AFI Directing Workshop for Women Alumna Valerie Weiss Talks Being Ready to Helm a Studio Franchise and Her Unconventional Path to Hollywood – American Film Institute

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AFI Directing Workshop for Women Alumna Valerie Weiss Talks Being Ready to Helm a Studio Franchise and Her Unconventional Path to Hollywood

Valerie Weiss’ experience as a scientist-turned-filmmaker has served as an unconventional springboard as she sets her sights on directing within the Hollywood studio system. She discovered her passion for directing while majoring in Molecular Biology at Princeton and minoring in theater and dance. “For the first time I felt like my intellectual side and my artistic side could be married and valued,” she said. After completing a Masters in Medical Sciences and a Ph.D. in Biophysics from Harvard, she hung up her lab coat and decided to pursue directing full-time. 

To make her transition, she first participated in the AFI Catalyst Workshop, which helps scientists translate their work into stories for film and television and was later accepted to the AFI Directing Workshop for Women where she cut her teeth as a filmmaker. Weiss has amassed an enviable list of credits, dynamic and genre-defying alike. She made the jump to television in 2017, helming an episode of NBC’s CHICAGO MED, which ironically found her back in the medical field. Opportunities to direct TV series, including SCANDAL, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, SUITS and THE ROOKIE, soon followed. She just wrapped Marc Cherry’s new show WHY WOMEN KILL for Imagine and CBS All Access and is slated to direct OUTER BANKS for Netflix this summer. 

Having directed three smaller feature films, Weiss was eager to take the next step to helm a major studio film, leading her to embark on the inaugural Fox Bridge program. Spurred by the lack of women directing franchise films, 20th Century Fox partnered with the American Film Institute to give 25 AFI graduates of the Directing Workshop for Women the chance to pitch ideas for short films using Fox’s intellectual property. Based on the concept for her short film THE TRUE MAZE, a female version of THE MAZE RUNNER trilogy, Weiss was selected as the winner and given the access and resources necessary to develop her idea.

During a recent visit to AFI, Weiss discussed her creative process, adapting a Fox IP based on THE MAZE RUNNER trilogy, and giving more women the opportunity to direct franchise films — particularly in genres such as action and science fiction where they are largely still underrepresented.

How has your scientific background informed and shaped you as a director of film and television?

It is definitely ingrained in how I see the world. I search out big questions when I look for a project because, similar to science, you’re not going to invest time and resources in small questions that don’t have a big impact. I think I have this filter that enables me to ask what is the most essential topic we can think about right now, whether it’s a movie about mental illness or female empowerment or women fighting at a time when rights seem to be slowly slipping away from us.

I have a strongly developed logic meter in my head, so if I’m reading a script and it’s not working, I know the audience is going to be lost. Because my mind operates that way, it enables me to take creative risks with the other elements, including performance and cinematography, because I know that the through-line is solid, and we’re really anchored in the storytelling.

As you developed the short film TRUE MAZE for Fox, did you feel pressure adapting a beloved IP? Were you looking to put your own stamp on it?

I felt excited knowing that it was an established platform that would get eyeballs. Knowing it is a brand that people would see was very appealing. Because the first movie is so well-defined and it’s fairly open-ended after that, there’s a nice freedom to take it in any direction. As soon as I saw it was an option and took another look at the franchise, I knew instantly what story I wanted to tell.

Talk about refining the script for TRUE MAZE and the collaboration process in developing the narrative.

Our story is analogous to the first MAZE RUNNER, but while the boys are escaping this concrete-walled maze, our story has the girls escaping a glacial ice maze. The girls exist in the Maze Runner books but less is known about them. Once I learned that they escaped their own maze three days faster and with fewer fatalities than the boys, I knew I had to tell this story. In terms of the journey they’re on, it’s comparable to what should be a feature. We had to figure out how to condense the beginning, middle and end where we meet the girls, see their adventure, and then wrap up with an exciting finale. We had to fit three huge action scenes in a 10-minute movie, which was crazy but fantastic.

The collaboration was great. I co-wrote it with my friend, John Sinclair, with whom I’ve also written a comedy pilot about hoarding. We started with something more faithful to the books, and in structuring it for a 10-minute short, we created a fresh new world that builds on the existing IP.

How was creating the pre-vis similar or different to storyboarding your independent films?

The concept is different with motion capture and pre-vis because you direct the blocking separately from shooting it. There’s also no physical set. I worked with the Fox VFX Lab, who created the technology for Avatar, and Halon to build the virtual world I envisioned and then I directed the actors where to go and how to move so it would make sense when we married their action to the icy glacial maze set we designed in parallel. We shot on a blue screen stage, and we had ramps for them to skate on and things for the actors to hang from. But outside of that, it was no different than making a feature, especially my action feature.

Ironically, the technique is similar to what I did my Ph.D. in at Harvard — X-Ray Crystallography. Similar to the 3-D photography of molecules, the dots on the actors’ motion-capture suits diffract light, and the cameras collect that information to have a 3-D data set of how everyone’s moving in space.

The action is so well-executed. Was your background in theater and dance helpful in choreographing these scenes?

One of the reasons that I wanted to do my action film THE ARCHER was because of the movement involving two young women running through the woods using bows and arrows, which felt like dance. In fact, one of the leads of the film, Jeanine Mason (star of CW’S ROSWELL), won SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE. I always sort of see everything as a dance, and I think that’s what makes my approach to the action film different than other directors. I want the violence to feel like it has a consequence. The reason I make it like a dance is that the audience should feel like it’s a human body and therefore vulnerable and ephemeral.

You have a reference to fracking in TRUE MAZE. How did you strike a balance between social commentary and action in your film?

That’s what drives me. The biggest reason I left science is I felt like my ideas could affect society more through film, and I could reach more people. I think every movie I make and every movie I continue to make will have a message and depth and be important as to what’s going on in the world now. We all need to take a page out of the book of these kids, led by Greta Thunberg, who are striking for climate change and step up.

There are still preconceived notions about women embarking on careers directing science-fiction and action films. Do you see a tipping point in the future?

It’s certainly changing in television. It needs to change in movies, which is why it’s so great that I won the Fox Bridge program because everyone’s been talking about the 4% challenge, an initiative asking people to commit to work with a female director on a feature film in the next 18 months. And if they’re looking for women to helm these studio franchises, I’m a road-tested candidate who would love to be making these movies.

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