8 Female Filmmakers: Stumbling onto Set with Jen Day
This story is part of a series of interviews spotlighting eight local female filmmakers in collaboration with the Cindependent Film Festival. Read more female filmmaker stories and thank you to everyone who came to support the inaugural Cindependent Film Festival! Stay tuned for our recap on this incredible event.
With glasses, long dark hair with bangs, and a red lip, filmmaker Jen Day was serving up some serious “New Girl” vibes when we met her at Nation Kitchen & Bar earlier this summer. We found a corner near the front windows, and with our photographer Heather’s encouragement, I tried a whiskey Moscow Mule for the first time – it was love at first sip. We nestled in with our drinks, took in Nation’s inviting atmosphere, and got right down to the nitty-gritty of being a woman in the city and what it means to tell unique stories through film.
Interview by Kristyn Bridges. Photography by Heather Willins.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Born and raised here in Cincinnati. I went to Winton Woods High School. I had no idea that I wanted to become a filmmaker. I went to Ohio University; got my degree in magazine journalism, of all things. Cincinnati is very much in my blood. A lot of what I do, I try to include some of the city in it.
How did you get into film? Tell us about your journey.
A friend of mine went to New York Film Academy and because he knew I was a writer, he would call me for help with his scripts. So, we would sit on the phone and work through what he had written and try to punch it up a little bit for humor, or try to make the story make a little bit more sense. What’s written on the page and what’s seen on the screen are almost never exactly the same, but we tried to get his scripts to a place where they were ready to film. And so, I started doing that with him and kind of fell in love with that. And then I got to be on set one day, just to see some of the stuff that we had done, and I fell in love with it.
The first time I really worked on set, though, was with a friend of mine here. My friend Valerie introduced me to Christopher Hagan – he is a cinematographer here in town. He was doing a 48-hour film project and so he said, “Why don’t you come and just help us out on set and see how you like it?”
You still don’t see a ton of women directing, writing, or producing.
I did that and I was like, “Okay, this is a drug for me now.” Being on set is probably the place where I feel most alive. We’d get together and make movies on the weekends, or write something for a project. So those are really kind of how I got started in the industry and learned that it was something that made me just feel on fire, and I wanted more and more of that in my life.
I did a lot of free work and I have made a lot of good friends and interesting contacts through helping my friends make their dreams come true. They started giving my name to people who would come into town to make something. I got a call [from someone] at four o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon wanting me to start at 10 a.m. the next day on a film that James Franco’s production company was putting together. It was a huge shock. But that’s sometimes how the industry works; it’s very in the moment. That’s also something I really love about filmmaking. But that was my first official experience as an assistant director. They called me and I knew I had to do it. I knew that taking that opportunity was going to be the thing that made this my job in the future.
I’ve had a few more assistant director jobs since then. I would basically take whatever role they will have me in on set, just to be on set. I got to work on a cool film last fall where I was the base camp PA [production assistant] and I got to work with Jesse Eisenberg, who is a fabulous human – like, one of the best people I’ve ever met. He brought me a wrap gift at the end of the shoot. He was extremely kind to all of the cast, all of the crew, and everyone. That experience was really amazing ’cause I mean, there were some top level talent on that movie and the man has been nominated for an Oscar. [Pause.] And I’m just, you know, little ol‘ Jen Day working with this man who’s been nominated for an Oscar. If you had told me this is what I’d be doing with my life, I would have been like, “That sounds insane.” And it does sound insane to normal human beings. But filmmakers are insane: I’ve been in a lot of really weird places, doing a lot of really weird things, talking to a lot of cool people. I just want this ride to keep going.
What are some of your most recent projects? What are you working on now?
Right now I’m in the middle of developing a documentary about a local school district. They have transitioned all their students over to project based learning, so they’re not doing a traditional classroom anymore. It is Winton Woods, which coincidentally is where I went to high school. So Winton Woods just passed a levy to get new school buildings. I have a friend who works at the agency and they came to me and said, “We got this amazing story about these fantastic kids. They are in this school district that is, you know, kind of racially divided and has merged these two very different parts of town back in the late ’80s early ’90s.” And I said, “Okay, that sounds like a place I went to school.” And they keep telling me this story, like, “These kids at Winton Woods are just simply amazing.” And I stopped them and was like, “You know I graduated from Winton Woods High School. I went to school there K-12; I’m fully aware of the issues of that school district.” And I said, “That’s your story right there.”
These kids have had the deck stacked against them from Day One. I mean, if you see these kids work, they’ve created something unbelievable there. I don’t want to give away my whole story, but it’s pretty special what they’re trying to do. So, right now we’re in the development phase where we’re trying to raise enough money to make the movie.
