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Go Ahead, Call Joyce Chopra a ‘Lady Director’ One More Time

The "Smooth Talk" filmmaker is sharing her life and career in a brand new memoir with a cheeky title. In conversation with IndieWire, she gets even more free-wheeling.

Joyce Chopra

Filmmaker and author Joyce Chopra

Courtesy of the filmmaker/Paul Wagner

In the following excerpt from Joyce Chopra’s “Lady Director: Adventures in Hollywood, Television and Beyond,” the author and filmmaker reflects on her experiences directing “Bright Lights, Big City,” an adaptation of Jay McInerney book of the same name. Chopra was hired to direct and co-write the Michael J. Fox-starring film in 1987 but was fired from the film just a week into production. 

The book will be published by City Lights on Tuesday, November 22. You can purchase it here, plus get more information on Chopra’s book tour, current Criterion Channel programming of her films, read reviews, and much more.

After we wrapped, we rushed to the lab to screen the dailies, feeling rather excited, and found a group of men in suits from United Artists waiting with Sydney. It was the first time they had flown in from Los Angeles and the first time I had actually seen them, or, rather, the backs of their heads. The lights were lowered, the projector began turning and what we saw on screen gave me one of the greatest jolts of my life. Every shot was murky black. It made absolutely no sense, especially as I had seen [cinematographer] Jim [Glennon] and [chief lighting technician Dick] Quinlan checking their light meters side-by-side. I was struck dumb as [producer] Sydney [Pollack], looking grimmer than ever, walked out the door, trailed by the even grimmer executives who averted their eyes as if from a mangled corpse.

The assumption was that Jim was guilty, no questions asked. The next day, Sydney called to inform me in his most sepulchral voice, “Joyce, the worst has happened. They want you off the picture.” Not one “I’m sorry.” I was so upset that I hung up. The phone rang again within minutes, and this time it was [producer] Mark Rosenberg telling me how terrible he felt and saying hoped to produce my next film to make up for the damage my firing would cause me. I mumbled a thank-you, and we never spoke again. If Mark felt terrible, I was so distraught that I barely ate or slept that night, or the next two or three that followed. A myriad of questions kept whirling in my head. How could the negatives from The Tunnel be so underexposed? Why weren’t the producers looking into it? Why had the executives from United Artists shown up just for those dailies and exhibited no trace of surprise when they saw the unusable footage? Had Dick Quinlan, following orders, sabotaged Jim’s work? Highly unlikely. But wasn’t he also responsible for the lighting, and, if he thought Jim’s exposure was dangerously low, shouldn’t he have informed me?

Within a day, my firing was big news in the papers. Because much had been made of “Smooth Talk” and of my being among the first females hired to direct a big Hollywood picture, the producers had to go out of their way to publicly discredit me, claiming that I was behind schedule and over budget. The icing on their cake? Newspapers “leaked” reports that I was guilty of fighting with my crew. It was all laughably untrue, but it was swallowed whole by every studio in town because it so easily fit into the narrative that women were a nasty bunch and never could be trusted to helm a big-budget film. I did call Michael [J. Fox], who had become a good friend, hoping he would stand up for me, knowing that he had been happy working with me those four weeks. Poor guy was torn, but he chose to stay with the production. I learned later on that Sydney and Mark told him that I had been the one against hiring Tracy Pollan and that now that I was gone, the next director would be more than happy to cast her.

Yet the biggest question remained — why had a decision been made to scrap everything I had shot, almost half the film, and start over with a new director? One would think that the executives at United Artists had admired “Smooth Talk,” had looked to [co-writer] Tom [Cole] and me to create a more filmic version of the novel, much as we had done with the Oates short story, and more importantly, had approved our script before the cameras began to roll. But this was all speculation since I had never once spoken to them, and I now faulted myself for never having tried, happy to leave all the producing to Sydney so I could concentrate on my job of directing. As much as I racked my brain, I really couldn’t figure it out. When I heard that they had gone back to Jay McInerney’s script I was somewhat surprised, as they had previously rejected it, but again what did I know of the way studio executives think. What I did know was that Sydney had wanted to get rid of me days before filming ever began, and it just took him a while to accomplish the deed.

The press just couldn’t let go of the story. Article after article that tracked the film’s production status appeared in the papers with identical headlines above the stories: “Bright Lights, Big City, the Film Joyce Chopra Was Fired From.” And to my eyes it did seem very strange. I wasn’t famous, so why bother to attach my name like a Homeric epithet to the film when there was much to say about the well-known director, James Bridges, now at its helm? It appeared that my being fired was not just good copy, it served as a warning to other women as well. “Ladies, beware! Trespassing into our all-male precinct may prove fatal to your health.”

Excerpt of pages 126-128 from chapter 9 of “Lady Director.” Copyright © 2022 by Joyce Chopra. Reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books. www.citylights.com

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