The elephant in the room at last week's oddly titled Columbia University Film Festival panel "What Glass Ceiling? The Remarkable Success of Columbia's Women Filmmakers," showcasing filmmakers Lisa Cholodenko ('97, "The Kids Are All Right"), Nicole Holofcener ('88, "Walking and Talking"), Shari Springer Berman ('95, "American Splendor") and Cherien Dabis ('04, "Amreeka") was how tough it is for these indie filmmakers to be successful at all. (The panel video is below.)
Columbia professor Bette Gordon, moderator of the event at Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Theater, was aiming to inspire the Columbia students in the room, rather than exploring the contours of the glass ceiling that still hovers over Hollywood. All of these talented writer-directors get fewer opportunities than their male peers. But that was not the subject at hand. (The NYT digs into it yet again here.)
Nonetheless clearly these filmmakers have struggled to get their projects made with modest budgets within a system that does not support their efforts as it should. Yes, that's party because (especially in the case of husband-and-wife team Berman and Bob Pulcini) their taste is high and standards higher. But crossing over from the indie side to Hollywood has never been harder. Television is easier than movies. And yes, things are looking up for Cholodenko, who earned four Oscar nominations for "The Kids Are All Right," including best picture, screenplay, supporting actor and actress.
Cholodenko had hoped to start earning money after her first success "High Art," but had to raise equity financing for a movie with better-known actors, "Laurel Canyon," starring Frances McDormand and Christian Bale. "There was no good deal on the table," she said. Things get easier, and more difficult, too. "Kids Are All Right" was tough and also took years to get made.
Cholodenko found that much of the stuff "sent to you is not better than what you'd imagine for yourself…Now I'm more comfortable rewriting, adapting, revising. It's getting to the point where better stuff comes your way." Indeed, now she has multiple projects in the pipeline," including an HBO TV series of "The Kids Are All Right," for which she sought advice from Holofcener.
Cholodenko confirmed to The Playlist that she's now adapting Tom Perrotta's book "The Abstinence Teacher" after Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton moved on. Reese Witherspoon is producing Cholodenko's adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir of her 1,100-mile solo hike "Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail." And Steve Carell is attached to another adaptation, Judith Viorst's family classic "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day."
Holofcener gets to shoot her smart, witty, idiosyncratic New York ensembles, usually starring her alter-ego Catherine Keener, because she keeps her budgets small. Her last, "Please Give," cost $3 million and grossed a total $4.6 million. Holofcener directs for television between films, on such shows as "Six Feet Under" and "Parks and Recreation."
Berman met filmmaking partner Pulcini at Columbia. Listening to stories about old Hollywood led to their first doc about the closing of Chasen's (it showed on HBO and made a profit after ten years), and their career built from there. She worked as a casting director early on, and thanked Ted Hope for his help backing their doc hybrid Harvey Pekar biopic "American Splendor," starring Paul Giamatti. Eventually they got their payday on "The Nanny Diaries," which was needless to say an unpleasant experience. "I went back to indie film," Berman said.
Even though Kevin Kline and Paul Dano were delightful in their "The Extra Man," no one went to see it. HBO beckoned with "Cinema Verite," which brought its own set of truth-fiction challenges. And Berman and Pulcini are in the editing room on indie showbiz comedy "Imogene," starring Kristin Wiig, for which UTA is selling North American rights.
As writers, Dabis, Holofcener, Berman and Cholodenko write for others as well as themselves. Berman writes differently for the studios–fake scripts with "obnoxious descriptions," she said. "You tell them what the character is and not dramatize it, there's 'fool them' scripts, and 'just for us' scripts." Berman has hopes to still make their contemporary remake of "The Bride of Frankenstein" at Columbia.
Holofcener wishes she could just focus on one thing at a time, but realizes she can't put all her eggs in one basket: "I'm afraid nothing is going to happen. It gets scary out there."
Berman warned against pressure from foreign sales companies to cast the wrong person in a movie–at that point "there's very little you can do to save the film. If you do that to get the movie greenlit that's a movie you live with forever." Dabis has felt that pressure, and asked, "do you kill your film to get it made?"
Holofcener admitted that she came to blows over casting a movie and was willing to let it die because "the studio and I couldn't agree on anybody. I'd rather not make it. Then we finally agreed."
Holofcener thanked producer Ted Hope for backing her early on with "Walking and Talking." At the start "I worked harder than I had to to prove to everyone on the crew that knew what I was doing because I cared about that. Now I don't do that at all."
She loves writing for Keener, knowing that she'll tell her if something is "dumb or corny, or stupid." On set Keener looks at Holofcener in her eyeline "to help her access what I need from her. She's crying on screen, I'm crying off screen. She's accessing what I once felt."
Dabis, the youngest of the group, worked as a staff writer on "The L Word." She raised Sundance lab film "Amreeka"'s micro-budget from various foundations as well as the Middle Eastern community. The film played the director's fortnight at Cannes and won the FIPRESCI prize. "The second movie is a bitch," said Dabis, who wasn't expecting to go through the same trouble all over again raising financing. "I have to accept that it's never going to be easy, it is what it is, and keep going."
Check out the video below:
Video streaming by Ustream