BY AMY DAWES
For optimists, it’s easy to embrace the perception that women are making great strides as feature film directors. Kathryn Bigelow won a DGA Award and an Oscar just a few years ago and is at the top of her game. Angelina Jolie’s wartime survival epic Unbroken is slated for a high-profile release this December, in time for awards season competition. Jill Soloway won the Directing Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival for Afternoon Delight. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s musical, Beyond the Lights, is coming out this November. Niki Caro’s feature McFarland is also opening in November, and she is prepping a Maria Callas biopic.
All of these exciting, encouraging developments—and more—are true. And yet, another story is told by hard statistics, which show a stubborn lack of growth in the number of women hired to direct movies each year. For 2013, the latest year for which complete data is available, 191 features by DGA directors were released in theaters. Just 18 of those were directed or co-directed by women. During the last decade, the numbers have fluctuated slightly from year to year, but they continue to fall below 10 percent. And most women work independently, as opposed to being hired for career-boosting studio assignments.
A common response to these numbers is to conclude that there just aren’t that many qualified women pursuing directing as a career. Director Kasi Lemmons, a full-time faculty member in the graduate film program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where nearly half of the current class on the directing-writing track are female, responds to that with a short, sharp laugh. “That’s hilarious,” she says. “No, that’s not the case. I’ve been seeing exceptionally talented women coming through for years, so I’ve been optimistic for quite a while. And then I’m like, ‘OK, what happened here?’”
Director Kimberly Peirce carries that observation a step further: “I go to Sundance. I see the number of women who get that far with their movies, who have the talent, the determination, and the commitment. But then that’s not reflected in the percentage of movies coming out in theaters. That tells you there’s a systemic problem.”
To offer insight into how they prevailed and what they were up against, the DGA Quarterly has highlighted eight of those 18 women whose films made it to theaters in 2013. These filmmakers range from first-time directors to Oscar winners well into their careers. They talk about independent passion projects and studio assignments; how they’ve fought the odds to create their own opportunities; and the doors that have opened (or remained shut) afterward. They describe how they’ve leveraged short films, self-written screenplays, and personal connections; how they’ve utilized new media, as both a platform for content and a publicity tool; and how they’ve pulled together financing, from crowdsourcing to scouring the globe for money. They speak candidly about how they’ve dealt with gender-related issues, from resistance and skepticism to the tug of war that can arise between work and family. Most importantly, they reveal the mindset and hard-won perspectives underlying their remarkable persistence.
Lake Bell says she was scarcely aware there was a dearth of women directors until after she joined their ranks. Best known as an actor (No Strings Attached, Million Dollar Arm), she had seen that, rather than her gender, as the main hurdle she had to overcome. “So I wrote and directed a short film, Worst Enemy (2011), that went to Sundance and did really well on the festival circuit,” she says. “If you’re a first-timer, I think it’s imperative to do short form before you step behind the camera for an entire feature.”
Bell then wrote the script for In a World…, a quirky, sophisticated screwball comedy about a voice coach (played by Bell) who aspires to narrate movie trailers. She’s all but shut out of an industry that strongly favors male voices, until circumstances shift to hand her an unexpected victory. In many ways, the story offers an apt metaphor for the attitudes faced by women who aspire to direct. “It is resonant, obviously,” says Bell. “But I didn’t set out to make a bold statement. It was just the reality of my own personal history.” She explains: “When I would casually present my filmmaking dreams to people in my life, there was often a condescending attitude, like, ‘aw, isn’t that cute.’ So it was a natural thing to write a woman’s story using that thematic route.”
Once she had the script ready to go, she got her agency, UTA, to set up meetings with potential backers. She came in with some of the cast in place: herself in the lead role, plus actor-comedian friends Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, and Demetri Martin, for whom she’d written the roles. “That helped producers envision the package,” says Bell, whose attitude as she approached these meetings was essential. “You can’t go after financing thinking it’s not going to work out, especially when you’re wearing as many hats as I was. Every step of the way, you have to force yourself to believe.”
Culver City-based 3311 Productions, headed by former reality television producers Ross Jacobson and Mark Roberts, stepped up to finance the project with a budget just under $1 million. “The only reason I acquired financing or even got my script on their desk is because of my short film, which became my visual calling card and validation,” Bell emphasizes.
