Jenni Gold realized early in her life that she could not be a veterinarian because it dealt with blood, but fake movie blood, she says, was okay. Her path was clear. Jenni, at heart a story-teller who was, by the 8th grade making films, would come to Hollywood and direct movies. She’d had camera experience as a young girl doing publicity work for the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon, and she loved photography. While in school, one of her shorts about the feeling of panic got a student Emmy. As real as panic is for a person who uses a wheelchair and could easily be trapped in an upper floor mid-disaster, she wanted to distance herself from admitting this to her fellow students.
Her first film after graduation from film school in Central Florida, was a feature film called Ready Willing and Able, an action movie with a gun-toting character (played by Chris Templeton) who used a wheelchair, having already been blown up in the first scene. Jenni and her husband moved to Los Angeles for the post-production talent she needed. Because she did not want to be followed around, she declined doing a documentary about herself but suggested possibly doing something someday on disability and the power of the media to portray people with disabilities. She filed the idea away and forgot about it.
Her interest was fiction, but, as she had learned early on that her path would not be the same as her peers who would work first as production assistants, she started writing and producing and formed Gold Pictures, her own production company. Before she knew it, people were on the bandwagon for Cinemability, her film on disability. She says, on the topic of disability in film, “When they think of disabled, they think of someone on the street corner selling pencils. Cinemability is about acceptance of people for what they can do and not pre-judging. We touch on being more open in a way that is surprising – entertaining and funny.” She sits with the audiences that at first are cautious, politically correct and do not know if they are allowed to laugh. “By the end of the film,” she says, “they are relaxed and having a good time. I really want to hear the audience react,” she says, and adds, “With Rocky they jumped up and cheered. Jaws they were screaming and it changed the way they went into the ocean the same way that Psycho changed the way people felt about getting into the shower.” Jenni says, “The first Edison film, The Fake Beggar, a guy pretends to be blind and disabled so he cannot move his legs, and he gets busted for being a fake when he gets up and runs away from the cops. Or the sweet innocent who gets healed because of the sweet innocence. Or the angry disabled who blames someone for the disability like Moby Dick.”
On the subject of casting an actor with the disability, she says, “On the one hand casting someone without a disability in a disabled role is akin to black-face, and on the other hand, acting is acting and sometimes you need a name to get a film made”. She points to The Sessions writer and producer Ben Lewin, who had polio as a child and understood the nature of disability and cast people with disabilities. “But,” she says, “to get it made he needed recognizable name.”
She says, “It is tough to be a female director in Hollywood in general, and when you add that you are directing from a wheelchair, they assume that you are not going to be capable of helming the show. I tell them my director’s chair goes twelve miles an hour.” She She says that having a disability her entire life has made her a better director by finding unique ways to get people to do what she wants.
Her love letter? Her film Cinemability, with its compelling cast, is her love letter to Hollywood, and because she is such a wonderful story-teller, insightful, funny, smooth, emotionally generous and with the agility to keep her eye on simultaneously occurring aspects of a tale, it is best to hear Jenni talk about her life in her own voice filled with appreciation and authority, two of the qualities that make a great director.