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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.