‘The Making of The Making of’: Spotlighting Austin talent with Meghan Ross and Bita Ghassemi

Image of Meghan Ross

In the spirit of amplifying diverse voices, we commissioned women filmmakers to create a short film around the theme of community, while pairing them with storytellers to capture the creative process behind the scenes. The filmmakers were given creative freedom. The only parameters were that the film be complete within 30 days and shot entirely on a mobile phone.

It’s predictable and too been-there/done-that to seek industry talent in Hollywood. Instead, filmmaker and 2022 Women at Sundance x Adobe Fellow Meghan Ross and filmmaker Bita Ghassemi want to shine a light on their home, the weird and wonderful Austin, and its thriving (and not-so-secret) hub of movie multi-hyphenates. That’s the idea behind Ross’ “The Making of the Making of an Austin Short Film Masterpiece” (she admits to loving a long title), shot entirely on a mobile phone – in 30 days – and edited with Adobe Premiere Pro.

Inspired by the heyday of mockumentary TV and Christopher Guest films, Ross resourced her Texan rolodex of funny and diverse friends and had them keep their names but play heightened versions of themselves, all centering on the premise that they had only two weeks to make an epic film.

The cast, crew, and behind the scenes team all made the film  and  were in the film too. Between the production and documentary crew, it was the “utter confusion” that added to the real-life hilarity that jumps off the screen. And thanks to the parameters on film length and tight turnaround, Ross (as producer and director and star) used these confines for character development in her comedic favor, to make herself “the monster over the arc of the short.”

With an emphasis for fun and improvisation on set, Ross first built out the writer’s room—including local talent Evelyn Ngugi and Ivy Le—and forged ahead on a creative process she wished to see more of in the world. “Our script supervisor, Chinwe Okorie, was able to pitch ideas too, and it was really cool,” Ross said. “I’m so used to it being a one-woman writer’s room and it was so great to lean on other people to bring these funny moments and keep things flexible and on the fly, especially with such a tight turnaround.”

She then teamed up with Ghassemi, who runs her own production company and is a lifelong Austinite, to create short-form video content to document the two-week journey. Sticking to the meta concept, Ghassemi also makes a brief cameo in the film as well.

“People love to see processes and what it really takes...with any type of art form. I think [sharing behind the scenes] is intriguing to watch because people can see, ‘wow, this many people are on set. That seems like a really long day.. there are so many locations. I get asked all the time, ‘how many days did it take you to shoot?’ It’s fun to show what people rarely get to see.”

—Bita Ghassemi

“I met Bita last fall at a dinner. I was like, ‘There's another Middle Eastern filmmaker in town that I didn't know about?!’ cause I thought I was the only one (laughs),” Ross shares. “And that was part of the reason I cast myself [on this short] other than it being a personal project. Because I had not met any other Middle Eastern comedy performers and writers in their thirties in Austin, and I write from that perspective. So [when we met] I felt like this is kismet, this is awesome. And Adobe brought us together.”

Meghan Ross | Filmmaker | She/Her

Image of Meghan Ross

Meghan Ross is a writer/director, comedian, and activist based in Austin. Her short films have made The New Yorker’s Best Shouts of 2020 list and she was recently nominated for The Webby Awards for her short, If You Ever Hurt My Daughter, I Swear to God I’ll Let Her Navigate Her Own Emotional Growth, which features narration by Jon Hamm. Meghan’s writing has appeared in IFC, Reductress, Slackjaw, VICE's Broadly, TV Without Pity, The Toast, and some other defunct but beloved sites. She co-created and hosted the late night show That Time of the Month for 5 years and is currently the Head of Creator Success at Seed&Spark. Most importantly, Meghan is an aspiring stage mom to her rescue pit-lab, Dreidel.

Bita Ghassemi | Film director | She/Her

Image of Bita Ghassemi

Bita Ghassemi is an award-winning Iranian-American writer and director from Austin, Texas.

Currently, she is the co-founder of PILLARBOXED, the only women, POC, and LGBTQ-led video production company in Austin, Texas. She aims to cultivate an inclusive work environment to make space for marginalized communities and creatives of color. She also sits on the Board of Directors at Big Medium, a non-profit dedicated to championing and cultivating artists and the contemporary arts in Texas.

