In 2015, I was living in Los Angeles and working in the film and TV industry. I was invited by a co-worker to attend an awesome film festival called the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival that celebrated kick ass women on screen. It was the very first festival — how could I miss that? I attended the event and was blown away. The films that were submitted and shown featured strong women who fought and struggled and were ultimately, heroines of the main story.
One of the short films featured Melanie Wise, an actress, stunt woman, producer — and even more inspirational, one of the founders of the Artemis Film Festival. She kicked ass on screen and off screen and furthermore, was providing a space to feature women in strong, dominating roles in film, something that is sorely underrepresented in Hollywood. I never doubted that I would interview Melanie for Fempotential — she lives proudly in her own strength, and her ambitions and creative endeavors are helping to change society’s perception of women — which is something that I know will be inspirational to each of you.
Alex: You’re an actress and a stunt woman – how did you get into stunt work? And what do you love about both?
Melanie: Some time ago, I began working with a writer director who had spent many years doing stunt work, live action fight stunts, and stunt/live action choreography. We worked together on a project and he taught me punches and hits. And it was just fun! The other part of it is this: as I watch movies, you can generally clearly see the difference between actor and stunt performer. And for me, it generally takes me out of a story. It’s been really cool being able to perform my own fights… not to mention, at my height, I’m not the easiest person for which to find a stunt double.
I’m not sure I can describe what I love about acting and stunts. I can really only say I feel at home on set, in pre-production, and in post. I think if I had to nutshell it, I’d say that I’m generally a person who doesn’t sit still well, unless I’m working on film projects. I totally forget the world, the time passes with lots of fun, I’m not struggling to sit still. I am so immersed in what I’m doing, I forget to eat, forget the time, and my energy is generally inexhaustible.
Alex: What were the challenges you faced as a female actress and stunt woman?
Melanie: I’m pretty sure if you look up casting nightmare in the dictionary, you’ll find my picture! Did I mention I’m about 6’ tall? And kind of athletically built. Another detriment is having a very solid physical presence… all have been no, no’s in Hollywood. And there’s one small problem of NOT being able sell a victim if my life depended upon it! Needless to say, I’ve had very lean times as an actor. Look at the women who do work regularly, and I’m not much like them physically. Which is good news because I really don’t want to play the girl next door, the other woman, the mom, or the lady wringing her hands in fear. And bad news because roles that step outside the boundaries of those above are not common. More good news though, this is starting to change! WooHOO!
Alex: And you’re also a producer as well! Is there anything you can’t do and how is producing films different from participating in a film as an actress?
Melanie: Well, let’s see: I suck at diplomacy, small talk, and compromise!
Producing, I think, is more a business mind set on steroids, acting is creative, and stunts are just a plain ‘ol fun physical outlet. I liken producing to playing chess, you’ve got to think many moves ahead. It’s also very demanding work for which you must wear a ton of hats. Every project is different and each one has a huge learning curve. Once you start a project and get far enough down the road, there is no turning back. That means you have to finish no matter what. I also think to produce you’ve got to be able to set your ego aside. One day you may be making key decisions, the next you could be carrying out the trash. On the variety front, I’d say a good choice.
Acting … well, each person’s creative energy moves through them differently. I put much less thought into acting. For this task, I arm myself with my tools (the words I’m delivering) and then just get ‘out of the way.’ I really do my best to tell the truth and not bump into the furniture. The more I’m not thinking when acting — it just makes for truer acting I think.
And stunts, as I mentioned above, good fun using the body. I’m a gym rat and I still love to play sports, so movement is part of what I do to keep myself happy. Also, If I don’t have strenuous exercise regularly, well, let’s say I can be testy! If I don’t spend my physical energy, I find I can spend it emotionally, and that’s just a waste of life.
Alex: You founded the Artemis Film Festival, a festival that celebrates powerful, bad ass women on screen. How did you come up with the idea for the festival?
Melanie: I’ve long been a fan of the BadAss woman! And I’ve spent a good amount of time making small budget projects with kick-ass leads. For many years, I’ve worked with writer, director Zac Baldwin and while we’ve gotten some projects finished, we’ve certainly floundered getting those projects out into the world. And if you can’t move your projects into the world, you can’t make a difference. About 4 years ago, I re-connected with Sean Newcombe, who is also a long time writer director of the female BadAss. So we were three with the same ethos and love. Sean wanted to start Artemis Motion Pictures and specifically dedicate our company efforts to content that showcased kick-ass women which was a brilliant idea. The actual idea of Artemis and the festival was Sean’s idea, so blame him! I personally ‘blame’ him for creating a platform for which we can make a difference for women in the film industry and hopefully in the world. And not long after our very first addition, Megan Hubbell landed on our horizon, and is key in managing our social media and marketing. So that’s our nutty team, and what we accomplish is certainly a team effort.
