Director Vanessa Parise on directing for TV and film and what it takes to make it. Parise discusses her journey from Harvard to Second City to helming shows for Amazon, Netflix, and Lifetime.
Vanessa Parise may be the only Hollywood director able to say she deferred Harvard Medical School – for ten years. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard College, Parise jumped into helming her first feature film and asked the medical school to wait. “Right out of school I made Kiss The Bride,” says Parise, who was born in NYC and raised in Rhode Island. “I called Harvard Med and said ‘Hey! I’m writing and directing and starring in this movie, would you mind if I defer a year?’ Then I’d call the next year with something similar. [Medical school] was my (awesome!) back-up plan.”
An unnecessary one in the end, as Parise’s film and television career took off. She joined Circle in the Square Theatre and Second City Improv Conservatories, and was awarded top honors at worldwide film festivals, including SXSW (Best Short), The Hamptons (Best Feature), and Cinequest (Best Director.) She was named one of the Ten Female Directors Breaking Stereotypes by SheKnows. In 2015, Parise was selected for the inaugural year of the prestigious Fox Global Diversity Initiative, as well as Lifetime’s Broad Focus initiative, whose goal is to achieve greater gender equity.
Parise recently helmed the feature biopic The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar for Lifetime Features, to strong ratings, and a critically-acclaimed episode of FreeForm’s one-hour supernatural series Beyond, “Knock Knock.” She’s directed multiple television episodes for Amazon and Netflix, with more episodes scheduled, and has two series in development.
In 2018 Parise is on the shortlist to direct two television pilots, an arena where women and minorities are particularly scarce. (According to a February 23, 2017 Deadline Hollywood article, of 41 broadcast dramas in the 2017 pilot season only one, Las Reinas, was directed by a woman. No women of color directed broadcast drama or comedy pilots in 2017.) Parise, who is of Italian/Columbian/Jewish heritage, won’t let that stop her. “It’s my dream, and my passion. I know it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. And now, with all the talk of change, we need to come together–men and women of all races and orientations–and make sure the change is real. And lasting. Because it’s good, not only for all of us in Hollywood, but for the world.”
Script caught up with the hard-at-work Parise via phone.
Tell us about the moment you decided not to go to medical school. Was it a lightning bolt?
No lightning bolt! Quite the opposite. Since I deferred Harvard for ten years it was more like a smoldering flame (laughs).
You’re a writer and director. Do you prefer one over the other?
I prefer directing. It’s a very easy, natural fit for me. I like people, I’m excited and lifted by the collaboration with producers, cast, and crew. On the other hand, I have to force myself through the laborious process of writing because I want to express my feelings and share my perspective and experience. But once I finish writing, I always feel very fulfilled. So I guess it’s love-hate for me.
You’ve directed a number of features but TV really seems to be your jam. How did you get attached to The Simone Biles Story?
I’ve had wonderful experiences working with the amazing, smart women at Lifetime – Tia Maggini, Tanya Lopez, Lisa Hamilton Daly. When I was told they were making a feature about Simone Biles, I was immediately interested. Simone is such an inspiring, courageous young woman.
Talk a little bit about the challenges of directing a biopic about an amazing gymnast.
Finding someone to play Simone Biles–and finding a stunt double for Simone–was extremely challenging. We needed someone to match Simone physically, to have some modicum of her elite gymnastic skills, and to be able to act! Our fab casting directors Twinkie Byrd and Jason Wood found the stellar Jeante Godlock, who had acting training as well as an acrobatic background. And she looks like Simone! A miraculous find, really. We ended up having to bring up three different stunt women, and split the work according to their strengths. I storyboarded all of the competitions, so that we could intercut real footage from each with our actress and our stunt doubles. See if you can tell!
Give us an idea of how you like to run your set.
I try to create a space for people to do their best work. I like to communicate with everyone and to find out how they do their best work because I want everyone, actors and crew, to feel useful and important.
Your CV leans towards YA, female-driven stories. What about the genre appeals to you?
I just love telling female-driven stories. Stories about multi-layered women figuring their shit out. I like that.
You’ve spoken more than once about the importance of getting more women behind the camera, especially in the episodic TV world. Has that issue always been on your radar or did it develop over time through your own experiences?
I started out in the indie feature world [before shifting into television] and made two movies that I wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. I never felt any discrimination. But as soon as I wanted to get into the system, the system where you make a lot of money, I felt a huge shift. Since then, it’s felt like I’m pushing a boulder up a mountain. The work is amazing, incredibly satisfying but this business – it’s not equal. I’ve seen first-hand many, many male director friends having a much easier time and being offered many more opportunities than my female director friends who are equally talented.
What are your thoughts on the “why” behind that?
I don’t think men are intentionally not hiring women. They’re just hiring the people they know, who are other men. But we’re finally at a point where I truly believe we can change this. It’s going to take a massive effort but we can change this. It’s exciting to be a part of it.
Do you see the status of women in the industry changing in real, practical terms?
I want to direct series, pilots specifically, so I can help set up the look of the show. I’m really into visual style and creating the world. And I love action. So that would be higher budget features. The number of women directing in those spheres is the lowest [in the industry] but the good news is–if we look at the awards shows this season–Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, these amazing series, women are winning, especially in television.
How have you changed as director over the course of your career?
I’ve gotten to practice so much over the last fifteen years of directing. And the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve been able to hone my skills. After two features, twelve television movies, eight series episodes, and a handful of back-door pilots, I’ve had a lot of practice. I’ve also lived by something I learned at Second City. They taught us to “dare to suck,” which I love! So through all that practice I’ve dared to suck. I’ve taken risks and sometimes I’ve fallen flat. But I’ve also had some big wins. The more I practice, the more I win.
What advice would you offer to women directors starting out today?
Do it! And don’t let anyone tell you you can’t. Know that it’s going to be tough. The business is going to be brutal. You have to work hard. But keep at it. Work harder. A lot of women start in indie features, which is fine, I did, because it’s more accessible. But I’d encourage young women to get into the system as quickly as they can. Just find a way and keep going. Because right now, like we were saying, there’s this opening. And the more women and minorities that step through that opening, the better. Let’s all join together and make that opening bigger and bigger, keep pushing the line, the outside of the circle to make more room, and help each other through. And let’s not stop until it’s equal.