One of the most widely-discussed brand celebrations of International Women’s Day 2018 was McDonald’s turning their arches upside down, changing the “M” of their logo to a “W,” in symbolic homage to the power of women everywhere.
“We recognize the extraordinary contribution of women,” the brand’s official statement reads. “From employees and franchisees, to suppliers and community partners, to our customers, we are inspired by your strength and leadership. In the U.S., we’re proud to share that 6 out of 10 restaurant managers are women.” The Lynnewood, CA McDonald’s location where the sign was flipped is run by Patricia Williams, who employs over 700 crew members across the 18 restaurants that she and her daughters own.
Director Elle Ginter (signed to Sanctuary) was nabbed to direct a film commemorating Patricia’s history in conjunction with the sign-flip. Despite a lightening-fast production timeline, Elle’s incredibly clear vision illustrates Patricia’s resolve to provide for and inspire her daughters, reconstructing flashbacks of Patricia’s past.
Elle is a NYC-based director passionate about shaping messages to add insight into today’s culture. She seeks to use film to give a voice to those who may not be able to speak for themselves, creating stories and characters who reveal conflicting emotions and quiet bravado, conveying as much through internal moments as through drama and abnormalities. Elle takes pride in being highly collaborative and developing the fine details that set a film or campaign apart from beginning to end, concept to final cut. She was recently selected as one of thirteen directors globally for the DGA and AICP’s Commercial Directors Diversity Showcase.
We had the chance to speak with Elle about the importance of trust and respect (and lots of coffee) on the whirlwind shoot, finding minute details from Patricia’s life to enhance the flashbacks to her past, and how, as a director, if you manage to effectively communicate human feeling, “you’ve won”.
What does International Women’s Day mean to you, personally? What are some of your hopes for women’s progress, all over the world, in the next year?
This has been a crazy year for women. We’ve had a lot of setbacks, but for once, maybe more victories in matters of fairness, and justice – around the world, not just in the US. My hope is that women continue to find, and own, their voices. My ultimate dream is to see women no longer walking alone, or even all together, but side by side with men as equals. I think that’s what we all want. The definition of what it means to be a woman is changing. Rather than being loved, admired, adored, women long to also be respected. The perception of what it means to be a woman is changing – it is becoming more normal to be a disrupter, a challenger, a visionary – someone who speaks up and is heard, and even moreso: respected. I want to show women who feel not so much like a lady as stereotype would tell them; women who are treading forward without dragging stigmas behind them – I wish to see more of that for all women going forward.
Your spot shines a light on McDonald’s owner-operator Patricia Williams, and coincides with McDonald’s commemorative flipping of its iconic golden arches from an “M” to a “W” over Patricia’s first location, in Lynnewood, CA. How did you originally sign on to this project, and what was the initial brief? What steps did you take to make the treatment your own?
This was a unique process, because the concept was solid, but production came together fairly quickly. I came on board about 10 days prior to our first shoot day – we knew very clearly how we wanted to make it. I’m pretty particular when it comes to representing real people’s lives, especially for a project about a strong woman that is releasing on International Women’s Day.
Process-wise, it was a little less typical of a commercial pitch and a bit more typical of, say, a narrative collaboration. I got on the phone around 10pm at night with Unlmtd, the agency, and we put our heads together. I wanted to make sure I was the right director for them, not just ‘a’ director – because that wouldn’t be fair to either party to have different visions with such a short turnaround. To my joy, it seemed we had similar visions, so we pretty much went into go-mode. I’m very, very thankful that they put so much trust in me.
Creatively, I knew I wanted multiple layers to her story and how the arches were involved. One of those layers was flashback scenes. I’ve done real stories in a documentary way before, so it wasn’t the timeline that intimidated me, it was making sure that we captured enough of her early struggle and relationship with her kids, so that the film was not just a success story, or just the flipping of the arches, but a relatable portrait piece to people from all walks of life. Patricia took control of her circumstances, built success through developing a community within the McDonalds that she owned; that was the story we were determined to capture, with the flipping of the arches serving a metaphorical purpose.
This was a project with a very quick turnaround – what was the timeframe for it? How did you manage to accomplish everything in time?
