Femme Indie Spirit Nominees Make Movies On Their Own Terms

Lake Bell
Chris Weeks/Getty Images

If the movie industry is “geared for (women) to fail,” as Sony Pictures’ Amy Pascal said in a recent interview, female filmmakers must work that much harder to succeed.

It’s simply not enough to go to the best film school, snag a competition spot at Sundance, sign with the best agent, or make a multimillion-dollar grossing movie. When the numbers are stacked against you — last year, women directed only 6% of the top-grossing 250 films, compared with 9% in 1998 — it takes an especially unique, courageous and multitalented individual to persevere.

Being a “triple” or “quadruple threat” probably helps, as is the case with many of this year’s female Film Independent Spirit Awards nominees. When you’ve got your hands dug into so many different facets of the film business, it’s more difficult for the powers that be to pick you off.

“The benefit of being all three — an actor, a writer and a director — is you have to answer to less people,” says Lake Bell, nominated for first screenplay for “In a World ….” “Add in a fourth, producer, and you become a hub of a lot of information. It makes things slightly more efficient.”

But Bell, who made a couple of acclaimed shorts, spent nearly a year doing the “song and dance,” she says, in search of funds for “In a World.” Eventually, Bell persuaded 3311 Prods. to fully finance the picture; she credits her ability to round up the backers, in part, to her starring role in the film.

“It’s helpful to have your main actor in the room with you, even if it’s yourself,” Bell says. “Because casting is such a finicky thing, if they know the lead is walking and talking right in front of them, they can immediately visualize it. It definitely omits a large part of the mystery of it.”

Producer-director-writer Stacy Passon, whose “Concussion” is nommed for first feature, finds that being a multi-hyphenate makes one “more nimble,” she says. “It’s not going to make you a better filmmaker, but it may help you navigate the hills and valleys of this business.”

Before making her feature debut, Passon worked extensively as a producer and director of commercials, with clients including Warner Music Group, Donna Karan and IBM. “It’s made me more pragmatic,” she says. “To be able to put on hats and take on hats makes for a more holistic and more practical way of looking at things.

“I think it also can make you more brave. It takes a certain amount of bravery to do this — a lot of people tell you that you’re not ready — so anything you can to do cultivate confidence can help along the way.”

A wealth of experience both behind and in front of the camera, says Julie Delpy, nominated for screenplay and lead actress for her work on “Before Midnight,” has also made her more practical. “The fact that I’ve been in this industry since I was 14, and I’ve seen so many films being made, and not being made, I’m very realistic and manage things better,” she says.

Coming from France — where, Delpy notes, “there is no fear of a woman taking on a film that’s too big or too funny or too dark” — she is always surprised by the lack of femme helmers in the U.S.

She wonders if the dearth may be due to age-old prejudices. “I think what scares big studio heads is this crazy idea that women are emotional,” says Delpy, who has directed several films in both French and English. “They want a guy with a baseball cap who will finish the movie even if their family dies. But of course, that’s an old idea: In fact, I think men are more emotional than women.” (As evidence, Delpy notes that on “Before Midnight,” she — not Ethan Hawke — wrote many of the male character’s most macho lines, while he, in turn, wrote many of the female’s lines.)

After decades in the business, Delpy says the main thing she’s learned is to “have five different projects at once. And while you’re waiting for the $20 million (budgeted) one to happen, you have a $3 million one ready to go.”

Passon and Bell, on the other hand, appear to be less enamored of the larger-scale studio project, and more focused on personal filmmaking.

During a recent drive past the 20th Century Fox studio lot, for example, Passon remembers feeling sympathy for the enormous infrastructure that the studios must sustain. “I understand the panic they must feel. They need to keep the butts in seats. And I’d be happy to help them do that, but that’s not my primary goal.

“I’m happy I’ve been able to do things my own way,” says Passon, who is already at work on another project, about a murder in an affluent Detroit suburb. “That, to me, is being successful.”

Similarly, Bell isn’t particularly eager to take on a studio directing gig. “Would I go to work on a Hollywood film? As long as it was good,” she says. “But to have the delicious taste of making my own content, and the satisfaction I’ve got from that, I don’t really need the empty carbs. Life’s too short.”

While Bell has received offers to make “all kinds of big-ass movies” following the success of her shorts and her feature, she explains: “But why would I set myself up for failure? And why do I want to spend all those years not nurturing my own children?”

Perhaps there are fewer women directors in Hollywood because they just don’t want to work there. Posits Bell: “Because it’s taken us longer to get here and we’re slightly more a specific breed, maybe we are just interested in doing the things that we want to do.”

Lucy Mulloy, producer-writer-director of “Una noche,” nominated for first feature, concurs. “I know a lot of women making films now, but they’re making them outside of the industry,” she says. “And they’re making them happen themselves, as writer-producer-directors, and making them on their own terms.”

Mulloy put together “Una noche” on the fly, venturing to Cuba, where the story is set, before she even had script, cast or financier locked.

While working outside Hollywood has given these women the creative freedom and enough funding to realize their visions, the fact is even today, it is statistically difficult for female directors to break into the independent film world. At this year’s Spirits, for example, women were missing from the director category.

Perhaps as an indication of the future, female directors make up two-thirds of this year’s Spirit noms for first feature (Mulloy, Passon, and Saudi writer-director Haifaa al-Mansour). And at Sundance 2014, while the dramatic competition featured only five femme directors out of 12, the festival’s Next section included seven projects out of 11 directed or co-directed by women.

There are other signs that the movie business may start to embrace more females. If women make up a larger share of the moviegoing audience and control the majority of purchasing decisions in the household, as recent data suggests, you’d think the film business would allow the demographics to dictate their actions.

Delpy, for one, is confident they will. “Eventually, I think the industry will catch up,” she says. “I just think it’s a question of time.”