Women in Television: A Conversation with Diana Son and Kayse Goodell

On a chilly Monday evening, I grabbed some tea from Sharples and a notepad and got comfortable enough in my single. At 7 PM Diana Son, Emmy-nominated writer/producer for television and award-winning playwright, and Kayse Goodell, first assistant director whose most recent credits include the Emmy-winning “Watchmen” on HBO, Showtime’s “The L Word: Generation Q,” and CW’s “All American,” were set to answer students’ questions concerning the male-dominated television industry. 

I entered this Zoom call feeling a bit overwhelmed by Son and Goodell’s credentialed experience in the television industry. After a beat of silence and a screen of black boxes, Son asked if this would be a “camera-off” kind of talk. 

I, a bit sheepishly, turned on my camera and waved. A few of the other black rectangles blinked into people, and one of them revealed a lecture hall in Sci. I could see students masked and sitting six feet apart. The group was quickly identified as Professor Patty White’s first-year seminar, Women and Popular Culture. Even with only about 600 students on campus, that cohort found a way to experience the talk with some semblance of normality. 

Without much preamble, Son began to explain exactly how it feels to be a woman in television and film, an industry that saw just a single movie in the top 100 grossing films of 2019 with a female director/male lead combination.

“When I go onto set in particular … it’s a male-dominated environment for sure. It’s like a lot of union guys in khaki shorts and Timberlands carrying big heavy equipment,” said Son. 

Outside of set, and more in the creative realm, Son appeared more optimistic, telling us that we, hopeful Swarthmore students, could certainly go far. As a Korean-American, Son strongly felt there to be a lack of Asian leads, going on to say that in her twenty years of working in television, she has never been part of a show with an Asian series regular. But change is afoot! With the huge financial success of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, Son has noticed a shift in what networks are buying, even if not a lot of that content is making it to the big screen.     

Goodell ran a little late, getting on the call as soon as she arrived home from a ten-hour day of shooting HBO’s limited series “Mare of Easttown,” starring Kate Winslet and filming in and around Philadelphia. 

“And that’s [Goodell’s time on set] unusual,” Son said, minutes before Goodell entered the call. “It’s only because of COVID-19 that they’re doing ten hour days instead of twelve.” 

As the first assistant director (1st AD), Goodell serves as not only the director’s right-hand, providing a more human link between the director’s vision and the cast, but also as an organizer and manager, oftentimes having to make periodic announcements. The 1st AD is in charge of keeping a shoot running smoothly and efficiently, and generally has a “touch of the maternal,” as Goodell described. Doing just a bit better than film (about 11 percent of the highest grossing films of 2019 had women directors), television from the 2019-2020 season saw the percentage of women directors hovering at about 24 percent. This is less than Goodell’s personal estimation of women 1st AD’s, potentially attributing the increase to the role’s characterization as a peacemaker, a job that could be seen as more traditionally feminine in a male-dominated environment. Goodell also stressed the importance of being a positive and helpful presence. Not only are assistant directors the masters of logistics, but also they help to foster a safe environment for the cast and crew.  

Because of her late arrival directly from set, many of us wanted to know what shooting a television show even looks like during a pandemic.  

“It’s been crazy, but it’s happening,” Goodell remarked. 

Goodell stressed the newness of it all, telling us that for the last six months or so, all physical filming has been on pause, but that did not mean absolutely nothing was happening. 

“For the writer’s side of it, we spent much of the shut down window [rewriting]. If there is a wedding in the show, we can’t have 150 people in a room. That’s just not an option right now. So it became a lot of needing to have the writer make changes that made it doable. Can we have extras around at all? Can we shoot a sex scene? I don’t know the rules of all that,” Goodell said. “So that was big writing-wise. Shooting-wise some positives have come from it. Now we do ten hour days instead of twelve to fourteen hour days, which is huge.”

With such drastic changes, Goodell has a lot on her plate. As a 1st AD, a lot of her job has shifted from keeping everyone on schedule and comfortable, to making sure COVID-19 regulations are being followed at all times. If there are people rehearsing in a room, Goodell might have to come in and ask a few people to leave, just to make sure social distancing is happening, especially with the actors having to go without masks during filming. 

“It’s a weird time, not to state the obvious,” Goodell remarked. “It’s just a different level of brain exhaustion, of thinking all the time about how to keep everybody safe. And all the while you’re like, ‘let’s make art!’ Which is just so weird, but that’s what we’re doing.”   

As someone not very familiar with the various crew members on set (and there are a lot, credits can go on for over five minutes), it was fascinating for me to hear from people with so much first-hand experience. It seemed like I wasn’t the only one. One of the first questions for Goodell was, “What is the next step for a 1st AD?”

“I actually had a moment today, where I kind of remembered, I have to be watching what the director is doing — which is an indirect way of saying that ‘yes, that is a potential next job that one can have.’” 

Goodell identified two obvious paths: directing and producing. Finally, something I was familiar with. In the film world, the director feels like the one running the show, the one most heavily identified with a finished product. When people refer to films, they call it “Wes Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom,’” or “Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women.’” Television is a little different. Those with the original pitch have much greater power. In the world of television, the director is simply bringing that story to life. Goodell stressed the importance of loving your job, admitting that producing doesn’t hold the same appeal as directing. She joked, “No one calls a producer to say, ‘Today went well, good job.’”  

As a showrunner (essentially the leading producer of a television series, also known as executive producer), Son has had to hire directors and 1st ADs. As for what it takes to go from 1st AD to director, Son gave some insight: “You don’t become a 1st AD because you have a great idea and you don’t become a 1st AD because you know somebody, you have to work your way up from PA [production assistant]. By the time you’re 1st AD, you have to know how to do everybody’s job. On the creative side, not so much.”

For Son, some of my fellow Zoom attendees wanted to know exactly what it takes to get your pitch onto the big screen. 

“It can go a lot of different ways,” Son stated. “But TV is a writer’s medium.”

For a film, a screenwriter can have an idea and have people on board to shoot it, but money is a huge obstacle, and sometimes funds can fall through, making the process from idea to movie theater a fairly long one. Television is a bit different. Studios have money, and if they want to make a first season, they will. 

Son also described the experience of pitching and the importance of passion in your presentation. Screenwriting is one-third writing, one-third worldbuilding, and one-third charming the socks off studio executives. You may mention a character twice, but in your mind you have already constructed an entire back-story that supports their every move.  

Both women highlighted the importance of experience, of expecting a long road of slowly moving up. Son, as a showrunner who routinely hires some of the biggest jobs on a show, told us how helpful it is to see a director who has experience 1st AD-ing. She instantly knows that that person is aware of the realities behind filming an episode, the time constraints and problem-solving that goes into efficient shooting. It really seems like a world in which the more roles you’ve undertaken on set, the better. On that note of persistent hard work, we wrapped up. For the first time since tentatively declaring myself a film major, I felt like I had an incredibly realistic view of some of the inner workings of the industry. And even if it scared me (or reminded me of the vastly unfinished script I’ve been sitting on for months), I got to hear first-hand about the incredible work these women are doing in an industry stacked against them. Yes, only one woman has ever won the Academy Award for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow!), but Son’s vivid descriptions of the writer’s room made me eager and hopeful for a potential future putting dreams on the big screen.  

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