A recent report hardly painted a rosy picture of the gender balance in Hollywood: Just 4 per cent of the top 1,200 movies from the past 12 years had been directed by women. Deep in the report, another jarring figure leapt out at me. Looking at the most lucrative films from 2016 to 2018, researchers found that just four of the 276 key grips working on those films were women.
A few questions popped to mind. Who were these women? What were their work lives like? And what exactly are key grips?
The researchers, at the University of Southern California, provided the names of a female key grip and a few female best boy grips, who, as their head-scratcher job titles suggest, are also a rarity in the business: Of the 274 best boy grips on the top films from the past three years, only eight were women. Names in hand, it was up to me to track them down. Through Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook and an obscure production job-posting site — and with the help of New York Times researchers — I reached four women: a key grip, whose job is to head the grip department, and three best boy grips, who are second in command.
My first question was about what they do. "We control anything over people's heads," explained Tana Dubbe, 59, a key grip whose credits include Iron Man , Straight Outta Compton and A Star Is Born . "We're mini-engineers on the fly."
Grips build platforms, set up rigging and the equipment that shapes and diffuses lighting, mount cameras onto cars and cranes onto buildings, and schlep 15kg sandbags known as ballbusters. Twelve-hour days are considered short, and injuries are inevitable. The women I interviewed have cracked their kneecaps, fractured their feet, torn their rotator cuffs, developed early arthritis and wrenched their backs.
But gripping also offers a solid, middle-class life. Depending on the city and the frequency of work, grips can earn salaries in the low six figures, with key grips potentially earning more than double that, especially if they have their own gear and trucks to rent out.
Besides being overwhelmingly male, the profession is often handed down through families, and there are third- and fourth-generation grips, or "hammers," as they are known in the business.
The women I spoke with said many of their male colleagues were supportive while others heckled them or worse. "It's not for the faint of heart," said Melanie Ragone, whose credits include The Walking Dead and Love, Simon . But, she added, the job was also deeply rewarding because it involves behind-the-scenes problem solving. "It sounds kind of corny," she said, "but grips are the unsung heroes on set."
Here they explain more about the job and what it's like to be one of the few women doing it:
Dubbe knows exactly one female key grip in Hollywood: herself. She is sure others are out there; she just hasn't met them yet. Dubbe grew up building forts and later found herself drawn to jobs not traditionally occupied by women: logging, construction. She majored in printmaking and painting at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and got her start in gripping after assisting photographer Eddie Adams.
Dubbe loved the interplay of planning, building and fixing even though, she said, "there was not another chick to be seen." There have been male crew members over the years who doubted her decisions, and people on sets who assumed she was there to do hair, makeup or wardrobe. Dubbe said she stayed unruffled.
"I have almost zero ego, and that makes working in a team situation very different for the fellas that work with me as well," she said. "We come to conclusions together, and I really respect their opinions."
Her first key-grip credit was Never Die Alone , and she has been in demand ever since, most recently finishing up an untitled movie about Roger Ailes with Charlize Theron, and then immediately starting Birds of Prey , starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.
Her job, she said, involves solving "a million little math problems all day" and occasionally calling in a structural engineer to ask about, say, the tensile strength of a 100-year-old floor. "I'm the connective tissue between the desire and the making," Dubbe said.
She is surprised that more women do not end up as grips or key grips, and suspects it is because the job has the reputation of being all about brute force, when it is often about being nimble. "The grips have a stigma, the all-boys club," she said. "I'm here to tell you it ain't true."
Ragone, 43, never really got used to the trash talk she heard on sets from some guys, who commented on her figure or who took one look at her and questioned how she could ever do the job. Her response was all defiance. "I'm going to run circles around you," she would silently vow. "And that's exactly what I did."
She got into gripping after moving to Atlanta to finish film school at the Art Institute of Atlanta. A guy who hired her on Craigslist to shoot wedding videos told her that she should join the union and become a grip. She started as a production assistant, hated the minutiae, and decided she would rather set up gear. She was good with her hands and always tinkering with stuff. She never did finish her degree, but she found a calling on sets.
