. So I got lucky. That rarely happens. Mostly it’s DPs who really don’t want to do what I want to do at all.

MJW: Assuming that they know what you want to do.

Lexi Alexander: I actually think they’re trying to make me feel like I can’t communicate, but I know, at this point, that’s not the case. I know very well how to communicate even in their language now. To be honest, most of them are seasoned enough to know, even if I wouldn’t communicate with exact lenses, and exact frames, and setups. They just refuse to. But when I actually communicate in their language and they’re still refusing then it’s, you know, that they don’t want to.

Part of that is, I think, because I’m a certain threat. I am really good visually, a lot better than most directors, because I’m interested in framing and composition. I’m interested in light. I always have been. That doesn’t mean I want to be a DP,  but it’s part of being a director. I know exactly what movies I like to look at and why they make me feel… I know why a look was an excellent choice for this particular tone in a movie. So once they start talking to me and they realize that I’m not an idiot, it becomes a bit of a threat.

For example, it always is when I meet the stunt people. I used to think that it would be a benefit in TV that I come from the stunt world and I know how to choreograph fights. Essentially it was never an advantage for me. It’s always an obstacle. They always feel threatened, and “Oh, here she comes and she’s going to know everything about that, blah, blah, blah.”


Lexi Alexander on the set of "Supergirl"
Lexi Alexander on the set of “Supergirl”

 

I cannot tell you the amount of jobs where people have assumed I am an extra, an actress, in casting— everything that you can imagine, but nobody has ever guessed that I’m the director when I arrive.

 

MJW: There aren’t that many women directors out there. I talked to a British director who was on her first film. She walked on set and the crew just assumed she was in hair and makeup. They immediately treated her differently than they would have treated a male director.

Lexi Alexander: Yeah. They always think that. I mean, I cannot tell you the amount of jobs where people have assumed I am an extra, an actress, in casting— everything that you can imagine, but nobody has ever guessed that I’m the director when I arrive.

MJW: Obviously, if you’re not hiring them you’ve got an uphill battle. How do you set up any kind of authority in that situation?

Lexi Alexander: Well, it’s hard because one of the big things in TV, they tell you, is that you have to be liked. You know, if you’re not liked, you’re not going to get called back. So the obstacle, you can imagine, is that nobody gives a shit what you have to say. You still have to deliver a great episode. You also have to be likable. It’s a challenge.

MJW: And you have to figure out who has to like you, right? That’s the other question.

Lexi Alexander: It’s the whole crew, though. If a crew doesn’t like a director, they won’t bring that director back, and it’s the same crew on all the episodes, basically. I arrive on set and they’re like, “Well, let’s just see, little girl. What do you want to do?” I have to think, “How am I going to get this crew to like me?”

MJW: It’s a hazing ritual?

Lexi Alexander: Yeah. It’s rough. I certainly have not achieved it. There are some women directors, they’re not necessarily my favorite, but I do admire their way of having figured it out, but they are very neutral. They don’t make noise. They don’t complain. They kind of take all of the sexism. They never deliver great episodes, but they never deliver particularly bad episodes because they basically get what they can get. They take the abuse. They’re not sad that they delivered only 50% of what they could have delivered because they were blocked. They don’t make a big deal out of it. It kills me because I immediately want people to know it could have been so much better if people would have just let me do what I do really well. 

MJW: So what about women and below the line crew? What’s your experience with them?

Lexi Alexander: Well, I’ve seen them more and more. I think it’s equally hard for them because if I get that attitude when I walk on the set as an Oscar-nominated director, I can only imagine what a female gaffer or a female best boy has to endure. I’ve also noticed that—as we all do as a woman who has to make it in a male-dominated club, or industry, or whatever—the only way you make it is by ending up becoming like them.

MJW: Yeah.

Lexi Alexander: It’s a little sad. I know this for myself, but, see, I grew up in dojos, in boxing gyms. I was on a bus with an all-male fighting team. I was the only woman. So it was never hard for me to be one of the guys. I didn’t even do it consciously. That’s why my films were all very male-oriented because, basically the way I grew up, it was like I was a guy.  It didn’t occur to me—I didn’t do it purposely just so I can make it in the male environment. That was just who I was. And then I started noticing that other women have to make an effort.

 

I would never be caught in a dress on a set, but why can’t a woman wear a summer dress on set when it’s 90 degrees in New York or somewhere? Why shouldn’t she be in a dress? Why can’t she be taken seriously?

 

There are women who would like to come on set and direct in a summer dress. Now, I would never be caught in a dress on a set, but why can’t a woman wear a summer dress on set when it’s 90 degrees in New York or somewhere? Why shouldn’t she be in a dress? Why can’t she be taken seriously? Why is it that we all have to act like dudes? Do I really have to wear the baseball hat and combat pants to be taken seriously? As I got older I realized that it is kind of the same as in politics, right? If we only have Theresa May kind of female politicians, then we’re not making a difference.

If the only women who make it are as hard-ass and as corrupt as the men, then we’re not changing anything about the systemic issue.


