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Sundance London Women Directors: Meet Jane Lipsitz (Under the Electric Sky)

Interviews
by Kate Wilson
May 5, 2014 11:03 AM
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Still from "Under the Electric Sky"

By way of England and New York City respectively, Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz joined forces in 2001 to form the television production company, Magical Elves, which has given us Top Chef, Project Greenlight, Cold Justice, and Time of Death. Since then, they have been nominated for numerous Emmy Awards, winning in 2010 and 2013 for Top Chef. Cutforth and Lipsitz also received a Peabody Award for Project Runway, the first reality show to be honored by that organization. In 2011, they produced their first major motion picture, Paramount's Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, which is currently the third highest-grossing documentary of all time. Their directorial debut, Katy Perry: Part of Me, was released by Paramount in 2012. Under The Electric Sky marks this duo's first trip to the Sundance Film Festival as directors. 

Under the Electric Sky offers a 3-D look at Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival, going behind the scenes to show what it takes to stage one of the biggest parties in the known universe. They chronicle the unique journeys of individual attendees from all walks of life, all of whom share one common desire -- to shed their inhibitions and immerse themselves in this judgment-free celebration of life and music. (Press materials)

How did you come to make Under the Electric Sky? Do we assume that you're a fan of EDM [electronic dance music]? 

I'm a big music fan but I can't say that I've ever been a raver, as much as I love dance music. We learned lots about the ins and outs of EDM while we were making the film. I started my career as an executive at VH1 and our first show -- mine and Dan's -- was Bands on the Run. We self-financed our first film, Air Guitar Nation -- it was supposed to be a television project but it developed into a film project. 

Generally speaking, the television industry has offered more opportunities for women than the independent film sector. When you moved from your executive position in television into the independent film sector, did you feel that you had less support? 

I had very good support at VH1: a great mentor and female boss, Lauren Zalaznick, and a culture that supported women. Even now, I still often find that I'm the only woman in the room -- it's surprising. I definitely get a lot of calls to do panels and interviews because there are not an abundance of women in my position who own successful production companies. The majority of our top executives at the company are women -- the heads of Business Affairs, Digital, Production and Development are all women.

When Dan and I work together, we bring different skills to the production -- I bring a more emotional side while Dan brings the structure. I'm the yin to his yang. As part of a team, it's more rare for people to think of me as a female director -- I'm just a director, or a co-director, and I'm happy with that. It's the same with a TV show we produce calleds-- we've had two women winners and they've asked interviewers to stop talking about them as women chefs or female chefs. They're just chefs.

What are your next steps as a producer and a director? 

We run a production company where the primary business is television and digital, but we're really interested in continuing to direct films. I'd love to do a scripted feature. We also just completed a series for Showtime called Time of Death, which was a really powerful experience and makes me want to do more issue-oriented material.

If you had to give advice to women filmmakers hoping to end up where you are now, what would you say? 

You have to be passionate about what you're doing. It's also good to be lucky! We made the show Bands on the Run and an executive at Paramount was a huge fan, which is how we made the Justin Bieber film [Justin Bieber: Never Say Never]. He called us completely out of the blue. You need passion and luck, I guess. But it's a completely different world now, with self-generated content and self-distribution and the digital realm. You've got to have tenacity. 

It's interesting to sit in this traditional forum -- an in-person interview at a film festival -- while we're talking about self-distribution models. Is there still a place for film festivals? 

Yes, absolutely. I think the traditional festival circuit remains more selective and more difficult to get into. We're still in a world where the traditional channels are more sought after, but if you don't have immediate successful with studio distribution and festival invites, there are more outlets than there have ever been before. So don't get frustrated, and keep working to find the right opportunity for your film.

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