According to an oft-cited statistic, women comprise only 9%
of directors in the film industry. But the participants of the “Directing the
Future” panel at Pepperdine University School of Law’s Women in Hollywood: 100 Years of Negotiating the System haven’t
let those numbers stop them.
and co-executive producer Lesli Link Glatter, producer and documentarian Linda
Goldstein Knowlton, and Brave co-director
Brenda Chapman spoke about what led them to careers in directing despite the
odds against their favor. In another panel, “YA: Raising Up New Heroes,” Twilight screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg
and Divergent producer Lucy Fisher also expressed
their commitment to featuring strong, young heroines on the big screen.
Interestingly, none of the female directors on the “Directing the Future” panel started their careers with the director’s chair as
an end goal. Glatter began her career as a dancer and choreographer. “It never
occurred to me it was going to be harder [to direct] as a woman,” Glatter said.
Coming from the dance world, where almost everyone was female, she arrived at
the entertainment industry with the assumption that it would be a similar
environment and never gave her gender a second thought.
Knowlton followed a similarly circuitous route in the
industry. She credited a male colleague with pushing her towards directing,
though not in the most helpful way. Knowlton worked as a producer for a number
of years and decided to leave her position, she said, “because Harvey Weinstein
almost killed me.”
Chapman just wanted a job where she could sit in a corner
and draw all day. She credited Jeffrey Katzenberg with pushing her towards
Glatter had just returned to Los Angeles after filming the Homeland
finale in Rabat, Morocco. She has directed many drama series, including Twin
Peaks, NYPD Blue, Gilmore Girls, The West Wing, ER,
Mad Men, and most recently Showtime’s Homeland and Masters of
Sex. She noted that one of the difficulties of working in
television is coming in to a show’s pre-existing crew and having to quickly
establish herself as a director. “In my experience, the crew doesn’t care if
you’re male or female as long as you know what you want. They want you to steer
the ship, because if you don’t, that means they have to do your job, too,” said
If anyone doubted Glatter’s directing prowess, they got to
see her in action on Saturday. When a clip from Homeland started to
play, she commented it wasn’t at the right spot and got up to assist the tech
crew to find the correct starting place. When faced with people’s inability to see past her gender,
Glatter always found humor helpful. During the hiring process, she’s been told, “We hired a woman once and it didn’t work.” Turning the statement around on
them was helpful. “Can you imagine saying that about a white guy,” she quipped. “Oh, we tried a white guy once and that didn’t work out.”
Knowlton simultaneously developed and produced The
Shipping News and Whale Rider. “I spent so much time on The Shipping News. I had that book when
it was in galley form and then it was getting changed because of Harvey
[Weinstein], who was the bank, and you can’t really say no to the bank,” said
Knowlton. After she quit producing, she fortuitously met a woman who
worked on Sesame Street. When Knowlton asked if the show incorporated
specific themes for young girls, she learned that the American version did not,
though the international versions of the show did. That conversation evolved
into Knowlton’s first foray into directing, the documentary The World
According to Sesame Street. That’s how ideas usually start for me. They form around a
question, and then I realize that if I have these questions, then other people
will too,” said Knowlton.
A recent project, Somewhere Between, is more
personal. It focuses on four young girls who were adopted from China and how
their adoptions have affected their lives. Knowlton’s own daughter was adopted
from China. The issue of adoption has frequently been written about from the
parental point of view, so she wanted to tackle the children’s perspective. “On scripted films, your goal is to eliminate all surprises
for a director,” Knowlton explained. “But on documentaries, you have to be open
to all surprises.”
The autonomy of working in documentary was both rewarding
and challenging for Knowlton. She doesn’t have to deal with getting large crews
to trust her, as she only travels with two crew members who are her camera and
sound. When Somewhere Between was released, she was frustrated with the
small distribution offers the film was receiving, so she learned how to raise
money through Kickstarter and distributed the film herself without losing any
of her rights as an owner of the material
Prior to Brave, Chapman directed Prince of Egypt
for Disney. Animated films go through many more stages of production than do
live-action ones. On Prince of Egypt, Chapman was frustrated that
watching the frames and sketches didn’t help her know exactly what was going on
with the effects. “So I asked the effects guys to walk me through it. It
established a great relationship between us. They knew I wanted to learn and they
were very supportive once we established respect for one another. Throughout
the process of making Brave, they were cheering me on,” said Chapman.
Chapman briefly explained the long creative process behind Brave and how she almost got pushed off
the film. Chapman had started developing the film in 2004 but once Disney
bought Pixar, the release date kept getting bumped for Disney sequels. With all
the time to pick and prod at the film, upper management and Chapman began to
have creative differences. “Eighteen months before release, they replaced me
with a less experienced male director. I saw an early screening of the film and
it was completely different than my vision,” said Chapman.
The test screenings of Brave did not go over well, and
a few months later, Chapman’s scenes were back in the film and she was
reinstated on the project, which went on to make over $200 million at the box
office. She credits her daughter with being the inspiration behind the feisty
Scottish heroine Merida.
Later in the afternoon, the “YA: Raising Up New Heroes” panel brought in Melissa Rosenberg, screenwriter of the Twilight saga, and Lucy Fisher, producer of Spring 2014 release Divergent.
These panelists, too, are beating the odds in a different
sense. While Fisher and Rosenberg are women working at the top of their fields
in the industry, the theme of the panel was how films with a young, strong
female lead are doing well at the box office, while the common sentiment is that
studios only produce projects that attract thirteen-year-old boys.
Rosenberg discussed how making Bella a stronger character
than in the Twilight book series was very important to her and the
director of the first film, Catherine Hardwicke. “She was a difficult character
because most of her thoughts are internal, which does not translate easily to
the screen, so you have to externalize her. Then I would take scenes where she
was passive and twist them a little so she’s propelling the action forward. But
that’s not a decision based on gender, that’s just good writing,” said
Fisher cited Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate as being
instrumental in stepping up to the plate and supporting films with strong,
young female characters. She said that it was necessary in previous years to
sneak women-driven content through a studio’s back door, citing The Color
Purple, which reportedly was only made because of Steven Spielberg.
In addition to the young female lead, played by Shailene
Woodley, Divergent features two other important female characters,
Ashley Judd as Tris’ mother and Kate Winslet as the villain. While it remains to be seen how Divergent does at the
box office, Summit’s hope is it will fall in line with the success of Twilight
and The Hunger Games.
Lauren C. Byrd is interested in exploring the documentary and social impact film space in Los Angeles. She enjoys writing about women in the industry and studied film and television at Syracuse University.