FEMALE FILMMAKERS

       The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film does an annual study looking at the involvement of women in the year’s top 250 films. In 2012, women comprised only 18% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working in these films. This showed no change from 2011 and only a 1 percent increase from

1998. This number goes down by more than a half to 9% if you only look at directors.

       There is less female representation in the film industry than there is in the Supreme Court (one-third) or in the senate (one-fifth). How is it that women have come to have such little influence in film? In order to further understand the film industry’s landscape we

will look at six female directors who have been producing films in America since the 1970’s: Joan Micklin Silver, Nora Ephron, Sofia Coppola, Mira Nair, Kathryn Bigelow, and Illiana Sosa. Through their experiences and filmographies we will try and understand what kind of environment they are dealing with and what female directors have contributed to film.

JOAN MICKLIN SILVER

The trailer to Silver's comedy, Crossing Delancey (1988).

        Joan Micklin was born in Omaha, Nebraska to Russian-Jewish parents in 1935. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, she married businessman Raphael Silver and moved back to the Midwest-Cleveland, Ohio where she raised three daughters. Cleveland was not a hub of film production but during those years Silver became an avid movie watcher, wrote for the local theater, and became interested in writing for film.

NEW YORK

        Finally when the family moved to New York in 1967, Silver got her first job in the industry as a free-lance writer for an educational film company given to her by Linda Gottlieb the producer of Dirty Dancing. Silver and Gottlieb even sold a screenplay, Limbo, in 1972 to Universal. Yet, Silver was receiving far more rejections than green lights.

        “Those were the years of very flagrant sexism. Women were absolutely not working at all in television,” Silver said in an interview with American Film Magazine.

HESTER STREET

        Her husband told her that he did not know whether she was good or not but that she had the right to find out and so he raised the money to make a low-budget film. Not knowing whether it would be her last opportunity to make a film, Silver decided to make Hester Street (1975), a movie about Jewish immigrants who come to New York City in the late 1800s. This film was personal for Silver considering her heritage and despite the initial failure to find distribution, it went on to earn 5 million dollars and an academy award nomination for Carol Kane.

        Hester Street was a serious film about the struggles of immigrants, in particular Gitl who is abused by her husband but eventually asserts herself and finds a new life in America. Yet, Silver managed not to be pigeon holed and went on to make not period pieces but modern comedies. Her following feature would be produced by the production company her and husband formed, Midwest Film Productions. Starting a small production company was something relatively common at the time because the big studio era had ended and this allowed for smaller independent voices to carve out their own space. The movie was called Between the Lines (1977) and was a screwball comedy about a newspaper staff.

ROM COMS

        Silver would later go on to direct the romantic comedy Crossing Delancey (1988), that combined her interest in jewish culture and comedy by portraying a girl who is caught between a man who was brought up in a traditional jewish way like herself and a man who represents the intellectual world in New York City she has just started to discover. Again it was not easy for Silver to find funding.

        “We got turned down by everyone. The reasons given were: too ethnic, which is a euphemism for too Jewish” Silver said to American Film Magazine, “ I think that all… who want to write about something besides mainstream white America should be aware of it.”

        Silver says that women who want to direct need to be tough and when asked if she, knowing what she knows now about the business, would have done anything different she replied,

        “Having a sex change operation. No, I’m just kidding.”

A scene in Silver's Hester Street (1975).

A scene from Silver's movie about a newspaper staff, Between The Lines (1977).

NORA EPHRON

A trailer for An Affair to Remember,(1957) the movie Sleepless in Seattle was lightly based on.

The trailer for Sleepless in Seattle.

Clip of Ephron's film Julia and Julia (2009), the last film she made before her death in 2012.

        Nora Ephron is perhaps the most commercially successful of all the directors on this list. Her biggest hit, the 1990s romantic-comedy, Sleepless in Seattle, grossed over $200 million worldwide. Ephron was born in 1941 to two screenwriters and grew up mainly in Beverly Hills. When she left home she actually had intentions of separating from the path of her parents and becoming a journalist.

STARTING AS A JOURNALIST

        It was while working for magazines like Esquire and New York Magazine in the 1970s that she developed her satiric voice and comedic tone that would later lead to her success in film. She only turned to screenwriting after having gone through two divorces and feeling a need to spend more time with her children. Screenwriting allowed her to do work from home.

