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Heroines of Cinema: Brenda Chapman’s Firing and the 5 Stages of Grief

Heroines of Cinema: Brenda Chapman's Firing and the 5 Stages of Grief

A lot has been written about Brenda Chapman in recent weeks, following the release of “Brave” – the film she was hired by Pixar to write and direct. At the time she was the first woman appointed as sole director of a major studio animated film. But six months later she was unceremoniously fired and replaced by Mark Andrews over the always ambiguous “creative differences”.

Given such ambiguities, it is hard to read too much into events. What we can agree is that Chapman’s firing came as a tremendous shame to those of us engaged with the struggle of women to gain positions of power in Hollywood. But she remains a pioneer in animation, and it is important she does not go down in history as a victim. Given this, and in order to seal her status as a true Heroine of Cinema, this week’s column aims to guide us through our troubled feelings over the firing of Brenda Chapman, via the tried and tested Kubler-Ross model, a.k.a. The Five Stages of Grief.

It doesn’t matter that Brenda Chapman was fired. “Brave”, the film on which she receives writing and directing credit, has been a huge hit – the fifth highest-grossing film of the year in the US, out-grossing “Ratatouille” and “Wall-E”. It would have been nice for Chapman had she directed the project from start to finish, but replacing directors is commonplace in the world of animation. If that’s what it took to bring out “Brave”’s potential, who are we to say it was a bad decision?

There is no genre in which the ego of the director is more often required to play second fiddle to the pleasures of the story they are telling. How many people can name the director of “The Lion King”? Brenda Chapman’s role as Head of Story on that film is probably more widely known. And the story is what matters – which is why we should be celebrating the success of “Brave”, not quibbling over its production history. By whatever means necessary, parents and children all over the world can now enjoy Chapman’s brilliant tale of female rebellion and maternal struggle. In the boy’s club of computer animation, this is no small victory. Not to mention that Chapman may yet receive an Oscar for her troubles. The success of Brave is a triumph for women and storytelling.

What bollocks. The firing of Brenda Chapman is the most depressing employment decision to hit Hollywood in years. Here, at last, was a woman granted the freedom to explore feminine themes in a self-penned script, based no less on her own maternal experience. Chapman brought her passion project to Pixar and developed it from the start, only for it to be seized from her and placed under the stewardship of yet another male director. In her own words, “this was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels”.

It is no consolation that the film was a success, because the issue is bigger than one film. Women in Hollywood do not get hired to direct major budget projects. If it took a man to make the project work, what message does that send? Brenda Chapman is one of very few female role models in animation, and as a high-profile pioneer, the denouement of her big directing debut is, as she described it, devastating.

There is a positive side to all this – it has brought a lot of attention to the issue of female directors in Hollywood, and animation specifically. That is unprecedented. Chapman was recently given space to air her views in Melissa Silverstein’s New York Times debate on women in Hollywood. Rather than grind an axe, she highlighted the need for more experienced female directors to mentor the next generation. One woman she herself mentored and encouraged was Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who following Chapman’s firing, beat her to the title of first major animated feature directed by a woman when she was hired to direct Kung Fu Panda 2. Chapman’s unfortunate experience surely increased the amount of publicity granted to Nelson and her subsequent achievement. This included being featured on the front cover of the Hollywood Reporter, side by side with Angelina Jolie, after Kung Fu Panda 2 went on to become the highest grossing female-directed film in history. A woman steering a film with “Kung Fu” in the title to a $665 million worldwide gross? Like Hillary Clinton’s bruising bid to become the first female president, perhaps the blows dealt to Brenda Chapman have made it a little easier for those who come in her wake.

READ MORE: Heroines of Cinema: Muriel Heslop

That is a flimsy argument. How many other Yuh Nelsons are there out there? How do we find the next one? And meanwhile, where does Chapman go from here? Her entire career had been building towards “Brave”, and it is not clear when she will get another chance to write or direct a feature film (there are few details available about her new job at LucasFilm). The success of Jennifer Yuh Nelson is all very well and good, but lets not forget that she was hired to work on a sequel – a proven quantity, not a risky writer-director project with explicitly feminine themes. Pixar have released their film and it has done perfectly well, but how many other female-driven films are they planning? Will it be another seventeen years? As Chapman asks in her New York Times piece, “How can we get more women in positions of power in Hollywood? Anybody? … Anybody? …And the crickets chirp”.

What’s happened has happened. There is only so much we can say about Brenda Chapman, so let us recall the positive. She couldn’t have been fired if she hadn’t been hired. She persuaded Pixar to say yes, we will give this woman $185 million to make a film with Scottish accents and feminine themes. The story got her the job, and the story made it into cinemas worldwide.

So let us remember Brenda Chapman as the poster girl for collaborative storytelling and its shared rewards. For men and women working together and passing the baton when needed. And ultimately, for moving the conversation on from a bunch of successful, well-paid creatives, to the little girls and boys who watched “Brave” on the big screen and got inspired. Maybe some of them noticed the name “Brenda” in the credits. Maybe some even went straight back home and started doodling. I have a feeling that is an image that would make Brenda Chapman very happy.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer and contributor to Indiewire’s Lost Boys blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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