Female directors challenge status quo

Women embraced by critics, rewarded at box office

Talent knows neither gender nor race, but Hollywood is still a place where the opening of Catherine Hardwicke’s “Twilight,” at practically $70 million, is touted as “the highest ever for a female director.” The day may come when “female” and “black” are no longer considered separate categories but, until then, directing is predominantly a white, good ol’ boys’ club.

Which isn’t to say that women helmers haven’t been represented on screens this year — Courtney Hunt (“Frozen River”), Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Secret Life of Bees”), Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”), Kimberly Peirce (“Stop-Loss”), Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”), Darnell Martin (“Cadillac Records”) and Isabel Coixet (“Elegy”), to name just a few — yet femme helmers are still the the minority in the U.S. entertainment business.

Writer-director Hunt shopped her debut script, “Frozen River,” she says, to “every single film company out there” and kept getting the same response: “We love the script, but (lead actress) Melissa Leo isn’t well enough known. She’s not going to (draw) box office.” Hunt, who earned a law degree before turning to film, refused to budge, asserting, “I don’t think there is a better actress for this part.”

Eventually she found private funding. “Frozen River” went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Prince-Bythewood’s “The Secret Life of Bees” opened in mid-October and has already taken in three times what it cost to make.

Her first feature behind the camera, eight years ago, was “Love and Basketball.” She remembers standing outside New Line executive Mike De Luca’s office door, trying to calm her nerves. “I was about to go in and ask this guy for $10 million. I had never directed before. I am a black woman. What was he going to think?”

The filmmaker, who lettered in eight sports in high school and ran track at UCLA, told herself to just “go in like you’re walking onto the court. So I went in there with an athlete’s swagger — and came out with a film project.”

She says that athletics have been the primary influence on not only her directing but also on who she is as a person. “Just to grow up as a girl playing sports (teaches) you that being assertive and aggressive is a good thing and that if you work hard and persevere, results will come.”

Asked whether being female influenced her work in any way, Prince-Bythewood recalls that she cleared the set for a scene in which Dakota Fanning has her first onscreen kiss. “I thought, ‘When I was 14, how would it feel to do that in front of the whole crew?’ Would a male director have considered that? I don’t know, but I could put myself into her little shoes.”

Hunt acknowledges that her choice of Leo may have had something to do with gender. “Not pandering by making the character glamorous was definitely because I am a woman,” she says. “That’s not what the story was about.”

There are few writers more aggressively male-centric than Philip Roth. But when Spanish-born writer-director Coixet was asked to direct a screen version of Roth’s “Elegy,” her only concern was that, for the first time, she would be working from a screenplay that was not her own (Nicholas Meyer did the adaptation). After 20 years making movies and nearly 50 years of life experiences, “I felt I was at the point in my life where I truly understand human behavior, (even as) I am still amazed by it. Love, hate, fear and the stupid misunderstandings that ruin most relationships are my territory.”

As for Roth’s egocentric, famously libidinous outlook, Coixet (whose other credits include “The Secret Life of Words” and “My Life Without Me”) says: “When you adapt a novel, there’s a moment when you have to forget the book in order to build a real film and not just an illustration of someone else’s work. I think I was faithful to my interpretation of the novel.”

For Coixet, being a director entails “a strange combination of empathy, diplomacy, strength, courage, tenderness, craziness, common sense and rage. Some of these things are instinctual, and experience helps you to refine your instincts.”

Emailing her answers from Tokyo, where she is directing “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo,” Coixet adds: “It is very important to challenge yourself again and again. I know it’s exhausting, but you must (continually) run away from your comfort zone.”

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