Savannah Magruder on Tackling Sex and Flipping the Male Gaze through Film

Savannah Magruder is a Brooklyn based filmmaker originally hailing from Maine. Her past work in film includes directing and production design credits where encapsulates themes of queerness and feminism. Her work has landed her press from Vice, Stereogum, and Brooklyn Vegan and also recognition from the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival, the New Hampshire Film Festival, and the NewFilmmakers New York program at Anthology Film Archives. Currently in pre-production for her next short “Debbie Does Dilators”, we spoke to Savannah about sex in film, the male gaze, and her process as a filmmaker. 

This is an excerpt of an interview between Savannah and TLL founder, Kim Hoyos.

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On Your Background:

When did you start making films?
I started making films when I was nine years old. I’d come up with a simple plot in my head, then act it out with my Barbies and my cat. I eventually started casting humans in my films when I got a little older, and continued to make movies through middle and high school, participating in teen filmmaking workshops and any media or film related classes that were offered in my school. It’s been a passion of mine for the majority of my life.

Do you feel that community environment has been important to you growing your own skills?
I think it was definitely beneficial for me to experience the collaborative aspect of filmmaking at an early age. I was never into sports or anything like that, so it helped me learn how to work as part of a team. When teamwork is successful it is such an exhilarating thing, and that’s part of what’s so magical about making narrative fiction films. Every member of the crew is imperative to the completion of the film, and that creates the most awesome feeling of trust and support among everyone involved. It’s an addictive feeling that is hard to forget.

Did you have any idea what the industry would be like?
I grew up in a tiny farm town in Maine and didn’t have an idea of the film industry at all, really. The gender disparity in crew positions on set was made clear to me when I started freelancing in the art department on feature and TV productions in college. Since premiering my first short “Skid” and going to festivals with it have I experienced firsthand the discrimination that female directors face in the industry. I went to an event at a film festival and got into a conversation with a man who was a director and panelist at the festival. I was telling him about my film and work, and he just started rubbing my arm. I ignored it, but he did it multiple times. I was trying to network and have a conversation about my work, but it felt like he wasn’t even listening to me or taking me seriously at all. This is of course extremely mild compared to what many women have experienced in the industry.

What were your favorite films growing up and how did they influence you?
I didn’t really find films or writing that influenced my work until college. It was then that I discovered Miranda July, Kelly Reichardt, Anna Biller, Joanna Arnow, Chris Kraus and Andrea Arnold. I think their work has been the most influential for me thus far.

Do you think you could be a filmmaker without your BFA? How did it help you reach a new level in your work?
I received my B.F.A. in Film from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. The biggest thing going to Pratt did for me was provide the perfect place to transition from living in rural Maine to living in NYC. I was constantly making work, getting feedback, and being shown films and art I had never seen before, all in an environment that felt really nurturing and perfect for me. I was given a place to live, I had a meal plan, I was surrounded by new friends. It would’ve been possible to move to New York and jump into PAing, but it would’ve been much more difficult. That being said, I know basically everything I know about working on a set from working on real sets. I began interning on set the summer after my freshman year (a gig I found on Craigslist) and continued to intern and freelance on features, TV shows and commercials throughout college. I truly believe if you have the will to learn, you can learn everything you need to know by working for free on set as an intern in whichever department you’re most interested in until you have enough contacts and experience for people to offer you paid work.
Pratt helped me reach a new level in my work by exposing me to films I’d never be exposed to otherwise and by forcing me out of my comfort zone. I would have never written my first narrative fiction script had I not been required to take a screenwriting class to graduate. Now, I love narrative fiction and don’t really see myself revisiting experimental film anytime soon. Pratt was the catalyst for that giant step in my path as a filmmaker.

What were classes like? What was the breakdown of gender and race?
Pratt was a unique type of film education because it is a fine arts school. In addition to film classes I was also taking drawing, painting, color theory and graphic design. I loved it because I was constantly surrounded by artists of all mediums and could be inspired by my peers and collaborate with them as well. The gender breakdown in the film program was an equal ratio of men to women, but race-wise the majority of students were white. I think that’s pretty accurate to the rest of Pratt, unfortunately. Something I really liked about Pratt, though, was the quantity of queer students. It was very nice to be exploring my sexuality among others who were trying to figure theirs out, too, and I felt very safe being open about it.

What kind of work were you creating while in school?
During my time at Pratt, the majority of my work was abstract and experimental. My senior thesis was a multi-projection video installation exploring the concept of a prehistoric, matriarchal society. It wasn’t until my senior year that I tackled writing a fiction narrative script, and I ended up falling completely in love with narrative fiction filmmaking.

