A clarion call for female equality has been reverberating throughout the film biz, with estimable players such as Patricia Arquette and Jennifer Lawrence galvanizing women and men to create positive social change in an industry dominated by men. And, yes, there is much work to be done. But if you cut through the male-saturated, action-hero tentpoles and take a wider look at this season’s big-screen fare, you’ll find a bevy of powerful, female-driven indie films that have proven successful on the critical and festival fronts — and, perhaps most importantly, were picked up for studio distribution.
From Marielle Heller’s coming-of-age comedy “Diary of a Teenage Girl” to Sarah Gavron’s historical political drama “Suffragette,” an emboldened crop of female directors, producers and writers is taking filmmaking into its own hands — no matter the obstacles and challenges.
For Olivia Wilde, who stars in and co-produced Cinedigm’s heartbreaking child-abduction drama “Meadowland,” the decision to lobby for a co-producing role was rooted in a desire to preserve the creative choices of the film’s cinematographer-cum-director Reed Morano.
“It was less about wanting to control the film and more about wanting to protect it,” says Wilde, who plays a mother (opposite on-screen husband Luke Wilson) grappling with an unimaginable loss.
“I was just hired as an actor for the first couple of months, but (Reed) was already very collaborative and inclusive with me and I thought, ‘Wow, she’s making such interesting choices and I hope these choices survive. I hope she doesn’t have to sacrifice those once financiers and everyone else gets into the mix.’ ”
“We really didn’t attempt financing it until Olivia came on,” says Morano, who, as the d.p., created the gauzy, naturalistic visuals of “Frozen River” and “Kill Your Darlings” and is one of only 12 female members of the American Society of Cinematographers. “She was with us for that whole experience. It’s because of Olivia on many levels that the film got financed — because she was attached.”
But even with Wilde on board, there were naysayers who balked at the prospect of a small film with depressing subject matter and a woman in the lead role.
“A lot of people told us, ‘Oh, the male part has to be much bigger.’ Or, ‘You’re going to have to cast a really financeable big actor,’ ” says Wilde, who was also an exec producer on the 2013 romantic comedy “Drinking Buddies” and a producer of several documentary shorts. “It wasn’t that we didn’t want those people — it was that we couldn’t believe the project wasn’t allowed to move forward without a famous man attached to it.”
“Suffragette” producer Alison Owen, a veteran of the film industry with such movies as the Oscar-winning “Elizabeth” and “Saving Mr. Banks” under her belt, likens the current climate of filmmaking to a time when, in terms of making movies for kids, “the received wisdom was girls will watch movies about boys but boys will not watch movies about girls.”
But, she notes, “obviously, in the last few years we’ve seen great success with movies with girls at the center, culminating in ‘Frozen.’ So that myth has been blown apart.”
Per Owen, the development process of the pic, starring Carey Mulligan and written by Abi Morgan, went relatively smoothly thanks to “great support in the U.K. from BBC Films” and others, but what remained difficult was securing the desired budget for the project.
“If we had wanted to settle and make a smaller, more intimate arthouse movie — and I think that was the expectation in the early days — that would have been easier,” Owen says. “But it was the fact that we wanted to blow things up and have a riot in the House of Commons and do all these big set pieces and really honor these women whose shoulders we’re standing on that took a bit of time. We felt any male achievement is always heroicized and told in a really big way and we wanted to do the same thing for these women.”
On the foreign-language contenders front, “Mustang” director Deniz Gamze Erguven is hoping that her debut film, which explores the scandal-ridden aftermath of an innocent game between five teenage sisters and a gaggle of schoolboys in a northern Turkish village, will give viewers what she calls the opposite angle of masculinity. (“Mustang” is France’s entry in the Oscar foreign-language race.)
“(We’re) seeing more and more conservative choices in Turkish society about what women should do and should not do,” says Erguven, who was born in Ankara, Turkey, but grew up in France, where she studied at state film school La Femis. “So it was great to have these girls in the light and be the subject of their hopes and desires. I hope they will generate empathy and broaden people’s perspective.”
Which is not to say that today’s female filmmakers are against partnering with men to bring their cinematic visions to life.
“Working with Klaus Haro has been very rewarding,” says tyro scribe Anna Heinamaa, who wrote “The Fencer,” Finland’s official Oscar submission. “He is a great director, devoted to his work. I always felt inspired and nurtured as a writer.”
Of course, there are still many instances when it behooves the film to place female artists in their rightful positions of power.
“I think (‘Suffragette’) needed a woman director,” says Owen of hiring Gavron. “And I say that with caution. After all, you don’t have to have lived as a Victorian queen in order to write about Queen Victoria — that’s the power of the imagination, right? On the other hand, I do object to the fact that most of the time there are 99% male directors and 1% women. It would have been almost insulting to do this (movie) and have it looked at through a male lens.
“I really believe that.”