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A Straight Male Director on Creating Films That Ace the Bechdel Test

Russian Doll (2016)

Women and queer people shape director Ed Gaffney's life. Why would he not put reflections of them on screen?

Why would a straight guy write and direct a feature length thriller named Russian Doll with a lesbian detective as the lead character?

The answer reaches back about two decades, and involves Geena Davis, the Bechdel test, and my gay son's middle-school Latin project.

Twenty years ago, I was a court-appointed criminal appeals attorney, my wife, Suzanne Brockmann, was still a few years away from becoming a best-selling author of romantic suspense novels, and our son, Jason, was a geeky 13-year-old. (Jace hadn't come out yet. But when he was three, his go-to outfit was anything that included a gold lame cape. And at the age of eight, his "most-admired-person-in-the-world" was Bette Midler. So Suz and I had some hints.)

Anyway, when Jason got permission from his 7th-grade Latin teacher to write and produce a video of an Ancient Roman "talk-show" on Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, our family began its film-making career. Jason starred as the host, interviewing community theater friends of ours who acted in the roles of the volcano, the Roman God Mercury, and Julius Caesar. Suz filmed it on our camcorder. Jason's sister, Melanie, pitched in as a performer. I did, too. (Mel, an acting prodigy, was excellent. I was appalling.)

Fast forward to about 2014. By then, Jace, Suz and I were veteran activists in the fight for marriage equality, proudly donating money, knocking on doors, and going to candlelight vigils to support MassEquality, the political organization that successfully protected equal marriage rights in our native Massachusetts. I even served on the Board of Directors of MassEquality for a year or two. Suz had become a best-seller, Jason was an out and proud professional actor, and I had begun a new career as a writer/producer of stage plays and movies. A few years earlier, the three of us had written and produced The Perfect Wedding, a romantic comedy about a couple of guys who fall in love with each other, where the humor doesn't come from the characters' sexual orientation. (By the way, Jason has a killer sense of humor. The movie he just finished, another LGBTQ romantic comedy called Analysis Paralysis, will make you laugh hard. But for Jace, being gay is an important part of his life, yet it's no funnier than having brown hair or blue eyes.)

Meanwhile, I had always been a fan of films like The Sting and Deathtrap, where the plot twists completely stunned and delighted me. And for years, I had wanted to make a thriller that similarly surprised viewers, thanks in part to their mistaken assumptions. Also around that time I became aware that about half of Hollywood's movies failed the Bechdel test (which asked if a movie contained a scene where two named female characters talked about something other than a guy). And then I read a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which reported than in 120 big-budget productions they studied, less than one-third of the named characters were female, and less than one-quarter of the movies had a female protagonist.

Also around that time, I got the idea of a Russian nesting doll as a metaphor for a story based on a plot hidden inside another plot, and suddenly, everything came together. I'd write a crime thriller based on that metaphor, with twists and turns that would leave audiences guessing until the very end. And it would not only pass the Bechdel test with flying colors, but it would push back against the trend identified in the study by the Geena Davis Institute. The protagonist would be a female detective, the majority of the named characters would be female, the majority of lines would be spoken by female characters, and the only romantic subplot would focus on one woman's struggle to move forward with her life after the tragic loss of her wife two years earlier.

Yes, I'm a straight guy, but my world is filled with people who aren't straight guys. Thanks in large part to having a wonderful son like Jason, my life has been deeply enriched by friendships with people of all stripes from the LGBTQ community. For me, it's only natural to shape the fictional worlds I create in my films to reflect the vibrant and inclusive world that I live in. Why would I write and direct a feature length thriller named Russian Doll with a lesbian detective as the lead character?

Why wouldn't I?

A former member of the Board of Directors of MassEquality, ED GAFFNEY is the award-winning filmmaker, author, playwright, and LGBT activist. He lives in Florida and Massachusetts with his wife, fellow gay rights activist and New York Times bestselling author Suzanne Brockmann.
RUSSIANDOLL released April 17 worldwide via Wolfe on DVD & VOD and across all digital platforms including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand and, and many major retailers.
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