Premiering in competition at Sundance 2013, In a World... made an immediate impact, winning the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and generating a raft of positive reviews. Roadside Attractions acquired the film and opened it in theaters last summer, where it grossed approximately $3 million.
Since then, Bell says she’s been gratified to find that doors have, in fact, opened. “I’ve gained so many opportunities that I can’t complain,” she reports. “But I will say that the type of movies I get offered are … limited in imagination. Because I made a female-driven comedy, it’s like I got put on a database for female-driven comedy. I’d rather direct something that’s totally unexpected. Right now, I’m writing an original script about race car driving, which is something I grew up around. That’s one reason I admire people like Catherine Hardwicke, Kim Peirce, and Kathryn Bigelow. They’re not adhering to the stereotype of what a woman is capable of directing or not directing.”
Bell also tips her hat to Nancy Meyers, to whom she confided her filmmaking goals while working as an actor for her in the big-budget studio comedy It’s Complicated (2009). “I was careful not to show her anything until I was really damn proud of it,” says Bell, “and she’s been incredibly supportive. It was a huge inspiration to see how she commanded a great machine, and I’m so grateful for her friendship and camaraderie.”
Meyers, a mother of two, also served as a valued sounding board for questions about how to balance family and career. “The difference with women,” Bell notes, “is that you may have to juggle family and work in a way that is inherently different than a man. When I meet women who are doing a fantastic job at both, my question is usually about that.” That quest has gained urgency now that Bell is expecting her first child. “In a way, it buys me a nice amount of time to do a soft prep. [And hopefully] when the baby is ready and I’m ready, I’ll make a movie.”
With her first film under her belt, Bell admits, “I’ve become far more educated about the lay of the land and the hard statistics of how few women directors there are.” Much like the character she played in In a World…, who feels chagrined upon learning she cinched a job mostly because she was female, Bell has other aspirations. “Women,” she says, “want to be recognized for their talent and their merits, not their gender.”
Kimberly Peirce became one of the rare female directors tapped for a studio assignment in 2013 when MGM hired her to remake Carrie, Brian De Palma’s 1976 supernatural horror classic, for a new generation. Peirce had previously directed action scenes when she made Stop-Loss (2008), a feature about returning Iraqi War veterans. Tackling Carrie was an opportunity for Peirce to expand her skill set into visual effects—although on the project’s relatively tight $30 million budget, the task required both ingenuity and flexibility.
As Peirce relates it, she got the job after MGM Film Division president Jonathan Glickman reached out to her based on his admiration for her debut feature, Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Glickman saw parallels between that true-life tale, about a transgender victim of violence, and Carrie. As Peirce notes, both films feature an outsider protagonist whose struggle for acceptance results in tragedy.
Fully aware of the studios’ reluctance to trust women with big-budget films, Peirce says her priorities included designing a movie that could make its money back. “Every good director takes that responsibility seriously,” she says. “It’s not ‘money versus art.’ It takes money to make this art. So you work hand-in-hand with the studio to get the cast that’s going to make you successful, and to sell the movie once it’s made.”
One of the boons of a studio assignment, she says, is that the burden of financing doesn’t fall to the filmmaker. “The money is there, and the desire to make it is there. In this case, they were hiring a director to push the project to the point of green-light, which I found exciting. I could come in and say, ‘Here’s how to fix the script,’ and then work with them to cast it and come to an agreement on a budget.”
Peirce escalated Carrie’s use of supernatural powers compared to the original De Palma film, switching between practical and CGI effects to contain costs. For example, in the climactic prom sequence, when a blood-covered Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz) seeks revenge on her tormentors, Peirce and her team created the effect of a prom-goer engulfed in flames using a stunt double and fire-retardant gel. In another effect, Carrie stomps her foot to create a fissure in the earth that stops a fleeing car. “There was no way you could shoot that and displace the ground, so that was CGI,” explains Peirce. “If you save money in one place, you can use it elsewhere.”
The film eventually grossed nearly $85 million worldwide. “Do I think that [a movie that succeeds at the box office] will get me more work?” Peirce asks rhetorically. “One would hope. It certainly works that way for men.
