For all the advances made by women in the film industry over the past couple of decades, the director’s chair has remained a largely male preserve.
But times are changing, and nowhere more so than in the U.K., where producers are increasingly turning to women directors for a fresh, female perspective, which is breathing new life into British filmmaking.
Behind the handful of female helmers who have already emerged in recent years, such as Beeban Kidron, Sally Potter and Antonia Bird, there are dozens more with projects in production or development. Some are straight out of film school, but many are coming to the cinema after long careers in TV drama, documentaries or theater.
“They are genuinely different voices, and that makes their voices interesting. The public want something familiar yet different,” said Simon Perry, chief exec of British Screen Finance, who estimates that half his projects have women at the helm.
“There’s been a massive gearshift. It’s changed so much from such a male domain and it hasn’t been noted,” said 31-year-old commercials director Martha Fiennes, who is preparing for her big-screen debut next year with the 19th-century Russian romance “Eugene Onegin,” in which her brother Ralph will star.
David Thompson, who produced both Angela Pope’s “Captives” and Antonia Bird’s “Priest” for the BBC, believes that women directors bring a special intensity and commitment, which is revitalizing British cinema.
“Wry, arch, detached observation films are arguably giving way to much more full-blooded emotional films. Women are more willing to let go emotionally than some English men directors, and films that let go emotionally are what audiences want to see. “It’s a view echoed by BBC film chief Mark Shivas: “There’s an emotional range that women can bring to films that men, and especially British men, find difficult, because they are so repressed.”
But talk to the directors themselves, and they shy from the idea that their films and their creative choices are defined by their gender. “I think of myself as an individual,” said Anna Benson Gyles, a TV drama helmer who is currently shooting her debut feature, “Swann,” for Majestic Films. “I would just think of myself as a director rather than as a woman,” echoes 34-year-old Sandra Goldbacher, who is developing four features, including one with Propaganda Films in LA.
Certainly, few claim much interest in making films which self-consciously deal with “women’s issues,” let alone engage in feminist polemic. Pope’s view is typical: “I’m never very drawn to issues. I tend to get drawn to scripts that have a web of human entanglements.” Nonetheless, group all their projects together and some strong similarities emerge. There is an overwhelming preponderance of intimate emotional dramas or intense psychodramas, mostly with women as the protagonists but sometimes with gay men at the center. Sexuality and female friendships also loom large in their work.
There are no action movies, no thrillers and surprisingly few comedies, although the younger generation of women directors are developing more of those. But that describes much of British filmmaking, and it is undoubtedly true that women directors suit the ruling idiom of modern U.K. cinema, which is driven by relationship drama rather than action and spectacle.
British filmmaking is currently going through a sustained period of international demand, and that means the door is open for new directors with something eye-catching to offer.
Commercially and creatively, women directors fit neatly into the niche that the British film industry has carved for itself as a supplier of sophisticated alternatives to mainstream Hollywood fare. British producers survive by unearthing original and distinctive filmmakers who can speak to a large crossover audience, so it was only a matter of time before they woke up to the rich untapped pool of female talent.
Success from Down Under
The success of antipodean films like Jane Campion’s “The Piano” and P.J. Hogan’s “Muriel’s Wedding” (by a man, but very much about women), particularly in reaching the traditionally disenfranchised but increasingly powerful adult female audience, has made many producers here sit up and take notice.
But it is an open question whether women directors chose those subjects because that is what interests them, or because that is all they get offered. The answer seems to be a bit of both.
“I think that of course women have been relegated to the emotional sphere. But it is also true that women are different from men, they relate to life more emotionally than men,” opined 30-year-old Anna Negri, a London-based Italian whose projects include a dark comedy about sisterly rivalry, and an Italian-lingo pic about a girl’s burgeoning sexuality. “That said, I would love to do a thriller or a Western,” she added.
Negri suggested that the range of women directors will expand as they become more established. “When your voice has not been heard before, you have to start with what is close to home. It was the same with black American directors, but now they are starting to make all kinds of films, and I think it will be the same for women.”
