"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
Scorsese's Protégée and Her Daughter Are the Freest Women in Hollywood
Female filmmakers are rarely afforded the opportunity to have the kind of long, varied careers that are seemingly awarded to even their most mediocre male peers, but Allison Anders has defied the odds at every turn. She's been writing and directing independent films, studio pictures, and television episodes for more than 30 years, with credits including Mi Vida Loca, Grace of My Heart, the Peabody Award–winning Things Behind the Sun, and, most recently, a remake of the 1988 film Beaches.
In the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of raising her three children as a single mother, Allison became one of the premiere voices in the American new wave of independent filmmakers. But since 2008, she's also been behind Don't Knock the Rock, a music documentary film festival in Los Angeles, which she created with her eldest daughter, musician and music supervisor Tiffany Anders. Together, they champion under-the-radar artists whose work you might not see anywhere else.
Like her mom, Tiffany Anders is a renaissance woman in the worlds of film and music. As a musician, Anders released two critically acclaimed albums, including 2001's Funny Happy Cry Gift, which was produced by singer-songwriter PJ Harvey. These days, you can hear Tiffany's song selections on shows like You're the Worst and Making History; she's also been director James Ponsoldt's go-to music supervisor since their first collaboration, on Smashed in 2012.
The mother-daughter duo occupies a unique position in the film and music industries. In bringing their passions to a wide range of audiences, each has managed never to lose sight of her voice as a female creator. The three of us sat down together to talk about inherent industry sexism, the lack of female heroines for young women, and the value of mentorship in the arts.
Kate Hagen: I saw you guys at the Cinefamily theater in L.A. presenting Border Radio a couple of years ago. Tiffany, you were talking about sleeping in the editing room as a kid during the making of that film. Allison, do you think it's easier to be a mother working in the film industry now, or when it was more independent and there were fewer rules about what was acceptable?
Allison Anders: I'd say it was easier to be a single mom back then, because nowadays, I think you really have to be more present and less selfish with your children than I was. We would do things that you would never dream of doing as parents now, like editing at night and going, "We'll take the sleeping bags and they'll just sleep on the editing-room floor and we'll take them out for breakfast in the morning and send them to school."
KH: For both of you, the sonic component of film, especially when it comes to soundtracking, is paramount. Allison, do you start with a song, or do you start with a script when you begin each new film project?
AA: I always make a playlist as I'm writing. Music is really important to me. I do get attached to certain songs. Tiffany can really speak to this with other directors, as well; this is one of the many reasons why she's such a great music supervisor — she knows that when a director is attached to a song, it's not bullshit. She's really able to respect that and pry that song out of your hands, replacing it without making you feel like you're being a ridiculous idiot.
Tiffany Anders: I very much approach being a music supervisor in the way that I do because of my mom — figuring out how to work with a director to enable their vision. Music is so subjective to different people. Nobody's going to be like, "Come on in and paint my movie with whatever you want!" So for me, what I like about the job is working with the director, starting with something that they had in mind. James Ponsoldt had a playlist when he sent me Smashed, and about two or three of those songs ended up in the movie. But, you can also introduce them to new things that they don't know about that they're amazed you're able to find.
KH: What were you guys listening to in your house growing up? How did you rebel against a mom who was into rock 'n' roll?
TA: I was listening to my mom's records — the ones she didn't need to sell. She had X and the Gun Club and soundtracks from Tess and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I also liked the pop bands of the day, like Duran Duran and Guns N' Roses and then started to discover bands like Redd Kross and Dinosaur Jr. on my own.
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AA: I grew up musically, too, with a young, single mom. One day, our babysitter told us that the Beatles were going to be on Ed Sullivan that weekend. My mom made me turn off Walt Disney and I was like, Ugh! But then I fell in love — that totally changed my life, my mom making me watch the Beatles.
KH: Tiffany, I wanted to ask you about being a singer-songwriter in the early 2000s during the peak of schoolgirl pop and how you flew in the face of all that. Your record Funny Cry Happy Gift was produced by PJ Harvey, which is amazing.
TA: Making that record was one of the high points of my life. I learned so much from her, and we developed such a good process while working on it. It was one of those creative things that, when you're doing it, you're not thinking about anything else. You're completely devoted to it.
Tiffany was educated by me, and I was educated by my mother. We didn't need any guys telling us what to listen to.
KH: What was it like working with men in the music industry at that time? How do they compare to men working in film now? Both industries are notorious for treating women poorly.
TA: It's funny, because after I did the record with Polly, I did a record here in LA. There were boys recording and producing it with me and I never had any issues with sexism. But in terms of the record-collecting world, boys are definitely threatened by girls coming in and knowing something. They just assume that you cannot possibly know. They tune you out.