“Directing Carrie,” she says, has helped position her to attach a cast and find financing for her next project, The Brand, a prison movie about the Aryan Brotherhood. “Work begets work,” Peirce says. “The fact that Carrie was profitable is a huge thing when you go back out there. It makes everybody feel safer. And because I got to work on that scale, doing action and special effects, my skill set is sharper, and that’s really important too.”
Of course, diversity doesn’t occur until people empowered to make hiring decisions make it a priority. “I have to celebrate MGM for hiring me,” Peirce says. “That was daring, and I’m appreciative. Jon Glickman was a huge supporter of mine.”
Peirce has reached the conclusion that the current status quo in the entertainment industry applies to any entrenched hierarchy. “Things don’t change until people decide they don’t want to be part of a world where others are systematically discriminated against,” she says. “For that to happen, the people with privilege have to give up some of that privilege—and that’s never easy.”
For Tina Gordon Chism, writing the screenplay for the class-conscious comedy Peeples was key to landing her first shot as a director. “I can’t imagine breaking down a lot of these walls without having a script to leverage,” she says. Two of her screenplays had already become studio films (Drumline  for Fox 2000 Pictures, and ATL  for Warner Bros.), which bolstered her confidence and know-how. On the set of Drumline, she absorbed as much as she could about filmmaking from director Charles Stone III, who included her in the process; but the same opportunity did not occur on ATL. “That made me wonder,” says Chism. “With all the detail and specificity I bring to my writing, why give it over to someone else’s vision? I realized I’d rather it came through me.”
She consulted with experienced director-writers to figure out what she might need to augment her skills. “Director-writers are not purely visual,” she notes. “There’s a process we have to go through to communicate the story that’s in our heads to a larger crew.”
At a filmmaking lecture by Nancy Meyers, she learned about USC cinema professor Bruce A. Block, who coaches filmmakers in visual design for storytelling. His book, The Visual Story, became a touchstone for her. “He helped me break down the script so I could explain where I wanted to put the camera to make it more comedic,” she says. By the time she met with Lionsgate’s president of film production Mike Paseornek, Chism brought plenty of visual aids to clearly communicate the movie playing in her head. “He had a lot of questions, but I had done my homework,” says Chism, who made her terms clear. “I think he respected that I was going to hold on to that script until I found someone who agreed to take the ride with me.”
She had also attached a cast, top-lined by Craig Robinson and Kerry Washington. “That piece of the puzzle was huge,” she notes. “Across the board, studios I met with were impressed that I had assembled a cast that was ready to roll with me.” Peeples is about a regular guy who crashes a posh reunion in the Hamptons to tell his fiancée’s family about their engagement. After Lionsgate gave it a green-light, Tyler Perry came aboard as an executive producer.
When it came to leading the crew, Chism acknowledges that gender-based prejudice can arise even before a female director reaches the set. “Sometimes I can see that look where they’re thinking, ‘She’s a woman, she’s not going to be able to deal with these burly, union tough guys.’” Chism was not deterred. “Honestly, I grew up on a farm, and my family is in the construction business, so when I got there, they were like every guy I had worked with growing up. Men can sometimes slip into this mindset that they have to protect you from something that’s going to be difficult. You have to push past that with preparedness and strength, and hope that the person on the other side of it can feel that from you.
“Directing is not an easy gig to get, for any gender,” she continues. “It’s a boys club, but what can you do?” She adds: “I’ve been black all my life, so coming up, I developed that muscle you activate when you realize someone is seeing you in a particular way. You can’t feed into that energy. You just have to be so passionate about your point of view, that they realize they’d be wrong to pass you by.”
Since Peeples, Chism says, “I haven’t received a barrage of scripts, but that’s OK because I prefer to direct something that comes from me.” She recently wrote a comedy pilot called Crushed for HBO, which she’ll direct if it gets picked up. Based on a true story, it’s about a couple of ne’er-do-well African-American trust fund kids who struggle to establish a winery in Napa Valley. Chism drew inspiration from the success of their venture in real life. “They didn’t publicize the ‘we’re black’ part,” says Chism. “That’s the same approach I’m taking to directing—just play it in the pocket, and be really good at what you do. Eventually, people will catch on.”
