So who, among the roughly 6% of directors who are women (the figure put forth in this widely reported 2014 survey), should work more? Short answer is, obviously, all of them. Because if we’re working to redress the ludicrous gender imbalance that exists in the U.S. film industry (and that is a too-obvious-to-even-comment-on goal, right? Right?) we need to see a dramatic uptick in stats like the percentage of women who direct the top 250 movies in any given year (2013’s depressing figure of 6% is actually down 3% from 2012, which is even more depressing). And let’s just repeat once again that, while “diversity” is a buzzword bandied about liberally these days, we’re not talking about a minority here (which is a whole other, though related, issue) we’re talking about women—50% of the population and, crucially, 50% of cinema audiences. (Also, 100% of the writers of this article, so have at it, crazy anti-feminist internet trolls.)
Of course, there are much-needed initiatives, like Fox’s mentoring program for emerging female directorial talent, that are aimed at recruiting the next generation, in the hopes that the industry’s profile in this arena will improve. But what about the women who are already card-carrying DGA members who can’t seem to catch a break? Why do so many women (and by “many,” we’re talking relatively, obviously) make a splash with a film or two only to virtually disappear from the industry landscape thereafter? Why does the model of the indie hit calling card film that gets you a massive, “Jurassic World”-style franchise, only seem to apply to men? (As Manohla Dargis pointed out last year, “The great irony is that women are accused of making romantic comedies, as if it’s a bad thing, but Marc Webb makes a romantic comedy and he gets ‘Spider-Man.’ Are you kidding me? You cannot win.”) These and other rhetorical questions (ones frequently highlighted on our excellent sister blog “Women in Hollywood” whose interviews we plunder frequently throughout this piece) have led us to today’s feature.
The following list of ten names is of course highly subjective, and was arrived at after not a little internecine wrangling. For example, many of the names that were on top of our mind have been working fairly consistently, but out of our direct line of sight on television. Lisa Cholodenko’s terrific “Olive Kitteridge” miniseries for HBO and Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” for Amazon Prime are just two of the recent premium TV shows that have given talented female filmmakers a welcome presence, but the precedent extends far back to when TV was not the fully rehabilitated equal, or near-equal, of cinema in terms of prestige and/or directorial input. Allison Anders, Nicole Holofcener (both of whom got their TV start on “Sex and the City”), Mary Harron, Darnell Martin and even Martha Coolidge, the first female president of the Directors Guild of America, are all women who made promising early movies but moved towards TV in the late nineties at least as a supplement to at best sporadic big-screen outings.
It’s a path many female directors are taking more recently too, and with the improvement in the quality of TV offerings, it does feel like a more viable choice—there is a difference between getting the odd episode of a “CSI” spin-off to direct and helming the next Steven Soderbergh-produced high-concept TV series, after all. And the latter is happening for Amy Seimetz, for example, whose great feature debut, “Sun Don’t Shine,” we bigged up a lot in 2012.
So all is rosy, because TV is now just as good as movies, and female directors can all get work there, right? We-ell. In fact the stats for episodic TV, while better, are still pretty poor: just 14% of TV directors are women (and only 2% of the 19% non-white directors are women, incidentally).
There are hopeful stories too, of course. Aside from the Holy Trinity of highest-profile female directors (Campion, Bigelow, Coppola) quite a number of women who might have figured on this list a year or two ago have landed gigs in the meantime, and have had films out last year, this year, or have something coming imminently down the pike. There’s Cholodenko, who we mentioned already; “Pariah” helmer Dee Rees is currently filming a Bessie Smith biopic and has several writing and directing projects lined up; Karyn Kusama has “The Invitation” coming in 2015; Lake Bell is following up her brilliant debut “In A World” by being attached to the Noah Baumbach-penned adaptation of Claire Messud’s novel “The Emperor’s Children”; Gina Prince Bythewood will release "Beyond the Lights" soon; Zoe Cassavetes has “Day out of Days,” her first feature since “Broken English,” due in 2015; Kasi “Eve’s Bayou” Lemmons came back to the big screen in 2013 for the first time since 2007’s “Talk To Me” (though it was a shame it had to be with “Black Nativity”); and most high-profile of all, Ava Du Vernay will follow up her strong 2012 title “Middle of Nowhere” with this December’s awards-probable “Selma.”
