There is a sequence near the end of Band Aid, the Sundance standout that hits theaters Friday, which could function as a sort of manifesto for the film’s writer-director-producer-star Zoe Lister-Jones. The story of a couple who can’t stop fighting and so, as a sort of Hail Mary, decide to turn their fights into songs, Band Aid eventually finds Lister-Jones’s character, Anna — spoiler alert! — at an impasse. In response to her dilemma, Anna puts on a nice dress, does her hair and makeup, and then proceeds to beat the bejeezus out of a room filled with mattresses and pillows. It’s funny, unexpected, and surprisingly poignant, and within it, you can find a concise kernel of what makes Lister-Jones one of our most promising young directors.
Lister-Jones made Band Aid with an all-female crew on an all-female set — all-female enough that her husband, fellow director and frequent collaborator Daryl Wein, had to settle for driving by and craning his neck to catch a glimpse; all-female enough that the financiers, a bunch of dudes, were respectfully told from the start they would be barred from visiting (they were cool with it); and all-female enough that Lister-Jones’s co-star Adam Pally was, for a week, the only man in sight. Even if Band Aid had been made by sexless Swiss Roombas, it would still be a remarkable achievement, but the nature of its creation makes it a radical act, a necessary inversion of a lopsided industry.
All of this is to say that when Zoe Lister-Jones whales on bedding, it’s more than just letting off steam. “For me, it was about trying to physicalizing pain in a way that felt kind of ridiculous. It wasn’t just going to a boxing class, it was throwing your whole body up against a wall,” Lister-Jones says, laughing. “Which I did for so many takes, and I have to say, it was amazing — I think that more women should do it.” We’re drinking iced teas in Kitchen Mouse, a café that Lister-Jones used in the film.
Lister-Jones grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of video artist Ardele Lister and conceptual photographer Bill Jones, which meant she was introduced to challenging, sophisticated art at an early age. When she was 10, she and her mom spent Mother’s Day at the Knitting Factory watching the Japanese cult film Tetsuo: The Iron Man; when she was 11, she wrote her middle-school application letter about the seminal documentary Paris Is Burning; when she was 12, her Hanukkah presents included Pixies’ Doolittle and Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. (She wasn’t allowed to listen to “Fuck and Run.”) Her mother was an ardent feminist, taking her daughter to protests by the Women’s Action Coalition, and voracious consumer of art, introducing Lister-Jones to filmmakers like Hal Hartley and bands like Pavement.
It was at NYU that Lister-Jones’s artistic identity began to take shape. She took a sketch-comedy class at the acting school of the Atlantic Theater Company, the group started by David Mamet. Occasionally, the maestro himself would drop by and the gears would grind to a halt, all the students suddenly saddled with the task of having to withstand judgment from the famously caustic writer and director.
“You would put up whatever scene you were most recently working on, and he would just destroy the hearts of these young, poor acting students,” Lister-Jones says. “He was notoriously direct and sometimes cruel, but I put up a sketch that I had written and he said, ‘Who wrote that?’ And I said, ‘I did.’ And he said, ‘You should write a movie.’ And I was like … Oh! That was the biggest compliment I could’ve ever gotten, especially from this god among men at my acting school.”
The experience also provided a forewarning of the sensitive egos — particularly male egos — that existed in the arts. “The dude who taught [the class] so idolized David Mamet that I think, when he heard that happen, he did everything he could to bring me down,” Lister-Jones says. “He’d tell me that I’d never work. It was really awful, but that was the beginning of me writing.”
Despite that dude, Lister-Jones’s classmates began asking her to direct their scenes, and in a solo performance class, a visiting instructor suggested she write and perform her own production. That resulted, two years later, in a critically acclaimed one-woman show, Codependence Is a Four-Letter Word, that she wrote after her first bad breakup. From there, Lister-Jones got on the New York actor treadmill, appearing on four separate Law & Order franchises as well as Broadway shows. But she was determined not to move out to Los Angeles until she managed to secure a job — which happened in 2011, when she was cast on the short-lived NBC sitcom Whitney.
In the meantime, a parallel career began to take root. In 2009, Lister-Jones and her now-husband, Daryl Wein, co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in the indie Breaking Upwards, based on their own experiences with an open relationship. They made the film for about $15,000, raised from friends and family, and shot piecemeal over the course of a couple months. Their next film together, Lola Versus, starred Greta Gerwig and was released by Fox Searchlight in 2012; its budget of $5 million was 333 times larger than that of Breaking Upwards. Wein directed both, as well as their third collaboration, Consumed.
But as her sitcom career took off — she’s since had regular roles on Friends With Better Lives and Life in Pieces, as well as a memorable arc on New Girl — and she and Wein worked writing jobs together, she discovered that something was missing. At first, she started writing Band Aid as an experiment more than anything else.
“I wanted to write something that was pure fun in the process.” Lister-Jones says. “And it started with music, because I sat down and was like, ‘What would I have the most fun writing? I love writing music, and I love playing music. What if I started writing songs?’” She co-wrote the ultracatchy tunes with Kyle Forrester, with whom she had collaborated on Breaking Upwards. Part of the film’s plot considers the idea that their little band, the Dirty Dishes, could get a record contract, and it’s a testament to the quality of the music that the notion never feels absurd.
Apart from music, though, Band Aid has a lot on its mind: Specifically, the ways in which straight, cisgendered men and women in long-term romantic relationships gradually and inevitably drive each other crazy. But unlike many films in this genre, which tend to take these differences and conflicts as a matter of course, Lister-Jones keeps asking why. It’s like she’s investigating the history of clichés in relationship-driven movies and trying to uncover the deeper truth behind them: Why does the man end up in his boxers, on the couch, stoned, playing video games? Why does the woman grow insecure and self-conscious? Why do couples stop having sex? And why do they stay together?
