Cady McClain is forging a name for herself as a director. Most well-known for her lengendary roles on the soaps All My Children, As The World Turns and Young and the Restless, her true passion is behind the camera. Cady's recent documentary, Seeing is Believing, Women Direct, showcases several women current women directors, revealing their struggles and successes. The word is out now on the power of the female director and Cady is helping to spread it.
Seeing is Believing: Women Direct is making the rounds now at film festivals. It was awarded the Jury Award for Best Doc, Short Film Honorable mention at the Newport Beach Film Festival and will be featured at New York City's Soho Festival in June.
In this very candid interview Cady talks about how her mother's cancer and death lead her on her path in life, how she acknowledges sexism in this industry and deals with it, and how finding your passion is difficult but the journey of pursuing it and perfecting it is what makes life meaningful.
Suzee: Did you always want to direct, even when you were in front of the camera?Cady McClain: I discovered directing in my early 20’s. I think I was about 22, 23 years old. I took a workshop at the center where I took acting classes, Michael Howard Studios, with a fellow named Curt Dempster. This was in the early 90’s. Curt was the most fascinating person I had ever met, and he introduced me to a world I had no idea existed. We learned about how to create a sense of tone within space and began reading about how good theater is integral to the life of the culture and how to create it.
My piece for the class was a short play by David Mamet called “The Duck Variations.” I picked a section and hired two gentlemen in their early 60’s named Bernie Barrow and Danny Darrow. (Yes, those were really their names.) In retrospect, as a woman in her early 20’s it was pretty brave to choose two older men to direct, but I wasn’t thinking about reverse ageism at the time. I loved the language and I knew I understood timing. Bernie was a bit tough on me, but life had been tougher so it phased me very little. The thrill of having CHOICE, of being able to pursue the way I saw things, not the way someone else did, was so incredible. The piece went over pretty well with the small audience that attended but more importantly the process was such a joy to me that I went to my mom and told her I wanted to quit acting and focus on directing.Now to put this all in context it’s important to know my mom got cancer when I was 17, and I had told her that I would provide for her after that. So she depended on me for financial security. So when she told me “please don’t direct,” (which she did, unfortunately) she was saying that from the point of view of a woman who was afraid both for herself and her daughter.
All that said, it was totally and completely crushing for me. I had discovered something that gave me joy, more joy than acting did. I had discovered what I wanted to be my path and I had to forgo it out of loyalty, respect, and responsibility. I did it, but it really sucked. Looking back I wish I had just kept doing it on the side, but something about the way she talked about it killed any rebellion.
Suzee: When was the lightbulb moment when you decide to make Seeing is Believing: Women Direct?Cady McClain: It’s important for me to look at this from the perspective that not only was my mother discouraging, not very many women were directing film or theater at that time. Why is a combination of the resistance to women in these roles added to the social resistance of women leading. I think I knew of one or two female directors: Amy Heckerling who did “Clueless,” Alison Anders of “Gas, Food, Lodging,” and Jane Campion of “The Piano” and “An Angel at my Table.” I knew more theater directors but there weren’t that many there, either. Again, I was not encouraged to be a risk taker like these women. I was encouraged to “find a path and stick to it.” Our lives were about survival, not about following a dream.My mom died two years after the “directing” event and I’ve often asked myself why I didn’t pursue directing after she passed. I think I had just “turned off” that desire because I was fighting for my personal, emotional survival. I turned to music for quite some time as it was a place where I could create art solo. Directing requires an ability to connect and communicate with others and I wasn’t in that space then.It’s hard to describe what it was like after my mom died. Most people think, “Well, you grieve for a while and then you should just get on with your life,” but it isn’t like that. The guilt that I could have done something to save her and didn’t, the terror of being on my own (I was without a father and my sister moved away for a job), and the responsibility of now dealing with her house and the belongings she left behind was massive. It took me 20 years to divest myself of all of that. In that time I kept creating: I wrote a play, made an album, painted giant portraits, went to college, and worked on the soaps to make a living. The soap world also became a rather poor replacement for family but… it was something to hang onto.Perhaps this is all too personal, but it explains why it took me until my early 40’s to get back to directing, and even more time until I made this film.
