The first time that legendary actor—and now, film director—Karen Allen went to the Cannes Film Festival was in 1987 for Paul Newman’s The Glass Menagerie. Thirty years later, this past May, Allen returned to the festival with her directorial debut film: A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud. Allen spoke with Ms. about the film, her thoughts on gender and diversity in Hollywood and—of course—punching Indiana Jones.
How would you describe your new film, A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud., in one sentence?
It’s a passing of wisdom between an older man and a younger boy when they meet by chance at a little cafe in the early morning.
How did the idea to do the movie come about?
Carson McCullers is a writer I fell in love with back in the early 70s, when I first read her in school. I have this habit of when I really love a person’s writing, I’ll try to read everything they’ve ever written. If I’m passionate about something, I’m very motivated to learn about it. And this little story, A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud., really leapt out at me in a very specific way. I loved that story so much so that I’ve kept copies of it in my life since that time.
What was one of the greatest challenges of making the film?
There weren’t major things to deal with in terms of locations and complications. The challenges were more internal challenges. The challenge was to not mess it up! The challenge was to take something I love so much and to share what it was about it that I loved, so that it could come across in the story. That was a good kind of challenge.
And raising the money for it was a major challenge; much more so than I had imagined. At one point, an arts organization came in and was able to give us a significant grant. And the Carson McCullers Center, in Columbus, Georgia, joined with us and helped to sponsor it. But mostly we just raised the money—little contribution by little contribution—from colleagues, friends, artists. I had never done that before, so that was enormously challenging. Especially because I have this aversion to asking people for money.
You’ve made many films before—Animal House, Scrooged, Malcolm X, The Perfect Storm, the Indiana Jones films and more)—was there anything about being on the other side of the camera that was unexpected or really surprised you?
I think when it came down to shooting, I was surprised by how comfortable and at home I felt behind the camera. During our preparation time, I was a little unnerved by what felt like an awful lot of things that had to come together. Innately, I knew this was about preparation. And I knew that the more well-prepared I am, the better an experience it will be. As an actor, you’re really in your own world—in the world of the script, and studying your own role. You don’t feel at all the level of responsibility you feel when you step into the role of being a director, or even a writer or producer.
Do you have a favorite role you’ve done? And why is it your favorite?
Well, certainly Marion Ravenwood in the Raiders of the Lost Ark. She’s such an interesting character. I wasn’t allowed to read the script in the beginning, but I was given that scene in the bar, where Indiana Jones walks in and I clock him one. She’s just a brazen, strong character. She’s living in this bar in Nepal and drinking men under the table to make money. I just loved this character as she came off the page when I read it, and I really wanted to do the role. This was a larger-than-life character. I’d never done anything quite like that before.
As a woman working in film, what are some of the most notable ways you think the industry has changed for women since you began your career?
I think definitely the crews. Film crews are more diverse. I’d say that they’re more inclusive in all kinds of ways, not just in terms of women in many jobs they didn’t use to be in. A crew can be 70 to 90 people, generally, and I worked on films where there were maybe two women in the entire crew—maybe in hair and makeup, but not always. When I go to work now on a film, I’d say there’s often 25 to 35 percent women on the crew.
I think it’s also true in terms of people of color. There’s more diversity in crews these days than there was. I think the thing that remains the same, sadly, is that there aren’t enough really interesting roles for women. We need more women writing. We need more women producing. We need more women who are in charge of giving the green light to these film projects.
In a lot of countries, the funding for films comes from the state, like in England and France. So you can actually go, and petition the government and say: Hey, 50 percent has to go to films that are being initiated by women. And you can get legislation passed in that direction. But in the United States, it’s trickier than that. Because we really have these corporations that are deciding to make the films.
It’s a tricky situation, and a lot people don’t want to admit the truth. The truth is that women are a big film-going population. And women would like to see themselves included in the films. [Studios] are ignoring a major faction of their audience. And now, when women go in to pitch these films, they’re bringing the statistics with them. And they’re [met with], “Oh, you know, women-driven films don’t really do well…” To have the statistics right there, and be able to say, “As a matter of fact…”
Who are some women working in the industry today who you really admire?
There are a lot of women who are doing amazing things in the film world. Meryl Streep is someone I admire enormously. There are a lot of wonderful young actors, like Jessica Chastain, who I think is extraordinary. If I go back to my childhood, I’d have to say Ingrid Bergman. And Katherine Hepburn, who I always thought had such…verve.
Given today’s current political climate, do you think the arts have become even more important and needed in today’s world?
I just think it’s more important than ever. If there’s any positive side to all the horrible things that are going on, it’s that it ignites people in wanting to express themselves through their art—whether it’s music, film, writing, etc. I think people are starting to feel they have a strong need to express themselves. I know that there’s an enormous level of frustration, and, I hate words like “helplessness,” but helplessness, too. A lot of us do feel helpless. Like, what do we do? What’s going on? On some level, you want to interact with others [through art].
What advice would you give to aspiring women directors?
For me, it has been extremely helpful to start directing in the theater. You know, [directing] is a very hands-on kind of work. You’re rehearsing for eight hours a day for three to four weeks with your actors; you’re meeting with your designers in an ongoing way. There’s a level of collaboration there that’s not as complicated as doing a film. I don’t know that I could’ve done this film had I not been so comfortable directing, having directed in theater for ten years. It made the transition so much easier. I think anything that helps you feel like you can use the language that the actors speak is helpful. Because when you work on a film, you are moving forward at a certain kind of pace. You need to know how to work with actors, how to get what you need from them and with them, as quickly as you can. And that comes from experience.
I think that working on material that has meaning to you is very important. I would say for young directors: be a little patient and discriminating, and chose material that really means something to you.