I worked on a program tentatively titled “Seven Days Out.” They follow major events [starting] seven days out from the event through the day of the event, and we were working on the Kentucky Derby. So, I got to go all over Churchill Downs. We had all-access passes to the Kentucky Derby; it was unbelievable. I mean, I met so many celebrities and horse trainers and got to meet the horses. [Laughs.] I met some of the horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby! It’s really weird to be starstruck by a horse, but that’s my life!
What do you love most about Cincinnati?
It’s my home. It is part of who I am. It’s in my bones. I think the people here are so interesting and so funny; they get set in their ways very easily. It’s like, a pretty decent size Midwestern town, but wow, it is so Midwest. I love the community. I live in Over-the-Rhine and I feel like I know all my neighbors. I know the people that are hanging out down on the street corner and I’ll give them a wave. I have never really felt so much community ever before in my life; it’s a special place to me. For so much of my young life I was like, “Ugh, Cincinnati, I have to get out of here, I just can’t stand it anymore.” [Laughs.] But every time I go away to work on a project, I desperately miss Cincinnati while I’m gone.
What are some challenges, if any, that you have faced as a woman in the film industry?
[Sighs.] All of them. [Laughs.] Just kidding. I feel pretty lucky, because the people I’ve worked with have been pretty on board with women in the industry. I haven’t really experienced a lot of the sexual harassment or sexism. There’s still this overarching feeling, though, that it is a big boy’s club and you have to try really hard to overcome it. You still don’t see a ton of women directing, writing, or producing. A woman was nominated as a cinematographer for the first time for an Academy Award in 2018. The first time ever. And it is still so very white male-focused. For me, that’s actually a huge part of what I want to do with my career: tell stories that are not the stories that we hear every day. Like, I’m done hearing about the ditzy goofy woman in the rom com who falls down and breaks her shoe. Like I mean, give me a break. Women are so multifaceted; there’s gotta be a better story to tell. And there is! But when people are in charge of the money, those are the stories that we hear. So, I think for anything to shift, we’ve got to get women into executive roles and start getting some of that money pushed towards the projects that will make a difference. That’s a big deal for me.
I don’t think that men need to be telling stories that women can uniquely tell, and I don’t think we can tell half of the population’s stories without actually hearing from a woman.
I work mostly with men in this industry. I have a group of friends – we work together pretty often – and it’s the three of us who kind of run the show together. One of the guys is a standup comedian, so he’s always trying to push the envelope of comedy. And then we have the cinematographer – he’s always trying to do something visually interesting and amazing. And I’m always over here like, “Yay! Girls!” And they’re like, “Okay, Jen.” [Laughs.] They do a really great job of listening to my ideas and making sure that the project is something that I can be proud of.
I’ve had projects before where I felt like maybe I didn’t get my say about the content of the project ’cause that’s not my role. I’m not there to direct it and I wasn’t the writer, so I don’t really get a whole lot of say. And there have been projects before where I’ve seen what we’ve put out there and I cry because my name’s on that. And that’s not who I am, you know. I don’t think that men need to be telling stories that women can uniquely tell, and I don’t think we can tell half of the population’s stories without actually hearing from a woman. And sometimes you’ll have people on set on bigger films that are just like, “Okay whatever, who cares?” You know, I am nearly 40 years old; I have been around the block; I’ve seen what life is like. I get that you are in charge, so it is what it is. It’s nothing that’s going to keep me from trying to tell great stories. If anything, it fires me up a little bit more to say like, “Okay, now it’s our turn and you can listen up for a change.” [Laughs.] That’s a little soapbox that I’m happy to get on. I’m like, “Hey! Who’s ready to hear about how great women are?”
Do you feel like you’re “paying your dues” to get your foot in the door and eventually make some changes in the industry?
Yes, I do. I very much feel that way. In this industry you 100 percent gotta pay your dues to get there. Like I said, I’m still taking PA jobs; I’m not the “Queen Bee” at any rate at this point. The one and only thing that my name is in the credits as “director” for is just a goofy little 48-hour film project. But we won Audience Choice! And so that meant a lot to me. That means that I’m telling stories that people are interested in.
And it was a comedy. I love to tell stories using comedy because I think if you can make people laugh, you can also make them think. When you see a drama, you come into that with all of your preconceived notions, but if you can make them laugh while you’re telling a story, that gives them an “in” to thinking about things a little differently. So that’s one of the reasons that I love to write comedy and try to make comedy films.
The thing I love most about filmmaking is that every person on set has a job to do, knows what they’re supposed to be doing, and goes and does it and a movie happens. I mean [laughing], it’s truly one place where there is complete teamwork and every single person has a part to play. There is no job too small for me on a set. I’m obviously aiming higher; I’m wanting to write and direct my own stuff, but for me, just staying in the game and staying passionate about whatever the task is at hand is good enough for me.
