Why 'Ocean's 8' Writer Olivia Milch Isn't Interested In Female Characters Driven By "Damage"
Ocean's 8 co-writer and producer Olivia Milch wants to make one thing very clear: the eight female leads in the movie are not damaged. The women at the heart of Ocean's 8 range from experienced grifters to everyday pickpockets, and they join the heist simply because they can and they're good at it, not because they're rebounding from trauma. Ocean's 8 is not a movie about a group of women looking for revenge. To use Milch's own words, Ocean's 8 is a movie about women "making sh*t happen."
"Women in these stories... we only see them because they are on a rampage to get back at somebody for something, or to accomplish something because they were traumatized or been through a lot of pain," Milch says over the phone, referring to female characters traditionally seen in heist films. Where other similar outlaw movies (Thelma & Louise and Sugar & Spice come to mind ) tend to have their female characters motivated by revenge or trauma, Ocean's 8 features a group of women whose main motivations are their talents. Explains Milch, "We really wanted to tell a story about a group of women who want to accomplish something for the sake of accomplishing it. That they are driven because they have agency and desire to get it done."
When, in Ocean's 8, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) is asked by her friend and former colleague Lou (Cate Blanchett) why she wants to go back to a life of crime, Debbie responds simply, "Because it's what I'm good at." For Milch and her co-writer Gary Ross, who also directed the film, this idea was crucial. "One of the things we always say about it is that it's a group of women who are excellent at their jobs. Their jobs just happen to be being criminals," Milch says with a laugh. Every single character has a very specific skill — a jeweler, a hacker, a designer — and this heist just happens to be the best use of those skills.
The notion of having women commit a heist sounds obvious, but it certainly isn't common. From the Fast and the Furious movies to, well, Ocean's Eleven and its sequels, most past heist movies have featured male leads, and the few female characters present have typically been love interests. Yet by not only giving Ocean's 8 an all-female cast but refusing to let those characters act out of fear or revenge, Milch hopes to tweak what audiences have come to expect from "strong female characters" in Hollywood.
"Often times, when we see quote-unquote 'strong female leads,' their strength is coming from their damage," Milch explains. "And all of us are damaged, and all human beings have gone through pain and trauma, but I think a lot of times we expect women, female characters, to be particularly damaged because that's the reason why they're gonna have agency."
In Ocean's 8, this doesn't mean shying away from failures or traumas that might motivate a character, it just means making sure that those things aren't the main motivation. The recently-paroled Debbie is partly inspired to commit crime by her desire to get revenge on her ex, who is the reason she went to jail, but it's far from her primary reason. And while struggling designer Rose (Helena Bonham Carter) joins the heist because she's in debt, she also views it as a huge career move to get her designs seen by more people.
That realism extends to the relationships formed between each woman on the team. "They're planning this huge heist and they're very goal driven and they're trying to accomplish this one thing, but they're also living their lives together," Milch explains, noting one scene in which Constance (Awkwafina) teaches Amita (Mindy Kaling) how to use Tinder in particular. "It's not only supporting and loving each other in terms of the heist, but it's supporting and loving each other in terms of their own personal growth and experiences."
Women supporting women is a theme of Milch's career. Ocean's 8 is her second major writing credit, her first being on the film she directed, Dude, which was released on Netflix in April. As a first time director, Milch was committed to hiring a diverse cast and crew for Dude, about a group of best friends graduating high school.
"I really got into screenwriting and filmmaking because I wanted to tell stories about women, but also because I wanted to see stories from people I had not heard from or seen before," she explains. As a result, cultivating a main cast that included women of color and a female-heavy crew came naturally. Says Milch, "I think it just makes sense that this is what Dude was gonna look like, and it makes sense that we wanted a crew of women to be there supporting us as we were telling a story about a group of women."
And while Milch wasn't in charge of hiring on Ocean's 8, she says that director Ross shared her mindset about making the cast and crew as inclusive as possible, so much so that he invited her to be on set every day — not a given for any screenwriter or producer. To "be there every day was such an incredible learning experience, and [Ross] really wanted to share that knowledge and give that opportunity to a young, female filmmaker," Milch says. "That was a wonderful experience, and one of the greatest and best of my life, getting to be on the set everyday."
The writer says she hopes to pass on that opportunity to her future mentees. "Thinking about what I want and what my long term goals are, it's absolutely to lift up and empower other voices and hold the door open for other women or female identifying folks, or people from groups who don't often have the opportunity to tell their own story," Milch says. "I'm really, really excited and heartened by the work that is coming out, and the stories that we're getting to see. And I can't wait to see and hear more of them."
And if one of those stories is an Ocean's 8 sequel, well, that's just icing on the cake.