Female Directors Break New Ground in TV Series

Susanne Bier TV Director
Frederic Auerbach

When S.J. Clarkson came onboard Cinemax’s “Banshee” to helm the second episode and help set the tone of the Alan Ball series, she knew exactly what she had to speak up about.

“I said, ‘Women can’t just be sex objects for the men,’” she says. “Being female I do keep an eye out a little more for how women are marginalized in scripts. And when you’re in a roomful of men you need to bring that point across. I felt really pleased about how I was able to nurture those characters.”

Women directors in Hollywood rarely get to voice their concerns like Clarkson, who made her mark more recently directing the pilot and several episodes of Netflix’s “Jessica Jones.” According to the Directors Guild of America, just 16% of episodic directors in primetime were women in the 2014-15 season — higher than the 6.45% of women directing feature movies, but still far from parity.

And yet a select number of women do slip past the gatekeepers and are making their mark by helming series whose topics are not necessarily considered “women’s territory.” Along with “Jones,” about a superhero private detective recovering from being under a super-villain’s mind control, Susanne Bier directed all six episodes of the limited series based on John le Carré’s spy novel “The Night Manager” for AMC, while Amy Seimetz, who along with Lodge Kerrigan (who is male), produced, directed and wrote Starz’s escort- service tale “The Girlfriend Experience,” based on Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film.

“There’s no doubt that the entire media industry is suffering from not representing the diversity of society,” says Bier, who “absolutely loves” doing action films. “It’s also suffering from a slightly conventional way of thinking about projects, because yes, in general, female directors get to do a certain kind of material. But female directors are just as good doing traditional male material as male directors.”

That said, getting hired for the job is only half the battle; taking control of a set and crew that might be more accustomed to a male helmer’s approach means women have to gird themselves ahead of time.

“I don’t try to ignore my gender,” says Seimetz, who also appears in some episodes of “Experience,” “but when I walk into a room [as the director] I just think, ‘You’re supposed to respect me.’ That attitude of not vying for respect means it doesn’t become a factor.”

For Clarkson, getting to oversee a damaged heroine’s story progress meant she was able to dig deeper than perhaps a male director might have in fleshing out Jones.

“The Marvel universe is known for being ‘testosterone-y,’ but when you have a female superhero it’s hard to say a man must direct it,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that we explored her vulnerability, that she could be multifaceted and multilayered and witty and many things on the turn of a dime.”

Bier had a bit more of an uphill battle: her spy story was very male-centric and women had little to do. But she suggested a gender switch on one character [Angela, played by Olivia Colman] and did what she could to give another, Jet, more agency in her story.

“We made a conscious attempt to address the white heterosexual boys’ club a little bit,” she says. “It is an obligation, I feel, to have female characters be a lot more than an extension of the male imagination. It’s about having an overall view that’s less stereotype than it is about being real.”

It’s a start, and there’s little doubt that directors like these three are doing their best to reshape the expected mold, both on set and in story. That said, it’s a far cry from smooth sailing.

“It’s not like someone’s on set calling me ‘Sugar Tits,’” Seimetz says. “It’s not blatant. It’s subtle. It comes in the form of soft gloves. I’m used to being questioned more when I’m in an authoritative position.”

But overall, she notes, roles in both genders are undergoing a certain amount of reconfiguring.

“Men are having something of the same crisis as well,” she says. “They’re also wondering: ‘What is our role in society? How does our personality play into that?’ Ultimately, I don’t see feminism as a female problem, but a human problem.”

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  1. Keith Fahey says:

    S.J. Clarkson affirms, presumably in a roomful of male writers, “Women can’t just be sex objects for the men.” If I were a writer in the room, here’s how I’d read that:

    She reminds us how real women feel when given mindless flattery. If a man is too dense to appreciate that empty ploy, he needs a reminder that real women stay focused on the job and instinctively recoil when a dunce starts playing the sex-appeal game.

  2. Nanny Mo says:

    This sets women’s rights back 80 years. When I see her name, I know the only reason she got the job as because she’s a woman. It’s not about talent now, it’s about gender and that is a step backward. I will not be able to think about the show when I see her name, so perhaps I’ll skip the show. I don’t like quotas in modernity. We should be past this, but some of us are not, so I’m not watching this one.

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