Fall 2006

DGA Roundtable
Talk of the Town

The debate over why the industry employs such a shockingly low percentage of female directors has been going on for years. But the numbers don't change. The Quarterly decided to bring together some top female directors to air out the issues and address future possibilities.


Nicole Holofencer Nicole Holofencer
Arlene Sanford Arlene Sanford
Mimi Leder Mimi Leder
Lesli Lika Glatter Lesli Linka Glatter
Amy Heckerling Amy Heckerling
Dennie Gordon Dennie Gordon

In the midst of a desperately dull summer when I was not yet 12, a new thing called HBO first appeared on television in the culturally bereft Alabama town where I grew up. It was offered for free in a month-long promotion, or we never would have had it. I remember being transfixed by a potent, bracingly intelligent, outrageously sexual and political movie called Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August. The director, pictured in the program booklet that came in the mail, was a woman, Lina Wertmüller, a sophisticated Italian who wore white-framed glasses, waved a cigarette, and apologized for nothing in her interview. She changed my whole idea about what a movie could be and who could make one. This past August, I posed the question of role models to a group of accomplished female directors convened by the DGA Quarterly. Amy Heckerling immediately invoked the name of Lina Wertmüller. "It was great to think, OK, Lina Wertmüller, she's not just a woman, she's fucking awesome," said the writer-director of Clueless, which pretty much matched my own thinking that long-ago summer. I bring this up to illustrate the importance of female role models in the director's chair and the flame they can ignite in those coming up behind them. While the industry can point with pride to the number of women currently making a mark as producers, creative executives and studio heads, and even now as show-runners on several high-profile television hits, the percentage of women directors hired for both theatrical features and television episodes remains staggeringly, dismayingly, and nonsensically low. The Quarterly invited six members who've racked up remarkable credits, in spite of the odds, to share their perceptions about why the big picture, for now, has yet to improve, and perhaps more importantly, what can be done to make it better.
— A.D.

Amy Dawes: I want to congratulate you all on being here, on stepping up to talk, on your persistence, your outrage, your humor, whatever we uncover here tonight. As individuals you've all been successful and are some of the busiest female directors working in film and television today. Yet the number of jobs for women directors remains incredibly low. For example, of the top-grossing 250 features released in 2005, just 7 percent, or about 18 movies, were directed by women. And of the top 40 television shows for the 2004-2005 season, only 12 percent, or 94 out of 800 episodes, were directed by women. What's your reaction to these numbers? Does this situation matter to you?

Mimi Leder: Of course it matters. It matters to all of us. We're very lucky and blessed to be working. But I think I speak for everybody—we want there to be a day when it's not, 'let's hire that woman director,' but 'let's hire that director,' and not have gender associated with our names. We are females. We bring that to the party. But there are many sides to who we are. And if one of us isn't working because of gender, that hurts all of us. Women have so much to contribute. It's a crime that we're still struggling like this.

Lesli Linka Glatter: It blows my mind we're still talking about this in 2006. When I started doing this, not coming from film, coming from dance, this was something I heard talked about. I'm sure we're all sitting here because you put on blinders and you move forward. What else can you do?

Amy Heckerling: It's getting so boring. It's like Roe v. Wade. We're fighting for that again?

Arlene Sanford: I think there are a lot of myths about women directors that producers need to be educated about. We still hear that we can't control a set. But if we're too powerful then we're bitches.

Heckerling: Well, we're bitches anyway. [Everyone laughs]

Sanford: But in order to change it we should have a little survey when we direct. Is that a stupid idea? A questionnaire that they hand to the executive producer. Did that person make the day? Did that person get along with everybody? Let's have a list for all directors, and see where women come in on that, to break the myth that women can't do it.

Dennie Gordon: Frequently, we get a show and we're a novelty. 'Wow, this is different.' But I would love to find out from you guys, 'cause I keep hearing this—that as women, we're uniquely capable of creating an amazing atmosphere on our sets, getting people to roll that boulder up the mountain together, to use humor and lightness. I'll hear, 'it's a fun set, it's a great set.' All of us in this room are working all the time. But let's face it, we also have to be twice as good.

Glatter: The unfortunate thing is that we're still lumped together, rather than, we're just directors, we have our different points of view. We're storytellers, that's why we're all sitting in this room. We want to tell stories a certain way. And that's what's exciting to me. I feel like I put up with all the bullshit of being in the film business because I love being a storyteller.

