Although Debra Granik and Marielle Heller were left out of the Oscar conversation this year, they aren’t looking for a pity party. Both filmmakers premiered lauded new films this year — with Heller directing Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant to Oscar nominations for her “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and Granik helming the acclaimed “Leave No Trace,” which recently earned her a Best Director nod from the Indie Spirits. Neither filmmaker is happy that they failed to score Oscar nominations in a year where all the Best Director nominees are men, but that doesn’t mean they’re shocked by it.
“People are like, ‘Don’t you feel bad? You were snubbed,'” Heller said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I was like, I never expected to be nominated. That is the difference.”
Seated next to her, Granik added, “I felt that women were snubbed, though. Snub, forget that word. Snub makes it sound like it’s a personal, excluded. Snub is a dumb word, that’s a word out of old Hollywood. It’s a word that can only be associated, I think, with vanity. I think empirical exclusion is more of, I think, what we’re talking about.”
The pair were on hand for a filmmaker panel last week hosted by American Airlines at the Soho location of women-centric community and co-working space The Wing, where they were joined by moderator Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo (for whom the Film Independent’s Bonnie Award is named; Granik is this year’s recipient of the female filmmaker-focused award and grant) and “Little Woods” filmmaker Nia DaCosta.
Both Heller and Granik’s films have earned various accolades during the season. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars, and McCarthy and Grant have both proven to be major contenders in their acting categories; “Leave No Trace” is nominated for three Indie Spirits and recently earned Granik a USC Scripter Award. But the film’s directors were left out of a number of other races. They were hardly the only ones, as the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, the Directors Guild Awards, and the BAFTAs, all failed to nominate a single female director in their Best Director categories.
And then there’s the Oscars. This year’s Academy Award nominations have no women in the Best Director category, or even a female-directed film in the Best Picture category. It’s an old story: Only one woman has ever won Best Director at the Oscars — Kathryn Bigelow, for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker,” which also won Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. After Bigelow’s big win, no female directors were even nominated in the category until last year, when Greta Gerwig was nominated for her feature directorial debut “Lady Bird.”
“It’s discouraging, obviously,” Heller said of this year’s lack of female director nominees. “I read this one article about how, in some ways, what the problem was, was there were too many good women-helmed films this year, and we diluted each other. … This is a horrible way to put it, but there’s a silver lining to that, which is that it’s one thing when the public can rally behind a film and say, ‘This is the one we’re going to put our support behind,’ and there’s a tipping point that happens and everybody goes, ‘We’re supporting this film that was directed by a woman.'”
Photo by Mary Cybulski
She added, “This was an incredible year for women filmmakers. A lot of us made really worthy movies. But that was our undoing. There were too many of us, and the world doesn’t know how to handle more than one good female director at a time.”
Granik wasn’t surprised, either. “Social change works like a rubber band,” she said. “You stretch it, and then it snaps back, because it got uncomfortable stretched. Stretching is uncomfortable. I don’t know, all of a sudden, society was in downward dog and the hamstrings are stretching, and then you crumble back into child’s pose.”
Heller, however, argued that the problem stemmed from a general lack of understanding about what directors do. “I had a reporter ask me recently if the actors had consulted me on their performances at all,” she said. “And I saw red for the only time in this press tour, because I felt like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that our understanding of what I do is actually so low.’ … I think that there is a very clear understanding from the public about these super muscular, technical films, and how that’s directing. If there’s an explosion, someone directed that. Or a big fight scene. Or some big crane shot, or something.”
She added, “Attributes that are traditionally assigned to be feminine [can result in] truly emotional films that make you feel deep in your heart. There’s a reason [why], and that reason is the director bringing all of the pieces together. Bringing the actors together, bringing a performance out of the actors, bringing their designers together, bringing their DP together, bringing the editing together, to modulate and create a moment, where you as an audience member are going to feel.”
Heller said she frequently noticed the disconnect between an understanding of a director’s role and the movie they make. “I got separated from my film, which I worked so hard on,” Heller said. “If I had gone into this awards campaign going, ‘I made this movie. I did this. I created these performances, I created this chemistry, I brought them together, I cast Richard E. Grant, I cast Melissa McCarthy. I brought them together. I did this. I found all of these things. This was what I did, this was what I did, this was what I did,’ maybe I wouldn’t have been separated from the story of movie in the way that I have been. But how would I have slept at night?”
Scott Green / Bleecker Street
Granik, who said she has little interest in entering the blockbuster space, remains inspired by the work of other voting bodies, including the Independent Spirits. On Saturday, she will compete for a Best Director award at the annual event, which has previously nominated her on four other occasions. Heller won an Independent Spirit Award in 2016 for Best First Feature for “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”
“It’s more inclusive,” Granik said. “Some filmmakers that are just starting out are getting wonderful encouragement. There’s an emerging director category, there’s best first film, there’s the idea that [even for] a scrappy film, someone could be really rooting for you. … It’s the indie awards system that actually incubates new filmmakers, and incubates women, incubates filmmakers of color.”
Both filmmakers are currently working on new projects: Heller is editing her much-anticipated Mr. Rogers biopic, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which stars Tom Hanks, while Granik recently wrapped a new documentary. And yet they’re still feeling the effects of an awards season that might have overlooked them, even as their movies found plenty of support. While neither film made over $10 million at the box office, both were critically beloved. Eight months after its release, “Leave No Trace” still holds a rare 100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, while “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” earned a sterling 98% rating on the review aggregation site.
“I think there’s something fascinating about the fact that I made a movie about a woman who cares so much more about her intellect than her looks,” Heller said. “I knew it was slightly revolutionary, to see a 51-year-old lesbian cat woman who cares more about her brain and her work output than how anyone thinks about her. Every day, I have people of all ilks come up to me and say, ‘Oh my god, it felt so good to see a woman like that on screen.’ Even if it’s not in an awards show, there’s this positive thing which is happening, which is bit by bit, people are going, ‘Actually, I want that. I want to feel seen in this way.'”