‘Honey Boy’ Director Alma Har’el Carves Out Space for Female Filmmakers

November 7, 2019, 6:00 PM UTC

Growing up in Tel Aviv, filmmaker Alma Har’el vividly remembers the time her father, a traveling salesman, brought his work into the house. “My dad was always excited about whatever he was selling at any given time,” she tells Fortune. “One day he came home and said ‘I’m selling fire extinguishers!’ He poured gasoline on the whole dining room and living room, lit it on fire, and then extinguished the fire right then and there. It was cool,” she laughs. “And that story is probably a pretty good way to understand how I work.”

A director of music videos, documentaries, and TV commercials, now making her feature film debut with Sundance Special Jury Award winner Honey Boy (opening in limited release Friday), Har’el operates as something of a fire-starter in her own right. In October, she launched Free the Work, a database that connects studios, ad agencies, and producers with female filmmakers and other under-represented creatives.

Alma Har'el
Alma Har’el, who has made music videos, documentaries, and TV commercials, makes her feature film debut with “Honey Boy,” which opens in limited release Friday, Nov. 8. She describes her Free the Work initiative, which launched in October, as “kind of like Spotify-meets-IMDb.”

“We’ve made it fun to use, kind of like Spotify-meets-IMDb, where you can make playlists, share things and communicate directly with people,” Har’el explains. “It’s about putting the right kind of pressure on people to bring change.”

A few months before Free the Work went live, Har’el filmed Honey Boy. Written by Shia LaBeouf, the autobiographical movie casts Lucas Hedges as LaBeouf alter ego Otis. In flashbacks to his early days as a child actor, LaBeouf himself portrays a version of his abusive father, a former rodeo clown paid by young Otis (Noah Jupe) to act as his on-set guardian. Impressionistic in its imagery, lyrical in its flow, Honey Boy exemplifies a highly personalized filmmaking aesthetic that wowed LaBeouf five years ago when he came across a DVD of Har’el’s gritty documentary Bombay Beach in the bin of a Los Angeles record store.

“Shia was looking for Bob Dylan documentaries but somebody accidentally put my film in that section, so Bombay Beach ended up in Shia’s hands,” she says. LaBeouf watched the movie twice that night, emailed Har’el on her website and arranged a get-together. “The minute Shia and I met, we felt this kinship,” says Har’el, who like LaBeouf, was raised by an alcoholic parent. “People feel who have dealt with certain circumstances in life share a certain empathy, a certain loyalty to each other.”

Honey Boy
Shia LaBeouf and director Alma Har’el on the set of “Honey Boy.”
Monica Lek/Courtesy of Amazon Studios

LaBeouf brought on Har’el to direct him in the Sigur Ros music video for “Fjögur Píanó,” and when she started prepping her second documentary LoveTrue, the actor sent her an old-fashioned snail mail letter of support along with a check financing the entire production.

In 2017, the movie star who’d once anchored Transformers ($710 million worldwide) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (about $790 million worldwide) went into court-ordered rehab following a drunken tangle with the law. For therapy, he started writing about his tumultuous childhood and sent the pages to Har’el. “The way Shia grew up, he was kind of like this Pinocchio being puppeteered by the Hollywood studios,” she says. “He wanted to step off of that system and be a real boy and tell his own stories. I tried to capture that in the movie.”

The Honey Boy crew, including cinematographer Natasha Braier (The Neon Demon) and first-time editor Monica Salazar, reflects Har’el’s zeal for bringing women into the filmmaking fold. “Alma gave me a chance,” says Salazar, who moved from Mexico to pursue her craft in L.A. “I don’t know if there’s any other director who would take on a first-time editor for a project like this. Everyone in this town talks about these issues, but one of the great things about Alma is that she takes action. With Free the Work, Alma was like ‘Okay you guys need tools to find people? We are going to create a tool for you.'”

Honey Boy
Cinematographer Natasha Braier with director Alma Har’el on the set of “Honey Boy.”
Monica Lek/Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Shortly before she collaborated with LaBeouf on Honey Boy, Har’el, motivated by her own arduous transition from under-employed outsider to the in-demand auteur responsible for Coca Cola’s 2018 Super Bowl spot, started designing a tool aimed at prying open doors to the male-dominated film industry.

“Being an immigrant coming from Tel Aviv, you could say I’m an outsider in more ways than one,” she says. “I started in music videos and gave it a few good years but never really made any money. I saw my peers, who were all men, getting bigger projects and moving into commercials. I confronted the production company I was working with at the time. I was told ‘People don’t want your reel. They’re not responding to it. They think you don’t have enough commercial work.’ And I said, ‘But if you don’t have commercial work and they’re not taking chances on new talent, then how do you break in?'”

Har’el came up with an answer. She bought a camera, drove out to the desolate Salton Sea three hours outside of Los Angeles and filmed outcasts living in the seedy Bombay Beach community. The resulting movie won the Tribeca Film Festival’s 2011 Best Documentary prize. At that point, Har’el recalls, “I started getting a lot of commercials but even when I was directing big international campaigns for Airbnb and Facebook and Stella Artois, I was constantly being told I was the first woman they’d worked with. And this is 2016! So that’s when I started Free the Bid, asking brands and ad agencies to make a simple commitment: on every triple bid commercial they did, allow one woman to come in and bid.”

Propelled by Har’el’s clout and incendiary salesmanship, Free the Bid quickly gained traction within the advertising world, increasing the number of women directors at some agencies by 400%. “HP went from zero women directors on all of their global campaigns to 59% of all their commercials being directed by women,” says Har’el.

This year, buoyed by Free the Bid’s impact on TV commercial hiring practices, Har’el teamed with digital studio Heat Waves Collective to create Free the Work. With support from “founding partners” including AT&T, Amazon Studios, Proctor & Gamble, Ford Motor Company, and Facebook, the database makes it easy for movie, television and streaming producers to search a talent pool of women, people of color, and nonbinary creators.  

Amazon Studios boss Jen Salke, who joined director Floria Sigismondi (Handmaid’s Tale), Karyn Kusama (Destroyer), actor Riz Ahmed (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and comedian Zainab Johnson (American Koko) at a recent Free the Work panel in L.A., has become one of the platform’s most bullish champions.

“Jen jumped right in and implemented 300 Free the Work accounts into all of their productions,” says Har’el. “It’s exciting to see companies using the database to discover talent and improve their diversity efforts, not not just for directors, but editors and colorists and composers and writers. When I go into studios, people talk about taking a chance on women, or people of color, or new talent. But I think if you’re not hiring women, or people of color, or new talent, then you’re taking a chance on creating work that is not relevant.”

Given her current perch within the commercial filmmaking industry, Har’el could easily afford to forgo activism and focus entirely on her career. In fact, one female mentor, an industry veteran, urged her to do just that.

“She told me there’s only a certain amount of room for women in this business and if I did this [database] I’d never work again because people would be frustrated that I blew the whistle,” Har’el recalls. “But seeing so many people who were still on the outside while I was finally in a position to maybe bring them in? I didn’t want to be inside this system if they’re staying outside, because I knew I belonged with them.”

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