April Wright is an award-winning filmmaker from the Midwest who brings a fresh and creative approach to her documentaries and narrative projects. She’s drawn to material based on real events, especially stories with an unexpected hero or point of view. Working as a narrative programmer for the Sundance Film Festival for the past fifteen years, Sundance is her film school. April’s latest documentary “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story” with Executive Producers Michelle Rodriguez and Stephanie Austin (“Terminator 2,” “True Lies”) released in theaters and VOD in September 2020. Her documentary “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace” has enjoyed a theatrical release, won numerous Best Documentary and Grand Prize awards at film festivals, was named by critics as one of the top documentaries of 2019 and was featured in over fifty articles including The Hollywood Reporter, Chicago Tribune, NPR, Box Office Magazine and Forbes, who called it “a richly crafted look at our passion for movie theaters.” It releases on VOD on October 20, 2020 and will have its broadcast premiere on Turner Classic Movies in December. Her upcoming doc “Carnival” was one of five finalists for Tribeca IF/THEN. Her short doc “Julio’s Dream” about the Griffith Park Carousel premiered in Fall 2019 at the American Cinematheque Aero Theatre in the “Worlds within our World” series. Wright was recently attached to direct a thriller for Lionsgate, and her scripts have been part of the Sundance/Women in Film Financing Intensive, as well as the final rounds for Sundance episodic and narrative labs and the WIF/Blacklist episodic lab. She’s developing several fiction and documentary series and feature films, including one about the woman who led the charge to save Radio City Music Hall from demolition in the ‘70s. She is a member of the Alliance of Women Directors, Film Independent, the International Documentary Association, Women in Film, Film Fatales, and an alumna of the Sundance Institute. Before working in film and television, Wright received an MBA from Northwestern and had a successful business career working for companies like AT&T, Delta Air Lines, Mattel, and Caesars Palace. While making her documentary on drive-in movies, she visited over 500 drive-in locations in every state except Alaska.
Tara Karajica talks to April Wright about all three of her films, “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie Theater,” “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace” and “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story,” that are all available to stream.
How did you get into filmmaking?
April Wright: Oh, my goodness! Well, I had a film family. Both of my parents were into films and they would talk to us about films and what made them good. My dad had an 8-millimeter camera, so he would shoot stuff and we had reel to reel editing equipment and a projector, so I was able to know and be aware of the filmmaking process ever since I was a little kid. And then, as I got older, we would just go to the movies all the time. There was a neighborhood movie palace down the street from my house – this is north of Chicago, where I grew up. My brother and my sister both ended up working there, so I would just see every movie. So, I loved it, studied it and then, about fifteen years ago, I moved into this as my career and I started working for Sundance. I have done programming of feature films for Sundance for over fifteen years and I started making my own films and I love it!
Can you talk about your time as programmer for Sundance? What has this experience taught you about films and filmmaking?
A.W.: I didn’t study Film in college. My Undergraduate degree is in Computers, and I have an MBA from the Kellogg School at Northwestern and had a successful business career for years before I switched to film business. By the way, both of these degrees help a lot since making films is technical and is a business. But when I decided to pursue filmmaking as a career, I started to take classes at UCLA, I started volunteering for the Independent Spirit Awards, and I started doing programming for several festivals including Sundance. I always say Sundance has been my film school, because I’m constantly learning and growing as a person and as a filmmaker from watching hundreds of independent films every year. It’s an incredible ongoing film education!
Because your love of movies is so big, you have also made documentaries about drive-ins and movie palaces and now you have another untold story, which is that of stuntwomen. Can you talk about this?
A.W.: Yes, it’s true. My first documentary was about drive-in movie theaters and so, it covered the whole history of the invention of those and all the ups and downs up to the present day. And then, I followed that up with one about movie palaces, the big historic theaters, most of which were built during the studio system in the teens and twenties and are still around today; most of them are concert venues or traveling Broadway and some still operate as theaters. So, I was fascinated with those and then, when you get to Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, all three of them are kind of just a different angle of the evolution of the film business, through different eyes and different points of view. So, thanks for recognizing that they are all kind of a family of films where I’m looking at different pieces of Hollywood from different perspectives.