"Grips were more like my people, a bunch of cool guys who fix things," she said. With every new job, she felt she had to prove herself because she was a woman, and it only made her work harder. Whenever women ask about getting into the field, Ragone tells them to go to the gym, get ripped and develop a thick skin "because you're going to be tested," she said.
Beyond verbal badgering, she was physically sexually harassed once, when a male crew member who had been hired for the day slapped her behind as he was walking past. Ragone was stunned. She confronted the man, who apologised, and told the line producer, who immediately fired him. In 2019, after eight years of gripping in Atlanta, Ragone moved to Los Angeles to try to break into writing and directing. "I feel like I went to school for the last eight years," she said, "Real school on set."
Being a grip was Alexis' Plan B. Or, rather, a way to pursue her Plan A, which is to write and direct films. She grew up between Brooklyn and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and earned a film degree from Hunter College in 2004. She worked for a few years for a movie equipment rental company in Brooklyn and had just quit to pursue scriptwriting when a friend mentioned a city-run program to train grips. Alexis enrolled, even though she was not entirely sure what a grip did, and found a mentor in instructor Billy Miller, who gave her pep talks and had worked with Jonathan Demme and Sidney Lumet.
"If it wasn't for him," she said of Miller, "I would have probably just quit."
Her early jobs were hit or miss. Sometimes the crew guys — they were always guys — were helpful and supportive, like the ones she worked with on Boardwalk Empire and Blue Bloods . Others excluded her from group lunches, told her to sit in the corner or ignored her outright. On one job, a fellow grip asked if the new cornrows in her hair meant she had joined the Crips or the Bloods. "Yeah," Alexis remembers replying dryly. "I decided to become a gang member overnight."
Some directors assumed she was a production assistant and asked her to fetch food. She also suffered routine job injuries, including multiple foot fractures and a torn rotator cuff. But she found deep support from her local union; when she had bad experiences, she said, they worked to find her better jobs. Her first big union movie was Noah , the 2014 Darren Aronofsky epic. Even though she went to work everyday afraid of being fired for her inexpertise, the crew liked that she was eager to learn. In short order, Alexis became an adroit forklift driver, which is handy on a set with biblical demands.
In recent years, Alexis, 37, found her crew "family," which includes Lamont Crawford, who regularly works with Spike Lee, and is the only black key grip Alexis knows; they worked together on BlacKkKlansman . She also started her own production company, Sweet Alexis Productions, writing scripts, and it has helped steady her when the job gets rough. "A lot of times there is still racism, I am not going to lie," she said, "Sexism also happens. But you're outnumbered."
When Beaupre started on film sets in Vancouver in 2004, the only work she was able to find involved volunteering on short films, doing anything she could get — lighting, gripping — and eventually landing gigs that paid $50 or $100, all the while pulling shifts at a pizza place. She steadily moved up to bigger jobs via connections — the gaffer she met on Supernatural needing a lamp operator on his next production; the key grip she met on the lamping job needed a best boy for his television movie.
Now 36, she had gone to college to be a director of photography but found that she really liked the world of gripping. It was always something different. Building rigs, setting up flags around lights, and moving furniture and green screens. "It's a weird department," she said. "You end up helping a lot of people."
Early in her career, she said, she had mentors who were endlessly kind and patient; the only time she felt she was different was when she applied to join the union and got the cold shoulder from male union members who resented a non-union colleague.
Vancouver is still a booming film hub. When she started, she knew fewer than 10 women doing the same job. Now she estimates there are upward of 40. On one recent show she worked on, Lost in Space , a third of the 18 grips were women. Beaupre's aim is to become a key grip. There isn't a female one in Vancouver working full time as far as she knows.
Written by: Cara Buckley
Photographs by: Celeste Sloman, Alana Paterson and Rozette Rago
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES