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Female Filmmakers Want to Direct Blockbusters; Here’s Why They Don’t – Girl Talk

Lynn Shelton, Lexi Alexander, Lake Bell and many more answer the lingering blockbuster question, with some very personal results.

Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.

IndieWire recently published a pair of lists that singled out 25 working female filmmakers that we deemed “ready” to make a blockbuster. From many readers, we got this response: “But do they even want to?”

It seemed like a strange question: Has anyone ever wondered, much less asked, if male directors were interested in big-budget movies? Nevertheless, we reached out to the filmmakers on our lists, and the response was nearly unanimous: Yes, of course they do.

That said, it wasn’t the first time they’d been asked. And, as it turns out, there are a number of reasons that might make them decide to steer clear.

“That Dream Is Not Gendered”

“Most filmmakers dream of breaking into Hollywood with a short film or indie feature and then getting recruited by the studios to make bigger movies,” said Lexi Alexander, who directed the 2008 superhero film “Punisher: War Zone.” “Contrary to popular belief, that dream is not gendered. Women filmmakers are as ambitious, their dreams are just as big and many of us love genre.”

Ava DuVernay on the set of "Selma"

Ava DuVernay on the set of “Selma”

Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount

Over the years, a number of male filmmakers, from Colin Trevorrow to Gareth Edwards, have jumped from small indies to major studio features, seemingly without a hitch. That’s rarely been the case for women.

With her adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time,” Ava DuVernay joins a rarefied — no, tiny — class of female filmmakers who have worked in the $100M budget range. So far, her only companions are Kathryn Bigelow (“K-19: The Widowmaker”), Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”), and Jennifer Yuh Nelson (“Kung Fu Panda 2”).

“There are great directors out there like David Lowery and Ryan Coogler who get great opportunities to move into bigger films based on one feature, and women should have the same opportunities,” award-winning director Alma Har’el (“Bombay Beach”) recently told IndieWire. “There’s enough women directors out there who deserve those and I cheer for each one of them.”

READ MORE: 13 Female Filmmakers Who Are Ready To Direct A Blockbuster

While Alexander was the first female director to take on a major superhero franchise, she doesn’t recall the experience fondly. One major reason: She doesn’t want to face the gender bias she battled during the film’s production.

A Zero-Sum Game

“The reason I quit even reading or meeting on blockbusters is that the experience itself is like a zero-sum game,” she said. “I experienced a taste of it when I made ‘Punisher.’ For those of us who have some experience, both working in the business and with the gender bias issue itself, we end up doing the risk assessment in our head when thinking about the possibility of a blockbuster gig.”

Alexander breaks down the formula: “Lack of trust, less distribution than male directors, less P&A money than male directors combined with a massive dose of double standard on how you will be judged if any of this makes you nervous on set.”

“No matter how you twist and turn it, the most likely outcome is that you will either end up with a movie that bombs, which will send you straight to director’s jail,” Alexander said. “Or you actually manage to do a good job and have a hit, but somehow all those executives who argued with you about everything now think you’re difficult.”

Lexi Alexander on the set of "Punisher: War Zone"

Lexi Alexander on the set of “Punisher: War Zone”

Lions Gate

Given all that, even Alexander wants to get back in the game.

“So do I want to direct a blockbuster? Yes, I’d love to,” Alexander said. “But I don’t want to be seen as a risk when I walk on set and then deal with all of the consequences this kind of bias causes.”

Horror stories like Alexander’s kept director Lynn Shelton from wanting to pursue the bigger opportunities that came her way after the release of her third film, “Humpday.”

“Soul-Crushing Experiences”

“At the time, I was really nervous about the idea of working on a bigger scale, mostly because I didn’t want to lose my creative control,” Shelton said. “It’s really difficult to get final cut, and I knew that. I also heard some kind of scary stories out there, of directors who had a really hard time creatively. Soul-crushing experiences.”

READ MORE: 12 More Female Filmmakers Who Are Ready To Direct A Blockbuster

Shelton, however, now feels both ready and able, thanks to a series of positive experiences working in television, including directing gigs on shows like “New Girl” and “Fresh Off the Boat.”

“Television has really helped me just to gain confidence as a director in general, but especially in charge of larger crews and larger-budget productions,” Shelton said. “Right now, I feel much more relaxed about the idea, much more confident. I feel like I could do it, no problem.”

Amy Seimetz, who is currently enjoying accolades for her work co-creating and directing Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” recently went through a similar change of heart. Seimetz, who has directed shorts and an acclaimed feature (“Sun Don’t Shine”), is also an accomplished actress. Her latest role, in Ridley Scott’s upcoming “Alien: Covenant,” helped inspire her to think more deeply about making her own blockbuster.

Amy Seimetz on the set of "The Girlfriend Experience"

Amy Seimetz on the set of “The Girlfriend Experience”

Amy Seimetz/Starz

“I had never been on a set that big before,” Seimetz recently told IndieWire about the film. “I could get behind doing something like that! Who doesn’t want $200 million to play around with?”

Still, Seimetz admitted she was worried about the loss of creative freedom with such a property and expressed concern that the blockbuster machine couldn’t accommodate the creative filmmaker. 

The Sweet Spot

“What was so great about ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ was nobody told me what to do,” Seimetz said. “My goal is to find the sweet spot, where I am allowed to have the creative freedom that I know I work best at, while having the resources to do pretty spectacular things on screen.”

Lake Bell, who just wrapped production on her second film, “What’s the Point?,” is crystal clear when asked if she wants to make a studio film.

“Do I want to make a huge studio picture that’s incredibly successful? Fuck yes, of course,” Bell laughed.

Yet, like Seimetz, Bell wants to find the studio film that still allows her to be her own filmmaker. “I can’t imagine what it’s like having a corporate entity thrusting their opinions on every move, on something that will take years and years of my life,” she said, adding that she has to feel “super-passionate about [a project] to put up with all that bullshit.”

Nicole Holofcener on the set of "Please Give"

Nicole Holofcener on the set of “Please Give”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Bell would know: She recently stopped campaigning for a studio film because she was so concerned that she would lose control over it.

“I made a kind of gentle play for an unnamed, huge ‘blockbuster,’ and the response that I got, even from my representatives and even people that had [previously] tried to delve into that was, ‘Oh, it’s like directing by committee,'” Bell said. “You have to be very comfortable with a slew of people just sort of enforcing themselves on your creative endeavor. That caused a lot of pause and made me stop my campaign.”

Shelton expressed a similar sentiment.

“A Passionate, Personal Connection”

“For me, what it comes down to is, a lot of time and effort and energy to make any feature film,” Shelton said. “Therefore, it has to be the right material. That’s all. I’m not trying to spend two years of my life as a gun for hire, just to say, ‘See, look, another woman is out there.’ There has to be a passionate personal connection to it.”

READ MORE: ‘The Bell Jar’: Kirsten Dunst’s Entire Career Has Been Leading Up To Her Feature Directorial Debut – Girl Talk

But Bell – and others – remain positive about what the future will bring for female filmmakers who want to work on a larger scale.

“I would like to believe that there is room for something that I create originally that speaks to my kind of voice, but that also fits within the studio template,” Bell said. ” I want to give large audiences the benefit of the doubt that they will understand something that is slightly more indie-flavored but within the constraints of the studio shape.”

Nicole Holofcener, known for directing big-hearted features that depict the messy range of human emotion (“Enough Said,” “Walking and Talking”), said she’s been offered “bigger” films and said she’d “be happy to direct one if it’s the right thing.”

Holofcener said she’d like to make a female-facing comedy like “Trainwreck,” “Knocked Up,” or “Bridesmaids,” all hugely successful and all by male directors.

But she’s not holding her breath.

Lynn Shelton at a "Touchy Feely" Q&A

Lynn Shelton at a “Touchy Feely” Q&A

Amanda Schwab/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock

“Ideally, I would love to have one of my ‘small’ films turn into a blockbuster by way of making lots and lots of money,” she said. “That’s the only way I imagine that my name and ‘blockbuster’ would ever be in the same sentence. I don’t see that happening any time soon, but that’s okay with me. I just want to make what I love, and generally the things that I love are not blockbusters.”

Har’el thinks there can be a middle ground.

“I want to direct any movie that can create a world that’s reflecting how I feel as a human being,” Har’el said. “Any movie that can connect me to stories I relate to and allows me to show why my filmmaking is different than most filmmakers out there.”

Blurring the Line

And that line of thinking doesn’t automatically discount studio films or blockbusters, at least in Har’el’s eyes.

“I would actually consider [making] any studio film as a political act, because more women need to direct those bigger movies in order to prove the gender-superiority complex the film industry suffers from is not real,” she said. “It’s an illusion constructed by scared white males who don’t trust women.”

Har’el said she turned down a handful of studio films over the years, including “Step Up 3” and a few horror properties, because she found them to not be “substantial or related to my strengths as a filmmaker.” She’d like to direct something with a sci-fi bent “that has to do with post-apocalyptic shit” or that “blurs the line between reality and dreams.”

READ MORE: Ava DuVernay Continues To Break Hollywood Barriers, and She’s The Perfect Person To Do It – Girl Talk

One director who appeared on our initial list asked to speak off the record, and was blunt about the kinds of opportunities that should be made available to her and to other female filmmakers.

“I would liked to have [been able] to pitch on the female ‘Ocean’s 11,’ anything Disney is making right now (i.e. ‘Maleficent,’ ‘Mary Poppins’ reboot), a ‘Cowboy Bebop’ big screen adaptation, anything in the ‘Star Wars’ universe, ‘Batman V. Superman,'” she said.

Alma Har'el on the set of a Stella Artois commercial

Alma Har’el on the set of a Stella Artois commercial

Alma Har'el

The female-led “Ocean’s 11” will be directed by Gary Ross, while Rob Marshall will helm “Mary Poppins Returns.” The “Star Wars” cinematic universe has yet to tap a woman to direct – though it’s happily mined the indie ranks for men – and while Patty Jenkins is directing a DCEU film, it’s the female-facing “Wonder Woman,” not a Superman or Batman story.

While many filmmakers we spoke to expressed frustration with having to continually talk about their place as a “female filmmaker” in Hollywood, they all see the value in making their intentions clear.

“That’s the place we’re at right now, a place of trying to point out just how many skilled storytellers that are out there that happen to be of the female persuasion,” Shelton said. “And there’s no excuse – really, there’s no excuse – that these people aren’t being hired.”

Added Har’el, “We’re going to be laughing about this in 30 years. No gender gap is gonna stop us.”

Additional reporting by Liz Shannon Miller. 

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Comments

tony

Alexander sounds like she has near unobtainable expectations. Women should be getting more shots at these movies, and I have no doubt that they face extra and insidious challenges that men don’t, at least not to the same degree. But she’s going to fade away before finding the perfect situation. Sometimes you just have to jump, and hope you stick the landing.

This talk about creative control.. c’est la vie. Ask David Ayer, Whedon, Snyder, on and on about that. Unless you have the clout of a Nolan or Spielberg, that’s the trade you make. You just have to hope you have the skill, script and luck to turn out something special. The ironic thing is that it’s almost more inexcusable that women haven’t been given these blockbusters when these films have so much oversight and corporate handling that it’s laughable to claim female directors don’t have the fundamental competence needed to guide these soulless things.

    simon

    I think the article is addressing two different things. Both the disparity between men and women getting blockbuster opportunities (and at which point in your career they come) but also the internal conflict any director has (man or woman) about wanting to take on a huge project but having to possibly compromise your creative freedom.

    Yael

    I agree. Also, I find it interesting in an article about sidelining female filmmakers, they completely leave Jennifer Lee out of its mention of “A Wrinkle in Time”, whose adaptation it also is. But never mind.

jake

So these thoroughly victimized women, who assure the world that they’d love to direct a big budget movie, but only if the work is “personal”, otherwise why waste two years of your life? And when they’re not hired for these jobs precisely because these projects aren’t concerned with Self Expression — what? It’s all thanks to sexism? What next? A demand for more female military dictators?

    Kate Erbland

    No one here is claiming to be a victim.

      Jeff

      In all seriousness, there are people out there whose knee-jerk politics override any sort of real-world concerns. For example: they got upset over Black Widow bemoaning her inability to procreate because it suggested she should stay home with the kids like women have done over the centuries while simultaneously ignoring how her condition was the result of having a total hysterectomy forced upon her as a pre-teen by the KGB to keep her mission-focused at all times.

    Brian Boyle

    The MRA is strong with this one. Jake, we can almost smell your trilby.

Slim

Without giving into the snark that Jake thought appropriate, I do think his overall sentiment is correct. There’s no point in talking about a desire to make blockbusters if what you really want is to make personal films. The days where there might have been some overlap between the two are long behind us. Of course, there should be as many women as men directing big-budget movies, as well as smaller ones, and everything in between. That’s an issue of equal opportunity. But for those of us who truly love film, especially film that offers a distinct worldview, the reason we want more female filmmakers has nothing to do with job opportunities; it has to do with seeding the art form with a wide variety of voices and visions. That imperative has little to no bearing on a discussion of blockbusters, where a unique vision or a unique voice is so far beside the point that it does not figure at all.

(And yes, Nolan and Spielberg remain exceptions, sort of, for now.)

Leon Raymond Mitchell

Yeah it’s that terrified PURE white male talking afraid of losing that entitlement perch. These woman are not Victims at all but White boys love to do that shit and paint folks that way it reduces them and keeps their superiority flowing like a water fountain!

    Denis

    Whoa! Watch that White Boy crap. Or it’s only White Males that are responsible. That’s absolutely ridiculous and undeniably prejudice. Pure and simple.

Blackbelt

Alma Har’el makes sense as usual!!! PLEASE get that woman on a big film already.

Ira TF

Agreed regarding Alma Har’el. Love this! A political act… – “I would actually consider [making] any studio film as a political act, because more women need to direct those bigger movies in order to prove the gender-superiority complex the film industry suffers from is not real,” – If you saw her films you know she’s a true filmmaker and an artist but apparently isn’t blind to the context of what it means to be asked this question.

RumpledForeskin

TL;DR

amy

I want Lynn Shelton to direct the Amy Schumer/Jennifer Lawrence film. http://www.people.com/article/jennifer-lawrence-amy-schumer-finished-writing-movie

There have been a bunch of great, female-led comedies recently but there’s rarely a woman at the helm (exceptions include the AB FAB MOVIE and SISTERS). I would love to see what Shelton would do with a comedy like this. It would be HUGE.

Slim

I’d really like to know why my comment, which I thought was fair and intelligently expressed, wasn’t published here.

    Dana Harris

    Sorry about that — we have occasional tech glitches with comments. Try again?

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