These are perspectives that nobody actually looks from, in my point of view.
A.W.: It is funny that my first film was about drive-ins because back then, when I made that film, which was about seven years ago, I was the only one interested in that topic and, of course, this year, because of the pandemic, drive-ins are the thing, so a lot of people are asking me about drive-ins now. It’s funny. Maybe they’re obscure at first, but once the films come out, people will learn and get into these topics.
I find them fascinating!
A.W.: I was traveling with the movie palace documentary playing in theaters when the pandemic hit. I was kind of in the middle of the theatrical tour, playing at a lot of the old cool theaters when that got shut down.
So, how did Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story come about?
A.W.: Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story was based on a book. A woman named Mollie Gregory wrote the book and had done most of the research, so that saved us a lot of effort. I knew one of the producers who optioned the book, Marion Rosenberg, and she thought it might make a great documentary and I had met stuntwoman Amy Johnston a couple weeks before that and we wanted to work on something together. I also had a good friend, Svetlana Cvetko, a cinematographer known for shooting documentaries who shot Inside Job that won the Oscar, and she and I had also talked about working on something together. And so, when Marion came with this book, I was like: “OK, I think I’ve found the project we can all work on together” and that’s how it came together for me. We got the funding and it was important to us, because of the story, to really have a heavy female team. We had men and women, of course, but we definitely worked with a lot of women both in front of the camera with stuntwomen and behind the camera, too.
How did you choose the particular stuntwomen that are featured in the film?
A.W.: The book went up until 2007 and that was one thing about my approach – yes, we wanted to tell the history, but we really needed the book to come alive and we needed it to come up to present day, so I had to do additional research over the last ten or fifteen years to bring it up to today and to make sure that I was pulling in some of the top stuntwomen that are working right now. I didn’t want it to be just people talking about the history. I wanted to try to show it as much as possible and that’s why I wanted to include the living legends like Jeannie Epper, Jadie David and Julie Ann Johnson because I thought: “Let’s hear the stories directly from them and they can tell these younger stuntwomen what they did and what they went through. That would bring the book to life.” And then, the second thing was just trying to shoot it as an action documentary so that we’re actually showing drift car racing, high falls, fighting, fire burns, all the things that stuntwomen do and we also wanted to go behind the scenes for a lot of classic, famous, iconic stunts that stuntwomen had performed that we’d seen in films. And also, it was very important for me just to show different points of view and different perspectives whether that be just different types of stunts, different types of women, women who came up different ways. I tried to balance it out and show as many points of view as I could.
I like that you had one established, long-time stuntwoman talking to a younger one. It’s very refreshing. Can you talk about that idea? Is this in the book or something you came up with?
A.W.: This is what I thought would be a great way to tell this story and we shot it to show more of the two women that we’re following, Amy Johnston and Alyma Dorsey, sort of through this journey of learning the history of their profession from people that came before them and we just had so much material. I probably could’ve made three or four films and so, some of that got scaled back, but that was the approach that I came in with for the film: “Let’s follow two younger stuntwomen not only while they’re pursuing this profession for themselves, but let’s take them through the History, and as they learn it, so will the audience,” but of course, it’s even more meaningful for them since this is what they do for a living and there was a lot about it that they didn’t know.
Can you talk about the shooting and the making of the film?