So that’s as much context as we can really give without writing a dissertation on the subject. For the reasons touched on, we excluded the names mentioned above from our final list of ten, and other than that, we focused mostly on women who haven’t made a narrative feature in the last few years, who’ve directed at least one film that we’re pretty keen on, and who work primarily in English-language cinema. There are many, many more and those names we’ve already mentioned need to be celebrated for their achievements, get nominated for Oscars, land blockbuster gigs and most importantly need to keep getting work, but here are 10 other names that feel overdue, in some cases criminally so, for some big news soon.
Best Known For: “Monster” (2003)
Last Film: “Monster” (2003)
What’s the story? Jenkins hasn’t been sitting on her porch knitting since her excoriating, uncompromising feature debut, which famously won Charlize Theron an Oscar and performed the seemingly impossible task of making the actress look unattractive. In fact she’s worked on and off in TV, most notably gaining an Emmy nomination for directing the pilot for “The Killing.” She went on to direct one further episode of that show, and otherwise has one “Arrested Development,” two “Entourage” entries and two further pilots to her filmography, 2013’s “Betrayal” with Henry Thomas, and the just-completed “Exposed” starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ben Barnes. Oh and a segment of a breast cancer awareness TV film called “Five.” So yes, that’s eight TV episodes, more or less, in eleven years? Of course more recently, Jenkins was attached to “Thor: The Dark World” before leaving that/being pushed out citing “creative differences” with Marvel (perhaps the same creative differences that caused original director Kenneth Branagh to bail and ultimately left Alan Taylor in charge of such an uninspired sequel). And then there was that brief biscuit of time when “Fifty Shades of Grey” was going to be directed by someone like Joe Wright or Gus van Sant or Bennett Miller or Jenkins, before the dubious honor fell to Sam Taylor-Johnson. This distinct recent upswing in buzz has, fingers crossed, borne fruit—in May it was reported that Jenkins is attached to a female assassin action comedy with definite shades of “Grosse Pointe Blank” called “Sweetheart,” that made the 2013 Black List. But early days there, and nothing set in stone as yet.
In Her Own Words: “[Filmmaking is] very much about pushing on a door that won’t open, but one day the door cracks open, and a moment happens.” [2011 interview]
Best Known For: “Una Noche” (2012)
Last Film: “Una Noche” (2012)
What’s the story? Student Oscar nominee Mulloy’s deserved success with her excellent, multi-award-winning debut “Una Noche”—which picked up Best New Narrative Director, Best Actor and Best Cinematography at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and went on to play to great acclaim throughout the rest of the festival year—is the kind of inarguable profile boost that surely should have seen her linked or attached to something else since. But we’ve had no word as yet on her next project, despite her NYU mentorship from Spike Lee and the constant stream of awards and positive notices, our own included, that her film generated. Mulloy is undoubtedly a filmmaker who wants to create her own projects, and we really hope that, as one of the most promising writer/directors to emerge in recent years, we hear about something cooking soon—it is all too easy for hot-new-thing status to dissipate in the years in takes to pull a new film together if you’re starting from scratch. Her keen eye for the authentic rhythms of Cuban life, her ability to get astonishingly strong performances from her non-professional cast and her masterly forming of these element into a thrilling, beautiful (also brilliantly edited) whole belied her inexperience completely. So if it felt like the confident, fresh expression of a filmmaker with four or five films under her belt, we can’t wait to see what her fourth or fifth film will look like. She needs to get cracking on her second.