After doing two short films in my early 40’s, I began to notice how I was being treated at the festivals. I wasn’t being treated as a visionary, as the director who created these unique pieces of work. I was talked to as if someone else MUST have directed these pieces for me. This was the first experience of the kind of basic sexism or prejudice that can come from both men and women (and trust me it is an equal opportunity offender. Women can just as easily doubt other women’s ability as men can.) I was literally looked in the face after telling a festival employee that I was the director and given a name tag that credited me as the producer and writer. It just didn’t compute in this person’s mind that I directed it.Around that time I started to hear about the stats regarding women directors and employment. It began to dawn on me that if I wanted to be a director I really needed to do something to help change those statistics. They were first of all, depressing, and second of all, really unfair. The idea for the documentary just popped into my head one day. Later, I was producing a short film and mentioned the idea I was considering to a woman on the set who had many, many years of experience in television in Hollywood. She had worked on everything from “Taxi” to “Seinfeld.” She looked me in the eye with a fixed gaze I will never forget and said, “DO IT” and… that was it. I had my directive and I knew it was something that needed to be done."I have a theory that amazing and wonderful ideas descend upon many of us who are listening for them. What makes the difference is who says yes to them, who sees it through, and the filter of life/ personality of that person. So it wasn’t like a grand, original idea I had. I just kept saying yes to it. "Cady McClain: We are living in a patriarchal society. There is simply no way around that. We can make our personal worlds where this may be less so because we may be interacting less with men in positions of leadership but the fact remains that the foundations of leadership have been defined by men for hundreds of years. As a woman it is important to know the way men lead so you can know how to communicate with them more effectively and get the job done. The project and the product is more important than my pride or immediate persona.Indeed, a woman does have to work twice, three times as hard as a man to succeed unless you are one of the “lucky ones” who get mentorship and support via family or personal connections. But in general, I find there is always an extra effort that we have to make in order to get from A to B. Here’s an example:America Young told me a story about how she was on set directing and some top male crew members were trying to solve a problem. As the director she should have an equal, if not more important voice in these kinds of discussions, yet they were totally ignoring her. Her producer was about to pitch a fit when America had a revelation.Note: America is also a voice over artist and has a pretty high voice. She can do a great “Disney Princess,” but don’t confuse her for one. She’s also a stunt woman. She is tall, tough, and… well, I wouldn’t want to fight with her. But she does have a high tone range in her voice, which she tends to use naturally. On this day, she decided to change her tone of voice and drop it by about an octave.As soon as she did, the men “heard” her. They literally DID NOT HEAR HER when she used her natural high voice. They either ignored it, or (what I think was most likely the case) translated the pitch as meaning “sound from young lady who can’t possibly know what we are talking about.” But the LOW voice DID register as “A Voice of Authority” and they responded to it.All this to say: if you want to communicate more effectively with men and you are a woman, drop your tone range in your voice. High voices are not considered “authoritative” in the patriarchal paradigm.When we live in “Wonder Woman’s” world, that may all change. But for now… this is a tool to get from A to B while we as a society try and evolve.Cady McClain: I was a 70’s baby, but what I saw on TV was a strong influence. I wasn’t encouraged in my studies that much, so that’s where I was most influenced. Characters like Jane Fonda’s “Bree” in Klute or Lillian in Julia; Ellen Burstyn’s “Edna” in Resurrection; Zoe Caldwell as Medea, or Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter… these strong women characters were the ones my mind would travel back to as examples of women who had a voice and were talking their own paths, even if it was a destructive one like Queen Medea’s. I felt I could identify with them in some way because they were brave, but I also feel empowered by them.
Suzee: When did you decide you wanted to be an actress, and did it take long for you to land a job on a soap opera?I started acting when I was nine years old, professionally. We moved to NY when I was 17 as I knew I wasn’t strong enough for LA. There is a tendency to prey on the young in that town and I was not the kind of mouthy kid I needed to be to avoid that. I was really vulnerable, and my mom was not savvy enough to protect me. I just knew I had to get out of there.