A.W.: Well, it was a lot of research on my part to plan for each day. Every woman that we were shooting and whether we were shooting them actually performing or rehearsing stunts or whether we were doing interviews, I had to look at their whole videography of all the stunts they had done because a lot of them have done so many that they can’t even remember. You’re like: “Do you remember doing this stunt in this movie?” And, sometimes, you have to refresh their memory, but we did ask all of them what were some of their favorite stunts and, of course, those they knew. There was a lot of just crafting each moment and making sure that we covered the essential topics for each person. There was also a ton of logistics and safety involved, especially for some of the action sequences. But, of course, we were working with some of the top stunt people in the business, so we had the benefit of the people who do this for a living to help us with what we’re shooting. So, that was pretty cool! And, it was a lot fun! It was a challenge to get on sets to shoot – a little harder than we thought it would be, but when we were talking to Heidi and Renae Moneymaker, we were actually on a secret Marvel set down at Pinewood Studios in Atlanta. So, when we’re talking to the two of them, Renae was there doubling in Ant-Man and the Wasp for Evangeline Lily and Heidi was doubling Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in Avengers: Endgame, which they were shooting on the sound stage next door to us. The sound stage we were sitting on, interviewing them, had the Guardians of the Galaxy ship in the background, but we had to keep it kind of blurry. So, it was pretty cool that we got to go to Marvel. And then, towards the end of our film, we went to Vancouver, Canada to shoot on the set of The X-Files, where Melissa Stubbs was stunt-coordinating and second unit directing and I wanted to get up there and shoot her because she’s pushing the boundaries in stunt-coordinating and helping to break that field open for more women. She basically asked Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, if we could come and shoot her and he respects Melissa so much, so he just said: “Yeah, carte blanche!” and we were able to go everywhere to shoot her and that was extremely fun to shoot – the car chases and things that she was shooting… It was cool!
Do you think the film can make stuntwomen more visible and help them get the recognition they deserve?
A.W.: Yes, I think on a couple different levels. There’s a lot of discussion in Hollywood around whether stunt people should get an Oscar. The Emmys recognize the stunt performers, so does the SAG-AFTRA and the Oscars haven’t done that yet, but most people would agree that people at the top of the stunt field are the same as people on the top of sound design, or hair and makeup – all these things that get Oscars and stunts don’t, and they should be on par with all the other aspects of filmmaking, so there’s a big push for Oscars to give a stunt Oscar. We hope the film will raise awareness that this really is an art and a science and professionals are putting it on the line to create these action sequences that are so important for films nowadays. And then, also just for the women because overall in the world and in Hollywood, there is more of a push for equality. So, for women and people of color to have the opportunities, especially to advance into stunt-coordinating positions, and those things are very important to be thinking about and we hope that the film will do that as well.
How do you think stunts complement acting?
A.W.: Yes, you’re right! They do! The way the stunt people describe it is that a lot of times for big films like Wonder Woman 1984, there’s more than one stuntwoman that will be Wonder Woman and that’s because Wonder Woman might need to ride a horse, she might need to fight, she might need to do flips; whatever she has to do, there might be multiple stuntwomen who are doing different aspects. So, together, they all create that character that we see on screen. They’re all doing different sides of one character and when you see it on screen, it all works and we just see Wonder Woman, but it is a combination of what the actor is doing and also what the stunt people are doing. So, they’re all creating the character together.
In that sense, why is only Michelle Rodriguez present in the film, talking to her stuntwoman, Debbie Evans?
A.W.: So, Michelle Rodriguez got involved with the film because she’s been very vocal in the past about stunt people getting recognition. There was an issue on one of the Fast and Furious films where the stunt people weren’t listed in the credits, where they weren’t invited to the premiere and she stood up and spoke up for them. This is a topic that she’s passionate about, so she came on the film as an executive producer. She also does the narration and we brought her along on some of that journey. We wanted it to be more about the stuntwomen than the actresses because we have seen interviews before where actors are with their stunt double and that’s great and we love the actresses, but we just felt primarily for this film that we didn’t want them to outshine the stuntwomen; we really wanted the stuntwomen to be the stars of this film and bring them out of the shadows, if you will. Michelle is there to also learn and she has a passion to put these women in the spotlight, so that’s why Michelle’s featured in it and aside from that, it’s just about the stuntwomen.
Do you have a favorite stunt?
A.W.: No! I look more closely at films now when I’m watching them and when I see a good stunt performed, even if it’s just a motorcycle skid or a fight, I’ll look up the film and be like: “Who did that stunt? Is it somebody that I know?” because I appreciate the work that they do even though I was aware of it before, but on a much deeper level now after having made the film. But, you see how much goes into it and how they are really pros, they’re professional athletes. I suppose I have a greater appreciation of stunts.
Can we move on to the drive-ins and movie palaces documentaries now? What prompted you to make these two films? The movie palace one can be seen as a sort of continuation of the drive-ins documentary, right?
