HNS was lucky enough to get the chance recently to chat with ‘I Am Woman’ Director Unjoo Moon. We spoke about Helen Reddy’s impact on the women’s rights movement, how Helen is so much more than her iconic song, and that incredible performance by Evan Peters as Jeff Wald. Read our interview below and be sure to check out the film in theaters and on demand September 11th!
How did you first get involved with ‘I Am Woman’ and is it a project that came about quickly or did it take a while to come to fruition?
Unjoo: I had met Helen Reddy at an awards show in Los Angeles, and it was during awards season to celebrate Australian achievement. And I got to the table, I started sitting there and when I realized it was Helen Reddy, I made my husband swap seats with me. Because as soon as I heard her name, it took me back to being a young child growing up in Australia and sitting in the back fo a Volvo station-wagon and as soon as her song or her music would come on the radio, my mother and her friends would wind down their windows, let their hair loose in the breeze, and sing really loudly. And that was during the 70’s, I was very young, but I always equated Helen and her music with this sort of bold, empowering kind of zest it made women feel. And it was such a big time of change in the 70’s, so I really wanted to talk with her about that but I didn’t realize until I sat down with her just the scope and the depth and breadth of her career. I was sort of astounded by how much she paved the way for women in music, and all of entertainment really. Because she was the first person in America – not woman, but person – to have three number 1 hits in a row after the Beatles. She was the first woman to host a one hour long television show. She has done so many things. It’s interesting, someone was just mentioning that Katy Perry song ‘you’re gonna hear me roar’ and I’m 100% sure she does that in homage to ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ but you know Helen paved the way for a career like Katy Perry. So it was pretty fascinating to me. And then I ran home and watched all those incredible YouTube videos where she hosts the midnight special, she does the Helen Reddy show, the Carol Burnett show, she’s even on the Muppets for goodness sakes. And it was so fascinating and fun to watch it. But it was also, as I got to know her better and I was astounded no one had ever made a film or even a documentary on her, but as I got to know her better, I realized that her personal journey that she’d been on as an artist and the fact that all of her music and her career sort of was intertwined with the women’s movement and that’s what really spoke to me as a filmmaker and that’s why I wanted to create the script and make the movie. And when you ask me how long I’ve been on it, when I first met Helen, Helen said to me, she gave me the phone number to her son who’s a manager, and I said Helen, are you giving me this phone number because you really don’t want me to call you and you’d rather just me leave you alone? And she said to me, ‘no, no! I sort of thought, I’m kind of psychic, and I see things and I see you in my life for a long time.’ And that was 7 years a go and I’ve been in her life for a really long time, and I think she’ll always be in mine.
Definitely, it sounds like it.
Unjoo: Yes, this film is a labor of love.
Was Helen really involved in the whole filmmaking process?
Unjoo: No, she wasn’t. I mean she really trusted me and I’m very grateful. Not only she but her family did as well. They all got to read the script before we shot, but they were not really involved in either the development of the script or the shooting of it. But they were incredibly, incredibly supportive and they all watched the film before we launched to picture.
What was her reaction like?
Unjoo: Well it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in a film, and the hardest thing I will have to do, because the first song comes on in the movie, it’s Helen Reddy singing ‘You’re My World’ and then I suddenly thought ‘Oh! And there she is, sitting right in front of me.’ And I kept thinking, what if she hates it? I can’t go back and reshoot it. But I realized very quickly that she was singing along to the songs and she was laughing with the movie. She was so engaged with the film, and at the end of the film she read aloud the card at the end of the movie, and she read the final line about the Equal Rights Amendment never being included in the Constitution and Helen started crying and it wasn’t because she was sad, she was just deeply moved by the impact of her story and the movie, and she hugged her children and she hugged me, and I knew I had her blessing to finish the film. It’s really hard when you’re making a film about real life people. I never set out to do a sensational expose about her life. That’s not the intention of this movie. But if you don’t have those people on board, I imagine it must be a really tough thing when you’re releasing your film.
What was the most important thing for you to capture about Helen?
Unjoo: I think there’s not one definite thing. I really wanted to capture her strengths and what she was able to achieve, and the choices she made. So that was really important but I really wanted to take the audience on a journey where they walked away and felt empowered by the end of the movie as well. I just feel like we’re living in a time right now where there are a lot of really big decisions to be made, and we’ve got the election coming up, we’ve got this pandemic that we’re living in, and I hope this movie is something people can watch and feel inspired and empowered as people, and particularly women, feel empowered to walk away and make really good decisions for themselves.
I can very confidently say you definitely achieved that in your film. I watched a screening of it, and you definitely leave after watching it feeling extremely inspired and driven and wondering what else can you do. Even though it was set in the 70s, even today there’s still a lot of struggles that women face. And like you were saying earlier, Helen definitely paved the way.
