Source: NY Times Magazine
Flipping the Script
No longer content just to be making movies, a new generation of critically heralded female directors is rivaling the male establishment at the box office — and redefining what it means to be a woman in Hollywood
Dominance. Discipline. A riding crop. When it was announced that E. L. James’s sadomasochistic literary sensation, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” would be adapted into a film, men like Joe Wright, Gus Van Sant and Bennett Miller were considered the front-runners to direct it. Instead, the project went to Sam Taylor-Johnson, a Turner Prize-nominated artist and mother of four with just one feature film — “Nowhere Boy,” a meditative biopic about a young John Lennon — to her name. “I tend to jump into big challenges as fearlessly as I possibly can, and this is definitely a big challenge,” admits the 47-year-old. “But I didn’t feel like I was stepping into something outside my realm of thought or creativity. A lot of my work has dealt with sexuality and power shifts and identity.” Despite the potentially crippling pressure of directing a story that’s been eagerly devoured by millions of women — and just as eagerly derided by critics who have called it “bad for you,” “S&M for Dummies” and “pornography, plain and simple” — the London native ran the set of “Fifty Shades,” out early next year, like an indie film, “so that it didn’t feel like we were doing something as massive as it potentially will be,” she says. “I wanted to keep it quite close-knit so that everyone felt supported, especially because a lot of the material is sensitive.” When it came to that sensitive material and how to tackle it, Taylor-Johnson was reminded of one of the few quiet moments from Kathryn Bigelow’s sexy thriller “Blue Steel,” in which Jamie Lee Curtis, as a rookie cop, slowly pulls on a black leather boot. “It was just one shot,” she says, “but I remember thinking, God, that is so powerful. And then I read the credits and was really surprised that — wow — a woman made this film.”
Taylor-Johnson’s Formative Films
One of the films that made her want to direct was John Cassavetes’s “A Woman Under the Influence,” starring Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands.Read her complete list.
JENNIFER YUH NELSON
Raking in over half a billion dollars worldwide in 2011, the Academy Award-nominated “Kung Fu Panda 2″ turned Jennifer Yuh Nelson into the highest-grossing female director of all time (that title now belongs to Jennifer Lee, the co-director of last year’s “Frozen”).
It makes sense, then, that the DreamWorks Animation C.E.O. Jeffrey Katzenberg hired her back for “Kung Fu Panda 3,” which she is currently working on with a team of about 350 people. From concept to completion, the “Panda” films each take three to four years to make, but Nelson’s philosophy is that the appeal of animation is timeless, so it’s crucial to create something that will endure — “a film you watch, think about and grow up with.” Nelson’s success is unexpected given that her biggest job prior to the “Kung Fu Panda” series was as a story artist on the 2005 film “Madagascar,” but perhaps it has to do with how she approaches the genre: “I only think in live action,” says the 42-year-old, who personally sketches the scenes of her films, along with a team of artists. Born in South Korea and raised in Lakewood, Calif., with two older sisters who are also storyboard artists, she studied illustration at California State University, Long Beach. Given her passion for animation, the film she loved most growing up comes as a bit of a surprise: ” ‘Terminator,’ ” she says, laughing. “I memorized every line.”
Nelson’s Formative Films
One of the films that made her want to direct was the 1989 martial-arts sci-fi film “Cyborg.” Read her complete list.
In Robert Altman’s Hollywood-lampooning film “The Player,” an oily studio executive says, “I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.” Ava DuVernay had another idea. “I financed and made my own films from the start,” says the 42-year-old director, writer, producer, distributor and onetime publicist. “My path has been autonomous and independent, so I don’t have any horror stories about glass ceilings and expectations and tense studio meetings.” DuVernay, who became the first black woman to win a best director prize at the Sundance Film Festival, for her 2012 film “Middle of Nowhere,” established her own production company, Forward Movement, in 2008. Although taking control of her business means she never has to ask permission to make a film, DuVernay still faces obstacles when it comes to the actual filming. “For female directors, there’s a whole other set of things we have to think about, particularly when we are casting men, because there are some actors who have never been directed by a woman,” she says. “Crew members, too. The way that you would deal with a black woman on the street is not the way you’re going to deal with this black woman on the set, and there have been a couple of times where that negotiation has been a little iffy.” For her fourth feature film, DuVernay will direct “Selma,” a movie about the 1965 voting rights campaign led by Martin Luther King Jr. that is being co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt.
DuVernay’s Formative Films
One of the films that made her want to direct was Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues.” Read her complete list.
