Santa Barbara International Film Festival Women’s Panel.
The panelists for Saturday’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival Women’s Panel, moderated by Madeyln Hammond, far left, include, left to right, producer Lynn Harris, director Jessica Kingdon, director Elizabeth Mirzaei, composer Diane Warren and set decorator Amber Richards. (Ann Pieramici / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival Women’s Panel took place at The Arlington Theatre on Saturday morning, featuring a lively discussion with women who represented an array of careers within the film industry.

The panel included producer Lynn Harris (“King Richard”), director Jessica Kingdon (“Ascension”), director Elizabeth Mirzaei (“Three Songs for Benazir”), composer Diane Warren (“Somehow You Do”) and set decorator Amber Richards (“The Power of the Dog”). All of the women are nominated for an Academy Award this year. The panel was expertly moderated for the 20th consecutive year by Madeyln Hammond, president of Madelyn Hammond & Associates.

The panelists shared everything from their latest Oscar-nominated work and favorite childhood game to their most common complaints, best travel tips and awards ceremony advice (pack snacks).

Hammond’s humor enabled the panelists to be genuine and vulnerable, and it fostered a playful interaction among them on stage. She began her interview by asking each woman to share background of their film, followed by several pointed questions. She then had a random collection of questions that each panelist answered before opening questions to the audience.

Richards, who is nominated alongside Grant Major for Best Production Design for their film, “The Power of the Dog,” said she was asleep when the Academy Award nominations were announced. She said it wasn’t until the next morning when friends texted her congratulations that she actually had to search Google to find out why. She was, in fact, recognized for her ability to artistically re-create Montana in 1925 (in New Zealand), ensuring that all of the details, including wallpaper, furniture, window treatments and hardware reflected that timeframe, and that the home she created appeared as though two brothers had been living there for a long time by themselves.

Richards said she worked her way up the ranks to set decorator from a runner, a job she credited with exposing her to many facets of filming. When asked what she played with most as a child, she said that she recalled a love for packing sandwiches. Hammonds said she asked that question because it’s often the toys people play with as children that surface later in life in careers.

Kingdon directed the film “Ascension” — named after a poem her great-grandfather wrote — with her producer-cinematographer husband, Nathan Truesdell, making four trips to China over two years and getting access to 51 locations.

Kingdon, whose mother is Chinese, said the film is loosely about the pursuit of today’s so-called Chinese dream and is structured in a series of vignettes that ascend the class ladder. Filmed in an observational style, the film has no narration or interviews, allowing the audience to take meaning without being told what they see.

She shared that to make the film, she received a small loan, which stipulated that she deliver a movie by a certain date.

“The loan said the movie had to be finished, but never said that it had to be good,” she said. “So, we focused on shooting to finish, not for greatness.”

The fact that the movie is now nominated for Best Documentary is “unreal,” Kingdon said.

Kingdon, who said she often complains about having to get up early, told her husband to wake her if they received an Oscar nomination, which is typically announced around 5 a.m. PST. She said that she was so tired that when he did wake her, drinking champagne alone, she had no idea why.

Warren, who has been nominated 13 times for Best Original Song, said a friend told her she needed to write a song for the movie “Four Good Days.” A self-described perfectionist, Warren shared that she’s hard on herself and that every word, every lyric has to be right. She knew she had a great song because it “made me cry a little bit.” Titled “Somehow You Do,” the song is about hope. She wrote it as the world was shutting down because of COVID-19, and although it was written for the movie, it paralleled life.

“This little song I wrote in my room is giving people strength, and that’s pretty awesome,” she said. It was also important to get the right person to sing the song, and that voice was found in Reba McEntire, whom Warren said “emanates resilience, strength and being a survivor.”

Unlike the other women on stage, Warren said she was wide awake awaiting the release of Oscar nominations. She hosted a “sleepless sleepover” with about six good friends, eating pizza and counting down the minutes until nominations were announced.

Mirzaei lived in Afghanistan for many years, and it’s where she met her husband, Gulistan, who co-directed the documentary short film. It’s also where the couple met Shaista, on whom the film is based.

Mirzaei described the film as “distilling the larger ideas of love through displacement camps in Kabul.” It follows Shaista, who falls in love with Benazir, to whom he sings and recites poetry. Shaista dreams of being the first from his tribe to join the Afghan National Army but must balance those dreams with the responsibility of family.

“In the middle of these really difficult circumstances, we meet Shaista and immediately felt a strong connection to him,” Mirzaei said. “My husband, Gulistan, was also displaced from his home, his father died from a land mine and he lived in a tent without water,” said Mirzaei, who is of Ukrainian descent.

“In our relationship, we embody this irony we wish we didn’t,” she said of her marriage. “We witness what’s happening in Afghanistan and in Ukraine, and it can’t be an accident. It’s an opportunity for us to speak about how the world looks at people who are considered to be ‘other,’ which is incredibly important now at a time when the world is experiencing multiple breakdowns in our ability to empathize with ‘the other.’”

The film was nominated for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Mirzaei said she shared the news with Shaista and Benazir, and that they’re excited for their story to be out in the world.

Harris, who produced “King Richard,” has decades of experience working in the film industry. She briefly explained her latest film as essentially about “a man with a plan.” Even before Richard Williams had Venus and Serena Williams, and even before he met his wife, he had watched a television show in which a female tennis player won $40,000, and he was determined his children would learn to play tennis. He met and married Oracene Price and became a father to her three daughters. Later, they had Venus and Serena, and Williams stuck with his strategy — first learning tennis himself, then teaching his daughters.

Will Smith is nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Williams, and Aunjanue Ellis is nominated for Best Supporting Actress, playing his wife. Harris spoke about Smith’s leadership and positive energy on set, particularly as they filmed during the uncertainties of COVID-19.

Harris also shared her passion for increasing diversity on set, saying that the bench currently isn’t deep enough. In fact, she said it’s nearly impossible to secure a diverse crew when filming outside of Los Angeles.

Another dynamic that Harris said she hopes to change is the perception of older women in the industry.

“As an older female, I find that I have more energy, more time and more focus now that my kids are grown, and I want to put that energy into my work,” Harris said, “yet I’m viewed as an older woman at the end of my career, not at my peak.”

The SBIFF closed its 37th year on Saturday.

— Ann Pieramici is a Noozhawk contributing writer. She can be reached at