"There’s an idea that you have to work twice as hard to get half as far," says filmmaker Meera Menon. She's talking about women in the workplace, which is the central idea to Equity, the thriller she directed about a Wall Street investment banker named Naomi (played by Anna Gunn) navigating the hyper-competitive, male-dominated world of high-stakes finance. Though Naomi is confident and successful, she is passed over for a promotion, even as she takes the reins of a buzzy tech IPO. Her boss (a man) tells her that she is off-putting to clients. She runs afoul of a former friend (Alysia Reiner) who's investigating white-collar crime. And a vicious double-cross threatens to end her career and land her in prison.
The rare movie to offer a female perspective on Wall Street, Equity was also written, produced, and financed by women—which is at least part of what interested Menon, a USC film-school grad whose debut feature, Farah Goes Bang, won the Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural Nora Ephron prize in 2013. Equity premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January to strong reviews and is now in theaters. We recently spoke with Menon about the movie, her career, and her own encounters with bias in the film world.
How did you come on board to direct Equity?
I made a tiny feature right out of film school [Farah Goes Bang] and went around to festivals with it. I met a filmmaker named Mark Stolaroff, who runs classes he calls No-Budget Film School. Mark introduced me to Alysia and Sarah [Megan Thomas, one of the film's producers], who were looking for a female director. I read the script, loved the writing, and instantly responded to it. Naomi was a kind of female protagonist I hadn’t seen before. She was challenging, empowering, complicated, flawed, strong. She was like Don Draper: mysterious, enigmatic, and smart, with a charisma and darkness to her you don’t see in female characters very often.
The film is partly a contest of wills between a driven, capable woman who struggles to be "likable," and a wrongdoing man (played by James Purefoy) who seems to get away with anything. Do you look at your own movie differently now, in the context of our presidential election?
There was an article in Bustle about why Anna Gunn in Equity is like Hillary Clinton. It’s something we’re talking a lot about in the Q and A’s [after screenings]. A lot of the issues [in Clinton’s candidacy] are explored in this film. For Naomi, there’s the issue of her likability, the issue of perception. Her boss tells her she’s not getting promoted because she’s rubbing people the wrong way, and it’s a maddening statement she spends the rest of the movie trying to parse out. These questions of a woman in a position of authority and leadership are strikingly relevant right now.
As a female director, have you ever felt your power challenged?
Not directly. But you’re not as easily validated as your male equivalent. I know many men, people I went to film school with, that got agents, managers, opportunities to direct straight out of film school—things that it just took me longer to get, even though I was doing as substantial, if not more substantial, work than them. So I’ve experienced bias in the system, but it’s never been so direct or overt as a confrontation in a room.
You've said you were surprised by how hard it was to get more work after winning the Nora Ephron award. Was that a rude awakening to gender bias?
Yeah, totally. Though in general, it’s hard as a director to get your name out there. I try not to pin it on gender or ethnicity, two things that give me minority status. But it is something I wonder about . . . I try not to spend too much time on it.
What is the optimal amount of time for a person to wonder about bias?
I don’t know. Personally, for me, I have to keep my head down, keep moving, keep working, in order to stay productive. But there are people like [Selma director] Ava DuVernay who are not only constantly doing great work, but also manage to be very vocal advocates for filmmakers of color and for women. I look at her and ask, "How does she do it all? Manage to be an advocate and practitioner at the same time?"
You cowrote and directed Farah Goes Bang. With Equity, what was it like joining a film that had already been substantially developed?
The process of making it felt like making a studio movie in terms of how many cooks were in the kitchen. My navigating that required me both to have a firm hand, while also making sure that everyone felt it was matching their visions of what the movie was going to be. It was interesting because I have aspirations to direct movies in the studio system. And I see directors get a little tripped up when they enter the studio system and have to balance having a strong vision of the movie with also pleasing the number of people who are equally invested in the movie. So I recognized early on that this was the job for a director who wants to scale up and get the bigger opportunities that I hope to get.
What was a concession you had to make while collaborating on this movie?
I was precious about things like angles that we wouldn't end up using. Maybe, if left to my own devices, I would have explored the relationship [between Gunn and Purefoy’s characters] a bit more. I might’ve done a pass on the film where that was the spine, the central relationship of the movie, because I loved how Anna and James played off each other. But this is where it’s good to have checks and balances. Because the intention of the script is for this to be a movie about the triangulation of these three women, and their choices in life.
This interview has been condensed and edited.