A.W.: I went to drive-ins with my family growing up outside Chicago. As I got older, many of them were closed down and sitting abandoned. I would drive out of my way sometimes to visit them and imagine what they might have been like in their heyday. I was impressed by the massive screentowers and huge neon marquees and wondered how anyone could have allowed them to decline into such bad condition. We still love movies and cars, so why hadn’t they survived? This is what I wanted to understand. And yes, Movie Palaces was the natural follow up to the drive-ins as we built these amazing palaces just to watch movies, and yet many were allowed to decline and be demolished. Both drive-ins and movie palaces were impacted by some of the same economic and cultural events such as television. That being said, if I can get funding, other topics I would like to cover under the Going Attractions branding includes roller skating rinks, which was my family’s business growing up, bowling alleys and family-owned amusement parks, all of which used to be all over the U.S., and now very few remain.
In both films, you cover the historical, cultural, social, economic contexts for both the drive-ins and movie palaces that are also logically tied to film history. And as it happens with everything in History, they had their rise and their fall and a potential rebirth, also intrinsically tied to the above-mentioned contexts. Can you talk about all that?
A.W.: I agree with your statement. The films I make are about “fun” topics, but this is exactly the subtext, to look at how cultural, economic, social and also technological changes have impacted our lives, and sometimes, perhaps not for the better. Short-term purely financially-based decisions have not always been the best decisions for communities and families in the long run.
Both the drive-in theaters and movie palaces are American cultural staples deeply linked to film history and pop culture. Can you elaborate on that?
A.W.: Ross Melnick, who appears in the movie palaces documentary, is a professor on this topic and what he says states it perfectly, that films are such a huge business and one of the key exports from the United States to the rest of the world, and yet, we make little effort to preserve the places where we see films that are so integral to that history. Although drive-ins were invented in the ‘30s, they are a huge part of the baby boom combined with economic growth and suburban growth after WWII, and that’s culturally significant. And, many of the movie palaces were built by the major studios, such as Fox, Warner, Paramount, during a very compressed period mostly in the 1920s at a tremendous cost on the verge of the Great Depression. It shows you what a big cultural phenomenon films were in the early days of Cinema.
Movie palaces are (were) essential in the complete movie-viewing experience that is a social experience in the sense that we watch a film with 2,000 strangers, and we experience our emotions provoked by the film together. This is the real magic of cinema that we don’t get to experience with multiple screen cineplexes all over the world. Can you comment on that?
A.W.: The thing about seeing a film at a drive-in or at a movie palace, is that it’s a full entertainment experience beyond just seeing a film. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if a film is good, it’s more about the experience you’re having with your friends and family and the energy of that communal experience, which is something people have always needed. When you see a movie in one of these special environments as opposed to a multiplex or on your screen at home, it implants a good memory that you will remember for the rest of your life. People can tell us movies they remember seeing at drive-ins or movie palaces. It can make you fall in love with Cinema. It can give you a wonderful memory of time spent with family and friends.
In fact, in terms of drive-ins, the film-watching experience is a bit different but still is (was) a social experience and some people remember the experience more than they remember the film – maybe their first kiss, or a proposal, a date (the same as for a movie palace, really), and the drive-in was such a huge part of the 50s and 60s culture in America and featured in many classics such as Grease, for instance. Can you talk about that?
A.W.: As mentioned above, seeing films in special places like drive-ins and movie palaces does create a memory. But I think the period you’re talking about is what happened once television really took hold in homes in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Although televisions were B&W and small at that time, families started to stay home more to watch entertainment on their televisions and the movie business had a large overall decline in this era. But at drive-ins in particular, which started to attract a teen audience that was looking to do things without their parents, and in movie palaces which started doing things like 3D movies or other gimmicks to attract the teen audience. These teens were the baby boomers who grew up with drive-ins and with the freedom this generation had of owning their own cars, movies were a natural place for teens to hang out and sometimes make out.
Today, with the pandemic, the drive-in is making a comeback. Did you think this was going to happen? How do you think the pandemic is changing the distribution/exhibition of films now?