On Her Next Film:

How did the idea for Debbie Does Dilators arise?
It’s kind of a funny story. I had recently graduated from art school with a film degree, and many of my past film works were experimental and/or conceptual. I’d had vaginismus (a condition causing a painful contraction of the pelvic floor muscles in response to penetration) for years and wanted to make a piece about it. I’d come up with this idea of making an actual conceptual porn film in which a woman was being penetrated with a dilator, hyper-sexualizing my hopelessly un-sexy condition. I knew if I made it, though, it couldn’t be widely viewed because the content would be so explicit – maybe could be shown in a gallery or something, but it couldn’t reach the audience I wanted. I needed to make it more accessible. I wrote a script about a woman who is a porn director with vaginismus, playing with the irony and absurdity of that scenario. Through several drafts and revisions it came to be where it is now – a story about a young woman who works as a P.A. on porn sets, who stumbled into it accidentally by taking a Craigslist gig, and is now kind of stuck in that world. She has vaginismus and the film follows her as she navigates dating in NY while trying to overcome the condition and achieve pleasure with penetrative sex.

How long did the film take to write?
I started writing the script in April of 2017, and finished the final draft very recently, so just under a year.

Were you faced with difficulties during the pre production stage?
Finding funding and potential web distribution has been a little challenging. I think people tend to shy away from subject matter of this nature – the concept of women’s sexuality and entitlement to pleasure is taboo to begin with, throw a medical condition in the mix and it pushes that even further. Despite that, we were able to secure most of our funding from Maze Women’s Sexual Health, the clinic where I was treated for vaginismus. They understand the scope of the condition (it affects an estimated 17% of women or more!) and the importance of getting the word out.

Health conditions are often not normalized in film even if they are prevalent in society- was it always in the plans for your main character to have vaginismus?
The film always revolved around the condition. At the same time, though, it’s not just about her struggle with vaginismus. The film explores many themes of the (cis, hetero) female sexual experience, such as the prioritization of men’s pleasure over women’s, consent, men’s entitlement to women’s bodies and the desire to achieve sexual pleasure as a woman in a heterosexual relationship.

What was your approach to tackling so many serious societal stigmas without coming across as a “PSA”?
That was actually one of the biggest challenges in writing the film. My way of thwarting the potential “PSA” vibe was through comedy and irony and staying true to my naturalist style of narrative writing. The film is definitely informative, but educates the viewer subtly, through experiencing the condition and its repercussions alongside the main character. The comedic elements make it digestible and relatable to anyone, whether or not they’ve experienced vaginismus or know someone who has.

Can you talk about the importance of honesty in filmmaking?
For me, the only way to write is honestly. I take experiences and conversations I’ve had and write them into my scripts, sometimes without any alteration. I take inspiration for characters directly from people I have met in my life. People are endlessly compelling and multi-dimensional. I don’t feel the need to create alternate realities in my films, I like to just explore and highlight moments from my own reality. And I think if they’re depicted honestly, others will inevitably relate to and connect with them. I use art as a way of relating to other people and communicating my feelings and experiences through my work. I find that exposing the most vulnerable parts of myself within my films is empowering.

What’s the gender breakdown of your cast/crew? How do you think gender affects the environment when shooting?
Because of the subject matter of the film and the gender disparity in the film industry, it was important for me to have an all female/nonbinary crew for this project. It’ll be my first time shooting with a crew exclusive of cis men, so I can’t really speak to the difference in the feel on set. I’ve worked with some incredibly awesome guys in the past, but I’m really looking forward to seeing how working with an all femme/nb crew affects the environment on set and the film itself.

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On Your Work:

What’s your workflow like?
I like to take a full day to get a big chunk of work done. I work best when I have a solid period of time to sit down and really focus on the task at hand.

What inspires you?
Being out in the world, observing people and having new experiences. Naturally, I’m also inspired by watching films and  reading, and hearing other filmmakers or writers talk about their work.

How would you define the female gaze? Why is it important for more women and gnc filmmakers to make work?
I would define the female gaze as a lens that reveals an honest depiction of a woman’s perspective and experience. It is important for more women and gnc filmmakers to make work because this gaze is so rarely seen in film and TV. The prevalence of the male gaze in mainstream media and entertainment only enforces the patriarchal nature of our society, as people tend to idealize and want to emulate what they see on screen. It also enforces the idea that the male perspective is the only one worthy of representation, the only one that is important or interesting, when usually, I find the opposite to be true.

What themes do you tend to gravitate towards when writing?
I write from my own experience, so thus far my films have explored queer and feminist themes, as those are prevalent themes in my own life. I like to find a common yet rarely depicted/discussed topic or issue and explore it using characters based on myself or people in my life.

Did you dabble in other areas of filmmaker before working on writing/directing? How did that influence your process creatively?
I worked in the art department for four years. Art is one of the most overlooked departments on set – they always get the lowest budget and rates, and they’re usually the first ones on set and the last to leave. Working in the art department forces you to be a proficient problem-solver and learn a myriad of skills you wouldn’t need to know otherwise. You have to be extremely resourceful. I think the skills I acquired from doing that type of work are really beneficial to me as a director.

What sort of projects are your favorite to direct?
My favorite projects to direct are music videos, because there is so much creative freedom and room to be silly and weird and improvisational. You don’t have to be worrying about continuity or an actor’s delivery of a line, and they’re usually much shorter-term projects; there’s less pressure involved. I really enjoy collaborating with musicians – it’s interesting to me to hear what images they conjure in their heads to accompany their songs, and I like the process of taking the initial idea they have for the video and expanding on it.

Any advice for other filmmakers?
Be good to your crew and your crew will be good to you!