Coffee. Just kidding, kind of – but yea, a pro crew. Communication. And coffee. We had 8 days for pre-production and finalizing creative, 2 days to shoot, and 24 hours to turnaround the entire edit/mix/grade/score. I’m pretty sure my colorist, Sean Coleman at Company 3 finished this grade in 26 minutes (sshhh, don’t tell anyone). So big cheers to his fantastic self. This kind of turnaround isn’t ideal, but it is something to be proud of. Kim Bica at Arcade crushed the edit in very little time as well.
I brought on a crew I’ve worked with many times before, since we’ve definitely developed a shorthand. Most of them come from the feature world, so moving fast was natural to them. And we were moving FAST. Even though it was half-narrative and half-documentary, I approached it fairly narratively. I knew what I wanted, and exactly what I didn’t want, where the beats should be, since there was no time to ‘figure it out in the edit,” as so often becomes the mantra! I have worked together with my DP, Allison Anderson and line producer Tyler Boylan many times, so we’ve developed a shorthand. Al and I both came from camera, so I trusted her to control her unit and stay on top of things, and she definitely did. Having a crew move this quickly requires a kind of mutual respect between me, the crew, the agency, the client, and we all had that. For me, communicating the tiniest details as up front before to shooting as humanly possible was key, so that by the time feet hit the ground on the first shoot day, everyone was working seamlessly in tandem between NY, Chicago, and LA while I kind of just stayed out of their way, frankly, and focused on performance and translating notes as we went. Everyone had deadlines to hit throughout each day; an assistant editor was on set cutting as we were sending notes through every 6-8 hours. It’s done sometimes on features – this background spiderweb of cutting on set, then sending, receiving, adjusting, re-sending, re-receiving, re-adjusting. Maybe not on a 24-hour turnaround, but I knew it could be done. It wasn’t perfect, but they rose to the occasion with smiles. All companies and departments were effectively communicating at once. And I’m not gonna lie. I really freaking love a good challenge. It was the most fun I’ve had in awhile, seeing everyone work so closely.
What was working with Patricia like? How do you approach documentary-style direction as opposed to working with professional actors? How did you work with Patricia and her daughters to get the results you were hoping for?
Ha – Patricia kept me on my toes. I was running a film set, she was running a business. We had a kind of hysterical mutual respect from the start, I think. I respected her time, she respected mine. We had a rhythm of, “be blunt, be real, let’s do this really well,” going and it lead to some pretty honest moments, which is all you can hope for in documentary. I knew I wanted to show her very human side, since she’s incredibly close with her employees. She knows what their living situations are, their kids’ names, if they’re thinking of going to college or not. She naturally was this amazing character who tells it how it is, and is naturally very open, so as I opened up about my background, her and her daughters opened up about theirs. Vulnerability and finding commonalities was key. I’ve worked with lots of real people before, from pro-athletes, to a man who survived extensive torture, to a man who had ALS for 15 years. No matter their background, when I open up about my life, hopes, dreams, hardships, they open up about theirs. I think that’s just a human thing to do, not a strategic filmmaker thing.
What were the biggest challenges posed by this shoot, and how did you find a way to resolve them?
Since we did work narratively with actresses on this shoot for the flashbacks of Patricia’s earlier life, it was slightly challenging on such a limited timeline to make sure we were portraying her accurately. I didn’t want her to watch this, and say, “that’s not right.” So we gathered old images of her and her daughters, and I hopped on the phone to gather details from their lives and personalities in the late eighties that led a lot of that acting direction, art direction and wardrobe conversations. We casted based off of both performance and how Patricia and her daughters looked when they were younger; knowing their favorite colors were purple and green, we involved that in our wardrobe decisions, shot in similar neighborhoods to where they lived, etc. Patricia had a thing for clip-on earrings back in the day, so that detail of getting ready for work in the van wasn’t an accident. My main actress, Kelsey Man, had never met Patricia in real life (which would have been ideal before shooting) but Patricia had some defining body language movements I had noticed that we tied into Kelsey’s performance here and there. Since Patricia went through a divorce early on in her business days, for one scene, Kelsey and I basically role-played that out privately to get her into a more intentional headspace. All that to say, as much as was planned, there was still a lot of adaptation on the fly.
Then, not to be discounted, post production was a huge challenge. A challenge that worked out, but a challenge. It’s never easy to figure out a schedule within 24 hours that works for everyone, and it’s not easy to turn anything around in 24 hours, period. People could have thrown their computers out the window in exasperation, but they didn’t, they were very on top of it. At one point earlier on, we did put almost everyone on a group email and if there was ever confusion, I just got on the phone, even if it was in the middle of the shoot. So – success.
