A Tough Road for Hollywood’s Female Film Directors

Like most big-time movie directors, Kasi Lemmons had a studio driver to take her to and from the set of her new film, Talk to Me. So driver and passenger did some chatting and one of their conversations stuck in her mind. “He said he’d driven 130 directors,” Lemmons recalled. “And I was the first woman director he’d driven.”

The number crunching of a lone limo driver is hardly scientific. But when it comes to women directors, Hollywood is full of depressing statistics that support the chauffeur’s observations. Of the 8,500 directors represented in the Directors Guild of America (DGA), about 13 percent are women. That figure includes women who work in television, which has long been considered a more welcoming environment.

According to Martha Lauzen, the number of women directors working in film is only 7 percent.

Lauzen, a San Diego State University professor who has been tracking the industry for 10 years, publishes an annual study she calls “The Celluloid Ceiling,” which tracks gender for the casts and crews of the top 250 films released in North America every year.

For a more personal example of the statistical imbalance, consider the case of Sofia Coppola. When she was nominated for best director for her 2003 film Lost in Translation, she became the first American woman to receive that honor in the Academy’s history. Factor in the foreigners who’ve been nominated and Coppola was still only the third woman. And to date, the last.

When Lemmons was interviewing her director of photography on Talk to Me, a biographical picture about Petey Greene, the dynamic ex-felon who put talk radio on the map in 1960s Washington, D.C., she asked him if he had experience working for a woman at the helm. The cinematographer, Stephane Fontaine, said she’d be his sixth. Pleasantly surprised, Lemmons asked, “How is that possible?” Fontaine had worked mostly in Europe, where he told her about a third of the directors are women.

“It was an incredible moment for me to realize, hmm, we’re having a Hollywood problem,” Lemmons said. “And you wonder, what’s wrong with Hollywood?”

This is a song that has been sung before. Ad nauseum. At a roundtable discussion about the dearth of women directors convened by the DGA last summer, Clueless director Amy Heckerling, who has been in the business for more than 25 years, said: “It’s getting so boring. It’s like `Roe v. Wade.’ We’re fighting for that again?”

But every time new statistics are released, reflecting minimal, if any progress, the conversation starts up again. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists (of which this reporter is a member) was so disheartened by the lack of women filmmakers on the American Film Institute’s recent Tenth Annual 100 Greatest Films List — of 400 films nominated, only 4.5 were directed by women — that the group decided to create its own list of great films. Released late at the end of June, AWFJ’s list includes Heckerling (twice) as well as films made by Mira Nair, Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong and Sofia Coppola.

All of the female directors interviewed for this article spoke passionately about the disparity in the numbers in the industry. But being labeled as “women directors” made them uncomfortable.

Writer/director Zoe Cassavetes, Parker Posey and Justin
Theroux on the set of Broken English

“I’m just a director who happens to be a woman,” said Zoe Cassavetes, whose first feature, Broken English, a romantic comedy starring Parker Posey as a neurotic Manhattanite who has nearly given up on finding love, is now opening in theaters.

“If you are in command of what you are doing, all that stuff falls away. But then half of me is like, `There should be more women directors! Why do you think there aren’t many women directors?'”

There are powerful women directors in Hollywood, people like Nancy Meyers (The Holiday) and Nora Ephron (You’ve Got Mail) who are practically brands in and of themselves. But looking at a Web site called The Numbers, which tracks directors by how much their films have grossed, it’s hard not to notice how sparse the feminine names are on the list. If you pull out the women and rank them by their grosses, Lemmons is 21st. She’s made three films, Caveman’s Valentine, Eve’s Bayou and Dr. Hugo, which is about average for the list.

For whatever reason, even the top women directors don’t make that many films. Martha Coolidge, No. 9 on the list and the first woman ever to serve as president of the DGA, has made the most, 11 films. Then come Penny Marshall and Amy Heckerling, with seven films each. That seems like a lot, until you consider that Steven Spielberg is hard at work directing his 46th film.

Generalizations are always risky, but female directors do tend to make what are often referred to as women’s movies, smaller stories about relationships — like Broken English — or social issues. These movies are perceived to have limited audience appeal. A classic example is Stephanie Daley, an intense film about a teenager (Amber Tamblyn) who hides a pregnancy, gives birth in a bathroom and then faces murder charges. While it opened last month to very strong reviews — the Wall Street Journal‘s Joe Morgenstern called it “spellbinding” — it was booked into just one theater in the Bay Area, for a one-week engagement.