Lexi Alexander on the set of "Punisher: War Zone"
Lexi Alexander on the set of “Punisher: War Zone”

WHITEWASHING, RACISM, AND COLORISM


MJW: So what happens when we throw race into the equation? It becomes even more complicated obviously.

Lexi Alexander: It does. It becomes complicated in the sense that now we’re talking about white DPs who don’t know how to shoot black skin. It’s a whole other issue. Many of them don’t pay attention. That’s why you suddenly have a lot of green-looking black people. I think it is starting to get better because a lot of black actors have spoken out.

Our beauty standard is not only ludicrous for women in general, but it’s also based on white supremacy.  Every time they go to cast somebody from a different race—normal people—they try to find the whitest South Asian girl, the whitest Arab girl, the whitest Latina, you know what I’m saying? And casting agents who look for the Latina who is the whitest Latina they can find, you know, are also an issue. And that’s not only with the skin tone, but also with body shape. 

What we’re not considering with race is that we also have different body builds. For example, I’d like to see more black actresses, more Arabs, more Armenians, more Asians. Can we cast some ethnic actresses that are not size zero, because that doesn’t even fit into their culture and community.

MJW: Do they try to justify this by claiming they’re trying to appeal to a global audience? That this skin color or body shape works in a particular region?

Lexi Alexander: No, I think a lot of people don’t even realize that they’re going for the black girl with the lightest skin and with the size two body, because in their mind that’s their beauty standard. They think, “If she’s not blonde and she’s not Claudia Schiffer then she can at least be this.” So basically they unconsciously imagine a white girl in a role, but with darker skin. I would really love to see less colorism. Don’t only cast the mixed girls. Don’t only cast light skin. Cast dark skin.

MJW: Right. Likewise, whitewashing in casting is obviously a terrible thing. Why is it even happening?

Lexi Alexander: It is, but what can I say? We’ve been screaming through the roof and it’s almost getting boring to the point where I’m like, “Are you joking?” There’s no excuse at this point. Come on, Black Panther did extremely well. So many movies with leads who are people of color did extremely well. You don’t need Scarlett Johansson to be the Asian woman in your movie.

Everybody knows that those whitewashed movies bombed. I don’t know how many more times we can do Gods of Egypt and cast those Danish actors as Egyptians. The movie’s going to bomb. How many times can we show this? Now I’m at the point of, “You know what? Fall on your ass.” I’m so bored with this conversation at this point.

MJW: You would think studios might have learned by now not to whitewash their cast if their goal is to make money.

Lexi Alexander: Yeah, well as a friend of mine always says, “Whiteness is one hell of a drug.”

 

What person comes through the door and reminds you of you? What person coming through the door is your standard of beauty? When you are not living in a diverse environment, when you have not grown up in a diverse environment, then even when you cast for ethnic roles all of a sudden you cast a Danish actor.

 

I think again, it’s what is in your mind? What person comes through the door and reminds you of you? What person coming through the door is your standard of beauty? When you are not living in a diverse environment, when you have not grown up in a diverse environment, then even when you cast for ethnic roles–all of a sudden you cast a Danish actor.

I mean honestly, not even for a spoof movie would I cast a Danish actor as an Egyptian god. I don’t even know how you get this idea. How do you not stand on the set and laugh your ass off about yourself? And then you have this poor actor who’s actually a good actor, but for whom I forever lost respect, right? How sad it is that you don’t see yourself in this Egyptian outfit with eyeliner and you don’t go, “I’m a fucking joke. I am a joke.”

MJW: I can sort of understand it if their excuse is that, “Hey, it’s a movie, and a movie is fantasy.” It’s a twisted logic, though—out-of-touch, and wrong to my mind. But most reasonable people can look at whitewashing and understand why others find it racist even if they can’t agree. It’s a harder sell to say that a camera angle, or light itself, can be racist or sexist.

Lexi Alexander: I definitely think that all of that can be racist and sexist.

I stood on a set where, you know, a very dark black actor had to stand next to a very white white actress, the star of the show. She is a very white blonde, the leading lady. And the DP did not manage to light them both properly. He had too much light on them. They were standing directly next to each other. When he had enough light on the actor so that we could see his face, she was way over-lit. So he lit it for the lead and we basically could see no expression on this actor’s face.  It drove me crazy and I asked him to fix it, but he couldn’t fix it. To be honest, I think he didn’t have the skill set to fix it.

MJW: Cameras these days, Arri cameras for example, they can almost see in the dark as I understand it. I would think they’d be able to handle the contrast.

Lexi Alexander: I still think you need the skill.

If you’re shooting two lead actors and one is a very dark-skinned African-American actor and the other one is a really, really blonde German-looking actress and you don’t have the skill, then you have to ask somebody before you shoot. I don’t know how in good conscience you can walk on the set and just decide to make her look good and not him. I don’t think there’s a camera out there that can fix that for you.

MJW: It’s a lighting issue.

Lexi Alexander: It is.


YOUNG ADULT PROPERTIES


MJW:  If you could put all this bullshit behind, how would your ideal project go?

Lexi Alexander: You know, it’s hard to imagine. I felt incredibly sad that somehow I was completely excluded from having a crack at any of the YA properties. Because Green Street was so popular with that demographic—actually more with the girls than the guys—I should have been in that group of directors who got those first YA projects after Catherine Hardwicke established the genre. It’s a lucrative genre.

