Over the course of four films, Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz have carved out a unique niche: bending both genre and expectations to craft stories that break the mold of what a “female-centric” story can (and should) look like. From superheroes to high school students, the women that populate the couple’s films — which Hart directs from scripts the couple write together — find drama and emotion in unexpected, and often otherwise untapped places. All of that is by design.
“With all of our movies, it’s something that we think about a lot, making female characters feel like real women, as opposed to a female character that fits into a formula that everybody is comfortable with,” Hart said in a recent interview with IndieWire.
While other films and filmmakers might be hung up on building stories around easily digestible and readily recognizable formulas, Hart and Horowitz relish the chance to bring more authentic stories to the screen, the kind that don’t feel like anything else. Their latest, the Rachel Brosnahan crime drama “I’m Your Woman,” only deepens their obsession with telling stories about the kind of women who don’t often lead feature films.
Although the shape of the ’70s-set film sounds familiar on paper — lower-tier mob guy Eddie (Bill Heck) runs afoul of his bosses and has to go on the run — the perspective that Hart and Horowitz bring to it is entirely new. The film doesn’t follow Eddie; instead, it tells his wife Jean’s (Brosnahan) story, interrogating the fallout of her own life in the face of a terrifying mafia threat.
“I think it’s pretty obvious from watching the film that we love ’70s crime dramas,” Hart said. “Right at the time that we first became parents, we were watching quite a few of them. But as much as we love them, I couldn’t stop thinking about the female characters on the periphery of them.”
Hart pointed to classics like “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” “Thief,” and “The Getaway” as the kind of genre classics they ate up, the sort of films populated by female characters who never got the same exploration as their male counterparts. What about them?, she wondered.
“There’s all these incredible actresses in those movies — Tuesday Weld, Diane Keaton, Ali McGraw — and they only really have a handful of scenes in those films,” Hart said. “I would find myself at the end of watching them wanting to know what had happened to them. You know what happened to the guy, he either dies or kills everyone, and the woman just disappears at some point when everything gets ‘too dangerous’ for her and the children. That was the beginning of the idea for the character of Jean, just getting to see the journey of the woman inside of those movies from her own perspective.”
Over the course of her four directorial outings, Hart has continually centered authentic women in unexpected places, from Lily Rabe’s shiftless high school teacher in “Miss Stevens” to the superheroic family at the heart of the Gugu Mbatha-Raw-starring “Fast Color.” Even her bigger-budget 2020 outing, the Disney+ original “Stargirl,” follows a teenage girl fighting to be her true self in the most inhospitable of places: high school.
Crafting characters with a unique perspective is what drives all of Hart and Horowitz’s films, not just easy reinventions or simple swaps — you’re never going to find these two gender-flipping a story just for the hell of it, their interests run far deeper than that — so it should come as no surprise that “I’m Your Woman” continues that tradition.
“I think our MO when we do things like this is to just follow the thread and say, ‘Who was this woman authentically in these worlds? Who were these people authentically in these worlds?,'” Horowitz said. “You could do a version where the woman is playing the traditional male role and she’s the criminal so she does all the things that a man would have done in those movies, but I think our interest lies a little bit more in shifting the perspective, not just flipping gender.”
Digging for authenticity also means throwing out tired — if often well-meaning — tropes about the kind of women who can lead a feature film. The women that populate Hart and Horowitz’s films aren’t easily classifiable as simply “likable” or “badass,” they have real dimension, real problems, real flaws.
“It is deeply intentional,” Hart said of those choices. “I feel — and I know Jordan does too, but obviously as a man it’s a different experience working on those female characters than it is for me — so frustrated when I see so many films that have female protagonists that still fall prey to those tropes that feel like the trappings of a male-structured world and entertainment industry.”
That means endeavoring to make something that shouldn’t feel as unique as it still does: crafting female characters that feel, more than anything, like regular people. Jean might be a mob wife on the run, but she’s also a wife and mother who values those parts of her life more than anything. “Stories about ordinary women are valuable and worth telling and worth watching,” Hart said. “I want to see more movies about ordinary women. It’s cool to see movies about very successful heads of multi-national corporations and superheroes and assassins who are women. Those movies are cool and there’s a place for them, but there’s also a place for ordinary women like Jean.”
Courtesy Amazon Studios
Horowitz addressed the other side of the equation: “I mean, the amount of movies about ordinary men…” He considered how best to put this. “I think there are a lot of men out there that don’t recognize how many movies there are that are just about ordinary men that they elevate in an incredible way,” he said. “Suddenly, there’s a female protagonist and I think there sometimes is a pushback by some people that, because this woman is not ‘extraordinary,’ it’s somehow not a story worth watching or telling because all women just need to be extraordinary to earn their place inside of a story. I think that’s a pretty insidious idea that we need to do away with.”
Still, the film does hinge on the work of its own extraordinary woman: Brosnahan, who continues to prove herself a formidable chameleon in the role of Jean. Like many people, Hart and Horowitz first saw Brosnahan in “House of Cards,” and were struck by the incredibly nuanced performance the then-mostly unknown actress brought to the first season of a show packed with major established talent. By the time the pair were casting “I’m Your Woman,” they were watching the first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which sees the actress taking on a wholly different role with ease.
Brosnahan eventually took on a producing role with the couple. “She was very hungry for that work in a great way,” Horowitz said. “As a producer, she was always coming at things from the point of view of character, which was a really awesome perspective I haven’t always had as a producer.” The actress even came along on early location scouting trips, something Horowitz had never experienced with a member of her cast, and offered her own ideas during editing. No surprise: Hart and Horowitz are eager to work with their star again.
The movie wrapped production in the nick of time to hit a 2020 release (the film was available in select theaters before heading to streaming via Amazon Prime Video), finishing up in December 2019 — just before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, with lockdowns and quarantines slowing down the industry worldwide.
“We luckily got to my director’s cut quicker than was scheduled, so we got to show the studio the movie in their theater on a big screen in their theater before lockdown,” Hart said. The pair got their first round of notes from the Amazon brass, went back to the edit room, and were just finishing their next edit as two very different occasions unfolded: the premiere of Hart’s Disney+ original “Stargirl” and the first spat of U.S. lockdowns, including in their hometown of Los Angeles.
By mid-March, the “I’m Your Woman” team had switched gears to finish the final edit from home, complete with plenty of Zoom calls to keep their tight-knit team on the same page. Amazon, they said, was incredibly nimble and accommodating, and the move to working from home was “nearly turnkey.”
Despite their indie bonafides, Hart and Horowitz have long been champions of big-time streamers, the kind of massive corporations that might not always scream “independent filmmaking. “Now more than ever, it’s so important that rising filmmakers have access to these studios through these streaming platforms, because the studios can continue to take more risks on a diverse pool of filmmakers because they need content,” Hart said. “There are a lot of great stories out there, and storytellers out there with stories to tell.”
“I’m Your Woman” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.