Lynn Shelton has been a regular presence at Sundance ever since her micro-budget comedy Humpday premiered in competition in 2009. She was back with Touchy Feely in 2013. That year, she noticed, “For the first time, there was gender parity in the narrative competition, with eight men and eight women directors. It felt so lovely and so normal. Like, ‘Well, finally. This is possible, and this is what it feels like.’ Then in 2014, we were back to a more familiar disparity, which was a little depressing.”
Having maintained a home base in her native Seattle, Shelton believes in starting small and developing a distinctive body of work supported by a web of ongoing relationships. “I’ve really built my career on my own terms and stayed true to my vision, and that has been the best calling card ever,” she says. “I’d recommend this approach to any person who wants to have a filmmaking career.”
Touchy Feely stars Rosemarie DeWitt as a massage therapist who suddenly develops an aversion to human contact. Like other Shelton features, including Your Sister’s Sister (2011), it was made for well under half a million dollars, raised from private investors by producer Steven Schardt, with whom she works frequently.
“We’ve established and maintained good relationships with investors who are happy to come along at that level,” says Shelton, who designs projects with limited funding in mind. “You tell the story with fewer characters, fewer and longer scenes, one main location, no special effects. You’re not going to be taking an entire day to set up the perfect crane shot.” That buys you permission, she explains, “to not have to worry about anything but the expression of it; the art of it. It’s a lovely way to make a movie, because everyone is deeply engaged. They certainly aren’t there for the paycheck.”
Attracting a cast became easier after Humpday made a splash at Sundance, scooping up a mid-six figure distribution deal from Magnolia Pictures. That film, she relates, was “made for pennies. Because I come from experimental film and the art world, I know how to write grant proposals. I crowdfunded that film before Kickstarter even existed, by having house parties to raise donations, and getting a lot of support from friends and family.”
From her perspective, Shelton says, “I haven’t experienced gender-based resistance, but I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to go out and fight for a job. Now that I have a body of work out there, people are coming to me and asking, ‘do you want to direct this?’ I don’t think my name is on the list for a sci-fi action script, and that makes a lot of sense. But people have approached me for a wide variety of projects.”
One of those people was Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, who hired Shelton to direct an episode of the series after seeing Humpday. “I’m so grateful to him. It was my very first job as a DGA director,” says Shelton. “I had this moment, driving to the set the first day, thinking, ‘What if I can’t do this?’ I’d never walked onto a soundstage before—never worked with a union crew. But it turned out that making micro-budget movies is a great boot camp for doing television because of the pace. You have to make decisions so quickly, and I realized it’s the exact same job. You’re shaping the scenes, tracking the performers’ arcs, collaborating with the DP and the costume designer—you just have more people and more toys to work with.”
Mad Men led Shelton to other TV assignments, including sitcoms New Girl and Ben and Kate, as well as a pilot that may get picked up for next season. She has also made another feature, Laggies, which premiered at Sundance in January, and was acquired by A24 for theatrical release in September.
For Shelton, Weiner was that person in power who took a chance on her. “He was able to see … ‘here’s a director who can craft a story and get naturalistic performances out of actors.’ The scale of something is a moot point as long as the script captures me emotionally.”
With almost a dozen features to her credit and two more studio-backed projects in the works, Mira Nair is one of the few female filmmakers who has worked regularly and sustained a long-term career—in part because she doesn’t depend on Hollywood. “Alternative financing has always been key for me,” says the India-born, Harvard-educated director. “My first film, Salaam Bombay! (1988) was made with Indian and European money. But if your movie has muscularity and some sort of emotional power, and people go see it, then other people take you seriously, and they come to you with studio financing and whatever.”
Even so, Nair’s 2013 release The Reluctant Fundamentalist presented a particular challenge: her commitment to portraying a politically sensitive point of view. Adapted from the novel by Mohsin Hamid, the story centers on a young Ivy League-educated Pakistani Muslim (Riz Ahmed) who achieves success as a Wall Street trader, but feels betrayed by America in the tense climate following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“It was hot button content; a point of view you will not hear in the American mainstream, and we knew it would not be easy,” says Nair. “But for me, creative freedom is imperative.” She and her longtime producing partner, Lydia Dean Pilcher, decided to forgo the studio route, despite Nair’s track record in that sector. She explains, “We didn’t want the pre-censorship that can come with studio money.”
After Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland, and Kate Hudson joined the cast, the film found independent funding in India, Turkey and Qatar, but two of the three investors bailed out on the eve of production. “We were ready to go with sets built,” says Nair. “I was at that place where if you don’t maximize the moment, three years’ work can go away. Fortunately, the Doha Film Institute in Qatar decided to become the sole financier and go all the way with it.”
When asked if it was surprising, as a female filmmaker, to find that level of institutional support in an Arab Islamic country, Nair replies, “Absolutely not. It’s a generalization to say that women are not supported in the Middle East—in many parts they are. There are progressive tendencies here as well. The Doha Film Institute was established to champion voices and points of view that are not heard— whether from women or men.”
The film was chosen to open the Venice International Film Festival, where Nair had previously won the Golden Lion for Monsoon Wedding in 2001. Its international rollout included a Pakistani release in an Urdu translation. Since then, she has been sought out by studios. Her next two projects are both studio productions: The Bengali Detective for Fox Searchlight, and The Queen of Katwe, a live-action Disney film about an illiterate, eight-year-old girl from a Kampala slum who becomes a Ugandan chess champion. “It’s a true story illustrating that genius can be anywhere and everywhere,” says Nair, who lives half the year in New York and the other half in Uganda.
Nair says she is well aware of the gender disparity for directors. “I deplore and lament the ridiculous inequality of the statistics of how few of us there are,” she says. “On my crews, on my team, I choose them for excellence, and I choose largely women.” But she emphasizes, “the reason I have made so many films is because I’ve looked for alternative ways of getting them made, rather than the mainstream American industry way.”
Kasi Lemmons found backing for her 2013 holiday release Black Nativity at Fox Searchlight, where senior vice president of production Zola Mashariki has made a point of supporting African-American filmmakers. The company fully funded the project, a musical written by Lemmons based on a play by Langston Hughes. “Zola was familiar with the play, and immediately had a positive reaction when I said I wanted to come in and pitch,” says Lemmons, who has a track record dating back to 1997, when she won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature for Eve’s Bayou, which she wrote and directed.
Lemmons, who grew up in Boston, began as a child actor, and performed on TV and in film for nearly two decades before becoming a director. Black Nativity is her fourth feature, and her largest and most ambitious production. Given the scale of the undertaking, its $17.5 million budget seems modest: “We shot in New York City—in February—when the days were short, and the winter was hard,” says Lemmons. “We shot a nativity scene right in Times Square. We had a choir, people singing and dancing in the street, and production numbers that required a lot of care.” Her cast included Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, and newcomer Jacob Latimore as the central character, a teen sent to New York at Christmas to stay with estranged relatives.
Part of the directoral challenge, she says, was helping Bassett find the confidence to sing on film for the first time alongside the likes of a powerhouse belter like Hudson. “I told her, ‘It’s all emotion; it’s all acting. You don’t have to be a singer—you’re just a woman singing.’”
Choosing the right collaborators is key to pulling off a musical, adds Lemmons, who worked with composer and music producer Raphael Saadiq and choreographer Otis Sallid. “That’s the scariest part of it to me—am I going to make the right decisions? Once I’m surrounded by my key crew and actors, it’s just a matter of organization and inspiration. And because it was a musical, we had extra rehearsal time for the numbers and the choir that we could use to really work with the actors as well.” In the end, “It was a whole lot of fun to shoot,” says Lemmons of the high-energy, family-oriented production. Released Thanksgiving week, it competed with two other holiday releases targeting an African-American audience, which may have undercut its box office performance. But as Lemmons reflects, holiday movies “can have long lives.”
When asked if she thinks gender has hindered her career, she answers, “It’s so hard for me to think like that. I see it as, ‘Wow, I’ve made four features. I feel very fortunate, and I think tenacity and optimism are necessary qualities if you’re going to swim upriver.”