Alex: Why do you think it’s important for there to be empowering women on screen?
Melanie: Without inspiring images of women in the world, we have nothing but what’s inside us to push us forward in life. And while an extraordinary number of people have lots of amazing things inside them, that amazingness is hobbled by second guessing themselves, blindness to very valuable qualities right under their noses, limitations of what’s possible which is often dictated by their past/history, weakened by not so good physical and non-physical habits, just to mention a few factors. We absolutely need positive outside influences to inspire us to say yes to more. We need to see women take on challenges and win, even if in fictional stories. These influences wake something inside us up, and we begin to roar a bit louder in life. Without THAT, we are lost.
Alex: What do you hope that the Artemis Film Festival can do for female filmmakers, actresses, and stunt women?
Melanie: I hope we get people to rethink the feminine principal. Our modern day has all but stripped physicality (save sex) out of femininity. And women are so physically strong and even many women miss that. Not only have we not explored female physical potential, as a society we do not encourage women to explore it. I’ve said for quite a while, until women are seen as physically equal, we will always be seen as less. In ancient times, women who hunted or made war alongside their men enjoyed more social equality. We’ve completely diminished the physical value of women (save sex) and I quite frankly believe it is one of our keys to being treated more equally.
It is also my hope our festival’s voice adds to the thunderous boom of voices that are now shouting for gender parity. As more people move on the front of gender parity, it will become a front that is too big to ignore.
On the front of filmmakers, actors, and stunt performers, it is our hope to create a space for their films to play, to get noticed and to really make a loud noise that that films with BadAss women in them are in demand. And really, that one is a no brainer! There’s been plenty of data over 4 decades that proves strong women sell at the box office and the small screen. It becomes a matter of getting the people with the purse strings to give audiences what they love.
Alex: What’s been the best and hardest thing about starting and running a film festival?
Melanie: The absolute best thing is being able to see stories, many times long buried, about the amazing history of women. We get the best stories, and many times our audiences have no idea of those stories. It’s awesome watching audiences realize that theirs is a rich RICH history of boundary-breaking, step-outside-the-box, forward thinking BADASS women role models.
The hardest thing …. trying to make a dent with very little resources. We are a very small team and we really bust our butts to bring the festival to life.
Alex: The film industry suffers from sexism and the pay wage gap as any other industry does – how do you think we can battle this and create an industry in which both women and men have equal opportunity to share stories on screen, especially more female stories?
Melanie: I think the only way this is going to happen is if women stop talking about the problems and become a part of the solution. Talking about it is not getting it done. And yes, I get it! Women get a pile of shit stepping out into the world on so many fronts, with the added bonus of getting less pay and less opportunity.
Charles Malik said, “The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world.” I’m pretty sure that quote is almost a hundred years old. To put my two cents bluntly, I think women already have many of the resources they need to make many of the changes they want. My observation is they don’t use those resources or perhaps even realize they have them. Women are more than half the population. They make more than 80% of all purchasing decisions in a home. If women were staunch supporters of women, I think the gender issue would be a thing of the past.
Specific to the film industry, I see many women banging on a door that is not really open to them. And yes, they should be banging on that door! AND they should also be coming up with alternative creative methods to make their content and push it out into the world. Bang on those doors, and also keep opening other doors while you bang on THAT DOOR! Hollywood isn’t going to change overnight, I don’t think we can count on them to ‘do the right thing,’ and Hollywood won’t change just because some women get loud over it… sadly!
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Alex: Any great female filmmakers or empowering films featuring female leads that we should check out?
Melanie: Right now, the film that is on my mind is a short doc we got for the festival. This chick (and a few others) took on a multi-billion-dollar corporation in Tazmania… and won!!! It’s called Defendant 5.
Ava Duvernay is doing some really incredible things. She is mind numbing.
Maja Aro, a stunt coordinator/stunt performer/director (and Artemis 2015 honoree) is stepping further into a man’s world by moving into directing.
Alex: What advice would you give to young women interested in the film industry – whether they be interested in acting, stunt work, producing, staging, wardrobe, composition, etc.?
Melanie: Gird your loins!! Hold onto your belongings!! You’ve got a real tough path in front of you. Buck up, for you’re about to have an intense lesson earning the strength to hold onto a majority of one. This industry is about getting a pile of NO’s and yet still pushing ahead towards what you want. And it’s really hard not to start believing those no’s or at a minimum, become discouraged by them. And that’s what I mean by a majority of one – your voice has to be the one voice in your head forging your way. Oh, and by the way, you have to balance that with the wisdom to know when someone’s creative criticism is actually helpful! And if you’re a woman, you’ve got to be able to manage all that while you contend with sexism, and all that THAT implies. Seriously, this industry is not for the faint of heart. But yes, it’s worth it!