In a scene from First Match, protagonist Monique (Elvire Emanuelle, a talent to watch) is told to partner up for a drill during her first wrestling practice on the all-boys team. She's no newbie; her father (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a former state-wrestling champion, was training her before he was sent to prison for theft. Now that he's back in town, she wants to impress him by showing him she's just like him.
But when she approaches her best friend Omari (Moonlight's Jharrel Jerome), with whom she's been wrestling in private for years, he turns away. "It don't look right," he says.
For director Olivia Newman, that moment represents more than just the reality of co-ed wrestling. It's synonymous with her own struggle as a female director trying to carve out her place in a largely male-dominated industry. And it's a story that clearly resonates beyond sports. The film, based on a short that Newman wrote and directed while at Columbia University in 2010, won an Audience Award when it premiered at SXSW earlier this month, and Newman received a $10,000 prize associated with the LUNA Gamechanger Award in Narrative, awarded to female directors who have made their first film.
We spoke to Newman ahead of the film's Netflix premiere on 30th March about the inspiration behind Monique, the challenge of balancing directing with parenthood, and the importance of a female lens.
Refinery29: What originally drew you to this story?
Olivia Newman: "I ended up casting a wrestler to play the lead role in my short film, and getting to know Nyasa [Bakker] and spending time with her and her teammates, I found myself thinking about a much more expanded version of the film. And so the feature film really evolved out of my friendship with Nyasa, the stories that she told about growing up in Brownsville, and then Mo is really based on one of her teammates, a young woman who was living in foster care and really wanted to have a ‘real family.’ She had these grandparents who she really hoped were going to adopt her, and they decided not to. Seeing her go through the pain of that, while at the same time bonding with this wrestling team was the genesis of the feature film story."
Was it a struggle to get this made into a feature as a first time female director?
"It took seven years from the time I started writing the script to now. I did have a lot of institutional support along the way: the script went through the Sundance screenwriters and director’s lab, which was huge in opening doors, and getting attention. We got grants from San Francisco Film Society and Tribeca all Access, so we had a lot of support from the film non-profit space. But then when we went out and had to find money to make it, all the doors kept closing. We’d gotten the stamp of approval from all the independent film organisations, but actually going and getting the money that we need to make it was really challenging."
What specifically made it so challenging?
"Because there’s so much wrestling, and stunts in [the movie], and scenes with lots of extras, and over 40 locations, it’s not a film you can make for $200,000. You need a certain budget. And the other big challenge was that it was an all-Black cast, and our lead role was going to be somebody who was unknown. It was hard. It was a year of being told this is not a fundable film. I even got asked a few times whether I would consider making the coach white, so we could cast a name white actor who might make the film more financeable. I’m grateful that my producers and I were all on the same page that that was just not going to happen."
You had a lot of women behind the camera on this film. Was it important to you to have a female perspective?
"One of our mandates when we were crewing up was that we always considered an equal number of women and men for all of our positions. But it was really important to me that I work with a female [director of photography]. Because this is the story of a young woman, and she goes through a lot of deep, emotional experiences, and I really wanted it to be directed and shot through a female lens. When I met with Ashley [Connor], her understanding of adolescence, and that female insecurity, and the tiny moments of vulnerability that you understand and pick up on as a woman in a different way, more than you would growing up as a man. To me, it just reaffirmed by commitment to having a woman behind the lens, in that I knew that she would be able to capture those moments as they happened, and understand them. In the end, it just turned out that over 60% of our crew were women, and all of our key creative (production designer, costume designer, hair and makeup, editor) were all women. I think that created this beautiful energy on set. This is a film that is really about empowering young women to claim their place in spaces that are traditionally thought of as being a boy’s club, and it was nice to see the women working on the film behind the scenes, also claiming their space in an industry that is dominated by men."
You received a $20,000 grant from the Durga Foundation for filmmakers balancing careers with parenthood while making the film. This is an issue that’s come up a lot in the conversation about how to have more women behind the camera. What can the industry do to better support female directors?