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY

        Her first big break came when she wrote the screenplay for Rob Reiner’s fifth directorial effort, When Harry Met Sally, in 1989. The movie starred Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal ended up grossing over $90 million in US box offices and is now considered a romantic-comedy classic (it is number 7 on IMDb’s list of the 100 best romantic-comedies).

        She went on to write several more screenplays before she decided that she wanted more say over how her stories would be filmed and directed for the first time in 1992 on her film This Is My Life (1992). Yet it was her second directorial debut, Sleepless in Seattle, that earned her the most attention. Sleepless starred Ryan again alongside Tom Hanks. The film was based of Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember (1957). Ephron was by no means someone who experimented or innovated but openly talked about how she wanted to create a modern classic. In order to give the film a timeless feel she banned plastic from set, balanced references to the present by including a soundtrack including music by Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Durante, and most importantly refused to put sex in the film.

THE QUEEN OF ROMANTIC COMEDIES

        “I have a theory that the romantic comedy was killed by sex. Romantic comedies flourished in a period when you couldn’t put sex in a movie. The way people flirted was by going ‘blah blah blah’ to one another. Suddenly when you could have sex it wasn’t necessary to talk anymore,” Ephron said in regards to the matter.

        Ephron continued to make romantic-comedies with varying success until her death in 2012. Notable films include You Got Mail (1998) and Julie & Julia (2009). Ephron’s films may have not defied convention nor was she considered a major champion of women’s rights especially when compared to other women who gained influence around the same time she did like Susan Sontag or Gloria Steinem but she was well aware of her place in Hollywood and how her generation had made strides. When addressing the graduating class of 1996 at Wellesley College she said,

        “Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish they could turn the clock back. Please, I beg you, take it personally… Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim. Because you don’t have the alibi my class had.”

The famous orgasm scene at Katz Delicatesen in When Hary Met Sally.

The cover of a book of essays Ephron wrote about the people she met in her life.

SOFIA COPPOLA

A music video Coppola directed for the electro-pop duo Air for their song "Playground Love" that is on The Virgin Suicides's soundtrack.

ANATOMY OF A SCENE

Click on the image to go to New York Time's Anatomy of a Scene where Sofia Coppola explains a scene from her film Somewhere.

        Sofia Coppola is a unique filmmaker and different than the predecessors mentioned on this list in that she has been able to straddle the line between independent and mainstream filmmaking. Her movies, often made on a small budget and invoking more experimental narrative strategies, have managed to appeal to a larger audience than most independent films due to her specific ethereal and feminine vision.

BORN INTO MOVIES

        Coppola was introduced to filmmaking only weeks after being born when she played the role of the baby in the baptism in her father, Francis Ford Coppola’s, film The Godfather (1972). Ford Coppola became incredibly successful with films such as the Godfather Trilogy and Apocalypse Now (1979) and was part of a generation of filmmakers that without a strong studio system was able to have more creative control over their work. Coppola has spoken of how influential her father was in her work but she has had quite a different trajectory than her father.

BEGINNINGS

        Coppola’s early delves into film were actually through music videos. She made her first music video in 1993 for Walt Mink’s song “Shine”. This was not uncommon in the 90’s. Many directors of music videos went on to make important feature films including Michel Gondry, David Fincher, and Coppola’s eventual husband Spike Jonze. Her beginnings in music videos would be a foreshadowing of her emphasis on music and a strong aesthetic within her work.

        Similarly, Coppola’s thematic interests would become apparent in her first short film, Lick the Star (1998) a story about a seventh-grade girl clique and their adolescent hysteria. The transition to womanhood from adolescence and issues of isolation would be present in all her later works.

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES

        Coppola’s first feature was the The Virgin Suicides (1999). The film is an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel by the same title about a family that lives in the suburbs of Detroit. The five daughters of the family all end up committing suicide. Coppola took extensive time to create a soundtrack that was both modern and nostalgic as well as to design the looks of the girls. The film was able to capture the ethereal atmosphere of the book, did well and festivals and ended up grossing around $5 million.

LOST IN TRANSLATION

        Coppola’s sophomore feature was what really catapulted her to prominence. Lost In Translation (2003) is the story of a newly wed young woman (Scarlet Johansson) and a washed up older actor (Bill Murray) who meet and connect in a hotel in Tokyo. Coppola was able to create a real feeling of isolation as Johansson and Murray deal with their broken relationships and strange interactions with the backdrop of beautiful and dreamy scenes of Tokyo. The movie was perceived to be somewhat autobiographical since Coppola and Jonze’s marriage ended the year the film came out. It received great critical reviews and even won Coppola an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Additionally, she was the first American woman to ever be nominated for best director.

