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For female directors, independent is beautiful

Politics make personal vision a constant battle

“The pendulum is swinging in the wrong direction. It is absolutely not a golden age.”

So claims Nancy Meyers, the most successful woman director in Hollywood, who has single-handedly proved that talent-driven romantic comedies have the capacity to do international blockbuster business — i.e., that chick flicks have legs. If she’s not happy, chances are it’s not going to get any better the further you go down the food chain.

From the mid-’90s onward, as independent film took its turn at the table, it seemed like a new generation of female directors was about to finally explode the old boys’ network of Hollywood gender disparity. Enabled by female and female-friendly producers like Christine Vachon, Ted Hope, James Schamus, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa plus a host of others, directors as diverse as Kimberly Peirce, Nicole Holofcener, Mary Harron, Sofia Coppola, Kasi Lemmons, Lisa Cholodenko, Lynne Ramsay, Antonia Bird, Adrienne Shelley and Sarah Polley seemed to finally promise an end to the dominant patriarchy.

A decade later, the Directors Guild of America reports meager advances. As of 2006, female membership stands at only 22.4%. Limit that to directors proper, and the equation drops to 13%. Granted, these numbers are up from 10.2% in 1993 and just 6% in 1983.

So is the glass half full or half empty? It depends on the case study. While helmers like Coppola and Holofcener work with regularity, and with seemingly little interference, Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) and Tamara Jenkins (“The Slums of Beverly Hills”) have taken eight and nine years, respectively, for their follow-up narrative features to come to term (“Stop Loss” and “Savages,” both due imminently).

For the most part, many female directors seem to fall into the same conformist traps as their male counterparts, which is in itself a form of equality. This is especially true of those who start out making strong personal statements in the indie realm, only to stumble when they become directors-for-hire or attempt to funnel their vision through the studio hierarchy. After invigorating, self-penned indie debuts, “Girlfight’s” Karyn Kusama and “Thirteen’s” Catherine Hardwicke both attached themselves to studio-driven packages that performed below expectations.

Jenkins, writer-director of Sundance standout “Savages,” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, spent several years trying to mount a biopic of photographer Diane Arbus, for which the body count was already considerable. In the meantime, she accepted script work for hire with husband Jim Taylor (Alexander Payne’s writing partner) to pay the bills.

“And then by the time I make (‘Savages’), it’s nine years later,” says Jenkins. “My husband tells me I’m really stubborn — it’s really great for a director, but it can be trying as a wife. Your fists are clenched for so long, defending and trying to hold onto this thing that has to go through so many other opinions and voices. At so many different stages, you’re just trying to hold onto some grain of your original intention.”

Kusama, whose autobiographical “Girlfight” paved the way for multiple Oscar winner “Million Dollar Baby,” was unable to raise the $5 million for a horror/sci-fi “shape-shifter story” in the Cronenberg mold. So she pursued and won a directing job on “Aeon Flux,” an estimated $65 million futuristic epic at Paramount that was both critically and commercially disappointing. (More than 30 minutes were deleted from the director’s cut before it was released theatrically.)

“I can tell you from my perspective it is emphatically not a successful film,” Kusama says. “It was in fact a pretty painful experience. The film that’s in the theaters is not a cut that I’m particularly supportive of, and it reflects a lot of the anxieties and hostilities of just the chaos at the studio at the time.

“By the time we were cutting the film, we were working with our third administration at Paramount. I didn’t actually understand the impact of the regime changes, one after another, on the film until it was actually happening to me. To give you a sense of what the difference was in the two regimes, Sherry Lansing said when we started, ‘We want this to be our “Blade Runner,” and Gail Berman wanted it to be ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'”

Kusama doesn’t blame the fact that she was essentially a writer-director working from someone else’s script (perhaps because she married one of the screenwriters, Phil Hay, with whom she has a 3-month-old child). Nor does she factor gender into her experience, especially, as both the outgoing and incoming executives were women.

From her vantage point in the indie world, writer-director Hilary Brougher has been relatively unsullied by studio politics. She has earned dream raves for her teen pregnancy drama “Stephanie Daley,” for which the L.A. Times credited her for having taken “material that sounds contrived and potentially exploitive and used her gift for careful observation and restrained emotionality to give it surprising authenticity.”

And yet her first film — the cerebral, microbudget time-travel fantasy “The Sticky Fingers of Time” — remains so obscure that, as she puts it, “I like to say I made two first films.” As a consequence, Brougher calls her views on the subject of Hollywood and gender “sort of naive and in progress.”

“Even back when I worked on crews,” she says, “a set where you have a nice mix (of men and women) is a happier set. But I think there’s also an evolution going on in terms of women in film as content. There’s an adage in Hollywood that women will see a men’s film, but men won’t see a women’s film. I don’t know if that’s true, but we’re still dancing with that belief. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ isn’t a weepie, but it is emotionally intense.”

This received wisdom only deepens the perception that Hollywood is primarily interested in making movies for adolescent males with a weakness for broad humor and shiny, souped-up gadgets.

“I can certainly see what movies are being made,” Meyers notes: “They’re comicbooks, heists, action, science fiction — they’re pirates. They’re very male-driven themes.”

Add to that the man’s world tradition of the movie set. “It’s hard not to be slightly self-conscious because all the iconic images of directors are powerful men,” Jenkins says. “John Ford, Howard Hawks: men in jodhpurs — it’s a very masculine archetype.

“And then a kind of anxiety sets in, because it’s a very gear-oriented environment; it can sometimes feel like a construction site, but really what is happening is two actors are sitting across from each other talking. And I started to feel more empowered once it became clear that storytelling was more important than knowing what a fluid-head tripod is.”

Hardwicke arrived at filmmaking with her eyes wide open, having served as a production designer on 20 films, from the humble comedy “Tapeheads” to testosterone-fueled epics like “Three Kings.”

“I think, in some ways, being considered for a big, imaginative, visual extravaganza, people probably have a harder time visualizing a woman director,” Hardwicke says. “There are a few projects that are very interesting to me because I have the production-design background, (but) I didn’t get the interview, and I think if I had, I could have taken in such amazing cool drawings that they would have been knocked out.”

But she cites the proliferation of smart, savvy women executives throughout the industry — Claudia Lewis and Nancy Utley at Fox Searchlight or Amy Pascal at Sony — as a way in which gender is equally beneficial.

“Even New Line, which is mostly guys at the top as far as I can tell, completely got the idea of a woman directing the story of Mary,” says Hardwicke, whose “Nativity Story” was in some ways a more sanitized sequel to “Thirteen.”

Hardwicke also realizes that working one’s way up the ladder in the movie business, no matter what one’s sex, will always involve humility and sacrifice, not to mention a certain leap of faith.

“I look to my heroes — David O. Russell or Rick Linklater,” she says, “and they had to make their first movies for no money.”