The worlds of improv comedy, film festivals and the burgeoning Internet culture were all essential to Maggie Carey’s breakthrough in 2013 with her debut feature The To Do List. Carey spent years performing with the comedy troupes Upright Citizens Brigade in New York and the ImprovOlympics in Los Angeles, then made Web shorts that she posted to YouTube as it was just emerging. When The Jeannie Tate Show, which she directed and co-wrote, accrued a half-million hits, she landed an agent, manager and a Web series deal with Warner Bros. She then wrote a feature screenplay, initially titled The Hand Job, that gender-flipped typical sex comedy tropes to feature a female protagonist: a nerdy, high school valedictorian who sets out to tackle a list of first-time sexual experiences during the summer before she goes to college. It was the subject matter, Carey thinks, that led studios to pass on it: “It was a hard R and had a female protagonist, and I think that was a bigger red flag for them than who was directing,” she says.
The project caught the interest of producer Jennifer Todd, who helped get it on “The Black List,” a well-established industry compendium of the best unproduced screenplays in a given year. “From there, we were invited to do a staged reading at the 2010 Austin Film Festival,” says Carey, who had attended film school there at the University of Texas where she earned an MFA. With participants including her UCB colleague Aubrey Plaza, for whom she’d written the lead, and Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live (Carey’s husband), the event sold out and generated significant online buzz.
“We got so much positive press from it that I literally attached the rest of the cast in a month or two,” says Carey. Todd, whose track record features both independent and big-budget films (Memento, the Austin Powers trilogy), was instrumental in maintaining momentum. “Jennifer always said the financing would come after we had the cast. I was advised that I had to act like it was happening, or it would never happen. So I just pretended we were shooting that summer,” says Carey, who continued to work as an actor and comic. “I was living in New York, and whenever I came to L.A. for work I would do rehearsals with the cast, and meet with DPs and production designers, even though we didn’t have a start date or financing. Of course, their first question was always, ‘What’s the budget?’ My answer was always, ‘Uh, low.’”
Meanwhile, Carey and Todd kept meeting with potential financiers. “I made a look book, where I storyboarded several scenes so I could show possible investors my visual style.”
In May, Carey received two offers in the same week. They went with producer (and director) Brian Robbins and his Varsity Pictures, which had a deal with CBS Films to make low-budget comedies. “The upside was we had automatic distribution through CBS Films if they liked it, and the option to buy it back if they didn’t,” says Carey. “Suddenly we had a start date—in two weeks.” The groundwork she’d done to create her visual aids became essential as she raced to prep for a tight 24-day shoot.
When the movie was ready, CBS Films gave it full marketing support. “We screened it a lot for press in New York, and at a ton of colleges and film festivals, to build word-of-mouth,” she says. It grossed $3.9 million in theaters—well over twice its production budget.
Since making the film, Carey says she gets plenty of scripts to read but hasn’t found one she wants to do, so she’s writing her own, about her experience playing soccer on a losing team in college. Because it’s about women, she anticipates she’ll be going the indie route for financing once again. “It’s a female sports comedy,” she says. “You don’t see a lot of those.”
But she feels The To Do List has absolutely opened doors for her. “Doing that first feature, so that you’re actually considered a director, is a bigger hurdle than whether or not you’re a man or a woman. You just have to dive in and do it; you’ll learn more than you will ever believe.”
“American studio projects do come my way,” says Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, who won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011 for In a Better World (2010), and was also nominated for After the Wedding (2006). “But it has to be something I feel very strongly about. As a director, your biggest obligation is to be convinced that you’ll make a great movie out of the material. It’s a necessary starting point.”
Bier’s American films to date include Things We Lost in the Fire (2007) for DreamWorks Pictures, starring Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro, and the upcoming Serena, with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, which is expected to open later this year.
Typically drawn to films involving dramatic intensity and Third World settings, Bier went for a lighter tone for her 2013 romantic comedy Love Is All You Need, financed by Zentropa Entertainments, Scandinavia’s largest film company, which has been a frequent backer of her work, along with various entities in Sweden, Italy, France and Germany. It won best comedy at the European Film Awards and was picked up for U.S. distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.