The same thing happened earlier this year to Karen Moncrieff’s The Dead Girl, a much lauded film about a murdered prostitute. Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby, which featured a Golden Globe-nominated performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal as a convict trying to reclaim her child after a stint in prison, had only a limited theatrical run last fall before going to DVD. These are films that are considered “hard sells.”

They all feature strong female leads.

Stephanie Daley director, Hilary Brougher

“My fundamental line is that what we make true becomes true,” said Stephanie Daley writer/director Hilary Brougher. “Since the belief is that `Stephanie Daley’ is a hard sell, it becomes a hard sell. If we believe that women will see men’s movies but men won’t see women’s movies then that becomes true.”

“I can get a million good reviews,” sighed Brougher, who won the top screenwriting award at Sundance in 2006. “But unless there are marketing dollars to bolster that, it doesn’t mean anything.”

“Personally,” she said, “I don’t really even know what the term `woman’s movie’ really means. I do know the term gives me a vague stomach ache.”

Actress Julie Delpy has wanted to be a director since she was 17, when she wrote her first script. In 1992, having acted for great filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Krzysztof Kieslowski, she went to the NYU film school. She did well and graduated, eager to get behind the camera. Years later, all she had to show for it was a short film and a indie feature that never saw theatrical release in the Unied States. She also had a drawer full of scripts that reflected her love of science fiction and other non-girlie topics. She couldn’t get any of them produced. “I was kind of losing hope,” she said.

Then a friend suggested she write a script that bore some similarity to Before Sunset, the successful 2004 film Delpy had starred in and co-written. She had shared an Oscar nomination for the screenplay and her friend’s supposition was that financiers would feel “safe” with a project that seemed like Before Sunset.

Julie Delpy (right) on the 2 Days in Paris set.

The trick paid off. Delpy wrote 40 pages of a relationship farce set in Paris, which she then shopped around. She found financing for it in Germany. The result is 2 Days in Paris, a witty, Woody-Allen-esque comedy about a French woman (Delpy) who brings her American boyfriend (Adam Goldberg) home to Paris. It’s slated for a late-summer release.

“This is why my first film is a romantic comedy,” said Delpy, now 37, with evident exasperation. “It is only because it is the first time people will give me money to make a film. People will trust a woman to do something with a relationship more than they will to do something with a war story or science fiction.”

“I would sell out to direct a big action movie if I had the opportunity,” she said. “I love to take risks and I think I would do a great job. My dream is to do a science fiction movie, like Close Encounters of a Third Kind, like Blade Runner. But you need money to make Blade Runner.”

She’d also need a studio willing trust a woman with guns and explosions — and that’s a rarity. Mimi Leder is a notable exception, having directed Deep Impact and The Peacemaker. In a sense, so is Lemmons. The two leads in Talk to Me are men: Don Cheadle as Petey Greene and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Dewey Hughes, the guy who gives him his first big break on the radio and becomes his close friend and manager.

Lemmons fell in love with Talk to Me as soon as she read it, but she knew as a woman, she’d have to work harder to prove to the producers that she was the right director for such a masculine story.

“I knew that I was going to have to go in with a hard sell, that I was going to have to convince them that I knew men better than they knew themselves,” she said.

Kasi Lemmons

Like Delpy and Sarah Polley, whose directorial debut Away From Her, opened to glowing reviews this spring, Lemmons began her movie career as an actress. She puts the lessons she learned in front of the camera to good use behind it.

“I knew the approach I wanted to take,” Lemmons said. “For instance, I will whisper direction, because I knew I didn’t like being screamed at from across the set.”

“It’s very personal, directing, you know,” she said. “It’s like they say about sex, you never know how the other guy does it. As an actor, you have had the unique experience of working with other directors.”

But her best on the-job-training came from her Eve’s Bayou and Caveman’s Valentine star, Samuel L. Jackson.

“I always say I went to the Samuel L. Jackson school of directing,” Lemmons said. “Tough. A pro. Always on the set before anyone else. Always prepared, doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I couldn’t be goofy, girly, unspecific, because I have Sam Jackson here. I learned from the best.”

Because there are so few established women directors, the up-and-comers tend to name the same role models: Jane Campion (The Piano), Nicole Holofcener (Friends and Money) and Mira Nair (The Namesake). Brougher recalled meeting Campion at the Venice Film Festival.

“She shared some pineapple with me,” she said. “That was a really important moment. Her accessibility made me feel that much more comfortable with my hopes to be a director on my own terms.”

Cassavetes has plenty of sources of inspiration within her own family. Her father was famed director John Cassavetes, who died in 1989 after an extraordinarily rich career. Her mother is actress Gena Rowlands (she plays Posey’s mother in Broken English). Zoe’s sister Alexandra has tried her hand at directing. Her brother Nick directed the box-office smash The Notebook.