In Her Own Words: “I think it’s really important that there be female directors from everywhere, every walk of life, every culture. I think that woman in society, in general, going through life, are treated differently. And I think that those experiences obviously do translate to work when you’re directing a movie.” [August 2013 Shadow & Act interview]
Best Known For: “Punisher: War Zone” (2007)
Last Film: “Lifted" (2011)
What’s the story? To be best known for Marvel’s biggest box-office bomb is a pretty disheartening thing for any one-time Oscar nominee (Alexander directed 2003 Live Action Short nominee “Johnny Flynton”), but it’s certainly not the whole story. While many can point to the film’s abysmal box office take for the reason the one-time kickboxing champion has not made a major studio feature since (2011’s “Lifted” was a smaller project that went to DVD soon after a very brief limited bow) in fact, Alexander’s direction, particularly in the action scenes, came in for quite some praise. The film is categorically the best of the three “Punisher” films, placing at a very respectable 16 on our ever-controversial ranking of all 36 Marvel movies, and more importantly, in its way-OTT, gross, grubby violence (it’s only one of two Marvel films to end up with an R-rating), it proves that women, or at least this woman, can have chops in an action arena almost solely dominated by male directors, something that her previous feature, “Green Street Hooligans,” also did. But Alexander is not just languishing in a kind of director’s purgatory because she made a film that didn’t make money, she was, wait for it, "difficult" (see Lynne Ramsay). The filmmaker reportedly clashed with Lionsgate, but while she has acknowledged her "uphill battle" on the movie, she has said she’s "extremely happy" with the finished film. That said, she has subsequently been outspoken about her disappointment with her studio experience and her views on Hollywood’s attitude to movie piracy and to the gender imbalance within the industry. In fact, in January, Alexander posted an impassioned plea for Hollywood (and journalists/bloggers—we are not exempt) to get serious about gender diversity within the industry. It makes an awful lot of sense, and contains some jaw-dropping from-the-horse’s-mouth anecdotes (it was reposted on “Women in Hollywood,” and since we can’t find the original blog, here’s a link to that). It’s quite clear that Alexander knows that sticking her head above the parapet in this way is not going to win her many powerful friends, which is a shame, because while many of the women on this list probably have a shot at getting another low-budget indie made sometime before they die, Alexander is probably the one with the most readily applicable skill set to take on a summer tentpole or a franchise.
In Her Own Words: “I don’t care if Hollywood dishes out the same impossible odds, I don’t care if they built a wall as thick as the commies did in East Berlin, and I don’t care if I have to be ten times as good as a male director to get 1/8th of the opportunities he gets… as long as people are honest about the game we’re playing, the tournament we’re fighting. But don’t tell me I’m not a wildcard when I so obviously am, and don’t tell me you’ve been working diligently to eliminate the wildcard system, when in reality you’re not.” [From her blog]
Best Known For: “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2012), and for being “difficult”
Last Film: “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2012)
What’s the story? To cinephiles, Ramsay is also pretty well known for the two features that came before ‘Kevin,’ both totally unique and unmistakably hers—“Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar,” and fans may have also sought out her trio of early shorts, (“Small Deaths,” “Gasman” and “Kill The Day”) the first and second of which won a short film Grand Jury Prix at Cannes. We’d say that even her most vociferous detractors can’t possibly argue with the Ramsay’s sheer artistic vision, and her completely individual, auteurist approach. But it’s very possible, and deeply wrong, that more people might now know her name because of two high-profile films she didn’t end up making—“The Lovely Bones” and the upcoming “Jane Got A Gun.” Her criticism of the “weird, Kafkaesque nightmare” that was her time on ‘Bones,’ to which she had been attached since before the novel attained bestseller status (she worked on her script from galley proofs), was surely at least partially justified by the horrible mess that was Peter Jackson’s adaptation. And while we have yet to see what Gavin O’Connor has done with “Jane Got A Gun,” the doldrums release date of February 20th doesn’t inspire much confidence in what was once a thrilling-sounding project. Whatever credence one gives to the lawsuit that producers of the latter film filed against her, the fact is all this chatter has surely negatively impacted her Hollywood rep and makes always gun-shy investors doubly nervous about backing her projects. But Ramsay is one of the most unique talents out there, and is working on a terrific sounding project, “Mobius,” which is something about “Moby Dick” in space in which “Ahab is the monster." By our reckoning she’s working at a 100% hit rate so far for features films, which makes her, in fact, a pretty good bet. To describe her in Ezra Miller’s words, “She’s a punk rock lady, but also a fastidious perfectionist.”
