Left to Right: Madelyn Hammond, Diane Warren, Karen Hartley-Thomas, Maite Alberdi, Laura Karpman and Julie Zachary speak on-stage. (Tibrina Hobson / SBIFF)

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival featured its 21st Women’s Panel on Feb. 17 at the Arlington Theatre. The distinguished women came from diverse specializations within the film industry to discuss their work in their recent Academy Award-nominated films: Maite Alberdi (director and producer of “The Eternal Memory”), Karen Hartley-Thomas (hair and makeup artist of “Golda”), Laura Karpman (composer for “American Fiction”), Diane Warren (songwriter for “Flamin’ Hot”) and Julie Zachary (head of production at Annapurna Animation which produced “Nimona”).

Moderator Madelyn Hammond started off the panel with a brief introduction celebrating the major milestones and honors that each woman has accumulated throughout her extensive career. Hammond then transitioned to individualized questions about each panelists’ films, their experience working on the film and related questions regarding their overall career.

Karpman was up first. With her jazz and classical music background, she shared how it has influenced her career. “It’s always been a part of [her] work even if it hasn’t always been as evident” and her love and expertise in jazz shines through her score in “American Fiction.” 

Hammond noted that Karpman was one of the three female below the line department heads on the film and asked for her take on the progress of women’s underrepresentation in the film industry. As one of the founders of the Alliance for Women Film Composers, Karpman shared there has been positive progress in the number of female composers in the film industry since its founding 10 years ago. “We have advanced and this year we had 14% of the 250 box office films,” Karpman said, a great improvement compared to 2% in 2014. She strives for 50% by 2030 stating, “It’s enough with incremental change. It’s time to go for it.”

Hartley-Thomas next discussed the challenges she had to maneuver with the six weeks she had for preparation of “Golda.” She helped direct the wig fittings and design of the prosthetics used in the film. Despite the time crunch, Hartley-Thomas successfully completed the preparations thanks in part to the familiarity she had with leading actress Helen Mirren. 

She elaborated on the precision and time necessary for this behind-the-scenes work, explaining “It’s two and a half hours to put it on, but it’s an hour to take it off.” 

Alberdi similarly dove into the process of producing her film “The Eternal Memory.” She described how it was a complete stroke of luck that she was inspired to film this documentary on Augusto, a highly respected man in Chile who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s later in life. She happened to teach at the same university where Paulina, Augusto’s wife, worked and witnessed their interactions together, socializing happily with everybody around them. 

“That, as a filmmaker, was a big, big lesson to me of generosity and to understand the importance of show fragility,” Alberdi said in regards to Augosto’s willingness to participate in the film. “And, of course, a lesson about memory I think because I was thinking that I was making a film about what do you forget in Alzheimer’s, but at the end, it’s a film about what do you always remember.”

Zachary’s journey in overseeing the creation of “Nimona” was also difficult but rewarding. Blue Sky Studios, the original animation studio producing the film, was shut down during the pandemic. She, along with her fellow filmmakers, worked through the process of getting picked up by a different studio, Annapurna, and securing Netflix as the distributor of the film. Zachary was a producer for “Nimona” and is now the head of Annapurna Animation. Always a filmmaker at heart, she combines her experience as a filmmaker with her new position. “I need to support and to understand and to help grow and develop other people’s visions if it’s not my own,” Zachary said.

The final panelist was Warren. Warren took the audience through her train of thought in songwriting “The Fire Inside” for “Flamin’ Hot” and casting Becky G to sing the song. She asserted that Becky G was authentic to both the song and movie. As for her songwriting process, Warren joked, “My cat writes the songs… Secret’s out.” She revealed that she instantly wrote the title “The Fire Inside,” in part sparked by that feeling of fire inside when eating Cheetos but more importantly the fiery passion embodied by the main character Richard Montañez.

Hammond wrapped up the panel with a quick round robin session. Best travel tip? Hartley-Thomas always has a bathing suit in a handbag and melatonin in a handbag for Alberdi. The panelists also shared the worst advice they’ve ever received as well, all of which were remarks claiming they would not make it in the industry they are thriving in. Zachary recounted her father once told her, “Don’t go into film. It’s not a career … So here I am in film. It worked.” To close the panel off, clips from the respective Oscar-nominated films, which each of the women had worked on, were played before they exited the stage.