Jenny Lumet captured our hearts with her first screenplay, Rachel Getting Married, which won the 2008 New York Film Critics Circle award. She’s been writing ever since, while also trying to level the playing field for other writers who happen to be women and minorities. We caught up with Lumet as she and five other moms hung out with their kids in a New York City playground, to talk about upending the status quo, her unceasing optimism, and her participation in the BinderCon Writing for TV and Film panel.
Out of the Binders: How does it feel to be universally loved by women everywhere as a result of your screenplay?
Jenny Lumet: I had absolutely no idea until you just said that! (laughs) I know that the movie did well and people liked it. And I’m glad I was able to reach people. The whole idea of Binders illustrates how women really want to connect over creative things and creative freedom. It’s such a wonderful way to connect without the burden of any kind of stridency.
Everybody’s so brave that I’m thrilled if Rachel Getting Married touched them.
You were originally a teacher?
Yes, I was the drama lady at a hippie school called Manhattan Country School. Everybody pays what they can afford and it’s based on the civil rights curriculum. They didn’t have a drama person, so I said, Well, I’d love to create a curriculum for you, but it has to be Shakespeare. Even though he’s dead, white, and a European male, I think he’s really important. Every year, for seven years, I did the eighth grade play and that still remains the most satisfying creative experience of my life. Except for the year with that fucking obnoxious kid who gave me a root canal [because] I was grinding my teeth so much! (laughs)
In 2011 you said: “I’m a woman of color in the middle of my life. I’m not supposed to be in Hollywood”. Sadly, the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA, which you’ve circulated, indicates nothing’s changed. The report concluded there’s still a disconnect: Though films and TV shows with racially and ethnically diverse casts make more money and get higher ratings than those without, minorities and women are still “woefully” underrepresented among creators, directors, and actors.
Yes, nothing’s changed for 50 years. It may be marginally better. My work involves a lot of white men, and I hear a lot of them complaining about how hard it is to get a movie made. I say, No, actually now it’s the same for you as it is for everybody else. Yes, it’s egregious. I’m not supposed to be here, and I’m not leaving, which is awesome. (laughs) It’s my job to be a pain in the ass. And I take my job as a pain in the ass very seriously!
Speaking of which, the work you’ve started on behalf of women and minorities at the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), holding town halls meetings, is that part of being a pain?
Yeah! I believe in guilds and in unions. My dad [director Sidney Lumet] was a big guild and union guy. When there’s a minority issue, a female issue, people tend to throw programs [at it]. You know, we’re gonna create a program for five women writers to tell their stories. I’m not knocking those programs; I’m glad they exist. But one of the brilliant things Toni Morrison said was, a huge tenet of racism and misogyny and chauvinism is distraction: Prove your stories are worthy. So we all run around and prove our stories are worthy. Prove you’re funny women. So women run around proving they’re funny. Prove your movie will make money. So somebody makes a movie that makes $125 million. All the while, everybody else is going about their business. They’re distracting from the work, the only thing that matters. There are only two people of color on the WGAE council. So I thought, let’s create a diversity caucus. But if it’s gonna mean anything, we should listen before we decide what people need. People want to be heard, even if it’s just for a minute.
So BinderCon, what made you want to participate?
I believe in the power of a group of concerned citizens—it’s very American. It’s an incredible act of citizenry. Part of a nation’s legacy is its art and its creative force. What are we gonna leave behind? As an American citizen—straight up—what kind of country do I want to live in? I’m female, I’m of color. The only thing that I have on paper is the Constitution. That’s fucking it! So I believe in being the best citizen I can be. This group power and elevation of consciousness is revolutionary.
How do stay so positive? How do you see a way forward with a structure that’s seemingly dead-set on keeping the status quo?
Oh yeah, well fuck it!
A day at a time, an idea at a time, a word at a time…
Yeah, there’s nothing to be taken personally. The minute anybody starts taking this stuff personally…Yes, it’s sexist, yes it’s racist, so what else is new? No one is going to give me a job because I’m righteously indignant. I’m gonna just do my work and I’m gonna get another job. And I’m not gonna work unless you pay me. I’m optimistic because here I am in the middle of this life, in this world, in this country, and so is everybody else. And there’s dialogue and discourse. And fuck it! You wanna make it difficult? Then you wanna make it difficult; that’s nothing new. I just don’t care!
Can you say what you’re working on, what we’ll all be buying tickets for?
Since Rachel, I’ve worked steadily. I actually haven’t taken a vacation. There are two pilots and two features going on now. Oneof the features will probably get made, but I’m not done with the script yet. I have absolutely no idea what will happen. The job is in the writing. You do your work and you collect your paycheck and then you do your work again the next day. What gets produced and what gets made, I don’t have that much control over unless I’m raising the money myself. And I haven’t done that.
Thanks so much for your time. And be prepared for a SRO crowd at your BinderCon panel!
Wow, thank you. You have no idea—my life is about holding people’s gum!