What were some of your favorite moments from working on this project?
My favorite moments are always background moments. Allison and I didn’t want our crew to have to get up at 4am for the second day of shooting, so we built the camera ourselves that morning in the dark, and shot out the back of my producer’s truck bed as the sun came up. It was very peaceful before the second day of crazy hit and the set got bigger, and louder.
Another favorite moment was explaining Patricia’s story to the actresses for the first time. When I told Mckenna, the eight year old actress, that the story was about a woman who looked like her now running her own business, she sighed and said to her mom, “I love this story.” It just goes to show that it does mean something to put a spotlight on strong women of color for young girls of all skin tones to look up to.
I know the flipping of the arches received mixed reviews nationwide, but that’s what you want in a bold move. Overall, I think it really resonated; as someone on the ground, I have to say that it really did mean something that ad dollars were being used to recognize women in this way. Our goal was honestly always to focus a large part of the film on Patricia’s really empowering life story, so when I saw the arches, the symbolism surprised me more than I expected. One of my favorite parts was seeing the female employees be pretty touched by the mission statements, and support Patricia as a boss they respected. It was cool to see many of my male crew members randomly walking around with hats with W’s on them. I still can’t figure out where they found those, but it cracked me up.
What elements of the final product are you happiest with? Did this process teach you any lessons that you’ll be able to take to your next commercial project?
Of course, I always learn a lesson on every shoot – ultimately I’m incredibly happy with how everything turned out. I feel like I chose the right collaborators who each elevated it slightly with their own fresh taste and perspective, male and female alike. I put trust in the right places. Seeing the crew work so seamlessly as they did gave me a lot of confidence to go even slightly bigger with the vision next time. The best lesson you can learn on any shoot is where to set those boundaries so that you take chances without ruining the quality of a creative. Honestly, I learned a lesson prior to this that I put into action on this shoot. In “Vive La Victoire,” the one thing I really wished I’d had were flashbacks. So learning that kept me accountable to not leaving holes in the script. I didn’t want to walk away from this film having the same feeling of wishing I had something I didn’t.
How did you get your start as a director? Was it something you had always hoped to do?
I started directing by simply making and self-funding my own work; stories I was passionate about writing and telling. Stories that made people not feel so alone, or gave them a voice. I think those resonated, and people started calling me a director before I labeled myself that way. When you do that, your gender simply goes away. A lot of people don’t realize I’ve worked in film for ten years – worked my way up through crews. My first job in film was as a feature PA, but after a year I was so tired, so burnt out. I was 22, also, and very naive of how to balance the pressure. I left set and deleted every contact off my phone, which was terrifying. I swore to myself i’d never go back unless I thought I could make a difference and had gained some technical knowledge. I’m very slow to have strong opinions, because I very much value listening to the views of others. Film can be fear based – “they’ll forget about you, or ‘don’t say that,” or “don’t take a break if you’re tired.” But that’s not really how I operate anymore. I walked away completely once, and now I’m directing – and I never thought that I would be. I went back into film because I wanted to change the culture, not focus so much on my own career – though it is a really tough ego game of checks and balances sometimes. People I met on crews supported me through to directing as soon as I said, “I have an idea,” and I take the responsibility of directing very seriously because they believed in me. I don’t think people follow a director, I think they follow a good vision. A good director wrangles their crew, inspires their crew and their collaborators before they inspire an audience. I mean, you could literally be filming a block of cheese and have fun with it, if you enjoy your crew and run a good set.
What are some of your past shoots that you’re most proud of?
The stuff I’m most proud of all has the theme of conveying not-very-talked-about subjects. I was very proud of “Why We Wake,” because the collaboration paid off. I was terrified to make that film, because if I got the subject of depression wrong, it would be so offensive. But one time after a screening, a guy came up to me and said he had tried to commit suicide five times, and he’d never seen something that made him feel not alone until then. I’m proud of “Vive La Victoire,” because I didn’t think it would get logistically tougher than filming a man whose language I didn’t speak on such a difficult subject. Torture. I was wrong, because the shoot I’m most proud of – and isn’t out yet – was capturing a narrative style documentary on a man who had ALS for 15 years, and was no longer able to move or talk. I wasn’t sure how to go about it at first. But it changed me and my perspective on life. To pull off the right kind of film that didn’t just glaze over things, I had to not be afraid of getting very uncomfortable and making the audience uncomfortable – had to dive in to what it might be like to be a prisoner in your own body. In his written words, “alive in a shell.” Working with real people has taught me narrative by understanding human imperfection and different motivations for action. You know, there’s always a chance things can go wrong, or be a tough production. But if, in the end, you can communicate human feelings – in my EP’s words, “you’ve won.”