For someone who first drew mainstream attention in an Ecstasy-fueled rave odyssey called “Go,” Sarah Polley likes to stay put. “I have this theory that filmmakers, if they were in another time before the film medium, would have been divided into two categories: writers and explorers,” says the 35-year-old actor, writer and director who has chosen to remain in her native Canada rather than make the typical pilgrimage to Hollywood. “The explorers would have gone off and found unseen lands. I definitely would have fallen into the writer category.” Although Polley identifies mostly as a screenwriter, she has directed three features, including “Away From Her,” a romantic drama that earned her a best adapted screenplay Oscar nomination in 2008, and last year’s critically acclaimed autobiographical documentary “Stories We Tell,” in which she unearthed her own family’s secrets in the wake of her mother’s death. “It’s easy for me to imagine writing a script for someone else to direct, but hard for me to imagine directing a script someone else has written,” she says. An industry veteran — she landed her first role at the age of 4, and has acted for other female auteurs like Kathryn Bigelow and Isabel Coixet — Polley understands all too well the challenges women face trying to balance their domestic and occupational lives. “I think there’s got to be a culture in which women are permitted to have time with their families and also have a great work ethic and make movies,” she says. “Right now, that doesn’t exist.” And yet, Polley makes it work. She is currently adapting Margaret Atwood’s historical novel “Alias Grace” into a six-part mini-series in Toronto, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.
Polley’s Formative Films
One of the films that made her want to direct was Terrence Malick’s World War II epic “The Thin Red Line.” Read her complete list.
Early on in Lisa Cholodenko’s Oscar-nominated film, “The Kids Are All Right,” a lesbian couple, played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, engages in foreplay while watching a video of two men having sex in the back of a Ford Ranchero. Under different direction, the scene could have easily felt smutty, but Cholodenko’s humor and heart turn it into something that ends up bordering on wholesome. Naturalizing same-sex relationships has been at the core of the 50-year-old filmmaker’s creative process since she wrote and directed her debut feature, “High Art,” in 1997 while in grad school at Columbia University. “When I started making films, there was no gay marriage, and these issues weren’t front and center at all, so I feel like the global landscape has probably changed quite a lot in that time,” says Cholodenko, who has explored sexuality and its impact on the human condition in each of her four feature films. For “The Kids Are All Right,” she took a more lighthearted approach, in an attempt, she says, to “scratch outside of the art-house sensibility, and see if I could connect with a wider audience.” Cholodenko most recently turned her lens on yet another complicated family, this time in coastal Maine, with her four-part HBO mini-series “Olive Kitteridge,” an adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which will air this fall. For that project, she was attracted to the script almost immediately: “Here were these fully realized, complicated, ironic characters that I loved in all their dark and light complexity.”
Cholodenko’s Formative Films
One of the films that made her want to direct was Robert Redford’s directorial debut, the family drama “Ordinary People.” Read her complete list.
“It’s insane how few female directors there are,” says Lana Wachowski, 49, who, with her brother, Andy, has written, directed and produced big-screen spectacles so bombastic that they’d seem overblown if they weren’t so well made. “In terms of the skill set directing requires — working with a large art community and trying to get the best out of all of these artists and trying to make all of that gel, all of these egos being in balance and harmony — those are things that women are socialized to do more than men.” Two years ago, the notoriously private co-creator of “The Matrix” trilogy, “V for Vendetta” and “Cloud Atlas” received the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award, shortly after coming out publicly as transgender — thus becoming the first transgender woman to wield serious Hollywood clout. In her acceptance speech, she described how it felt growing up in a world that refused to see her for who she was. “I began to believe voices in my head,” Wachowski said. “That I was a freak, that I am broken, that there is something wrong with me, that I will never be lovable.” It brought the room to tears and was met with the equivalent of a standing ovation on the Internet. A stronger Lana has since emerged. “Only when you begin to interrogate why our society makes gender the fundament of our identity and why that distinction is so important to us — whether someone is a boy or a girl — then you begin to understand why there are so few female directors and politicians,” she says. In part to make sure prejudice doesn’t enter their place of work, the Wachowskis employ the same basic crew from film to film. “It’s like family,” she says. “Everyone is very respectful of each other.” The Wachowskis’ upcoming sci-fi projects include the film “Jupiter Ascending,” starring Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum, and a foray into television with a top-secret Netflix series, “Sense8,” which is currently being shot in nine cities around the world.
Lana Wachowski’s Formative Films
One of the films that made her want to direct was Stanley Kubrick’s iconic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Read her complete list.