Sofia Coppola

But one of her closest friends, Sofia Coppola, has been an essential role model.

“She doesn’t want to tell me what to do,” Cassavetes said. “But at least I can be around an atmosphere where a woman is taking command. She’s an incredibly strong woman, she’s very private, but she directs with her personality. I went to Tokyo when she was making Lost in Translation. It was just madness on set, but there she was. She sets that quiet tone and people really respect her.”

The concept of a film director exists in the public consciousness as almost a mythic character. Most of us probably picture her — or more likely, him — with a bullhorn in hand, bellowing at underlings. The mythic director would seem to have to be a person of extraordinary bravado and let’s face it, ego, to be able to take charge of hundreds of people and never lose sight of the game plan. That’s the image Brougher had, even after finishing her first film, 1997’s The Sticky Fingers of Time. On Stephanie Daley, she realized a director could look and act just like her, a 38-year-old mom.

“The reason I think I was a better director was that I really let go of trying to be anyone but who I was,” she said. “I am fairly quiet. I’m completely not the image of the brilliant, visionary, charismatic director who is absolute in their authority.”

Obviously, so is Lemmons, the set whisperer. She said she’s always aware that directing takes “a certain presence,” an ability to be the boss and handle the responsibility of millions of dollars of somebody else’s money. It’s okay to be womanly on the set, she said, but being the boss does require putting aside some aspects of traditional sexual roles.

“You have to find the part of yourself that is not an object,” she said. “It’s your deep grounded femininity, the kind that doesn’t take a man to validate.”

But I find it (directing) very female,” Lemmons continued. “Women are so often the leaders. We are leaders in our households, where we are often making all the tough decisions. I see no reason why women are not naturally directors as much as men are naturally directors.”

Or more so.

“I’ve worked with many men directors,” Delpy said. “I can tell you I can handle giving orders as well as them, if not better.”

Even in Europe, where women do get more opportunities behind the camera, Delpy has observed a lingering sexism. “When a woman director is successful, they keep her around,” she said. “But she does one film that doesn’t do well, suddenly she is (expletive), not good enough to deal with the technical issues. All the (expletive) that people have in the back of their head about women directing comes out.”

But women in the film industry aren’t held back only by external forces. Sometimes the roadblocks are far more subtle, and internal, a real behavioral tendency that women don’t even notice, unless it’s called to their attention.

Laurie Collyer and Maggie Gyllenhaal on Sherrybaby set

Laurie Collyer, fresh off Sherrybaby‘s success, was deluged with scripts, many of them along the same vein as her movie, which featured a female protagonist who was compelling but also headstrong and bratty.

“Some of them make me laugh because they are not only female leads, they are unsympathetic females, like the volunteer amputee script,” Collyer said. “That’s actually a fetish! So it’s been like a weird mirror being held up.”

Recently she passed on a script she felt was good but had a few too many cliches in it. The producer asked to speak with her. “He said he had had a conversation with Sherry Lansing, who is obviously very powerful,” Collyer said. “She told him women have so much integrity that they don’t understand the process of working with the studio. If they send you a script you don’t like, a woman director is much more likely to just pass. The guy is more likely to call and say, `I like this about it and I don’t like this, can we have this conversation?’ Which generally turns into a working relationship.”

“It never crossed my mind that it could be partly my fault that I don’t have a job since Sherrybaby,” Collyer said. “It was really good for me to hear. He wasn’t bitchy about it, he was like, `You need to learn something if you want to have a career. This is what the boys do.'”

Delpy dislikes generalizations about women and integrity, but she admits it has always been hard for her to “sell” herself as a director.

“Not only am I a woman, but I don’t go pushing myself on them saying, listen, I’m a genius,” she said.

“Or hey, man, this movie is going to make a lot of money. I don’t believe anyone can know that … I don’t believe it is honest. But you can’t be honest in this business.”

Just as in any other industry with a glass ceiling, women have to struggle against stereotypes — like the one that says women just aren’t as good at managing money — and beliefs that stem from centuries of patriarchal domination. Take Cassavetes. You’d think it would be nerve-wracking to put a movie out there when your iconic father made seminal films like A Woman Under the Influence and Faces. But Cassavetes said that her brother Nick is the Cassavetes’ offspring who has to deal with that bugaboo.

“There is probably more pressure on him to be John Cassavetes’ son,” she said. “I’m a girl. At the end of the day, I’m a chick and he’s the son.”

She laughed, a rich throaty laugh that sounds a lot like her famous mother’s. Then she brought up the issue that is most frequently cited as the reason women directors don’t have careers like Martin Scorsese’s or Spielberg’s: family.