VERSAILLES AND BEYOND TO SOMEWHERE

        Coppola’s third film, Marie Antoinette (2006) would not prove to be such a great success. It was a period piece about Marie Antoinette and her transition from a young woman to and adult. Coppola was actually allowed to film at Antoinette’s real residence, the Palace of Versailles. Critics were polarized by her extensive use of modern music and long montages. She took a break between Marie Antoinette and her next film partly because she became pregnant with her boyfriend Thomas Mars, the lead singer of the band Phoenix.

        When Coppola finally wrote her next film she hoped to do something more intimate like Lost In Translation. Somewhere (2010) is the story of an actor (Stephen Dorff) who finds greater meaning after spending more time with his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning). While not a great commercial success, Coppola’s slower more nuanced film earned her the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion.

MORE THAN JUST A MOVIE MAKER

        Sofia Coppola is known not just for her films but also for her commercials and her clothing like, Milkfed. Her clients have included Dior and H&M. She is not merely concerned with telling stories but also creating an aesthetic that actually relates to her. In an interview for Fnac Montparnasse Coppola said that when she was younger she did not really relate to the films made for teenagers; she thought they were "dumb" or had actors that seemed too old:

        “I’ve been in interested in trying to show young women in a way that I relate to and hopefully other girls can too.”

Sofia Coppola's first short film, Lick the Star about a clique of seventh-grade girls.

The Poster for Sofia Coppola's oscar winning movie, Lost In Translation.

The ad Sofia Coppola directed for Miss Dior Cherie in 2008.

MIRA NAIR

The trailer for Nair's movie Mississippi Masala(1991) about an Indian woman and a black man who fall in love in Mississippi.

The poster for Nair's adaptation of the Jhumpa Lahiri's novel of the same title, The Namesake (2006).

        Mira Nair was never meant to be born. Her father Amrit worked for the Indian government and was made responsible for promoting contraception in their district. So when Nair was born in 1957, it was a political embarrassment. In fact, Amrit had tried to have his wife, Praveen, abort her child but since Praveen wanted a girl it was almost like Mira was a miracle baby and she could not go through with the procedure. Having grown up knowing all these facts, it is not surprising that Nair's work is focused on stories about marginalized people: orphans who live in slums, cabaret dancers, and American minorities.

FINDING FILM IN THE U.S.

        While Nair considers herself an Indian director, she received her first filmic opportunities in the U.S. Nair was an exceptional student and her grades landed her at Harvard University in 1976 for graduate school. She began her career in acting but moved on to film, more specifically cinema-verite documentary. Her thesis, "Jama Masjid Street Journal" in which she shot the reactions of people as she filmed on the streets near the great mosque in Old Delhi, would later embarrass her but was telling of how Nair while later going on to film narratives was still mainly concerned with reality and finding ways to capture it.

BOMBAY TO MISSISSIPPI

        It was Nair’s film Salaam Bombay! (1988) that really was the catalyst of her career. The film won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival, as well as the Prix du Publique (the prize awarded by the public at Cannes). The movie was made on the streets of Mumbai, with actual street children, and Nair purposefully had it made in Hindi and not in English so that it would be more true to the story.

        Her next film would be her first feature film shot in the United States, Mississippi Masala (1991). This film starred Sarita Choudhury, as an immigrant from an Indian family that lived in Uganda, and Denzel Washington as two lovers who come from different backgrounds and are faced with choosing between each other and their family. Nair has said that some were worried that there would not be an audience for a film with no white characters but she replied,

        “We have stories to tell [as directors of color] that are important, and there are audiences for those stories, and, I think, those audiences will continue to include white people as well as people of color because we tell stories that different people want to see, want to experience.”

INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS: MONSOON WEDDING

        In 2002, Nair would make the thirteenth-highest grossing foreign film in the United States, Monsoon Wedding. This is a lyrical story about an upper-middle class arranged marriage and the family conflicts around it. The tenderness with which Nair treats her characters and the love and vulnerability that exudes from them is something that is universally understood. While the whole film lavishes in the traditions and spectacle of the Indian wedding, the family’s problems could have been the problems of any family in the U.S. or else where. Nair had proven herself a communicator that could navigate across cultural borders.