Dawes: It's been said that Hollywood at the blockbuster level is boys making movies for boys. But now and then something happens to break the assumption about what will sell tickets.

Sanford: With The Devil Wears Prada, they thought it was a big fluke that it made so much money. The first weekend it was 75 or 80 percent women who went to it, and then the men caught up with it.

Heckerling: When I did Fast Times at Ridgemont High, they said nobody cares about teenagers. Then suddenly there are a billion teenage movies. When I did Look Who's Talking, it's like, 'Nobody cares about babies and families.' Then a ton of those come out. Then with Clueless they said, there's no audience for teen girls, it should be about teen boys. Then there's Legally Blonde and all that. They're always saying, 'This is not what anybody wants.'

Gordon: The studio executives, they never know where their next great movie's going to come from. It could be anything. They'd be the first to tell you, 'We're scratching our heads.'

Glatter: Well, even as far as women doing action, blowing up a truck or choreographing a chase sequence doesn't seem to have anything to do with gender. I understand if you're directing a war story, and someone has actually been to war, then that person would know more than anyone at this table.

Heckerling: These guys haven't been to war.

Dawes: Mimi, you've been hired to make films that you didn't write. But it seems that a lot of women, to get a shot at directing a feature film, have to be the writer.

Nicole Holofcener: Because there are so few good scripts. And those will go to the A-list directors. I get sent scripts, but they're not so good.

Leder: It depends how much your last movie makes, and whatever that was, reflects on the scripts that you receive.

Glatter: The scripts that I want, I don't get offered, and the ones I get offered, I don't want.

Dawes: In the feature film world, there have been two women directors nominated for Oscars and four for DGA Awards, whereas in television, there have been a lot of Emmys and DGA Awards to women directors, many of them multiple times, and to women in this room. Is that a chicken-and-the-egg kind of thing, where you're not getting the awards, because you're not getting the scripts?

Leder: I've been nominated nine times for Emmys; I've won two. I'm nominated this year for an Emmy. And I don't see the great scripts coming in. Even with my film work. I'm attached to two very good film projects [but] I'm not getting the A-list scripts. I don't know what the correlation is in terms of television awards or DGA nominations.

Dawes: Sticking with the idea that women directors tend to not get the better feature film scripts, do you have any insight into why that would be?

Holofcener: Because it's a sexist world. It's a sexist, racist world, filled with hate and judgment! [Everyone laughs] Seriously, I'm not surprised at those numbers. I'm not. I think this industry—we're backward.

Heckerling: But how do you account for it? This is show business. It's a liberal community. How is it that there are more senators than there are women directors, percentage-wise? It doesn't make any sense.

Leder: I don't do parties. I don't schmooze, and do the whole circuit, because I have a family. I have a life. Do you think that has anything to do with anything?

Heckerling: I think the people who go to the parties are doing even worse. [Everyone laughs]

Gordon: But it's an interesting question. Does it make a difference to be part of the scene? I frequently go to a meeting and they'll say, 'Who can you bring in? Who can you get?' So does the social scene help?

Sanford: If you pal around with the actors.

Heckerling: How about being a Scientologist?

Holofcener: [laughs] Maybe we should try that. But don't you think the fact that we have kids changes our careers? I know it's changed mine. I'd be much more ambitious if I didn't have kids. But since I do, it's not the most important thing in my life.

Glatter: I just got called to do a huge job in Australia. I've shot in Australia three times. And I was in Prague last year. That is a big deal. You have to make certain kinds of choices. If you're not going to be at home, you better be sure it's something worth doing. And I think it's different—if a man has a family, a lot of times the wife will come, and the children, and their home is made for them. My husband has a job, he's not going to pick up and move. He can't.

Gordon: Of course we put our families first and our children first. But professionally I think sometimes it's not respected to make those choices.

Sanford: It's a life choice, which should be acceptable for everyone.

Holofcener: Sometimes there's a pause. I have female agents, and I think they understand and respect my choices. But I've had male agents. And it's like, 'Really?' I force myself to be proud of my decision, and not embarrassed or ashamed by my priorities. Because the other way around it would be insane.

Dawes: How important was it for any of you to see female role models when you were first trying to follow this path?