Unjoo: Exactly! And not just Helen, but you see all that material with women and the women’s movement. You can see what happened with it, you see glimpses of women marching on the streets, Shirley Chisholm who was the first African American person to ever run for the presidency, and then the background with the Equal Rights Amendment, which we don’t go into huge detail but you sure invest in the time and era that Helen is living in, and so it’s just fascinating for me that you get to see that part of history. This history was not often deemed as important as other civil rights movements. And as women, we all stand on the shoulders of the women that came before us, and our responsibility then is to pay it forward and to keep that work going and I think that is kind of the message of the movie in some way.
I wanted to ask about Evan Peters and his performance in the film. He was so good and he has this way of simultaneously making you fall in love with him, but then a few moments later you’re like detesting that character. So as a director, how do you think Evan plays that kind of duality so well?
Unjoo: Well that was really the key to the character of Jeff. When we were writing the script, I spent the first year deliberately avoiding Jeff so that he wouldn’t dominate the story, because he’s such a big character. It really needed to be Helen’s story and you really needed to see Jeff through Helen’s eyes. So the first time I got a phone call saying Jeff wants to meet you, I was kind of terrified because I’d heard all of these horror stories about him, and every time I was in LA, and I’d go to a meeting and they’d say, ‘oh you’re making a Helen Reddy movie, but let me tell you a story about Jeff Wald!’ and they’d tell me some story about how Jeff wanted to rip their heads off. And I was just like ok, I’m gonna have to do this, and I went to meet Jeff. I went and had lunch with him in Malibu and I arrived at 1 o’clock and I was still there at 7 o’clock in the evening. Jeff is really, as a person and a human being, he’s one of the most charismatic and engaging people you can ever meet, but he is still extremely opinionated and difficult and so I knew that we had to capture both of those elements. And it was a tough thing to find the right actor. I met with a couple of people, people who I just kept thinking no, I gotta find someone who can walk that balance. And I was so excited when I met Evan because he looked nothing like Jeff at the time. He had come off of American Horror Story. He had crazy hair, his skin was so white I could practically see through him. He looked like somebody that would walk off the set of a horror show. And I started with Evan, and Evan was so engaging and charismatic, and I know from the work that he’d done that he has this ability to create this authenticity with the volatility and the kind of the anger that Jeff needed to portray. And Evan is such a deeply intelligent actor, like the conversation we had, he came so well prepared without me. He had read the script a couple of times, and we had really interesting conversations about the character. But I’d also seen enough of his work to know that Evan has this incredible energy on screen where you cannot take your eyes off him because he creates… he’s so able to bring life to the character in front of the camera. You’ve probably seen some other things he’s done. And that’s such an extraordinary skill to have. I think he’s really one of the great actors in his generation, and we’re gonna see him go on to do extraordinary work in other roles outside of American Horror Story. He brought his energy to set that was so invaluable. I like to give actors freedom and space to work in order to really help them to find that energy and authenticity in front of the camera, and Evan will totally embrace that. As long as you support everything around him, he’ll totally embrace that and really bring that up to the most extraordinary level like some of those sequences that we were filming. It was so exciting to watch Evan work. And I would often say don’t be limited by the dialogue, go out, just experiment, really push what you wanna do there. And he would really grab – I don’t know that saying – grab the bull by its horns. He did not let go.
Lastly, I also wanted to ask about the Helen and Lillian friendship. It was very refreshing to see, especially towards the beginning of the film, but it also had its heartbreaking moments towards the end. How did you decide to approach this delicate relationship with these characters?
Unjoo: Lillian was someone who was featured a little bit but not a lot in Helen’s book, her autobiography. But the real sort of details from that friendship really came from my conversations with Helen. We’d be walking on the beach talking about things, and she’d say some little things and I’d learn more about, especially the breakdown of their friendship, or really wasn’t so much a breakdown as sort of like a distance thing with what happened. You know how you have friends and you sort of move away, you tend to be not as close. The portrayal of Lillian is very much through Helen’s eyes. But I’m sure there’s plenty of people out there who see a completely different Helen. But Lillian was so crucial to Helen’s career and their friendship really sort of inspired Helen in so many ways. And Lillian is such a great character in itself. I mean she deserves her own movie. She really is the coolest woman in the room. But I love the fact that it was two friends, and a woman who has encouragement she needed to keep moving forward. And I love at the end of the movie we’re able to bring Lillian back with those line notes that she reads and her daughter brings to her in the album because I read something really great that Lillian said, ‘I wrote those words on Helen’s album because I wanted everybody to know that Helen was more than just a song.’ And I guess that when I heard that quote, I thought oh that’s exactly why I wanted to make the movie, because I want audiences to know that even though the film is called ‘I Am Woman,’ that Helen is more than just that song. That ‘I Am Woman’ encompasses the whole life and the whole journey she’s been on as a woman.
Watch ‘I Am Woman’ in theaters and on demand September 11th!