In Her Own Words: “I think life is infinitely complex and film is in some way a beautiful, dark dream sequence. I’m essentially a dreamer, but I’m tough as old boots as well." [The Guardian, 2011]
Best Known For: “Sleeping Beauty” (2011)
Last Film: “Sleeping Beauty” (2011)
What’s the story? Enormously divisive when it finally made it to Cannes, (we were more positive about it than many critics) Australian Julia Leigh’s feature debut, starring Emily Browning, had been kicking around as a script since 2008 when it landed on the Black List. Whether or not you like the film, you have to admit that somehow going from a standing start to being one of the hotter ticket premieres at that year’s festival was an impressive trick. And all seemed on track when Leigh, who also has two novels under her belt, announced her next film would be an adaptation of of of those books, titled ”Disquiet.“ But there hasn’t been a lot of word on that since, considering at one point it was rumored for Cannes 2013. Leigh is one of the newest of a crop of Australian women directors, including Cate Shortland, Gillian Armstrong, Jocelyn Moorehouse and others, who seems to have benefitted from that country’s more progressive stance on gender in filmmaking (Shortland gives some insight into that phenomenon here), but it doesn’t appear to be making her sophomore film any easier to mount. The slow, poised and extremely stylized vibe of her debut may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is uniquely hers, and any woman who can land a Competition slot in the notoriously male-skewing Cannes, with her debut film no less, has got something that the film industry needs more of.
In Her Own Words: “Be very persistent.” [Dec 2011, Women in Hollywood interview]
Best Known For: “Night Catches Us” (2010)
Last Film: “Night Catches Us” (2010)
What’s the story? A quiet portrait of ex-Black Panthers trying to readjust to life after the movement’s dissolution, Tanya Hamilton’s debut, and so far sole feature film, picked up a little heat at Sundance in 2010 and was nominated for a fair slew of awards. It features two terrific performances from then-emerging stars Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, an assured grasp of the relationship between small personal stories and their larger historical context, and a painter’s eye (Hamilton is also a painter) for composition and color that makes it a beautiful film to look at. Yet, since this promising debut, the result of ten years of development and research by the young filmmaker, we’ve heard very little from her since. Of course, as a black female director she’s operating at a double industry disadvantage, one she herself identified in this interview, where she talks about the “hole in the middle” by which very few films that look at African-Americans in a “varied and complex and layered way” get made. The fact that nearly four-and-a-half years have gone by without so much as a whisper of a second film from the undeniably thoughtful and smart Hamilton speaks to that lack. We hope that that higher profile of women of color such as Ava Du Vernay (who we don’t mean to keep on pressuring into being some sort of a paragon, but there just aren’t that many examples out there) will help open doors for people like Hamilton. Because “varied and complex and layered” films about the African-American experience are needed more now than ever.
