Directing on Her Terms: an Interview with Casey Gates
Casey Gates is a writer and director with true passion. She’s also incredibly honest- her directing isn’t her full-time gig but if she has a say in it, it will be. From her award winning directing work to #LadyBrain her female focused film initiative to working as a Social Media Producer at NBC, she’s the embodiment of hustle. In 2016 she received a BlogHer Voice of the Year Award for her mission-statement film “What Is Lady Brain?”. After that, she went on to co-write and direct “Girl Code” which premiered at the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival “Women in Cinema” block. By day, Casey works as a Social Media Producer on set with several shows such as NBC’s The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Her work in various aspects of the industry has lead to her well rounded background and will surely inform the incredible work we know she’ll continue to create.
This is an excerpt of an interview between Crystal and TLL founder, Kim Hoyos.
ON HER START IN FILMMAKING
How did you discover filmmaking?
I grew up doing theatre and got a BFA in Acting from Rutgers University. It wasn’t until I started auditioning in LA and being told that I should make my own work, that I realized what it was I was really interested in doing— being a creator.
What are your favorite roles in production? (directing, producing, acting)?
I would have to say my ideal role in production would be directing a project that I also wrote. I love seeing something come to life that started as a fantasy in my mind.
How did you develop these skills? Formal education? Self taught?
I never went to film school, I just taught myself and was on set a lot between acting, being a PA for my friends, and asking a lot of questions. The first short films I made were just me, a lighting kit, and my Canon DSLR.
How does film differ from theatre for you?
Theatre comes naturally to me. I am a very kinesthetic learner and enjoy working in a physical space and moving tangible things around a stage to tell a story. But filmmaking taps into a higher level of visual imagination that I am excited to keep fully realizing through this medium.
What has been your favorite production thus far?
I made a bare bones web series called Judy the Clown which I had a blast doing. It was a mockumentary that teetered on satire and dark comedy, but with a lot of heart. I also laughed so much making that, and loved working with my lead actress Connor Kelly-Eiding.
ON HER PROJECTS
How did Lady Brain come about?
I was working for a small production company run by all men. And for a certain assignment, was tasked with watching hundreds of short films, 90% of which were made by men. And most of which were not very good. Spending months working behind-the-scenes on that project was really the catapult for wanting to stop making excuses and just get out and start trying to make my own stuff.
What do you look for when choosing pieces to direct?
Since establishing Lady Brain Films, I definitely consider that brand when deciding on projects to undertake. If I’m pitched something and think, “Oh that would be perfect for Lady Brain!” then it’s usually a match.
Can you talk a little about Girl Code and what you learned from production?
Girl Code started as a one act play written by Jessica Jacobs, who also plays Anna. I directed it for the stage and loved being a part of the workshopping experience. Jessica, Kate Spare and I spent countless hours working through the nuances of the characters, their relationship to each other, and what kind of story we wanted to tell.
That process set me up amazingly well to adapt it into a short film, and served our rehearsal process tremendously. When it came time to shoot, the most important pieces (for us it was story and performance) were ironed out and primed for execution.
Thank god, because that production was a beast and also my first real plunge into filmmaking. I thought I could do most all of the producing myself in addition to directing. So by not asking for enough help or seeking support, I overextended myself. I created a dynamic on set where I was unable to be as present as I would have liked to.
It was ultimately a very rewarding learning experience, but a brutally difficult one.
Why do you enjoy directing?
I’ve always been drawn to leadership, and I enjoy guiding people through an impactful experience, whether that be a cast and crew on my set or an audience in a theatre. I am endlessly curious about people and how they behave and relate to one another, and how funny people can be. It’s amazing to be able to explore and shape that through storytelling, and create an entire life to share with others.
What are struggles you've faced as a female director?
Being underestimated and having men blatantly condescend me. I once had to hop in on a marketing shoot with the cast from one of my shows and direct them in a quick social video. Something I had done with them countless times before. The team of producers and director we had that day automatically assumed I would be too nervous to speak up and give instruction to the “big name” talent we had.
And even once I started doing my thing the first unit director kept interrupting me and trying to call “Action!” for me, thinking it was hilarious to poke fun at my small camera setup and make me the butt of the joke. I can’t help but believe that 100% happened because I am a young-looking female.
What do you hope to direct more of genre wise?
Girl Code was more on the darker side, while Bday Bail was a straight up comedic sketch. So I would love to do more offbeat or quirky dramedies. I have a pilot that I wrote which falls under this umbrella that would be my next dream project for directing, even as just a proof of concept short.
To you, how do female led sets differ from male led productions?
To me, it’s more about how someone chooses to lead rather than their inherent gender making a difference in running a set. I’ve watched hundreds of directors work, both male and female, and there are no absolutes in how they differ. However, there has been a big difference in the way I see men and women confront and handle conversations and choices around the female characters in the scene at hand. Women tend to think ahead in respect to how a certain item of clothing might need to be addressed, or how it might look if we start the scene with the actress in this position on the bed versus another. There’s absolutely a female gaze that I see women directors operating from, while a male director may not realize it until a female AD, costume designer, or DP brings it up.
ON HER DAY JOB
Can you speak to having a day job and still pursuing your own creative endeavors?
Having not yet earned a living by my creative pursuits, I’ve consistently held down day jobs since college. In my 20’s they ranged from yoga teacher, to waitress, to background actor, to a toddler’s gymnastics coach. However, once I pivoted away from auditioning and freed myself up to take on more full-time work, I decided to pursue a career that was more fulfilling and challenging than just an easy way to pay rent.
Social Media Marketing, specifically for entertainment, was my way of being able to continue to learn about and participate in the industry, and earn a decent living. I’ve worked my way up to now being an on-set Social Media Producer for some awesome TV shows, and while it’s not my dream job, it fulfills me and challenges me in a way that ultimately brings more to my creative pursuits than takes away from it.
I tried to work as a freelance consultant for a period of time, hoping it would provide me with more time and flexibility to write and direct. But it ended up consuming more of my mental energy. I was constantly worried about booking the next gig or client, and felt guilty spending a day writing instead of finding more paid work. My salary job is not easy, but I feel more freedom to be creative on nights and weekends than if my job were unstructured and inconsistent.
How does your daytime job inform your creative work?
By working on so many different TV sets, sitting in on table reads, and observing several different productions, I’ve used that time to absorb all I can about how TV gets made. Because ultimately, I would love to create a show, work in a writer’s room, and direct episodic.
What are areas of film you'd like to learn more about?
Cinematography and knowing how to shoot for the edit.
What's the most practical piece of advice you've been given?
Show up anyway. Even if you don’t feel like you have anything to give, or aren’t confident in your ideas, show up with your whole self anyway. It’s a part of the process, and it will come.