I think the only reason people succeed in this industry is because they want it so badly. It’s the only thing they want and it’s all that they can think about. And only very driven people will get anywhere. That’s myself included. There are days when I don’t know why I’m doing this. And it’s truly ridiculous the things that I’m willing to do to make this work. I think that persistence is probably one of my top qualities, because there’s no way I could do anything without it. Fall down seven times; get up eight. That’s just how you have to live in this industry. I mean, there was a point of time where I was just like, “I’m going to get evicted; I can’t pay my rent; I’m not getting enough work; I’m miserable doing this; why am I doing this?” And then I get back on set and I’m like, “Ah yes, this is it!” So yeah, that’s an inspiration right there. Just knowing that there will be another day; there will be another project, and I’ll get to tell a story, one way or another. I’ll be a part of making something happen.
Honestly though, for me, part of what I love to do is help other women who are trying to make it in this industry. I have a mentee who is a film student at UC right now and she’s going to blow me out of the water! You’re going to hear about her. Her first on set experience was when I was first assistant director on yet another 48-hour film project. We made the 2017 winning film for Cincinnati. I was the first assistant director on that project and she was PA. That was her first on set experience and now I’m happy to say that I can start bringing her on to paid jobs and getting her work because she’s smart and a hard worker and she wants it.
Who or what inspires you? And what have been your favorite stories to tell?
Oh boy. Honestly, I can find a little bit of inspiration pretty much anywhere. But for me, it is telling uniquely female stories. I’m inspired by comedians all the time. I think laughter is a gift, and that is inspirational to me. I can’t point to one person because I’m watching women try to make their way in the world every single day and that’s sometimes challenging in and of itself. Everybody’s like, “Ruth Ginsburg and everybody!” and they’re all great and inspirational, too. But every woman, though, from the lady who hands you your dry cleaning and people trying for the highest office in the land are inspirational to me. I just love badass ladies in charge. That’s really what I love. [Laughs.] Just watching women run shit gives me life. It’s easy to find inspiration, even in your peers.
Any time you open your soul up to create something, it’s a big deal.
I also want to say that Molly Mahar is an inspiration to me. I need to say that. And my Elevate sisters. I did a Mastermind Program with Molly as my coach. Her company is called Stratejoy. I would be remiss if I did not speak about her and the experience that I had in the Elevate program last year because it did open me up to making this my life. I would never have had the courage to jump into filmmaking full time without her support and the support of those women in my Elevate group. I know that they are such a huge part of any success that I have now or in the future.
Is there a female filmmaker that you look up to?
I’m a fan of Ava Duvernay. Everything she does is spectacular. She makes films and TV that are beautiful and entertaining. They also happen to be expanding the cultural conversation about inclusion while raking in a boatload of money at the box office. She’s living proof that people want to hear these stories and that they want that authenticity from the storyteller. Also, her Twitter account is fire! She’s an activist and a brilliant storyteller, and to me, there’s no higher calling for a filmmaker.
What do you hope will come from the Cindependent Film Festival? What do you hope this will do for female filmmakers?
Oh man. I’m really excited about this. I think that Allyson is a great person to be in charge of this because she is, herself, a filmmaker. We took our film “Texican” – the one that she directed and I was her assistant director – we took that film around to film festivals all over the country, and we saw some really good ones and some really bad ones. I only went to two of them, but she went to a ton of them. So, she has this wealth of knowledge on how to do it and how not to do it. And I know that one thing that we both agreed on was that women are not getting into the spotlight. Women, for whatever reason, don’t go for it. Women don’t submit their films to film festivals or think they can direct. I mean, you still hear me over here like it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal. Any time you open your soul up to create something, it’s a big deal. And I think that she’s pretty intense, like I am, about trying to get women’s stories told, or at least to have a place that women feel encouraged to show up. And I think that’s a big part of what she’s trying to do with the film festival. That’s like 90% of anything, is just showing up. I think that’s what Cindependent is about.
I’m also excited to see what it does for the industry here in the city, because we’re going to be able to see some showcased work of people who are here locally. It’s like, “Hey Hollywood, we’re here. We are talented people; come work with us; come give us your money.” [Laughs.] It’s really hard to make a movie when you don’t have any money. It’s, in fact, impossible. Even if you’re working with your friends on the weekend to make something, you still gotta feed everybody. You still gotta find a place to go; you still got transportation, and all these issues. I know that we have a ton of talented people here. I would love to see Cincinnati get on par with Atlanta or New York. There are places that are known now for filming that are outside of LA. I said to myself, “I’ll move if I have to, but I really don’t want to.” I really would love to stay here and be able to work consistently enough that a move is not necessary. So I’m hoping that film festivals like Cindependent will encourage people to look at Cincinnati as a filmmaking destination.
Explore the rest of our female filmmaker series here, and thank you for joining us in celebrating independent film in Cincinnati.