Heckerling: Lina Wertmüller was a big role model. It was great to like think, OK, Lina Wertmüller—she's not just a woman, she's fucking awesome.

Sanford: And Agnieszka Holland, when she did episodic television. She did a Cold Case.

Gordon: When I was in drama school I remember seeing the credit for Mimi on China Beach and it made my heart go pitty-pat. The more we see women doing good work, it does inspire us.

Dawes: How does it play out in your own lives? Do you find yourself being a role model for others?

Gordon:: I have a male name. So frequently, I'm not even thought of as a woman. I've been hired sometimes with people thinking that I'm a guy, and then I show up, and it's extremely amusing. But your question was...

Dawes: Do young people coming up get energized by the fact that you're a female director?

Gordon: They do, they're astonished. I've gone to speak a couple of times. I think we owe it to the world to toot our own horn that way, to talk about what we do and what we've accomplished.

Holofcener: I think I've disappointed some teenagers. They're like, 'You're a woman director? That's what it looks like?' 'Cause I'm such a housewife, a mom, a soccer mom.

Gordon: What does a woman director look like?

Holofcener: It doesn't look like this. They think it doesn't, but it does.

Leder: My daughter is 19, she's going into her second year of college. This summer I'm doing this series at Fox called Vanished, and I'm the executive producer and I'm directing the pilot. My daughter came to work as a wardrobe P.A. Now, she was in my films, when she was just a kid. But she comes to work with me on this series, which is high intensity. The first week, it was like, 'Fourteen hours a day? How do you do this?' The other day she goes, 'Mom, you know I never realized what you did. I never really watched and saw what you do, and how you do it.' And she said, 'I have so much respect for you.' It was shocking, it was lovely. All of a sudden besides being her mom, I'm this role model. She grew up on sets. But it's different when you're 19 and you're becoming your own woman, your own person.

Dawes: (to Heckerling) You've got a new movie coming out that you wrote and directed, called I Could Never Be Your Woman, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Tracey Ullman.

Heckerling: The story's about an older woman and a younger guy. Originally it was at a studio run by a woman. And she said, 'Nobody's going to care about an older woman with a younger guy.'

Holofcener: Even if the older woman is Michelle Pfeiffer?

Heckerling: Yeah. It was like, 'Can't they be closer in age?' And I'm like, 'then the story doesn't make sense.'

Sanford: Women are sometimes harder on other women.

Glatter: That can be true. (to Mimi) We've helped each other, and we've had that experience, because our paths crossed. But, I hate to say this, I feel like I've been helped more by men than by women. We have to change that. You grab the hand of the next generation, and help open the door as much as you can.

Heckerling: But also, they're always trying to get rid of us. I don't think we have the freedom to fail that men do.

Glatter: That's really true. If a man makes a movie that's successful, he gets maybe five more out of it. If a woman makes a movie that's successful, you get one more. But it's not going to work all the time. And if you do one that doesn't, you really do have to pull yourself out of that.

Sanford: (to Heckerling) You made a couple of movies that were enormous, and then you made a movie that wasn't as enormous.

Heckerling: And then it was like, 'Get the hell out of here.'

Leder: You make a movie that's perceived as a failure, or you stub your toe, and you're in movie jail—for a while.

Glatter: That's what's distressing, that 'game over' thing.

Leder: When I did Pay It Forward, and it didn't succeed for the studio, I went to jail. This was after making Deep Impact, which made close to $400 million. How many guys can say that? And my first movie [The Peacemaker] was very successful. And actually Pay It Forward made its money. It was profitable.

Gordon: I loved that movie. It was beautiful. But if for whatever reason, it doesn't meet someone's expectations...

Leder: It's been painful climbing back, getting the right movie. But I have television. I've been very successful with that.

Gordon: I've made three movies. My last movie didn't do well, so I'm in jail. But we press on. We create our own opportunities. I was able to go back into television where I had been established, and into developing my own material.

Heckerling: You just got to write yourself out of the hole.

Dawes: Is television a more hospitable environment for women?

Leder: I think it is. I think it's much more hospitable. Television producers are hopefully, willing to take more risks with newer people, bringing them in. And it's a way for someone to really learn their craft, or perfect it. I think if you can do something creative with television, you can do anything.

Glatter: You have to go in and make it look like a film in a very short amount of time.

