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Women from the Academy's music branch push to close Hollywood's gender divide

(L-R) Songwriters/composers Taura Stinson, Laura Karpman and Lesley Barber with The Frame host John Horn.
(L-R) Songwriters/composers Taura Stinson, Laura Karpman and Lesley Barber with The Frame host John Horn.
Michelle Lanz/KPCC
(L-R) Songwriters/composers Taura Stinson, Laura Karpman and Lesley Barber with The Frame host John Horn.
Laura Karpman writes music for the TV shows "Underground" and "Mozart in the Jungle."
(L-R) Songwriters/composers Taura Stinson, Laura Karpman and Lesley Barber with The Frame host John Horn.
Songwriter/composer Taura Stinson has an Oscar nomination for co-writing "Mighty River" from "Mudbound."
(L-R) Songwriters/composers Taura Stinson, Laura Karpman and Lesley Barber with The Frame host John Horn.
Lesley Barber wrote the score for "Manchester by the Sea."
Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has taken several steps to diversify its membership. One way is by inviting a lot more people to join the academy every year, mainly younger filmmakers who come from a broad spectrum of under-represented groups.

But if you look closely at the nominees for this year’s Oscars, it’s obvious there’s still a long way to go — including the historical lack of recognition of women working behind the cameras.

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison made history this year with her nomination for "Mudbound" — the first ever nomination in that category for a woman. Only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has won the directing Oscar ("The Hurt Locker"), and when it comes to writing music for film, only two women, Rachel Portman ("Emma") and Anne Dudley ("The Full Monty"), have gone home with a statuette.  

But there's a movement building in the Academy's music branch to bring more women into the fold. 

We recently invited three women who are in the Academy’s music branch — Taura Stinson, Lesley Barber and Laura Karpman — to discuss Hollywood’s gender imbalance for composers.

But they are not totally shut out from this year’s nomination: Stinson is a nominee in the Best Song category for co-writing "Mighty River," from "Mudbound."

Interview Highlights

On what the Academy of Motion Pictures will do for women:

Laura: The Academy in general is looking beyond studio films ... we're looking internationally, we're looking at independent film, we're looking at documentaries — bring me a great documentary composer! I think a lot of it is thinking about what counts. Independent film and documentaries count. They count the same as studio films and we want to nurture that and see that happen. I can't quite announce it yet, but we're actively coming up with some programs at the Academy that will help our membership meet each other across branches so that we can connect and collaborate. 

Taura: There's a lot of work that's been done in the last few years. The Academy was kind of forced to make some changes. Being a songwriter and being in the Academy and being in the conversation is a new thing. It's not something that's always been. The last time someone was in my position was, like, Irene Cara. So it's not often, but we're here and thankfully our music branch is led by Laura [Karpman]. And she's all about inclusion and just making things so much better for everybody. You guys are talking about being women in this industry, but being a black woman is a whole other thing. So we're here to change all of that.

On pursuing composing work as a woman: 

Lesley: I started composing when I was a kid and went to university and did a master's degree in composing ... I've always been sort of a frustrated writer and I started having to pay more bills. I was friends with people in the theater community who were doing remarkably amazing [work] and they started asking me to score things. From that day on I was really a full-time composer. I was doing everything from radio dramas to plays and then started getting asked to do feature films. 

Lesley: When I started out I would come to L.A. for meetings and quite often I would get into that final choice of two or three composers, because people thought I was a guy, because my name is Lesley. I can't tell you how many times I came into the room after they'd heard my music and talked about me, but no one had ever mentioned that I actually was a chick. I would come into the meeting and they would be like, Oh, oh — you're a woman! And I'd just see this kind of strange repositioning of the head and it was very funny.

On building and cultivating a community of women artists:

Laura: I think one of the amazing things about being in leadership at the Academy is just the access I've had — just getting to know people, getting to know casting directors, getting to know producers. I never intersected with these people before and part of it is [that] people have not thought of women as composers. Just like when you think about a scientist, you think about Albert Einstein. That's the old parable. I think what has changed is that people are talking about it. I think if you had interviewed any of us even five years ago we probably wouldn't be as disclosing as we are now about this. 

Taura:  Laura and I met on "Black Nativity" years ago and that was kind of like college for me, in terms of film. I started off my [film] career doing a song for "Men in Black," which was a huge film, but to be really involved in the process it wasn't until then. Laura and Raphael [Saadiq] were scoring together and I wrote and co-produced all of the songs. That's where we met and built a friendship and a mutual respect for each other. And we're here so many years later.

On a lack of female role models:

Taura: [Seeing role models] was really far-and-few-between when you think about entertainment, other than soul music. It really started in the home for me. Being raised in Oakland, there was this political climate on one end and then the 'hood on the other. So I had a crazy juxtaposition that I was able to fit comfortably in between. In terms of songwriters, I loved Joni Mitchell, Sade — then there was Smokey Robinson and Lionel Richie when I was growing up at that time. I had to really, really dig for influences. 

Lesley: I didn't see any female composers, I remember just reading about Louise Bourgeois or artists from other fields — writers and their crazy lives that they just were doing what they wanted. I just decided to do what I wanted. It's funny that you mentioned Sade. When I was like 14 she was my aunt's neighbor in England. I was crazy for her and she sent me this picture of her and she wrote on it. I just heard about how hard it was to be on the road with the guys and all the work that she did and how she just kind of did her own thing her own way. Actually she was a huge role model for me as well, but I didn't know any female composers to look to.

On "Mudbound," composing 'Mighty River' and hiring the right person:

Taura: Mary J. Blige came in and she spoke with Raphael [Saadiq] about needing a song for "Mudbound." Within hours we're in the studio and she's singing. It was like a collaborative effort between the three of us. The climate of the world was kind of my personal motivation for lyric and melody, where I wanted to tug on the heart but at the same time to be a call to action for everyone that's listening.

Taura: One thing I do want to say about "Mudbound" — Dee Rees is a female director and she hired a female composer. I think there's a lot of that that needs to happen too, because she knew who could tell that story and [the composer] Tamar-kali is awesome. As we become more a part of the conversation in film as a whole, the holes will be filled musically.

On seeing women in key positions in film:

Lesley: If you're a filmmaker and you are in the middle of a schedule — just to be sympathetic for a moment — they have to meet their budget and they have to meet their schedule. So they've heard from a friend that they can count on so-and-so and they can trust them with the budget, and so I think slowly it becomes a sort of exchange of information and names of people who are amazing at what they do. And now women are becoming part of that group of names. The fact that the conversation is started, and with social media too, we're seeing the image of women working: conducting, mixing, engineering, working with musicians. We're seeing women in that role and somehow that visual image is very important to people.

On budget limitations and taking a leap of faith on women in the industry:

Laura: We're hitting a very, very hard ceiling. And I think it's a budget ceiling. I think that we have access to films that have smaller budgets and this is industry-wide, this is not just composers — this is directors, this is everybody. What I'm looking to do, and colleagues like Lesley — especially those who have some success — are looking to break through that budget logjam and really start working on the bigger budgets, the studio films ...I love working in TV, I love absolutely everything that I do, but I also know that part of ... this conversation about Rachel [Morrison], she did "Mudbound," an independent film at Sundance, [then] she got hired to do "Black Panther" because Ryan Coogler took her with him.

We need to create those kinds of hard collaborations with directors. Part of that is what Lesley's talking about — getting the reputations — but part of it is a leap of faith. I think we see [people taking] that leap with our brilliant male colleagues and we haven't seen that leap of faith as much for us. And so we're asking for that trust and we're asking to take that leap. Take a listen to what we're doing and take that leap with us.


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