My cinematic coming of age happened in Paris on a post-collegiate Rotary fellowship. In the 6th arrondissement, where there are almost as many cinemas as there are impeccably-dressed women wearing twelve layers of scarves, the best friends I made were the specialty film festivals playing the classics: Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, George Cukor, etc.
I was enthralled watching the flawed, whip-smart protagonists talk their way into each other’s hearts and minds. The women were unpredictable, hilarious, struggling to make sense of themselves and the relationships they pursued or avoided. I recognized myself and my friends in Diane Keaton’s myriad verbose characters, and I remember thinking how fun it must be to pick words out of the ether and put them in the mouths of performers like her. At the end of that year, I decided to move to LA.
After working the better half of a decade in development, I felt ready to reach for some of those words myself, and having been acutely inspired by Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset,” I began writing a comedic love story with a serious soul. “Tumbledown” centers on a young woman in rural Maine slowly healing after the loss of her singer-songwriter husband. While struggling to write his biography, she strikes up an embattled relationship with a sardonic New York academic who’s got his own theory about her husband’s death.
The script was handed up various agency food chains, propelled by the idea that this nuanced, multi-faceted central role would attract a wonderful actress. To the talent agents, the thoughts and emotions expressed by my female protagonist were considered an asset.
But besides the reps, most industry insiders knowingly confided the movie would be “a lot easier to get made” were I to flip the genders of the leads, and tell the story from the perspective of the male academic. Or at least beef up the guy’s role, because actors won’t play second banana.
It was suggested we give the male character something macho to do — like shoot a gun. This recommendation resulted in an admittedly great flaming arrow crossbow scene that ultimately fell to the axe of our special effects budget.
The movie business is a swamp of received wisdom, and one of the muckier perceived truisms is that it’s harder to make a woman’s movie with broad appeal.
It’s not because women aren’t allowed to be smart on screen. We’re frequently cast as glasses-wearing scientists or arcane knowledge experts, normally in plot-servicing supporting roles. But there’s a pervasive assumption that the key demographic of young men don’t want to see movies about verbally-endowed women, especially if they are talking to other women.
Certain scenarios make exceptions: Women behaving badly? Being crass? Carrying a weapon and/or wearing lycra? They can “move the needle.” But women going through something emotional, at crisis points, falling in love in authentic/imperfect ways — the kinds of arcs television thankfully is rife with? That’s where things get more challenging for the big screen. And if men won’t show up for that, how do we push back besides by being better mothers to our sons by raising them to be different?
As I plan future scripts, I realize how I’m unwittingly falling prey to the same sexist assumptions that pervade the business. I catch myself calling my next story “a small indie feature about a woman who…” Would I call it small were the main character a man? Or is “small” now synonymous with “non-franchise”?
Are character-driven movies destined for multi-platform (small-screen) release, and therefore, should we herald the fact that stories in which women speak their hearts and minds at full volume have a better way to reach an audience, and we no longer must elbow Hulks and Batmen off the big screen? Should we take this as a decent consolation prize, or are we letting ourselves be caged in a guided ghetto?
I vow to keep placing complicated women at the center of my screenplays, and ask those who love movies to make a similar pledge: Keep challenging assumptions to help swing the pendulum back into a new era of fast-talking dames on the large and luminous screen.
“Tumbledown” opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles February 5th. You can catch it nationwide and On Demand February 12.
Desi Van Til studied English Literature at Princeton University, then enjoyed a post-graduate cinema-intensive fellowship in Paris before moving to Los Angeles to work in film. She spent five years as VP of Development for producers Donna Roth and Susan Arnold. Van Til associate-produced Gary Winick’s “13 Going on 30” starring Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo, as well as Judd Apatow’s “Drillbit Taylor” starring Owen Wilson. She adapted and produced the short film “Last Night,” starring Frances McDormand, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival.
Van Til moved to Maine with her husband, director Sean Mewshaw, and founded Rusticator Pictures to produce the comedic love story “Tumbledown” from her original screenplay. “Tumbledown,” which Desi also executive produced, stars Rebecca Hall, Jason Sudeikis, Joe Manganiello, Griffin Dunne, Blythe Danner and Dianna Agron.
Van Til was an executive producer on Kief Davidson’s 2013 Oscar-nominated short documentary “Open Heart” which aired on HBO. Van Til wrote a feature romantic comedy for Warner Brothers entitled “Married Off,” and is currently working on another female-driven screenplay set in Maine.