AA: The movie-nerd thing is exactly the same, where they just assume that you don't know anything and you can't possibly be as nerdy about movies as they are. I think it goes to a deeper thing of like, We might invite you in, but you don't get to hold the knowledge that we have. It's just ludicrous. I mean, Tiffany was educated by me, and I was educated by my mother. We didn't need any guys telling us what to listen to.
KH: But to combat that, you created Don't Knock the Rock. Tell us a bit about how you created the festival.
AA: I'd been to a great festival in Sheffield, England, with a lot of music films. They showed a couple of my films there, and there was also this great rock-'n'-roll museum right across the street from the festival. I was like, This is so fun playing all these music films. I thought, I want to have a festival. I talked to Tiffany and I go, "Would you do this festival with me? I could get some movies and you could get some bands." We kicked it off like that. Now she curates the movies every bit as much as I do. It's a complete partnership.
KH: I imagine most of these films show at festivals and aren't getting distributors, so if you want to see it, you need to see it right now.
AA: It's unbelievable. Nobody ever makes a dime off of these movies. Those are the kinds of films that we go looking for — that the filmmaker foolishly, against everything everybody's told him or her, has decided, No, I'm doing this. I'm going to spend at least five years, if not ten years, of my life on this obsession. That's gold to us.
KH: You are both extremely focused on showcasing underappreciated female artists. Allison, you co-hosted Trailblazing Women in Film on TCM in 2015, and Tiffany, your blog, Jumble Queen, highlights lesser-known female musicians. We're at a point in time where there are more avenues to see films and hear music than ever before, but even with feminism having a moment, there's still so much lost art by women.
AA: During the Oscars, I'm seeing one guy after another talk about his little Walmart receipt that he's going to make a movie about. I was like, "Where is the woman director in here?" Last year, women got lost in the conversation in terms of diversity at the Oscars — the women were left out for the most part. I don't see anyone decrying it this year either.
When I first saw the website for Trailblazing Women in Film, I cried. To see all these women filmmakers throughout film history and to be able to talk about those films for weeks with Illeana Douglas was a blast.
KH: I read a great quote from you, Allison, where you said, "There are no girl wonders in film." That's so true, but there's certainly no shortage of boy wonders. You have these amazing intellectual-property ideas — like if Pippi Longstocking were a boy, there'd be ten Pippi Longstocking movies.
AA: With Pippi, what charmed me as a mother, what I'll never forget, was Tiffany crying after the movie. She looked at me and said, "She's funny." I loved that my daughter was connecting to such an anarchic energy. Pippi is her own boss and has magical powers that she uses however the hell she wants.
TA: I remember loving the fact that she didn't let any rules bind her. She was her own person.
KH: We don't get those kinds of characters for young girls. Young girls don't get to go on adventures.
Tiffany, I wanted to ask about James Ponsoldt because, to me, your relationship with him is a mirror of other relationships that women collaborators have had with male directors. You have Scorsese and his film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and Quentin Tarantino and his editor, the late Sally Menke. How does that work for you and James?
TA: He and I have a really good working relationship because he's very knowledgeable about music and really knows what he wants, which makes my job easier. We can talk about how a song or a cue is working and we can overthink it until the cows come home. For me, that's great fun.
KH: Allison, I also wanted to ask about working with Scorsese on Grace of My Heart. How did that relationship shake out as you guys were making the movie?
AA: Needless to say, it was an amazing opportunity. I was telling Quentin Tarantino, who I was seeing at the time, that I was going to have lasagna at Martin's house. Quentin goes, "I wear this guy around my neck like a ball and chain and he's making you lasagna?"
It was amazing what a generous mentor he was. He took his ego out of everything to teach me what he knew.
KH: How do you inspire one another as mother and daughter, but also as creators?
AA: Nothing makes me happier than to know that each time I listen to her show or her perspective on something that nobody else will ever introduce it to me except for her. She reintroduced me to Dory Previn, who I knew as a feminist teenager, but I never knew "The Lady With the Braid." I listen to that song probably once a week now.
She inspires me with her true independence. There's a part of me that's still a little attached to the male perspective. But Tiffany has this unwillingness to take shit from other people.
TA: I beg to differ. I would say that I get my independence from you. I feel extremely fortunate that I was raised by such a strong woman. I didn't care about going to the prom, I didn't care about my hair being pink, or people thinking I was weird for listening to punk rock. I was always taught that being myself was completely OK.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Kate Hagen is a writer living in Los Angeles. She's the creator of 31 Days of Feminist Horror Films, and the director of community for the Black List.