Reel Women: Wendy Jo Carlton — Filmmaker

Wendy Jo Carlton

Wendy Jo Carlton

Wendy Jo Carlton directed her first feature film, Hannah Free, starring Emmy-winner Sharon Gless, in 2009.

Hannah Free won several Audience awards and is globally distributed.

Carlton’s second feature, Jamie and Jessie are Not Together, is often described as the first lesbian romance musical.

Written and directed by Carlton, Jamie and Jessie won Audience awards, Best Feature awards, and earned glowing reviews from film critics Roger Ebert, Michael Phillips, and others.

Her digital series, Easy Abby, has received 50 million views for a 13-episode Season One.

The seventh episode from Abby’s second season — “Thrush is also a Bird” — screens Tuesday, March 20, at the Chicago International Television Festival’s “Woke TV” program. It was also selected for the queer women pop culture conference, Clexacon, in Las Vegas April 7.

Carlton was an Artist-in-Residence at 911 Media Arts in Seattle and a recipient of the Navona Fellowship from the University of Illinois Chicago, where she earned a graduate degree in Moving Image.

She started her career in radio, producing fake travelogues for a weekly show. Her award-winning short films have screened internationally, including the American Film Institute and Sundance. Carlton founded a media literacy and filmmaking program for teen girls called Chicks make Flicks, and is committed to community collaboration.

   Easy Abby is now an Original Series on REVRY TV

Feature RomCom Musical:
   On Amazon, iTunes, Wolfe, SnagFilms and in Germany and Spain

Feature Drama:
   Starring Emmy winner Sharon Gless



How did you get into the business? I was obsessed since childhood with tape recorders, microphones and radio DJs. I took a community class which led to creating my own weekly radio show in Michigan. I also love to sing and started writing songs with another musician and we formed a band. Somewhere in there I received a nice 35mm Minolta camera as a gift and realized that I loved black & white photography, especially desolate landscapes and portraits of friends.

So the transition into filmmaking was an organic one, combining passions and obsessions into conceptual and documentary filmmaking, and then more typical narrative forms.

Working in the film industry is not the same as making indie films the way I want to. I enjoy freelance producing, directing, and writing, but to be honest I don’t always feel at home in the “industry”, because it’s quite one-dimensionally capitalistic, which means we keep telling the same 5 stories in predictable structures. I was inspired to be a filmmaker years ago, after seeing films like “The Piano”, “Wings of Desire”, “Passionfish”, “Eraserhead”, “Persona”, “Woman under the Influence”…not by seeing “Diehard”, as entertaining as that movie is.

What obstacles have you faced specifically because of your gender? It’s difficult to gauge exactly just how many great job opportunities I would’ve had IF I were a male camera op, director, sound mixer, or producer. After trying to break in to documentary and “reality” TV as a segment producer, I felt as if it wasn’t just being a woman, but that they were more comfortable ghiring women who were younger and also “greener”, as opposed to being over-qualified. And I do think that if I wanted to pass as a straight women, it would be easier to get hired as well, as there is a culture that is sometimes as if you’re in college on some productions.

I got my MFA in Communications and Film to be able to teach for work as an alternative to freelance production. There is a lot more control over content teaching at the college level, and though it’s a lot of responsibility to do well, it can be a lot more rewarding than commercial work.

One Chicago reviewer described the first feature I directed as “gynocentric”, but never called any of the 95% of movies filled with male protagonists and the male gaze of directors, “phallocentric” or misogynistic (even when they often are), I would say, yes, my work has been (mis)judged and over-criticized because of my gender.

It’s quite problematic that the majority of mainstream film critics and reviewers are male. Not saying all of them are sexist, I am saying that the assessment of one the most-consumed mediums in the past century of human history, which is 52% female, is being done primarily by males, and doesn’t that keep that review loop quite imbalanced?



Best thing to ever happen to you to remind you that you are a woman? Falling in love with a woman.

Why do you think that male film directors are always chosen certain genres like action films?

Because boys and men are more encouraged to engage in violence and in physical sports, so the stereotypes become that action = masculine, but of course that wrongly assumes that we are NOT all on a gender spectrum to begin with. If Charlie Kaufman and Ingmar Bergman get to direct intimate, complex character studies (characteristics often given to women), AND also direct action-packed spectacles, why can’t it also go the other way? (Because it’s bullshit protecting of the entitled brotherhood is why).

Work you are most proud of? Creating a personal storytelling and filmmaking course for young teen women called, Chicks Make Flicks, in my hometown in MIchigan. It was hands-on technically and creatively, in an environment where they could learn and explore and tell honest stories without the tension of the coed dynamic or frequent sexism of high school. We had 20 female students 13-17 of age, from various economic and ethnic backgrounds, so it was exciting to help create an environment of collaboration and empowerment on different levels.

How do you describe the most significant #metoo moment of your life? There isn’t one moment, it’s basically like an undercurrent of wariness of men in power, (and some men who aren’t in power and are resentful because they want to be)…Patriarchy has created such an imbalance on the planet that it’s sad and sometimes scary for men too. It’s a case by case basis thing for me, if I feel “danger energy”, or hear disrespectful or condescending comments about women, or endure an assumption that I don’t “get” technical references because of my gender in a conversation. I think most females, from a young age, learn to be slightly on guard. That being said, the men (straight, gay, bi, trans) in my life, professionally and personally, are invariably creative, loving, politically engaged humans!



How have professional attitudes towards women evolved during your career? The bandwidth has been increasing, and the access to opportunities on film production crews for women has increased, so it’s good progress, especially in camera, sound design, and editing areas. The system is still pretty much owned and operated by men, and it’s still difficult for women to “get in the room” to pitch, or to get hired as a writer, director, or producer for commercials, TV, or features. That is where the big money is, which is what you need to develop and sustain a career.

Do you think women have to work harder to get their films out to the widest audience? Yes. If by “widest audience” you mean to have the luxury of a big enough budget that includes throwing tens of thousands of dollar$ (or millions in Hollywood’s case), into marketing, branding, and promotion. To GET those budgets and film projects, it’s still very low statistically that women directors are sought after, regardless of their talent, skills, or vision.

If you were approached by a film company to direct an ction or Super-Hero film, would you do so? Certainly! I’d love to direct a cartoon action hero feature! And The Bionic Woman for live action!

What advice do you have for women filmmakers? Make your movies any way that you can. iPhone, small team of talented collaborators, edit it yourself but make sure that sound design and color correction are top notch. Learn what you can learn to be able to depend less on others. Joe Swanberg edited 10 of his own feature films, before he got bigger budgets and Hollywood backing. Lynn Shelton, Kelly Reichardt, and Mary Harron, Jane Campion, Debra Granik, Andrea Arnold, Agnes Varda…look at what they have been creating for many years, amazing, provocative, well-cast, high production value feature films…where are the huge budget movies for them?

Trapped on an island what essentials must you have? A good friend with a nice boat. Barring that, a film camera with unlimited satellite storage that runs on solar power. And a Snickers.

If you had a time machine, what would you say to your past self? Get the braces.

If you could have a one-on-one with anyone who would it be? And why? JK Rowling. Wait. Mary Magdalene.

To see the up-to-date list of Reel Women, click here.