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“Shame Is the New Black”: Director Jessie Kahnweiler | The Skinny

The Skinny (Photo by Patrick Gookin)

In every film, there is the story that you knew you were telling, the story the audience perceives. But there is always some other story, a secret story. It might be the result of your hidden motivations for making the film, or, instead, the result of themes that only became clear to you after you made the movie. It might be something very personal, or it might be a story you didn’t even know you were telling. What is your film’s secret story?

My filmmaking is often about looking back at the mess of the past so that I can forge ahead into the future. But things can get tricky when my ego gets involved as I am constantly waiting for a future where I am a learned (aka perfect) woman. My logic tends to follow the idea that if I can just get the shame out of me and down on celluloid for the world to see, then it no longer belongs to me – it becomes the internet’s problem to deal with. When we began shooting the series I was on a high – I felt inner peace, I loved my script, my crew, my body – I was the Beyonce of filmmaking. However, the process of writing/ directing/ acting/ producing something so personal quickly forced me to confront various insecurities that I thought I had put to bed long ago. I had waited for what seemed like forever to make my movie, only to be suddenly thrusted into the hurricane of production and it felt like the floor was coming out from under me. I was terrified.

There is this idea of what a director “should” be. Being a woman in a leadership position, I convinced myself I needed to be strong, confident, brilliant, AND sweet at all times. I was caught in a self-inflicted trap where I needed to be everything to everyone.

One day when an actor joked around that I was being “bitchy,” I spent the rest of the day directing like I was ordering from an exhausted waitress. “Um, if it’s not too much trouble… could we please do one more take? Thank you. I’m so sorry.” Apologizing my way through the day is not how I wanted to spend my precious moments on set.

I’ve learned that even though there is a wrinkle in my brain that tells me if everyone doesn’t love me I will die – I need to be a professional working mother and do what’s best for my baby – the show. I learned that being a leader is about knowing when to shut up and let go, and when to hold on and fight like hell. I had been fighting to make this series happen for so long – maybe even my whole life – this kind of pressure brings up the same self-doubt and shame that is at the epicenter of our protagonist’s world. My brain tells me that now that my dreams are coming true I should never feel shame. But the truth is, I can’t direct my way out of my own humanity. Not even Beyonce is Beyonce 24/7.

I realized that I don’t need to always say the perfect/funny/right thing. That when I’m standing on set and there is a room full of people looking to me for answers, as I’m running on two hours of sleep and half a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, all I have to do is take a deep breath into my body and keep on being myself. Whatever the fuck that means.

The first step in learning is awareness. The Skinny has been a constant state of painful, humbling, joyful, exciting, intense moments of flying, failing, and falling. I laugh. I cry. I learn.

[PREMIERE SCREENING: Tuesday, January 26 at 11:30am — Egyptian Theatre]

Sundance Responses 2016

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