MJW: Right, right.

Lexi Alexander: I kind of missed the timing of that. I did Punisher and Punisher failed at the box office, so I was basically in director’s jail. I read Hunger Games when it was still in galleys and I begged my agent to get me a meal on this one if it ever gets picked up and it becomes a movie. But no matter how I tried I couldn’t even get in the door. I heard that a well-known director spent $100,000 on a presentation.

MJW: Yes. Other directors have told me the same thing. You have to direct a proof of concept movie with your own money to be considered for the feature.

Lexi Alexander: That’s one of those not-so-secret of secrets. A lot of these directors spend a lot of money.

How am I going to do that? I don’t make $100,000 most years. How are we going to even compete with that when these guys make so much money? If I get 40 episodes of a TV series to direct, I can also spend $200,000 on getting a Marvel movie. But I don’t have the money.


Lexi Alexander and Melissa Benoist on the set of Supergirl
Lexi Alexander and Melissa Benoist on the set of Supergirl

MJW: Right, right.

Lexi Alexander: Most women directors don’t, so it leaves us out. But there were many, many other YA projects. It was weird, because none of these guys read these books. I read these books. Most women I know read these books. I have them in my Kindle before they ever became a big thing to be picked up to be adapted. And then these guys got these young adult movies. They had the director’s chair. There were directors who had a massive failure and basically, as punishment, they had to do young adult movies.

MJW: Oh, no! That’s so insulting.

 

No woman director has had a chance at a young adult movie for years. I made a graph of what that looked like. And it was mind-blowing because it was Catherine Hardwicke at Twilight and then you saw man, man, man, man, man, man, man.

 

Lexi Alexander: Yeah, I know. And we never got a crack at it. No woman director has had a chance at a young adult movie for years. I made a graph of what that looked like. And it was mind-blowing because it was Catherine Hardwicke at Twilight and then you saw man, man, man, man, man, man, man. It just went on for like 20 projects. And not only that, almost all of them bombed. They fucked the genre up completely to the point where now we don’t know if we’ll get any green-lit anymore.


FAN ADVOCACY


MJW: Many fans want an active role with the production of the stories they consume. They are in contact with the makers on Twitter. Some want to influence hiring, casting, even plot points. What is your take on fans who are constantly tweeting you projects they wish you would direct?

Lexi Alexander: Oh, fans are great. If it would be up to them I would have the career of my dreams, because fans, especially when they’re really into the property, only care if the person who is being put in charge also cares about the project. They tend to pick up on who’s full of shit and who isn’t. That’s why so many people constantly pitch me for these things because they know I wouldn’t let them down, you know?

With the Red Sonja thing, I’m almost becoming annoyed now because I think people don’t understand that, you know, Bryan Singer, being booted off is not the only issue. You’re basically asking me to work for the person who hired Bryan Singer and didn’t even consider hiring a woman. It’s a toxic situation from the start.

What I love about the fans is that I have so many different ones. It’s not just from the Punisher route. A lot of them are from Supergirl, Arrow. On any given day, my Twitter feed will be, “Oh my God, I love Green Street. You should be doing this.” Next thing will be, “Oh my God, your Punisher was the best Punisher. You should be doing this.” If it were up to the fans, I would have the best career in the world. And, by the way, that’s men and women fans.

MJW: Yeah, absolutely.

Lexi Alexander: But unfortunately that’s not how things work.

MJW: This is not meant to be an insulting question, but why do you do it? Why stay in the filmmaking industry?

Lexi Alexander:  It’s all I know at this point. I mean there’ve been many, many times when I thought, “Can I still switch careers?” But where do you go after this? I spent many, many years to even become a director, you know? Then I was nominated for an Oscar. Then I did a movie. I thought that was my big break. Then I was supposed to be this hot director with this hot award-winning first feature. Nothing came. And everybody’s like, “Well you wait, you wait, it will come.” And the studio movie comes up that I didn’t want to do. But people said, “Well you just do this one and then it comes,” and the next thing you know you’ve spent 15 years in this and where do you go?

 

If all of our stories are told from toxic people’s point of view, what’s going to happen with the world?

 

I have left my country, the country I grew up in, and now I’m in America where I can’t even afford to become a teacher. If I had stayed in Europe, maybe I would have become a film professor. But again, how sad, because how many of us do they want to go away?

Part of me also is like, “God, if some of us don’t stay, how is this going to end up?” The US is the number one exporter of entertainment in the world. If all of our stories are just told from toxic people’s point of view, what’s going to happen with the world?

-END-

CORRECTION

In a previous version of this interview I used a video example that indicated that Alan Caso used a split diopter in “Six Feet Under.” He actually used a deep stop and a slant focus lens. I apologize for the error. -Mary Jo Watts

1 response to Equitable Cinematography: Director Lexi Alexander on the Politics of Focus

  1. Robert says:

    A great example of Split Diopter work is by Shelly Johnson in “The Last Castle”… if you’re looking to find a replacement example. Thanks for this critically important read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.