Highlighting Texan treasures + talent

Ross’ love for the Austin entertainment scene is evident throughout, even as she also makes space to share criticism for one of its biggest festivals, South by Southwest, and the idea that it’s shifted from its roots of finding young, burgeoning talent and sticking to the script (pun intended) of showcasing folks from LA/NY. “I'm probably burning a bridge by making a joke reference to it in the short. But on the first day of the shoot, the executive producer comes over and says, ‘we've been rejected by every music slash comedy slash film and technology festival. And I say, ‘but we didn't even submit anything.’ And she says ‘well, yeah, it's an early bird rejection.’ I love seeing jobs come here and I love seeing things stay local when it can. The point of this short really was to make fun of the fact that LA and New York will come down here [to SXSW] and they'll fly directors in instead of hiring locally. Or that the SXSW comedy lineup will be mostly LA and New York people. So I decided, alright, I'm just not gonna be part of the cool kid gang in their eyes. We're going to poke fun instead.”

Ross kept not only the jokes hyperlocal, but also hired within her Austin circles. “[At one point], I wanted to highlight my friend's band. I thought it'd be really funny if they attempted to make a soundtrack for a short they don't know anything about,” she said.

“Even before I got into film, all of my comedy projects I've been producing here in Austin… I always hire all women, all BIPOC, all queer crew and lead cast.”

—Meghan Ross

There were plenty of full-circle Austin moments to be had, like screening the faux premiere at the Austin Film Society. “It’s Richard Linklater’s theater, and they’re a nonprofit that supports local filmmakers. The first time I ever premiered and saw a short of mine on screen was at that theater so it’s a space that’s really special to me. It was fun to be able to use a space that I love and represents supporting creators in the community.”

Celebrating local talent

Being an Austin native was not the priority when curating the team for this project. “I was born and raised here in Austin, and consider myself Iranian-Texan. I co-run one of the only women-, LGBTQIA+, POC-lef film production companies in Austin. It's very homogenous here, so we may well be the only, but I like to cover my bases,” Ghassemi said. “Meghan and I share a lot of core values in making sure our crews are diverse, and making sure that we're giving opportunities to people of color, women, and queer folk.”

Even though Ross is a transplant from New York, her hopes for the short and its reception will be that it inspires others to share stories and collaborate where they’re planted. “There's this pressure for Austinites to pick a coast when they want to pursue comedy or writing. And I did the reverse move. But I would love for people to decide, ‘oh, I want to move there.’ I want to give someone permission to shoot something here, develop something from the very beginning to the very end. It’s expected that it can't happen in Austin, but the talent is here. That would be the dream: to work on a TV show that was actually filming in Austin and featuring local talent and we showcased every element of it here.”

Fueling creative fire

The filmmaking process can be grueling, competitive, and full of roadblocks. So it was surprising when asked how they each recharge their creative batteries, they both turned to the medium they work with, for play as well.

“I go to the movies,” Ghassemi said. “I think it's for research purposes, but it's also for fun. I feel like it's starting to become a lost art, but that's how, that's how films are meant to be consumed: with other people, and to hear when they laugh at certain points, or look around and see them crying. Recently, I saw  The Whale  and I didn't get up out of my seat for ten minutes into the credits and I just had to look around. And a lot of other people didn't [get up] either. Everyone was just crying together and it's such a beautiful experience. You don't get that if you're just at home. I also go to pay attention to the cinematography, and see how was this cut? How was this lit? That's not how most people watch movies, but film school trains your brain.”

And while Ghassemi heads to the theater, Ross gets cozy on the couch. “I'm just a comedy nerd and have been really fanatical about the TV shows that have felt cinematic that have released in the last couple years,” she said. “I put my writer’s hat on and my husband used to write as well. So, we’ll sit there and watch Abbott Elementary and think, oh A [storyline] is really clear. Okay, love the B start.

I'm an introvert who is just an extrovert on stage, so I like being a homebody, binging shows, and obsessing over things that people aren't talking about.”

Diversity of voices in film matter now more than ever

In the 2022 Hollywood Diversity Report, women represented just 22 percent of directors, with women of color hitting an even lower benchmark. The stats are even more dire when it comes to female directorial representation in films nominated for the Oscars. Of the 476 nominees in the category of Best Director, less than 2 percent, or 8 have been women, as reported by ‘The Inclusion List’ — a new research-led effort by The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and supported by the Adobe Foundation. Stories and perspectives by women deserve space—and we are committed to shining light and providing the resources to create them.

Together, Ross and Ghassemi are breaking important ground in Austin and committing to sharing their perspectives while also hiring a cast and crew that can tell a much richer, complex story than yesterday. At Adobe we believe it is our responsibility to give underrepresented creators a greater platform to share their stories, and to supporting, elevating and amplifying those voices — everyone has a story to tell, and all stories deserve to be heard.

We’re committed to our efforts to highlight the issue of introducing new and diverse characters and points of view and we’re putting it on full display, encouraging everyone to tell their story – and providing the tools to make it accessible.