In Her Own Words: “[The film industry is] just a proven formula, and I don’t blame the system for being the way it is. It’s like, if you show me some money, I’m going to open the door, but if I have to guess just by looking at your thing and not knowing who’s going to like it, well then the system wonders how they can trust you.” [Insightnews.com interview]
Best Known For: co-directing “Brave,” (2012), being removed from “Brave”
Last Film: “Brave” (2012)
What’s the story? All the way back in 1998, Chapman became the first woman to (co)-direct an animated feature for a major studio when she helmed DreamWorks Animations’ “The Prince of Egypt.” So in 2003, moving to the even more successful Pixar must have seemed like an almost inevitable step in the right direction. And sure enough, soon after, the tortuously long development process began on a project called “Brave” and Chapman was involved with that for the next six years before she was announced, with great fanfare, as “Pixar’s first female director” in 2010. Then a few months later she was replaced by Mark Andrews following creative disagreements, leading to a notoriously awkward shared podium moment when the film (in not a particularly classic year for animation, it should be noted) won the Animated Feature Oscar. Whatever went on behind closed doors we can’t know, but Chapman was reportedly heartborken over being replaced (and after seven years of work and not a little fanfare about the director’s chair announcement, we can understand that) and soon after the film’s release returned to DreamWorks. Of course, in the weird demi-monde of animation, where individual films can take seemingly millenia to develop, it’s not as easy as someone waving a magic wand and anointing Chapman director. But let’s not forget she’s one of the few women to have picked up an Oscar for a narrative feature film she directed, though that might be mitigated by the fact that, since the Pixar bust-up, she has been refreshingly forthright/brazenly outspoken (depending on how you look at it) about her views on the business. But other female animation directors have since forged a path, not least Jennifer Lee, co-director of the all-conquering “Frozen” and Jennifer Yuh, who we suppose is the first woman to solely direct an animated studio feature, with “Kung Fu Panda 2” and next year’s “Kung Fu Panda 3” to her name.
In Her Own Words: “[Animation as a whole] is run by a boys’ club” [Oct 2013, Time]
Best Known For: “The Savages” (2007)
Last Film: “The Savages” (2007)
What’s the story? The memorialization of some of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s less well-known films that happened in the wake of his untimely death drew attention to a few neglected gems, and Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages” is one. While the film saw no shortage of praise lavished on it at the time, particularly for the performances (Hoffman’s co-star Laura Linney was Oscar-nominated), in the years since it somewhat faded from memory, perhaps because of the stony silence that gradually fell as regards any news of a follow-up from its talented writer/director. Indeed, in the seven years since its release, there’s been nothing at all from Jenkins, and we haven’t so much as heard rumors of her being attached to anything. In the mold of the family/relationship dramedies of Nicole Holofcener or Jill Soloway, Jenkins also directed the micro-budget indie hit “Slums of Beverly Hills,” starring Natasha Lyonne and Alan Arkin, which was just as well, if not better received, so why she hasn’t been courted since, even as a episodic TV director, is a mystery to us. Like many of the women on this list (Patty “no relation” Jenkins and Debra Granik, for example), her films feel like they’ve done a lot more good for her actresses than they have for her. And while Jenkins keeps busy with theater directing and rewriting gigs, it’s not like she doesn’t have other film projects she’d like to mount—an extended period working on a rival Diane Arbus movie more or less ended when Steven Shainberg’s “Fur” got made (though we’d suggest there’s room for a more definitive Arbus movie), and back during press rounds for “The Savages,” she was reportedly working on her next script already. However a joke she made back then seems more eerily prescient than any promise of projects to come: when asked what was next, she replied with a laugh, “I’m taking nine years off!”