So we moved to NY and I got the soap about two years later. I did a film, a TV movie, an episodic, some commercials from 17 to 19, and auditioned for a few soaps before landing All My Children when I was 19. One time I auditioned for “Guiding Light” and I just went blank. I could not remember a single line at my screen test. Total “Deer in headlights” time. But somehow I pulled myself together for the All My Children screen test and won the role.
One motivating factor was my mother getting Cancer. I found out she was having a double mastectomy while I was on the set of the film. That was fun. After that movie ended I decided, “I need a soap,” because I knew that would be steady money, steady work, and some kind of consistency I could rely on while the illness took it’s toll.
Suzee: What I love about this documentary is that yes, you focus on women directors but the irony is that you too are a female director. Tell me about Venice, what is was like directing that Amazon show or about any other projects.Cady McClain: I was asked to act in Venice to take over the part of Logan as Judi Evans wasn’t available. I really wanted to direct so I said to Jennifer Pepperman (who was producing at the time) “Hey I really am pursuing directing now but I’ll take the part if you let me follow you on set, or even if there is the slightest chance of directing something tiny, I would LOVE to do it. Or I will just bring you coffee and watch. I’ll do anything. Just as long as it’s directing related.” Jenn is a lovely person and talked to Crystal about it and she was open. Then in a turn of events, Jenn had to leave the show for personal reasons and Crystal offered me the directing job. So it was a lucky break, although I was sorry not to follow Jennifer. She’s a terrific director.One of the goals I’ve had doing the doc is to make sure to continue to direct WHILE making it. How else would I know the facts of the challenges and the truth of the tools if I didn’t have an opportunity to practice them first hand myself? Doing so has been exhausting yet totally worthwhile. I’ve directed Venice over two different time periods, as well as two short films since I started the doc and all have been wonderful learning opportunities. I feel really proud of the work, too.It was really cool to be part of the Emmy Nomination for Venice. That did not suck at all.
Suzee: While interviewing all of these directors, what one or two characteristics did you find similar in all of them?Cady McClain: Strength and grace. This is not a job for people who need to have their hand held. You’ve got to be able to handle an enormous amount of pressure and responsibility, and handle it well.I think because the leadership role is so male defined, women who are in it also have to be able to handle being judged, as well as thought of as a “genderless anomaly.” This is why the doc is so important to me: we NEED to SEE more women in leadership roles, so we aren’t either battling one another for territory or being held up as “non-feminine.” Many women are naturally capable of guiding others. But there is no one RIGHT way.
"There is just YOUR way. It can be soft, or demanding, or humorous or anything. As long as it’s authentic, that I think is the most important."
Suzee: What job did your hubby have in this? What did he add to it, from a male’s perspective?Cady McClain: When I first started I refused to let him have anything to do with it other than introducing me to some of the female directors he had met either through work or on the festival circuit like Meera Menon, Joanna Kerns, or Nikki Braendlin. He wasn’t allowed to even sit in the interviews! I wouldn’t let him carry my gear, drive me, or anything.
It wasn’t until about a year later when I started to get tired that I said, “Oh screw it” and asked him to come and help me out here and there. Simple stuff, holding focus, moving gear, that sort of thing. Now he’s more involved as we talk about various aspects of the film, but he isn’t the guiding force by any stretch. Nor does he sit in on the edit. He’s more like a great friend I can run ideas by. Someone who I can call out to with stuff like, “I’m going to use X2Pro to convert these to AAF. Should I be worried if some of the files are in different conform levels?” or “Take a look at this transcript and let me know what really stands out to you. I want to compare it with other feedback.” Sometimes he knows the answer to something, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes I take his note, sometimes I don’t.
My goal has always been to help facilitate collaboration between the sexes, not exclusion. I think men and woman can work together and work together well. I am not a fan of the “US and THEM” mentality, as if one side were more important than the other.In terms of Jon adding his “male perspective,” that’s hard to say. I know it makes him mad to hear the stories about how women are not given more opportunities. I think it’s been a learning process to some degree regarding how women lead and how it can be different then men. And certainly it’s been a journey for him to watch me go through everything I’ve gone through it making this.But I can’t say he added a “male perspective to it," other than he is yet one more good guy who doesn’t like to see women treated unfairly. I do show men in this film who both support women directors and who talk about the problem, too. But Jon didn’t make me want to show those guys. I wanted to show that this conversation is not one sided, and to show that many men are truly interested in stories that happen to be told by women. There is room for everyone.