COMING BACK TO REALITY

        Nair did a couple other films that did not do overwhelmingly well including an adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s novel Vanity Fair (2004). Her next success would be an adaptation of a more modern novel written by Jhumpa Lahiri, Namesake (2006). This is the story of the son of immigrant Indian parents and his grappling’s with his identity. Her latest work is The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013). Nair again tackles an adaptation. This time it’s of Mohsin Hamid’s novel of the same name. It is Nair’s first thriller and it deals with the affects of September 11 on a Pakistani immigrant. Nair has said that she is not interested in creating work that divides the world into good and bad:

        “I want to create the unpredictability of life, that gray area that makes us all what we are and not just the black-and-white/good-and-bad cinema that is always relegated to, but that very real life that we all live. That is my passion.”

The trailer for Nair's Salaam Bombay! A movie was filmed in the streets of Mumbai with actual street children.

A scene of the wedding in Nair's film Monsoon Wedding (2001).

NAIR DISCUSSES HER LATEST FILM: THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST

Click on the image to view an interview with Nair about how and why she made her new film.

KATHRYN BIGELOW

Clips from Bigelow's cult classic Point Break (1991).

The trailer for Bigelow's latest film about the capture of Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty (2012).

        Of all the directors on this list Kathryn Bigelow is the only one, with the exception of Mira Nair’s newest film The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013), who works in the mainly male-dominated genre of the action-thriller movie. Yet her films do not fall easily into this category. The film that won Bigelow the first Oscar for Best Director ever given to a woman, The Hurt Locker (2009), was a war film. She is still very active today. Her most recent film was Zero Dark Thirty (2012) a dramatization of the operation that found and killed Osama Bin Laden.

FROM ART TO FILM

        Bigelow was born in 1951 and grew up in Northern California. Her father managed a paint factory and her mother who was a librarian. Initially she had wanted to be a painter. At only 19 she moved to New York City to be a part of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s independent-study program. She loved the community of artists she found in Tribeca and relished the toughness of the streets in 1970s New York City. She ultimately decided to try her hand in film because she saw it as a more populist art that cut across classes. She enrolled in Columbia’s film graduate program and earned her master in film theory and criticism.

        After graduating her first feature film was The Loveless (1982). The film is about a motorcycle gang in a small southern town and stars Willem Dafoe. Bigelow has said that the film was meant to be a psychological biker’s film that was less about plot and more of a meditation on the iconographic power of bikers. Bigelow’s fascination with the masculine psyche was apparent very early.

THE TRILOGY: 1989-1995

        In the late 1980s- early 90s, Bigelow began to make movies that would make a renowned action-thriller director: Blue Steel (1989), Point Break (1991), and Strange Days (1995). The first of these was Blue Steel. It was a cop action-thriller starring Jamie Lee Curtis as a policewoman. Christina Lane, author of Feminist Hollywood: From Born in Flames to Point Break has said that Blue Steel, “bridges counter cinema and Hollywood because it was produced independently by Ed Pressman and Oliver Stone, it was distributed by Vestron, and yet it made it onto 1,307 screens. It ranked number five at the box office, bringing in $2,895,744 in its first week.”

        Her next film went on to make $83.5 million worldwide. Point Break, which is now considered a cult classic, is a film about a gang of bank-robbing surfers. The film includes many action scenes that include surfing, skydiving, and bank robbing. Not her most critically acclaimed movie, it was decidedly more mainstream than her previous works. However it was still a look at the iconography of male power. The final of these three films, Strange Days (1995) would be a box office failure. It was a science-fiction thriller starring Ralph Finnes. The inclusion of a device called a wire trip that allows people to experience virtual experiences like sexual follies or robbing a bank examines issues of male voyeurism and again we see how Bigelow is interested in issues of masculine power.

LOOKING AT WAR

        Bigelow’s greatest critical success has been the Oscar-winning, The Hurt Locker (2009). The movie is about a soldier deployed in Iraq whose specialty is disarming bombs. The film shows the thrill of the experience and how violence can become addictive. It also brought the attention of the American public to the war which for many seems like a distant and irrelevant occurrence. In addition to being the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director, Bigelow beat out her ex-husband for the title who had also been nominated that year for his blockbuster 3-D hit Avatar (2009).

        Bigelow’s latest project Zero Dark Thirty (2012) was a critical and box office success making $108,720,716 worldwide. However Bigelow was criticized for showing torture as the means to which the CIA found out where Osama Bin Laden was. She was accused of being pro-torture and of showing a false account of what actually occurred. She again plays with issues of power, in this case with a female played by Jessica Chastain, as the head of the operation.