"My daughter was two weeks old when I was applying to that grant. I was in a complete fog, not sleeping — it’s my second, so I also had a toddler — and when I think back on it I just don’t know how I got through that. When I was at the Sundance Lab, I was 8 months pregnant. I had to be away from my son for a month, which was really hard. But it was the most amazing month of my life in that I could focus solely on my creative purpose and practice the craft of director, and be able to sleep and not be woken up by my toddler. People were feeding me, and I got to think about directing and not just about being a mom. It is a constant struggle working in this field, and having to be away for a period of time. When I shot [First Match], my daughter was 11 months, and my son was almost four. I would be away all week, and I would come home on my day off to see them, and I had to stop nursing my daughter earlier then I would have. You have to make sacrifices as a parent.
"My husband is also an artist, he’s a composer and a musician, and he travels a lot. He goes on tour, and he’s also a professor, and our life is about balancing, and setting an example for our kids that you can find something that you’re passionate about. And we also are equally committed to being caregivers for our kids. I wish it was something that men directors got asked more about, because I think any director who has kids is dealing with long periods of separation and the agony of that. I know a lot of male directors who are parents and we commiserate about it all the time, it’s just that there’s there’s assumption that if you’re a director then your wife is the full-time caregiver, and a lot of times that’s just not true."
This kind of related, but how do you feel about being called a “female director”? On the one hand, we need to recognise that kind of achievement, but on the other, it can feel a little reductive.
"Ideally, we’ll get to the point where that isn’t something that needs to be articulated. If the industry was 50/50, and there were as many women directing as men, I don’t think it would be an issue. Because now, there are some moments where being a woman director is considered to be an asset because Hollywood is coming to terms with the bias that has been at play for so long, and very slowly chipping away at it, and trying to create more opportunities. So in some instances, it has become an asset that I can be put in that pool of women directors. But obviously, I don’t think of myself as a woman director, I think think of myself as a director. But I do think of myself as a director who is deeply committed to telling stories about women. There is still a huge gaping hole in the kinds of stories that you see on the big screen, and not enough focus on interesting complicated nuanced female characters."
Was it a challenge as a white woman directing a movie about a specifically Black community? Were you ever worried about representation?
"The story grew so organically out of this friendship and experience that I had with Nyasa. It was a story that I felt really compelled to tell. The young woman on her team, who was the inspiration for Mo, was just somebody who I couldn’t shake. I couldn’t shake that feeling that I had, seeing the pain that she was in. I carried that with me. As with anything that I write, if I feel passionate about the story, I’m going to do everything I can to write it and tell it in as an authentic way as I can. I definitely sought out feedback from readers of all different ethnicities and creeds to make sure that the story resonated and felt really authentic and honest. The most important table read that I had was with a group of teenagers from Brownsville. I cast them all in roles and we had a table reading, and I said ‘ Ok guys, don’t put on kid gloves. I want to hear it.’ I think you do that for anything you’re writing that you don’t know that much about. You do your research, and then you get your stuff read by people who know more about it than you, and you try to tell it with as much heart, and love and passion as you can.”
What went into casting Elvire Emmanuelle?
That was the biggest challenge. The whole film was going to ride on finding an actress who could carry a feature film, and play this role that had so many emotional challenges but also so much athleticism. We had casting directors do a nationwide search, we did some street casting, we put up fliers, we had auditions in libraries. And Elvire ended up self-submitting a tape. She filmed it herself in her apartment, and when I saw it I had a gut reaction to her performance. I felt like I was seeing Mo. I had to figure out if she could actually be trained to wrestle. Part of our callback process was to take the finalists through a mini training session. And the coach that I worked with took me aside after half an hour and said: ‘This girl is such a natural. I could train her to wrestle in a week.’ And I thought, ‘Okay, now I have the actress and the athlete.’
"And then it’s kind of a magical story. Elvire grew up in Brooklyn but moved out of state in elementary school and had just moved back. So she wanted to walk around Brownsville and get to know the neighbourhood, and our production office was based there. I gave her the address and when she got off the train, she called me and said: ‘Oh my god Livi, this is where I grew up. This train stop is where I used to walk my father when he was going to work.” Both of us had chills. I had been looking for a girl from Brownsville, and without even knowing it, had cast a girl from Brownsville."
Do you have any advice for any other female directors trying to get started in the business?
"I would just say to never take no for an answer. I don’t think I realised why I was so inspired by these young girl wrestlers until really recently, looking at the film and saying: ‘Oh my god, we actually all do the same thing. We try to claim our space in these male dominated fields.' These girls are fearless and courageous, and they don’t let any judgement stop them from doing what they love, and that’s true for any pursuit you have. If you’re passionate and love it, just make it happen."
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