“I am offered action movies,” said Beeban Kidron. “I read them and I think, cor blimey, who can be bothered? But I do keep reading them because one day I might find ‘Die Hard With a Meaning.’ But when it’s boys cutting up other boys, I’m just not interested.”
“I don’t think there is a genre of movie or a type of movie that I want to make. I wouldn’t do a film just for the money, or just to work with a particular actor,” said Angela Pope. “You have to really find yourself in the material somewhere, or you just walk away. Suddenly, sometimes, a project really plucks away at you.”
She is currently editing “The Hollow Reed,” a drama about a gay man fighting for custody of his children, who are being abused by their mother’s boyfriend. Her next project is “The Zookeeper,” starring Tim Roth, set in the Kuwait zoo during the Gulf War.
Several women directors said they loved watching action films like “Speed” but thought that making them, in Pope’s words, would be “like watching paint dry.”
“Most of what women want to do is about something,” said producer Sarah Radclyffe succinctly. She is currently developing the debut feature of docu director Tamsin Day-Lewis, sister of actor Daniel, “Private Wound,” adapted from a book by her father, Cecil Day-Lewis.
Perry connected the rise of women directors to the proliferation of female producers: “It’s quite staggering how the preponderance of new young producers who are good to work with, professional, reliable with good taste, are women.”
Many of the new women directors are coming to movies late in their careers, after a couple of decades in documentaries, theater or TV drama, and in some cases after raising families – the likes of Pope, Bird, Nancy Meckler (“Sister My Sister”), Benson Gyles and Day-Lewis. Often their debut work shows a creative maturity not normally associated with 24-year-old pop promo hotshots.
Other women helmers include Mandie Fletcher, who is looking for her second feature after her 1993 debut “Deadly Advice”; Sue Clayton, who just shot “The Disappearance of Finbar Flynn” for Pandora; and the theater director Hettie Macdonald, who is preparing a bigscreen version of Jonathan Harvey’s gay stage play “Beautiful Thing” for Channel 4. Two other big legit names, Deborah Warner and Katie Mitchell, are touted as film directors of the not-too-distant future, and Jennifer Saunders is poised to direct the feature version of her TV hit “Absolutely Fabulous.”
More women directors also means more strong female roles. “The woman’s journey hasn’t been properly explored in the cinema, and I think there’s an appetite from the audience to see that,” said Benson Gyles.
In seeking someone to direct William Boyd’s script “Cork,” producers Cameron McCracken and Judy Counihan said they consciously looked for a woman. They picked 32-year-old Tania Diez, whose short “Scarborough Ahoy” recently won a student Oscar. Shooting starts in October.
“We knew with Cork’ that the material needed to be very sensitively handled. It’s very sexy, about a love affair between a young woman and an older man, and we were nervous it would be viewed as prurient, and that the acting of the woman would have been less intimate and less relaxed with a male director,” explains McCracken. “What Tania has brought to ‘Cork’ is her eye, and what she feels comfortable with as a female voyeur,” said Counihan.
Maria Giese, a UCLA grad who came to England to make her debut pic “When Saturday Comes,” said that this “Rocky” – like tale about a working class boy who dreams of being a soccer star would have been labeled sexist if it had not been directed by a woman – and she wrote it.
She identifies two scenes in particular, one with the lads in a communal bath and a lap-dancing set piece, where she said, “I don’t think a man would have taken the risks I did. In the strip scene I wanted a woman who loved her body, with big beautiful breasts. If I had been a man, I would have had to hold back.”
There’s a frankness about sexuality that is echoed by Martha Fiennes, who said, “I celebrate the female form. People say about my commercials work that it is sensuous and sensual and clearly the work of a woman. I can’t see that, but I’m definitely sensitive about not making women look like a cliche.”
So far, so positive. Beeban Kidron, now 34, reports a big change in attitudes on the set since she started 13 years ago. “I absolutely remember the first assistant director on my first feature film calling me ‘the little lady,'” she recalls in horror.