‘Ask for Jane’ is a fictionalized version of the true story of the Jane Collective, a group of young women in 1969 who helped provide over 11,000 safe and illegal abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade. The film was conceived by first-time producer Cait Cortelyou, an actor and activist with Planned Parenthood who also stars in the movie.
Hello! My name is Cait Cortelyou, and I recently created, produced, and starred in the feature film Ask for Jane. As a first time filmmaker, I learned a LOT along the way (as I’m sure you can imagine!), and I wanted to share some of my newfound knowledge with other aspiring filmmakers out there. Read on for six tips that I’ll definitely use on my next film; hopefully they’ll also be helpful for you!
First, the quick story of how I became a filmmaker as well as an actor:
I’ve often heard the phrase “if you can think of anything else you’d rather do, go do that” in conjunction with acting. I’ve been at this for a long time now, and have affirmed time and again that indeed there is nothing else I could ever see myself doing. And yet, exciting roles for women are scarce – the Madonna/whore dichotomy is alive and well, and frequently female characters are granted so little autonomy that they could easily be replaced by a fancy vase without changing much of a story’s plot.
As actors, we are used to waiting for permission; waiting for an audition, a callback, a job offer. We’re used to being passive. Well screw that! It is high time we make our own projects, depicting the kinds of women we want to portray: women who are brave and vulnerable and smart and complex, women who are more than objects for lust, women who can change the world.
In the spring of 2016 I went to see a screening of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, hosted by the New York Women in Film & Television. It was during the course of this documentary about feminism and women’s liberation that I learned about the Jane Collective – an incredible group of women who helped provide over 11,000 safe and illegal abortions in the years preceding Roe v. Wade.
What?! I was a lifelong feminist, a graduate of Barnard College, the third generation of women in my family to volunteer with Planned Parenthood – how had I never heard of these astonishing women? That very night, I went home and wrote out my very first treatment for a feature film.
Soon after, I took my idea to a talented writer/director I knew through The Shelter to see if she might be willing to write the full screenplay. Thankfully she said yes, and together we embarked upon a mission to share this story with the world. Now, two years later, we’ve shot the film, befriended real-life “Jane” Judith Arcana, garnered the approval of Gloria Steinem, and are just beginning to submit to festivals around the world.
This was my first time producing a movie, and I feel immense pride and honor to have created something that is not only socially relevant in the extreme, but that provides dozens of meaty roles for women in what one actress described as “the most Bechdel Test-passing project I’ve ever been a part of.”
The following is just a handful of the many lessons I’ve learned along my way producing and starring in an independent feature film. I hope they provide you with some insight and inspiration as you set forth on your journey!
1. Tell the story that YOU are passionate about telling.
Don’t spend all your energy catering to what you think other people want to see and watering down your vision – if you work with passion, your audience will find you. And, when you’re exhausted and worn down, your passion is what will pull you through to keep on keeping on.
2. Prepare your fundraising materials.
Once our script was in great shape, we called in a whole bunch of favors and filmed a gorgeous little teaser trailer for zero dollars. I also created a pitch deck with stills from the trailer, a synopsis of the film, letters from me and from the writer/director, bios of a few actors attached, investor incentives, and more. This meant that when I was going into meetings, I had a visual representation of what I was asking money for.
3. Don’t listen to the naysayers, and take every meeting.
People are frightened of success, and when they see you reaching for your dream, they’ll try to tell you how impossible it is. I can’t tell you how many meetings I had when I was just starting to get Ask for Jane off the ground where people told me to think smaller, to start with a short film instead, to maybe just do a play. I took all “advice” with a grain of salt, and never let the pessimists dampen my enthusiasm and my conviction that this story needed to be told, and that I was the one to tell it. As it turned out, one of those meetings ended up being with our incredible financier and producer Caroline Hirsch!).
4. Work with people you like.
Not to be hyperbolic, but making a movie is hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever done. At some point in your shoot, everything that could possibly go wrong will, and everybody will be tired and hungry and sweaty and cranky… imagine how much easier it will be to get through that if you actually like the people you’re surrounded with. Hire competent and kind people with a good attitude, who will work well even under pressure.
5. Surround yourself with people who know more than you.
Don’t let your ego get in the way, hire a crew and cast that’s smart AF and then listen to them! Trust their advice, and trust your own instincts (after all, you hired them). When I was just starting out on Ask for Jane, I was lucky enough to connect with Josh Folan, who I hired as my co-producer. This dude has literally written the book on indie filmmaking on a budget, and was a huge help in hiring great crew heads who then hired great crews.
6. Take time to appreciate the incredible thing you’re doing.
How many people just talk about an idea, but never actually follow through on it? And here you are MAKING IT HAPPEN. After our first day of shooting last summer, I remember sitting on the porch of our beautiful location in Brooklyn and looking up at the stars and just feeling awash in gratitude. I’ll never forget that moment, and I want you to have that moment too.
Wishing you love and luck – YOU CAN DO THIS!