The cult comedy 9 to 5 was published 40 years ago. We look back on the classic with co-director of the documentary 9to5, Steven Bognar.
Maybe things aren't as bad now as they were in the 1980 comedy starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton.
In years 9 to 5 the actors play three employees who suffer from their "sexist, selfish, lying, hypocritical bigot" boss (Dabney Coleman), who harasses and abuses them mercilessly until they finally kidnap him. In his absence, they adopt several new office policies that benefit everyone.
It's one of my favorite films. 9 to 5 remain radical and understandable even in their crazier moments.
Anyone can understand Fonda's character Judy, who bursts into tears after the name and is left alone at the Xerox machine to clean up a mess of paperwork. Anyone can feel Parton's Doralee, who longs to be friends with her coworkers but is ostracized for rumors spread by her boss. And I wish I were like Tomlin's Violet, who can make calls and shoot barbed retorts without breaking a sweat.
However, 9 to 5 is more than the film and the always lively hymn that Parton wrote for it. It's also a real movement that began in the 1970s when female employees decided they were tired of unequal wages and poor working conditions. Fonda got to know the 9to5 organization and then developed the film.
Both the movement and the film it inspired are subjects of the new documentary by Oscar winners Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar. Her document 9to5: The History of a Movement examines the origins of the organization, the women who built it, and their struggle for equality.
Bognar kindly agreed to speak to No Film School by phone about the fictional 9 to 5 and his and Reichert's own attitude towards movement.
Recognition: 20th Century Fox
Editor's Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I wanted to ask what your inspiration for the documentary was and why you think it's still so timely.
Steven Bognar: It's sad that it's on time. It's really. You would think we have come further than before for a world of equality and a fairer society. But it's sad when you look at the income gaps between women and men, even now in 2020 it's crazy that they're still so big. That's one reason we wanted to do the film.
But the spark really came when Julia reconnected with some old friends who were members of the 9to5 movement, particularly Karen Nussbaum, and we started telling stories. Karen began to share memories from those days. And Julia and I talked about what a good movie that would make. And also that her story, the story of the 9to5 movement that inspired Jane Fonda to make her classic film, these stories have really been forgotten.
Recognition: Steve Cagan
And if you think back to the 1970s and the women's liberation movement, other social justice movements, the 9to5 movement had been forgotten and we thought you know what, someone should try to tell the story. And the more we thought about it and the more stories we heard, the more we thought that this should be a movie.
And Julia, she is celebrating her 50th anniversary as a documentary filmmaker. She has explored these issues in her previous work, particularly in her films Growing Up Female and Union Maids. Women, work, justice that she has explored over the decades. And it just felt organic for her career to tell that story and keep telling those stories.
NFS: Before I saw your film, I didn't know how closely Jane Fonda was involved in the 9to5 organization, how dedicated she was, and how closely the film was actually connected to the movement.
Bognar: Yes, Jane really took inspiration from these working women. (9 to 5 director) Colin Higgins and Jane apparently went to Cleveland. I know Jane was there and they did interviews and that's where they got the stories about who dreams of killing your boss and all that stuff that ultimately helped move the movie forward.
Recognition: 20th Century Fox
NFS: You make the comment in your film that the "film was married to the movement" so I wanted to ask you for your opinion on how these real-world problems were fictionalized in 9-5. What did it right or what? Hasn't it captured?
Bognar: Well, I think the 9 to 5 movie, the classic Hollywood movie, is brilliant at using satire. (…) Jane Fonda made many dramas in the 70s. She had done China Syndrome and Coming Home, and dealt with nuclear energy and the Vietnam War. And so it has been a while since she played these dramas. But the idea of turning it into a satire, turning it into a razor-sharp comedy, makes it a lot more effective.
And I think Karen Nussbaum says it best in our documentary. She says, "Do you know what it's doing? By making it a comedy, you're skipping the debate about whether women's equality is even an issue."
What makes your film so brilliant is, yeah, of course it's a big problem, and here's what we can do about it or how people should react to it. It's not even open to debate because it's so fun. When we laugh and flinch at the same time, we see truths. And I think this film does a great job of that.
Recognition: Walter P. Reuther Library, Labor and Urban Development Archives, Wayne State University
NFS: I found it interesting how, in addition to the actual stories and historical footage and pictures, you also included the depictions of these subjects from Mad Men or even the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I was wondering if I should do that. Is this something you thought modernized the subject?
Bognar: We felt like showing clips from these pop culture landmarks, TV shows, was important as it helps make it real in a very concise way. And we didn't want to overdo it. We'd actually seen a lot of pop culture TV shows, Mary Tyler Moore and Maude from the '70s, Rhoda, some of those other classic stories about working women. And then we saw a lot of Mad Men full of brilliant examples.
But we were just trying to strike the right balance between just the right clips to comment on and clarify the situation, but also what we also comment on. The women in our film comment on the same subjects.
NFS: How do you see the ongoing cultural impact of 9 through 5, the fictionalized version?
Bognar: I find it inspiring. I think Dolly wrote a great song ever. It's a hymn. We go to rallies, we still hear that song even though it's 40 years old. A few years ago there was a huge equal-pay flash mob at the Lincoln Memorial, and about 150 women danced in sync with Dolly's song, choreographed. And that's great. And the film is loved.
It is exciting that the film is being rediscovered. While we were making our documentary we asked younger activists, younger women, "Hey, did you see this movie, 9 to 5?" And some of them had it because their mothers would show them, and that's always great. But the fact that it is being rediscovered is really exciting because it holds up wonderfully. It's still very fun and very painful and sharp. It's just really sharp filmmaking. Although the palette is trendy and bright, it has real teeth. And that's what I love about it. It has a big smile, but the teeth are razor sharp.
Recognition: Richard Bermack
NFS: Was there anything you wanted to add to your work?
Bognar: I would say just when we were doing our film we were doing this film while we were doing American Factory and it was a big dance doing two great films at the same time which is a whole different story, but it was a real pleasure. It was an honor and a pleasure to meet these amazing women from all over the country as we made the film, went to Atlanta and filmed there. We went to Seattle and filmed there. Cleveland, Washington, D.C. We did San Francisco. And we interviewed all of these incredible women. And we're really excited that they are – like Verna Barksdale in Atlanta or Mary Jung in San Francisco. We are just very excited that this film can introduce them to the country.
NFS: I made this comment (…) I thought, "I wonder if they did this because after American Factory they needed something happy." After the frustration of it, in terms of content. I didn't know it was the same time. That is amazing.
Recognition: 20th Century Fox
Bognar: Yes. We actually started this film, the 9to5 film, before American Factory. We'd done interviews and archival research and then American Factory took off like a rocket in our lives. We were still working on the 9to5 movie, but there were times when American Factory was just a runaway train, filming in that factory day in and day out.
But in the end we finished American Factory. And then that premiered in early 2019, and then we finished the 9to5 movie in 2019. And of course we wanted to premiere it at SXSW (2020). We didn't even submit it to Sundance because we were looking at the American Factory Oscar campaign. And there was no way we could have tried to do both. But we loved SXSW and were so excited. And then of course you will know what happened. But it has had great success in the festival world and there are many online and some drive-in cinema festivals. And now we are excited that it will be on PBS very soon.