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Female Directors Talk Breaking in, Mentoring and Becoming ‘Christopher Nolan With a Vagina’

“We can’t be your first.” That’s the maddening response that many female directors hear when they are trying to break in to the world of directing episodic TV.

FX Networks assembled a panel of seven female directors on Wednesday to discuss their experiences working in TV and with Ryan Murphy’s Half, the uber-producer’s initiative to dramatically increase the number of women and persons of color who are hired as directors on his many series. The women emphasized that the support of Murphy and his team was “life-changing” in terms of allowing them to build careers in TV.

“I could not get an episode of television,” said Maggie Kiley, who has directed episodes of Murphy’s “Scream Queens” and the upcoming “American Horror Story: Cult.” Despite having delivered indie features and shorts, Kiley said she was continually told by prospective TV employers: “We can’t be your first. Come back after you have one under your belt.”

Rachel Goldberg echoed Kiley’s experience, right down to the “we can’t be your first” line. She recalled being told: “You’re brilliant, we love your work, keep smiling.” But when she met with Murphy after the launch of Half, she heard something very different.

“He said ’50-year-old white men make change. I promise you I’m going to give you an episode,’ ” Goldberg recalled.

Alexis Ostrander recalled the conundrum of being told that she needed to direct a feature before she could get a TV episode. But film producers would tell her, “Go do an episode of TV and we’ll give you a feature,” she said. With support from Half and noted TV director Thomas Schlamme, an exec producer of FX’s “Snowfall,” she landed an episode of “American Horror Story” and is now off and running.

Ostrander and other panelists said they pursued their passion to become directors without thinking about limitations on the type of projects they want to tackle, from horror to thrillers to “badass” action pics. Nor did they face many obstacles to taking on various genres once they were able to get that first episode under their belt.

“There isn’t the feeling of ‘I can’t do this, I don’t have the tools,” said Steph Green. “Maybe you’re asked twice, ‘And you do action?'”

Goldberg noted the change from low-budget indie films to a high-end TV series like Murphy’s “American Horror Story.” “Now I can blow s— up,” she said with glee.

The AFI Directing Workshop for Women was also a big stepping stone for Ostrander, Goldberg and other panelists. “I want to be the Patty Jenkins of my generation, or Christopher Nolan with a vagina,” Ostrander said.

An important component of the Half initiative is the commitment that participants will mentor women that come into the program.

Gwyneth Horder-Payton, an FX veteran who made the move from assistant director to helmer on “The Shield,” said that she has had Half-affiliated directors shadow her on every episode she has done in recent years for FX. “Everybody has been truly wonderful,” she said.

Green has seen her career skyrocket in the past two years once she finally cleared the institutional hurdles by turning in notable episodes of FX’s “The Americans” and “You’re the Worst,” Showtime’s “Billions” and ABC’s “Scandal.”

“It’s been so exciting to have my problem be that I can’t say yes (to new assignments) because I’m booked on something else,” Green said.

(Pictured: Gwyneth Horder-Payton, Liza Johnson, Alexis Ostrander, Meera Menon, Steph Green, Rachel Goldberg and Maggie Kiley)

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