In Her Own Words: "[What Hollywood producers look for in scripts is]…’a sympathetic character, we need to have them save a child in the first ten minutes of the movie and do something noble," but I’m actually sort of alienated from those sorts of characters. I identify much more with people that are flawed, because I guess I am. Maybe those producers aren’t flawed and they can only identify with heroes." [November 2007 interview]
Best Known For: “Jesus’ Son” (1999)
Last Film: “Persons of Interest” (2004, documentary)
What’s the story? This is another case where the paucity of feature film credits is somewhat outweighed by the number of TV titles and short films that she’s directed. Still it’s surprising that Alison Maclean is such a relatively unknown name, and that she’s not been given the go ahead on a narrative feature film project for fifteen years. And this is all after her first short film “Kitchen Sink” debuted at Cannes and won eight international awards. We could (maybe) understand that if her last time at bat was a stinker, but “Jesus’ Son” is a well-performed, endearingly loopy, occasionally dreamy adaptation of the short story collection of the same name by cult writer Denis Johnson, featuring great early roles for Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton, as well as Holly Hunter, Jack Black, Denis Leary and Dennis Hopper. As Roger Ebert put it, “It doesn’t glamorize drugs or demonize them, but simply remembers them from the point of view of a survivor.” Canadian New Zealander (apparently there is such a thing) Maclean has since worked steadily, picking up even more effusive notices for 2004’s controversial documentary “Persons of Interest” on Muslim Americans in the wake of 9/11, and also directing episodes of ”Sex and the City,” “The Tudors,” “Carnivale,” “The L Word” and “Gossip Girl.” But with two such strong features under her belt, as well as debut “Crush” starring Marcia Gay Harden, which is a bit more wobbly but not without promise, it’s sad that she hasn’t made a return to the big screen since. Though she did direct the music video for Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” so there’s that.
In Her Own Words: “Since I moved to New York it’s been a frustrating six years trying to get work as a director and for a long time I only got script development deals. I wrote three features in a row and hit a huge wall of frustration.” [July 2000 Nitrate Online interview]
Best Known For: “Winter’s Bone” (2010)
Last Film: “Stray Dog” (2014, documentary)
What’s the story? We’re slightly bending our own rules by including Granik, as she does technically have a 2014 film under her belt—the terrifically compelling, intelligent documentary about Vietnam veteran biker, “Stray Dog” (review here). But while anyone who has seen that film can tell you that it’s clearly a labor of love, and of Granik’s already recognizable precision and authenticity, it’s a self-generated project that, despite festival success, still has no release date, and even when it gets one, it will be for the limited audience that feature-length documentaries get. Now, “Stray Dog” is no trade down in terms of quality, but in profile, as the first subsequent film from the director of a 4-time Oscar nominee that broke out an actress who is probably the hottest property in the world right now, it feels like it will be too easy for the powers-that-be to ignore. And that’s the main issue: Granik has been busy on this tirelessly shot doc in the years since “Winter’s Bone." Though in that time has also tried unsuccessfully to launch a HBO pilot, to mount a Pippi Longstocking movie and to get an adaptation of Russell Banks’ “Rule of the Bone” off the ground (she drily refers to it as the potential third, after “Down to the Bone” with Vera Farmiga and “Winter’s Bone” in her “osteo-trilogy”). Even beyond those projects, where has her name been in the conversation? How many Hollywood offers has she fended off? How many impassioned commenters have suggested her name be added to the mix for “True Detective” season 2 (the chatter about which is fast becoming practically the only reliable barometer of who’s "in" right now)? Ok, we’re being a little facetious, but when we can fill whole features with men who’ve made impressive leaps from small-scale, independent films, often ones with a lower level of critical/commercial impact than “Winter’s Bone,” to much bigger things, why not Granik? It’s not so much that we want to see her helm “Revenge of the Planet of the Apes” or whatever, (though now that we’ve said it, it makes a crazy kind of sense), or that she’d even be vaguely interested, but even getting wishlisted for that sort of property keeps your name ringing in financiers’ ears and makes it a tiny bit easier to get funding for the films you do want to make. Basically, we just want Granik to make more films.
In Her Own Words: [her advice for other women directors] “Work on thickening the skin.”
Folks, we know we’re only scraping the surface here, and we haven’t even glanced overseas, but this is one time when we’d really like you add your two cents to the conversation. Feel free to use our comments section below to talk up any of the women that have been absent a while and who you’d like to see get back behind cameras. Who knows? Perhaps someone with actual clout might be reading…