A.W.: Prior to the pandemic in February, I attended the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association annual conference in Florida. Brad Pitt had just won the Oscar and, in his acceptance speech, talked about how going to drive-ins as a kid is what made him become an actor. So, we were talking about how we could bring attention to the drive-ins to let people know they still exist and that to survive they need to be supported and embraced by their communities. We even discussed getting a publicist or coming up with some sort of tagline. No one could have known what would happen about a month later. With the pandemic, drive-ins suddenly became the only show in town and in addition to films, were being approached to host graduation ceremonies, church services, weddings, concerts, stand-up comedy, you name it! Once again, they are the hub of the communities as they used to be after WWII. So, we did get the dream of national press and awareness of drive-ins, just in a very unexpected way. But I think people should know it’s still a struggle, because most are operating at a reduced capacity, or with restrictions on their snack bars, and have additional expenses related to COVID safety compliance, not to mention the fact that studios are not releasing new product and competition from pop-up drive-ins everywhere. So, yes, it will be interesting to see how this pans out. My hope is now that a new generation of kids are again growing up with the drive-in experience; they will remember it and continue to go to drive-ins and support drive-ins even after the pandemic is over. And, same for movie palaces, hopefully the fact that our theaters have been closed for so long, I hope when they reopen that people attend in droves once it’s safe to do so. Many of the movie palaces are independent and not part of the big chains, so they are struggling to survive and will need the support of their communities once they can reopen.
Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story is screening at the Heartland Film Festival at the Tibbs Drive-in. That is like going full circle with your films! Can you talk about that?
A.W.: Yes, this is awesome! I screened the movie palace documentary at Heartland Film Festival last year, and we played at the historic Artcraft Theatre in Franklin, IN. It was amazing to see the documentary about movie palaces while sitting in an amazing movie palace! So, this year, when I was invited to screen Stuntwomen at Heartland, they knew of my drive-in documentary and therefore they had to screen Stuntwomen at the Tibbs Drive-in in Indianapolis. The Tibbs actually makes an appearance in my drive-in documentary!
What kind of impact do you think these two films will have in terms of the future and revival of movie palaces and drive-ins and the education of young generations of their cultural and historical significance?
A.W.: My hope is that when people see these documentaries, it will help them have an appreciation of the history, and therefore a better understanding of how important drive-ins and movie palaces are to their communities and will feel like these places are worth embracing and supporting. They are mostly family-run or non-profits, so they need attendance and support to keep them going. You probably don’t think about these things normally, but maybe after seeing the films, you will. We don’t want to lose any more drive-ins or movie palaces to the wrecking ball to be replaced by a parking lot or a superstore. And once they’re gone, they will not come back. So, support your drive-ins and movie palaces!
Now, the streaming platforms are multiplying and offering so much content not only in terms of distribution, but also their own production. Do you think we are sort of seeing the return of the “studio system” in the guise of the “streaming system” before the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, especially now that the pandemic has accelerated the process?
A.W.: This is a good question and I am not sure how it will unfold. The consent decree has been overturned so studios can own theaters again. Netflix has bought the Egyptian in Hollywood and the Paris in New York City in order to ensure their films Oscar-qualify. But now, with the pandemic, Oscar rules have changed, and the movie theater chains are all under financial pressure and perhaps easier targets for acquisition, but there’s also a delay of product from the studios into 2021 and beyond, so it’s a huge question how the theatrical experience may evolve as a result of the pandemic and who the players will be. Steaming was already growing prior to the pandemic, but during the pandemic, it’s been something we’ve all relied on, confirming how important entertainment is to our sanity. The theatrical experience will not go away, but there are many unknowns right now.
How did you find/choose the interviewees for the films? What was the research process like? And, did you visit all the drive-ins and movie palaces in the U.S.?
