There’s what goes on in the film biz and then there’s what really goes on in Tinseltown. That’s what documentary filmmaker Marina Zenovich (director of last year’s “Lance,” about disgraced biker Lance Armstrong) was seeking to get at with her new film, “What Happens in Hollywood.”
The documentary, which is now available on Roku, shows women, and some men, speaking candidly about the sexism and misogyny that is absolutely baked into the film industry, and has been since its founding by a group of rich men a century ago.
“When you’re in a position of trying to do things as a woman, you think it’s hard for everyone,” Zenovich told me this week. Indeed, in her experience, this has proven especially true in the film business. “You don’t realize, as a woman, that the cards are stacked against you until you realize it.”
In “What Happens in Hollywood,” Zenovich focuses her lens on many high-profile women on the inside of the industry. Whether it’s Golden Globe winner Robin Wright, Oscar-nominated Minnie Driver or “Moneyball” producer Rachael Horovitz, each has a story about a man, in most cases men—plural, who sought to use his power and influence in a twisted, often sexually harassing, manner.
Driver relates being on a particular shoot in her twenties, with a fratty atmosphere on set where she was frequently groped. She laughed it off at the time.
Horovitz says she is spoken down to by a male in her line of work about once a month—“like a period,” she says, with a wry expression.
And Wright speaks candidly of being invited to a producer’s home, who put his hand on her thigh and asked how much she wanted a certain role. She was sixteen at the time.
“I think it was very therapeutic for people to talk about what really goes on. People talk about this in their own personal friend groups or with mentors [but] it’s not really written about,” Zenovich said. “It was great to be able to provide an outlet for women, and some men, to speak.”
The conversation in the era of #MeToo had gone on for several years when Zenovich was approached about making this documentary. She and her team worked the phones to see who would talk on camera. They got several nos but many enthusiastic yeses.
She started production early last year but then a worldwide pandemic upended the project.
“There was a big divide between people who didn’t want to leave their house and some who were like, ‘I’m dying to come and do something,’” Zenovich said of the uncertainty of the early months.
She filmed her interviewees on a darkened set. Safety on shooting days was paramount: masks, distancing, temperature checks, the works.
“We were learning and figuring out what we had to do,” Zenovich said of those filming days eighteen months ago. “I’m talking like it’s thirty years ago because it feels like 30 years ago!” she added with a laugh.
This was also the beginning of conducting interviews via Zoom. Zenovich found her footing with virtual Q&As, which she at first described as “awkward.”
“It was strange; now it’s normal,” she said.
Zenovich structures “What Happens in Hollywood” as a procedural on how films get made, from the so-called “gatekeepers” to a script being optioned to production and post, as well as promotion and distribution—and all of the barriers and traps that women face along the way. Constructing the film this way allowed her to educate young viewers on how precisely the industry’s product is made.
“So many people are interested in Hollywood and have questions about how things get done,” Zenovich said. “We thought the best [method was] to lay it out, and then interject those women’s stories.”
Zenovich said that female members of her crew approached “What Happens in Hollywood” not just as a job but as a way to reach the next level in their own careers. Zenovich’s editor told her she now wants to make her own films too.
However, as much progress has been made in the #MeToo era, Zenovich emphasizes that vigilance is necessary lest the film industry, and the culture at large, begin sliding back toward the “good ol’ boys” paradigm that ruled for so long.
“We’re talking about years and years of something being like this, and it won’t just change overnight,” she said. “I think calling people out on behavior is different than ‘cancel culture.’ It’s just being more clear about what’s appropriate and what isn’t.”
Indeed, in “What Happens in Hollywood,” the actress Kiersey Clemons shares that the change can be as small as someone who used to speak inappropriately perhaps talking more politely the next time after being called out.
“I come from a world where you’re straightforward. A lot of people can’t handle that because they’re trying to manipulate something,” Zenovich said. “I feel the more open and honest people are, and courageous in terms of wanting to speak out, the better change we have of this really being a major shift.”
Zenovich has been making films for decades, and the current bonanza of streaming allows documentarians to reach audiences like never before. She describes the times we live in as a gold rush for documentaries, especially long-form, multipart series.
“I think people are obsessed with the truth. And so they love documentaries and docuseries for that reason,” Zenovich said.
For her latest project, she hopes that audiences will relate to “What Happens in Hollywood,” and perhaps more people—inside or out of the film business—will be inspired to share their own stories and push for greater change.
“You don’t know those stories [but] these women have lived these stories for years,” Zenovich said. “And I think you reach a certain point in your life where you want to share them.”
“What Happens in Hollywood” is now available on Roku.