Have you encountered particular obstacles in pursuing a directorial career as a woman? What barriers do you think are imposed on women who aspire to be directors?
The fact is, often as a director, male or female, you don’t get hired unless the work is on your reel. Hence – personal projects! Sometimes female directors can find themselves stereotyped into moms, kids and babies, and woman power. I’m not sure why – those stories can be particularly amazing, but I have wondered why I’ve only pitched twice on films whose lead is a male character. Telling Patricia’s story was very important for me to tell right, because young girls need to see these strong female figures – just like any film with women at the core of the story. But at the same time, “Why We Wake” led to countless guys sending me emails saying they’ve shown it to their therapists and that it’s the only thing that has expressed how they feel inside when it comes to anxiety. Again, when you find commonalities and do the proper preparation for telling any story or directing any actor, gender goes away. I’ve always felt so completely supported and respected by the agencies I’ve worked with this year, so I 100% think this is more of a subconscious industry trend rather than a personal thing with women. It’s something that is being caught up on right now, and it’s for sure getting figured out as more female directors enter the industry. That being said, even as I write this, I’m pitching a story about strong women that I’m super excited about right now, so no matter what, we’re telling these stories with gusto both in the commercial and feature phase, and that’s pretty awesome to see.
Free The Bid is committed to advocating for diverse perspectives and points of view. What do you think are some of the benefits to diverse representation on both sides of the camera lens?
Diversity is incredibly important, both male and female, but also diverse ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds. The tone on set changes and becomes more balanced, but also the number of viewpoints in the film are diverse which equals a greater relatability to the audience. There are so many untapped stories from around the world that need to be told. On one of my jobs, one of the clients, male and African American, sat next to me. He said, “you and I, I think we have something in common.” We went on to compare experiences of speaking up, working our way up, things like that. I thought it was so cool that such different people could find commonality in their diversity through experience. It’s not something I wear on my sleeve, but I have felt very embraced this year by the ad industry, agencies and clients alike. I appreciate having my perspective challenged, and I’ve met so many amazing people on crews and at agencies who do also. I actually love it.
What final words of advice do you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out as a director?
Don’t be afraid to trust your gut. It’s probably right. You are allowed to be both tough, and kind. Any director has to fight for their voice. You will have to fight for yours, and it has nothing to do with gender. But most importantly, you’re not just here for yourself or to have an amazing career. You have a responsibility to change culture – to create vision. And lastly, if you find there’s not a place for you on a set, make one.
Agency: We Are Unlimited
CCO DDB North America: Ari Weiss
CCO We Are Unlimited: Toygar Bazarkaya
Production Company: Sanctuary
Executive Producer: Preston Lee
Director: Elle Ginter
Director of Photography: Allison Anderson
Producer: Tyler Boylan
Production Manager: Shannon Jerger
Production Coordinator: Sean O’Conner
Locations Manager: Barry Gremillion
Production Designer: Nick Goodman
Sound Mixer: Oliver Haycraft
Key Grip: Cameron Jones
Gaffer: Dustin Supencheck
1st AC Megan Johnson
2nd AC Jason Foust
DIT: Johanna Salo
VTR: Adam Delgado
Wardrobe: Ashley Chako
HMU: Gabriela Banda
Production Assistant: Jason Brown
Chief Production Officer: Jon Ellis
Executive Creative Director: John Hansa
Executive Creative Director: Vic Sanchez
Creative Director: Jon Morgan
Sr. Art Director: Sarah Uchison, Emily Walton
Sr. Copywriter: Liza Rush, Sarah Dembkowski
Copywriters: Caitlin VanderKlok, Georgia Taylor
Art director: Georgia Taylor
Sr. integrated producer: Otto Linwood,
Content Producer: Nikki Calabrese
Editorial: Arcade, Kim Bica
Post-Producer: Rebecca Jameson
Colorist: Company3 + Sean Coleman
Producer: Matt Moran
Global EP: Ashley McKim
Audio Post: We Are Unlimited
Audio Engineer: Paxson Helgesen
Casting: Danielle Eskinazi