Gordon: Two cameras, 45 setups. Try and do that on a feature film. We can, because we've all done it. Then you get on a feature set and you say, 'how many pages are we doing today?' They say, 'three,' and you say, 'three?'

Holofcener: You think, three? What am I going to do all day?

Leder: What am I going to do after lunch?

Gordon: I had a 12-page day once on The Practice. It was all courtroom. You become very clever and you block shoot it. But there are plenty of days like that.

Glatter: You definitely learn how to think really quickly on your feet. Especially if you've planned it all out and something doesn't work, you have to just [snaps her fingers] move very quickly. And I think that's thrilling. That can be a great skill-set to have.

Dawes: So it's not as if television is more forgiving or easier.

Leder: It's much harder.

Gordon: You have to be so good, so fast and so dexterous.

Glatter: You have to really prioritize. You have to know what the dollar scene is, and what the five-cent scene is, so if you're going to divide your day you better be sure you're spending it on the scene that's really critical to your storytelling. And the one that's the five-cent scene, figure out how to do it in a clever, visual way and move on.

Leder: The palette's just bigger on a feature.

Glatter: I have to say, where Mimi and I met was one of the places that has been incredibly supportive of women, and that's John Wells Productions.

Dawes: I've heard that about John Wells, Stephen McPherson at ABC, Don Ohlmeyer at NBC, and David Kelley. Have these guys been important in any of your paths?

Gordon: David Kelley was my mentor. He gave me my first job. I didn't leave his side for years.

Sanford: I've worked there a lot too. He doesn't really hire the directors. But he encourages it.

Gordon: He saw a short film that I had done. Tom Skerritt had seen it, and he brought it to David. So Picket Fences was my first show. And David was one of those guys who, if you did well for him, he was loyal, and he had a million shows on the air. You would do a Picket Fences, then you'd do a Chicago Hope, then you'd do an Ally McBeal, then you'd go do a Practice, then a Snoops. And you'd never leave.

Glatter: Most of the big producers tend to find their group of people, and certainly John Wells is one of those.

Leder: John and I came up together. We produced China Beach together. We produced ER together. I've directed a lot of first episodes that he has written. John has been one of the best male producers in town in terms of bringing women and minorities into his group. And Steven Spielberg—he obviously gave me my first picture, The Peacemaker. He was a huge supporter of mine. His company was producing ER, and that's where he found me. I'm sure there were a lot of people saying, 'You're out of your mind. You want to hire her to direct the first DreamWorks movie? You must be crazy.'

Gordon: He must have had to really fight some battles.

Leder: But he just persisted and hired me, because he believed that I was the right director for the project. So there are a lot of great men who hire women. We just need a lot more of them.

Glatter: I think that's important to remember, that there are a lot of great men. I've been based at John Wells for four years. It's an incredible place for a director. People are given respect for the job that they do. You're telling the story the way you want to tell it. That should be how it is. You set up a harmonious work environment for people to do their best work.

Sanford: And there should be more female executive producers who might hire more female directors. Because there are not that many female executive producers.

Leder: No, there are not. I just hired Helen Shaver to direct three of my shows, and she just kicked ass. She's a phenomenal director. There are so many. And there will be more.

Dawes: In the summer issue of DGA Quarterly, there's an article quoting Dana Walden, president of Fox Television, where she says, 'We're constantly searching for women to fill director slots. Our difficulty has been finding women, not overcoming a reluctance to hire them.'

Gordon: I can't believe Dana said that. I can't believe it.

Leder: I'm going to fix that, because I'm producing a Fox show, Vanished, for Dana. We're going to bring in a lot more women.

Dawes: Mimi, at what point did producing become part of your strategy for your career?

Leder: It just sort of fell into my lap. I'd been directing for about a year when I was hired to direct two episodes of China Beach. Then John Sacret Young called and invited me to join the staff. I said, 'what would you like me to join the staff as?' He said, 'We want you to produce the show and direct as many as you can.' It was in those days when there weren't any director show-runners, or director-producers. I became one of the first director-producers doing dramatic television. I hired the directors, prepped them, and really learned my craft.

Dawes: As a strategy for creating a longer career, do you think that's an important way to go?