        Bigelow does not see her work as gendered. She has said that when she grew up she never looked and genres of art as gendered and so she does not like the people feel the need to assign her films one. However she does appreciate that she can be a role model and understands that there are gender politics that take hold,

        “the journey for women in many venues--be it politics, business, film--is a long and difficult struggle for equity.”

The trailer to Bigelow's first feature film, Loveless (1982), about a motorcycle gang.

Trailer for Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2008) that won her the Oscar for Best Director.

THE FUTURE

Iliana Sosa, an up and coming director who just finished her first feature, Detained in the Desert (2013).

A panel debate held by BAFTA about why there are not more women in the film industry. This shows that this is a trend that is found also outside the U.S.

Trailer for Winter's Bone (2010).

        Iliana Sosa is a young Mexican American director who has just wrapped up her first feature film, Detained in the Desert (2013), that was produced and based on a play by the screenwriter of Real Women Have Curves (2002), Josefina Lopez. Even as someone who has found work opportunities outside of film school, she feels that it is harder for women.

        “You have to prove yourself that much more… Especially if you want to be a female director you have to work harder to be seen as an equal,” Sosa said.

        How does a young woman succeed in the film industry? There is obviously no one way to do so but looking at this list of women certain trends begin to emerge and it is good to be cognizant of them.

FAMILY TIES

        It never hurts to have family in the business. Nearly all the women on this list have or had parents or a husband that is in the industry; or if they are not involved in the industry they happen to be wealthy enough to fund the director’s project, like in the case of Joan Micklin Silver. This does not mean that women need more help. This trend could be attributed to the fact that executives and producers take less chances on women and so women have to rely on getting help from people who know them and are confidant in their work. In a study conducted by the Sundance Institute, is was found that it is far more common for women to be producers or screenwriters and that often women directors feel as though people do not trust their vision.

        Mimi White is a film professor at Northwestern University who taught a class on female directors. In White’s class she had her students look up reviews of a particular director’s films and see how the reviewers wrote about them. White found that for many directors like Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow, there were nearly no reviews that did not mention their connections (in Coppola’s case her father, Francis Ford Coppola, and in Bigelow’s her ex-husband, James Cameron). Yet nearly no reviews of Cameron’s films mention that he was once married to Bigelow. It seems that powerful women need to be attributed to powerful men.

GIRLY MOVIES

        Women directors, even commercial ones, do not need to make teen flicks or even radical feminist movies. They are apt at making all kinds of movies. On this list of women we see all kinds of genres: thrillers, period pieces, family dramas, and comedies. But just because they can does not mean they always do.

        “Women do work in Hollywood. As often as not they’re relegated to girl genres: romantic comedies, children films, and teen films. Women are seen as specialty acts,” White said.

        As child-bearers sometimes women are seen to be less flexible than men.

        “People higher up in the industry will rationalize the possibility of women directing as related to women’s choice. ‘Women choose to direct television because they don’t like to travel because they want to be close to their children.’ And then there are quotes from women saying, ‘I would’ve been happy to travel’ or ‘all I asked for two extra assistants and an extra trailer so my children could come along and they said no’,” White said.

HAVING CONTROL

        White has a theory that part of the reason there are few female directors is that within Hollywood the idea is that women have to be young and sexy,

        “I think there’s something about being a director where you’re very visible and present and you’re in the middle of a group of arts and crafts people that involves technology and the idea of young, skinny, hot looking sexy thing doing that is just hard for anyone to swallow,” White said.

        However when we look at other areas in film such as independent or documentary film, there are much more women represented. When there is less money required females tend to have more control over their own work since there are less investors. A couple films that have women directors and have recently gained quite a lot of recognition in the realm of independent cinema are Winter’s Bone (2010), directed by Debra Granik and starring Jennifer Lawrence, and Your Sister’s Sister (2011), directed by Lynne Shelton starring Emily Blunt. These two films, one a thriller set in the south and the other, and Edward Albee-esque drama, are not considered feminist or even chick flicks. There is a place and an audience for stories created by women.

        “The more women you have, the more people of color you have, the more people you have from diverse backgrounds, the more nuance, and difference, and diversity of vision you will have,” White said. “And so I just think it’s a general good.”

The trailer for Iliana Sosa's first feature film that was produced and based on a play by Josefina Lopez, the writer of the hit Real Women Have Curves (2002).

A video of Mira Nair speaking for the National Endowment of the Arts.

A recent success at 2011's Sundance film festival, Your Sister's Sister (2011) was Lynn Shelton's second feature film.