The Scandinavian film industry, Bier notes, employs far more men than women, but the balance is better than in many parts of the world. “It’s a pretty equal society,” says the filmmaker, whose career took off after she graduated from the National Film School of Denmark. “But I think many young women feel they have to make a choice between family and career, because the working hours when you’re a director are so crazy. I am always the one to say that it is possible, and there are ways of doing it.”
Bier, who has two grown children, elaborates: “We have extremely good child care in Scandinavia, but there are hours when it’s not available. During the first 10 years of my career, I spent all of my salary on child care. I made a calculation that if I could just break even, then I’d have my kids and I’d still be making my movies. So, I don’t have huge savings, but I’ve had a lot of fun. And for my job as a director, I feel that having a family gives me an understanding of life that I perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise.”
So where does this leave us? Can tales of persistence and success such as those detailed above lead to a widespread shift in attitudes? Will the day finally come when gender is seen as irrelevant to whether a filmmaker can lead a crew or engage an audience? Some of the women interviewed here touched on their hopes for the next generation, and how mentorship and opportunity will play a key role.
Shelton, who spent her early years as an actor, puts it this way: “I didn’t start making feature films until I was 39, and it totally had to do with my confidence level. Now, in Seattle, there’s an organization called Reel Grrls that teaches filmmaking skills. The kids who come out of it are in much better shape than I was at their age. They blow me away with their clarity of vision and strong voices. It gives me hope for the future.”
Carey, who like Bell, Shelton and Lemmons, came to directing from a performance background, notes the transition she observed when she became involved with Upright Citizens Brigade. “Growing up, comedy seemed to be male-dominated, but when I went to UCB in New York, Amy Poehler was one of the founders, and an amazing role model. My improv group was half and half, and some of the funniest performers were women. It was never, ‘are you a man or a woman.’ It was just, ‘are you funny.’ So I stopped worrying about it.”
Nair has been committed to activism and mentorship for years. In 2004, after filming Mississippi Masala in Kampala, Uganda, she founded Maisha Film Lab there to train emerging East African filmmakers. (Labs are also held in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.) Its 500-plus alumni include Lupita Nyong’o, the Kenyan-raised Oscar-winning actress and aspiring director. “Many, many of our students are female, and the slogan of the school is, ‘If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will,’” says Nair. The Lab, she says proudly, has “a grueling admissions process,” but is free and has no age restrictions.
From her vantage point teaching graduate film students at NYU, Lemmons sees “very talented women up and coming as directors, writers and DPs. I think it’s a new world, and we have to be careful not to be trapped in anachronistic pessimism. We have to be completely open-minded to what is happening.”
By necessity, many female directors, including several interviewed above, have started off by generating their own projects rather than relying on studio or institutional funding. But it’s important to realize that the latter can be essential to building a lucrative and versatile career. Notes Peirce: “We want everyone to have the opportunity to get the job if they want it. That’s the system I’m vying for.”
For women who make first features that do well and get noticed, she continues, “there’s an expectation and excitement that we will move into this endless supply of work that we see men getting. We don’t differentiate. Then you find, over time, that you’re not getting the same privilege and opportunity. And you’re surprised and shocked, because when you analyze your own successes, they don’t seem any different.”
From her experience and observation, Peirce has drawn this conclusion: “The men have something called privilege. But this is just history. When you study it, you learn that people talking about their disadvantage, and rebelling against it, isn’t enough. At a certain point, there’s a threshold of change that cannot be met until those who have privilege decide to give up some of the pie. And it’s hard. They love working and getting opportunities just as much as we do. But it’s the only way things change. Like with the Civil Rights Movement, you needed white people to say, ‘I’m not going to eat in a restaurant that does not serve people of color. That’s not something I want to be a part of.’ And that’s where we are in history.”
That’s something Lemmons, as an educator, can agree with. She’s hopeful that conditions are changing for women who seek to become directors. “If I didn’t teach in film schools, perhaps I would be pessimistic,” she says. “But even if the industry isn’t fully aware of what’s happening, it’s happening. These people are making beautiful films, and they’re going to go on and have a voice in the industry. There’s just no way they’re going to be able to shut all these women out. There’s too much artistic force in the work that I’m seeing.”