“Being raised by a feminist, and being raised watching feminist filmmakers like Chantal Akerman and Agnes Varda, I think I tend to see the world through a lens that has a heightened awareness around gender and gender inequities. As a viewer, I’m very aware of a lot of films about relationships where, however unconscious it is, the wives are villainized: They’re either the nag or they’re the drip or they’re the finger-wagger,” Lister-Jones says. “I would go and talk to my girlfriends about my own marital squabbles, and they’d basically echo the same exact fights happening with their husbands. I started to really think about what is it with men and women cohabitating that creates this dynamic, and why hasn’t it really been unpacked in a way that’s a little more almost scientific. If we could accept that we are distinctly different creatures, would that allow us to be in a relationship with more ease?”
And in an industry that constantly and consistently undervalues and underrepresents female talent behind the camera, her decision to make the film with a totally female crew is striking. The decision to populate the crew of her first directorial effort with women was another choice motivated, initially, by process.
“I had not only experienced the underrepresentation of women on crews, but as a product of that, when there are women on crews, there’s a tendency for them to be treated differently, because they are such an anomaly,” Lister-Jones says. “As a female director, selfishly, I also wanted to protect myself from being in the line of fire. I knew that for my first time, I didn’t want to be under the microscope. I wanted to be in an environment that would make me my best artist.”
Lister-Jones had noticed that, on the rare occasions when she was able to hang out in a group comprised solely of women, that group would be charged with a special energy, and she wanted to attempt to replicate that while making her film. It wasn’t a rejection or denial of men; instead, she meant it as a celebration of female creative power, a chance to create opportunities for the positions on a film set that are almost never given to women: gaffing, focus pulling, driving a truck.
“Had we said, ‘Hey, just try your best to hire as many women as you can,’ it would’ve gone zero layers deep,” says Natalia Anderson, who produced the film alongside Lister-Jones. “Our DP has someone she’s used to working with, our production designer has men she’s used to working with. Across the board, that’s how it would’ve gone. That’s why it had to be a mandate. There were a lot of challenges in finding crew: The pool is much smaller, and you have the catch-22 of people don’t have enough experience because they never get the opportunity. We really had to say, ‘We will be hiring people who will not have significantly strong résumés, and we’re just going to have to know that that is part of what this is going to be.’”
In addition to being a logistical and political choice, this decision had a concrete effect on the shoot. For Lister-Jones, it created an entirely unique environment to work in.
“On a lot of indie sets, there’s a sense of just like, ‘Let’s get through this, this nightmare, this is hell, I’m being paid nothing.’ This was nourishing in the best possible way. For the women on that crew, there was a sense of revolutionary spirit or something that drove the work,” Lister-Jones says. “These are all women that don’t get opportunities. To not only be given that opportunity, but to be in this slight alternate universe where everyone has an opportunity and nobody’s being interrupted, it influenced the work we were making.”
Especially during the intimate scenes that took place in the couple’s house, which included not only comedy and long conversational takes but nudity and physicality, the environment was drastically different than it would be for those types of intense, high-stakes scenes on a more male-dominated set, where women often feel uncomfortable among the overwhelming presence of men. It was a female-dominated operation from beginning to end — aside from one slight exception.
“Adam was an amazing experiment, especially because he was the only man on the set for so many days. It was amazing to see how excited he was by it, and how much it genuinely shifted the molecules of the set,” Lister-Jones says.
Pally is even more unequivocal. “You instantly realize just, like, how horrible men are in the workplace — probably always, in all jobs,” he says. “Men are awful: They walk around with very little fear of repercussion because they’re like, What’s the worst that’s going to happen to me? Nothing, while a woman has to work twice as hard or apologize for the fact that she’s even there. When you come to a set like this and it’s all women, all that ego goes away and you just have this really seamless collective that was working extremely hard and not judgmental at all. It was just about getting the job done, and that’s a testament to Zoe.”
Going forward, Lister-Jones wants to continue directing. She’d be more than open to the possibility of helming a big-budget studio film, particularly considering what she believes she could bring to the table. And it would hardly be a transition without precedent: At Sundance, Pally made the point that a male director with a film as good as Band Aid would get to direct the next Jurassic Park. (Or King Kong. Or Spider-Man.)
“A young filmmaker would make a movie like Band Aid with that budget and those resources, and if he was a man, a studio exec would say, ‘Look at what he did with so little — imagine what he would do with $100 million?’ And then when a woman does it, they go, ‘You must be so tired. How did you balance it all?’” Pally says. “In Hollywood, there is this sense of like, ‘I don’t know, do you think she could do it? I bet not, we better get her a good DP.’”
And there’s no reason Lister-Jones shouldn’t get a shot from a studio: Band Aid reveals a filmmaker who, even on her first feature, already demonstrates a remarkable grasp of tone, narrative, character, and style — the only thing she doesn’t have in common with the directors who made that leap before her is a Y chromosome.
“It’s really just about opportunity. I don’t think she wants to just make indie relationship stories,” Wein says. “I think she’d want to go do a big superhero movie, or an interesting biopic just as much as a lot of other directors out there. I just think that until studios really actually make an active effort to really shift the dynamic, it’s not going to change.”
In the meantime, Lister-Jones is already working on her next script, and she and Pally have even been playing some shows as the Dirty Dishes in support of the film’s release. If you ever get to see them perform these songs live, you may find yourself with another realization: There are plenty of accomplished male directors, sure, but how many of them front viable pop-punk bands? Good luck finding that.
Zoe Lister-Jones’s top by Sandro.