“By the time you get to direct your movie it is time to have a baby,” Cassavetes said. It took her five years to get Broken English made. “Both take a lot of energy. It is just part of the deal.” Good scripts are coming her way now, and she’s excited to make another film. But, “I’m 36 years old and I want to have a kid.”

Babies don’t preclude movie making — just ask Collyer, who directed Sherrybaby when she was in her sixth and seventh month of pregnancy — but they can make it more complicated. In that Directors Guild roundtable discussion last fall, Holofcener admitted she’d be more ambitious if she didn’t have kids.

Even Mimi Leder said her family has kept her out of the schmooze scene, where the next job is often found.

Motherhood does change careers. But not, by any means, necessarily for the worse. Brougher, who has 5-year-old twins, said she didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a “touchy-feely mom director.” “But I have learned a lot from being a mother, and I’m not afraid to bring that to the set.”

“It’s odd talking about why there aren’t more women directors,” she wrote in an email after an earlier interview, “Once we start giving name to possible reasons, it can re-enforce our otherness.”

“I got very lucky on `Stephanie Daley,”” she said. “That’s why I can never really complain. I knew it was a hard movie to make. I honestly wasn’t even sure we’d ever get it made. I would have loved for it to take off, but I actually feel heartened by what it means to be a woman filmmaker.”

Director Mira Nair on the set of The Namesake


All have films either out already this year or coming soon.

1. Andrea Arnold. The British director is actually an Oscar winner (for her short 2003 film Wasp) but it was her mysterious debut feature Red Road, about a closed circuit television operator who sees someone from her past on her monitor one day, that caught my attention this year.

2. Hilary Brougher. She brought two great performances — Tilda Swinton and Amber Tambyln’s — and a heartbreaking story to the screen with Stephanie Daley.

3. Zoe Cassavetes. With Broken English, she shows capacity for brutal honesty and an understanding of how heartbreaking loneliness can be, especially in the face of society’s insistence that being nicely mated off with someone is crucial to true happiness.

4. Julie Delpy. 2 Days in Paris is as smart, funny and charmingly crazy as an early Woody Allen film.

5. Amy Heckerling. I Could Never Be Your Woman doesn’t come out until September, but we have high hopes for any movie that gets Michelle Pfeiffer out of semi-retirement. She plays an older woman who falls in love with a younger man (Paul Rudd).

6. Kasi Lemmons. Talk to Me is both a rocking good time, the kind of movie that makes you smile at the screen, and a soulful exploration of male friendship.

7. Karen Moncrieff. The Dead Girl, her 2007 follow-up to Blue Car, came and went far too quickly, but rent it next time you want to see the likes of Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Toni Collette, Kerry Washington, Brittany Murphy and Rose Byrne acting their socks off.

8. Mira Nair. The Namesake didn’t quite match the glory of her earlier Monsoon Wedding, but it reminded us that nothing feels quite as beautiful, alive and loving as a Mira Nair film.

9. Sarah Polley. We loved her in front of the camera, in movies like Go and The Claim, but her debut feature, Away From Her, an adaptation of an Alice Munro story about a couple losing each other to Alzheimer’s, was proof she’s just as good behind it.

10. Adrienne Shelly. Shelly was murdered late last year, not long before her delightful film Waitress was released. We mourn the end of a woman whose career showed such great promise.

Director/Writer/Producer Nancy Meyers on the set of The Holiday


Hollywood tends to value its directors by the dollar. Here’s the top 10 women directors ranked by how much money their films have grossed. The figures are based on data from the-numbers.com and rounded off by us.

1. Nancy Meyers: $437 million — Her four films include The Holiday and Something’s Gotta Give.

2. Nora Ephron: $418 million — Her six films include Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail.

3. Penny Marshall: $402 million — Seven films, including Big and A League of Our Own.

4. Amy Heckerling: $352 million — Seven films including Clueless and Look Who’s Talking and its first sequel.

5. Betty Thomas: $344.5 million — Her six films include The Brady Bunch Movie, 28 Days and Dr. Doolittle.

6. Penelope Spheeris: $253 million — Five films, including Wayne’s World and The Little Rascals.

7. Mimi Leder: $215 million — Three films, including Pay It Forward and Deep Impact.

8. Barbra Streisand: $155 million — The multitasker has directed three films, including The Prince of Tides and Yentl.

9. Martha Coolidge: $135 million — Eleven films, including Valley Girl and Rambling Rose. Also the first woman to serve as president of the Director’s Guild of America.

10. Kathryn Bigelow: $97.5 million — Six films including K-19: The Widowmaker and Point Break.