Sanford: I'd like to do it, because at this point in my life, I'd like to have a place to be. As a director, I go from show to show. The good news is, I don't have to have that many clothes. [Everyone laughs]

Holofcener: It's really hard to keep showing up as the new girl over and over on TV shows. If you do one episode and you're asked back, you can just relax and do a good job.

Gordon: How often are you the only woman directing the show for the whole season? I do The Office, and I'm the only woman.

Glatter: A lot. Because once they've hired one, they feel that they've done their duty.

Gordon: What I find a lot is that there's a cronyism that steps in. There are shows where I've done great work, and shows where I know they've loved me in the past. I might not get invited and I'll inquire why, and they'll say the executive producer brought in some friends. I think women are the first to be dispensed with.

Leder: I try to hire a lot of women when I'm exec producing. And it's always a struggle. Because I always have to get approvals on everybody. I think the studios are much more willing to hire the average guy than take a risk on an exciting new woman. I'll say, 'I want to bring this woman in for this slot,' and I'll hear, 'No, better for the back nine. We don't really know them. Let's get the show successful before we hire the women.'

Glatter: That's a very common thing.

Sanford: Isn't that true for the new male directors too, that they don't want them in early on a new show?

Glatter: That's true. But numerous times I've heard people say, 'We hired a woman once and it didn't work.'

Leder: CSI. They've only hired a woman once. Because it 'didn't work.'

Glatter: No one would ever say, 'We hired a white guy, and it didn't work. So we're not going to hire any more white guys.'

Sanford: I don't think they'd say, 'We hired an African-American person and it didn't work, so we're not going to hire any more.'

Heckerling: Well, they wouldn't say it out loud.

Dawes: There's been a tradition of activism in this area, of men and women going out of their way to open things up. The DGA passes out a contact list of women directors to keep those names in front of producers. Many of you have participated in different programs and initiatives. What kind of activism have you found to be effective?

Glatter: I feel it's important to always have women mentoring. On every show I direct, I have someone shadowing me that I introduce to everyone. That feels like a really direct thing that I can do to promote change. I think what you're doing, Mimi, makes a difference, because you can hire someone.

Leder: And bringing people in to shadow you is the way to really train them, and really get someone in the group.

Sanford: I do that too, and only for women and minorities. The last time it was for a woman who was a commercial director who was married to a key grip I know. She wanted to see what the job was like.

Holofcener: The production will always say you can bring a shadow.

Dawes: Is that as a guest on the set, or is it a job?

Glatter: It's a guest. But they go through prep, and see what the process is.

Gordon: I find that my executive producers are very open to the idea. I'll say, look, I have a film student who wants to shadow me. Is she welcome on the set? I've never had anybody say no.

Sanford: I look at the program ABC has, where they will pay the company if they hire a woman or a minority.

Glatter: When I go in to places to talk about how we can make a difference in this area, we always bring up the ABC program, to say this is something you all should be doing at your network, because it really works. There are big success stories out of this. Other companies have not followed suit, yet. That would be a great thing, Mimi, if you could do that at Fox.

Dawes: There are two different programs at ABC, one's an ABC-DGA program. And the Guild is trying to set this up at other places. They're working with NBC, they're working with CBS, encouraging these types of programs.

Leder: Every network should do that.

Dawes: So if you could imagine a world with a level playing field of opportunity, what would that world include?

Glatter: This not being an issue.

Gordon: I think in five-year's time, this paradigm shift that we're in the throes of will create so many more opportunities. There's so much new media, and things that will need to be directed. It will be very interesting to see if opportunities come up, and I hope that more women will start to explore new media as a way in.

Heckerling: When I grew up there were 13 channels and not that many movie studios. Now, you know, you could watch it on your wristwatch. Stuff is everywhere that's directed. So directors are needed.

Leder: That's right. And hopefully, talent will win out.

Gordon: When I started out I had to raise money to make a 35 mm film. But now you can go in with friends and buy a $3,000 camera that is phenomenal. So there's the whole idea of saying to women, don't wait for someone to hire you, go make something. Make that film. Throw it on the desk of the producers. Show what you can do. You can edit on your home computer. You can empower yourself.

Leder: No one's going to do it for you, that's for sure.

Sanford: And then you have to find a way to get people to watch it.

Leder: Cream rises. It does. You just have to believe in yourself. And believe that you can do anything. Hey, I directed an action movie.

Gordon: Mimi, your action looked amazing.

Leder: So there, everybody.

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