A.W.: I do a great deal of research on my topics before I start making the films. As these two are historical, I am able to lay out a basic outline of what happened in each era. Then, I look for the people who can best speak to each of the topics, trying to find experts and diverse points of view so that we are telling all sides to the story. I am definitely very particular about finding the right mix of voices to tell the story. For the drive-in documentary, I went to every state except Alaska – there were drive-ins in Alaska, I just haven’t been there yet – to visit over 500 drive-in locations: open drive-ins, abandoned, remnants and, in some cases, the former site of drive-ins to see what is there today. For movie palaces, I visited as many as I could, but as an independently produced documentary, we didn’t have the budget to go everywhere we would have liked, so there are many amazing movie palaces that we weren’t able to get into the film, but we showed as many as we could and tried to be representative of the style and features, and we supplemented original footage with photographs. We were able to work with the Theatre Historical Society who opened their tremendous photographic archives to us.
What have you learnt from making these two films?
A.W.: I’ve learned making documentaries are always a labor of love. They take years and you have to be very passionate about your topics to stick with them for years to make and complete these films. But it’s very rewarding to see the films with audiences and hear their emotional reactions. The drive-in documentary was my first documentary and it released seven years ago. I shot it so long ago and much of it was shot standard definition, so I look at it and think: “Wow! I could make this so much better today with better cameras and drones!” But with the recent drive-in resurgence, people are watching this film a lot and I’m still getting positive feedback because the information in the film and the emotions still land. If you look at drive-ins, compared to movie palaces, and then Stuntwomen, I hope people will see how I’ve been perfecting my craft!
You are working on a film about Rosie Novellino-Mearns, who is the founder of the “Showpeople’s Committee” that helped save Radio City Music Hall from demolition in the ‘70s and is featured in the movie palace documentary. Can you talk about that?
A.W.: When I was making Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace, I met Rosemary and fell in love with her passion to lead the charge to save Radio City Music Hall from demolition in the late ‘70s. Prior to meeting her, I had no idea that most of its life, the Music Hall was actually a movie theater! So, we interviewed her for the documentary, and she had written a book on the topic. As I thought more about her story, I realized this is a really great topic for a narrative film because Rosie and her tremendous fight is a very heroic story, the type we don’t normally hear about with a woman in the forefront. I see Rosie as an Erin Brockovich for the arts, because she was an underdog who stood up against some of the most powerful and wealthy businessmen and politicians in NYC history, and won. That’s a story a lot of us want to hear right now.
There has been a lot of discussion about the situation of women in film in the past three years. What is your opinion on the matter? How is it in the U.S. now?
A.W.: There has been a push – you’re right, especially in the last three years, maybe even a little bit longer, because all the statistics around women directing had basically stayed flat since the 1970s. There’s 4% of women directing the top feature films and in TV, it wasn’t much better. So, there has been a lot of push to find more opportunities for women and people of color to direct and to have key roles behind content because seeing what’s made through different perspectives and points of view is important behind the camera as well as in front of the camera. And, when I started working on Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, I realized the struggle is the same; you’re looking at stuntwomen, which is a smaller world, but they are still fighting for equality and having a struggle in a very heavily male-dominated field. And plus, in their environment, it’s got this extra level of physicality that’s important, so looking at stuntwomen is kind of a microcosm of the movie business and the challenges overall. I think there have been changes in the last few years and I think the numbers are a little better in TV and they’re starting to push the needle a little bit in features, but I think that one of the things that you can take away from the film, is that we’re talking about stuntwomen, but it really represents the overall struggle for women and people of color in this industry.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
A.W.: Coming from documentaries, I really liked Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization Part I and Decline of Western Civilization Part II. Part I was about Punk and Part II was about the Metal Years and when I first saw that documentary, it made me realize that documentaries don’t need to be boring. That one was about the heavy metal scene in Los Angeles in the ‘80s and it was just so fun. Telling a story like that was definitely one of the things that inspired me to tell documentaries that are more about fun and contemporary topics. So, I love her films. I love Amy Heckerling – I was so excited when I saw her in my Whole Foods once! Mary Harron’s American Psycho is amazing, Kimberly Pierce, Patty Jenkins, Kathryn Bigelow, Penny Marshall… And, I love everything that Sofia Coppola has done.
What else are you working on?
A.W.: I am working on a couple new documentaries. I shot an entire documentary about a traveling carnival that I need to edit and I’m also working on a few different television projects that are docu-series, but also narrative projects, features and series.
Photo credit: April Wright.