I should add that Jon has been incredibly supportive of this project and me throughout. I don't think any filmmaker makes a movie without an awesome support system. He's mine and I'm so grateful for him.
Suzee: If you were speaking to a class of women in high school, and they wanted to be where you are now, what advice could you give them?I would tell them that there is no emulating another person’s path. You can be inspired by another woman’s courage, or learn from how she handled a situation, but you cannot take or copy another’s path. I would tell them to learn and remember WHAT THEY LIKE, everything from ice cream to art, and not let anyone discourage you from your choice. Knowing what you really, truly like and WHY is the key to making the right decisions for you. Because if you really enjoy something, nothing will keep you from it. Not even time.I would also tell them to take up a sport or a craft that requires discipline, because if you want to succeed at anything you need to be very disciplined. Undisciplined people tend to be lazy and want others to do things for them. I find those people do not get very far in life and I have learned to avoid them.And I would tell them to strive to be honest and authentic. Inauthentic people are always ferreted out, sooner or later. Honest people aren’t always liked by everyone, but who needs to be liked by everyone? My motto is, “Be honest. Be kind.”Suzee: Can you tell me about one thing, one moment in your life, that you experienced as female, that changed your life, for good or bad.I often look back on a moment where a fellow actor, an actor with all the respect and money and accolades you could wish for, talked about my breasts in front of a group of other actors. It seemed he felt my breasts were fair game for comment, although I wasn’t wearing a particularly revealing dress. I think he was trying to be funny, but he came off as sexist, inconsiderate, narcissistic, and wildly out of date. And … I did not say a thing. Not one word. I gave him a look, and another woman in the group also gave him a look, but not one word was said.Ugh.Why did this happen? It happened because I allowed myself to be treated like an object as if that were my only value. I did not stand up for myself often enough, but allowed these comments to be made again and again over time, shrugging them off even though they enraged me. To be fair to myself, I was raised to think this way, and encouraged to believe this was my only value.I feel I am not so different than a lot of women. I think these kinds of comments (and again, women can be equal opportunity offenders), this “locker talk” aimed towards women is an old method by which women have been disempowered and stunned into silence for years. And when any woman points it out we are blamed for it happening in the first place. The first thing I’ve heard is “Well what did YOU do to provoke that? Did you flirt? Did you wear a tight dress?” I’ve looked at every angle of my behavior, and what I may of done “wrong.” This kind of depreciation of women is boring and needs to be related to episodes of “Mad Men.” It does not deserve to be a part of our new world and this new time.My answer now to “What did you do wrong” is, “Be born female.” And I say that tongue in cheek, but there is truth to it.On a more hopeful note, I think what has to change, and what IS changing (albeit slowly) is the way our culture is thinking about, talking about, and treating women. That “locker talk” isn’t considered flattering anymore. It’s considered WAY out of line. This is allowing more hope and therefore more possibility for women. I have to believe that.After that job ended, I knew it was time for me to start using my voice as an artist more. To stop playing small and to stop allowing anyone (male or female) to silence me. I knew I needed to stop accepting the way things “are” and start working towards changing them.Sometimes you have to hit bottom before you make a change. It was about 6 months after that comment that I started working on this documentary.And now something about you, can you tell me your top five movies?Blade Runner (the original)” S.O.B (hilarious ’80’s film about show business), Julia (about Lilian Gish and her friend), Hannah, and American PsychoWhat are some of your favorite shows to binge on?Recently, The Handmaids Tale, Better Call Saul, The Night Of, Bloodline, Top of the LakeIf you had a day to do anything, what would be a perfect day for you?Right now as I am at the very limit of my energy and fighting off a cold, I’d really love a day on the beach in Mexico, just eating Guacamole and reading a great book. But any day directing is really a perfect day. It’s the best job ever.
Follow Cady on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CadyMcClain