While the cinematic fare of 2019 casts a wide-ranging net, a largely male-centric line-up dominates the awards season buzz. But from Martin Scorsese’s mature mobster saga “The Irishman” (Netflix) to Todd Phillips’ dark comic-book spinoff “Joker” (Warner Bros.), many of the year’s masculine-leaning picks were either led or significantly aided by women storytellers’ vision and craftsmanship behind the camera.
With the enormous task of producing both of the aforesaid films, as well as executive-producing Josh and Benny Safdie’s manic crime tale “Uncut Gems” (A24), Emma Tillinger Koskoff is among the year’s most prominent creative forces. (Her 2019 credits also include two notable female-driven films: Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir” and Danielle Lessovitz’s “Port Authority.”) Koskoff has been Scorsese’s collaborator for 17 years, and “The Irishman” had been on the filmmaker’s plate for over a decade. From the early days, Koskoff responded to the story’s unflinching honesty in depicting the life of corrupt labor union official Frank Sheeran. “I watched Marty and [Robert De Niro] develop the project for years. I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with the greatest cast in history.”
Thanks to the long post-production process of “The Irishman” involving digital de-aging, “Joker” neatly aligned with Koskoff’s schedule. “After hearing [Todd’s] vision, I wanted to work with him. ‘Joker’ [expresses] a sense of tragedy and urgency [about] the current state of the world.” The two shoots happened consecutively, so Koskoff carried over most of her crew from one set to the other. “Meanwhile, ‘Uncut Gems’ came out of our relationship with the Safdies,” Koskoff adds. “They’re filmmakers [Marty and I] love and want to support however we can.”
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Reflecting on Hollywood’s preconceived notions about gender, Koskoff observes that the industry often tries to put women filmmakers in a box. “[They think] we can only create cinema with feminine themes. But [like men], we are interested in telling [all kinds of] human stories. If you look at some of the most exciting films of this fall [like] ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ or ‘Honey Boy,’ they are about men, but directed by women.”
Another long-standing partner of Scorsese’s, three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, also relished the opportunity to work with “the great titans of American cinema.” She also welcomed the challenge of tackling five decades of story told through costume. “[‘The Irishman’] was probably the most menswear-heavy film I’ve done,” she says. “But [in general], I have probably dressed more men than women simply because there have (unfortunately) been more male roles than female in most films. I am confident this will change.”
Powell was still finishing up “Mary Poppins Returns” in London when Christopher Peterson, her “Irishman” co-designer, started accumulating images from each of the decades to make mood boards. “We had to differentiate between the beginning, middle and end of each decade to work out the transitions, [determining] who was bang-on period and who might be dated.” The duo also looked at available real-life images of the main characters, with access to Sheeran’s family photographs. As in every Scorsese film, they were assisted by material from Marianne Bower, the director’s trusted researcher. “The hardest part was getting our head around which period we were shooting. Often, we would do two or three different decades in a day with extras. The obvious challenge of dressing our mature protagonists as younger versions of themselves was surprisingly not so hard.”
In contrast to the massive scope of “The Irishman,” experimental director Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy” is intimately scaled, while still toggling multiple timelines. Written by Shia LaBeouf at rehab, which he was court-ordered to attend after his 2017 arrest for DUI, the actor’s autobiographical script was reflected through a womanly lens, with LaBeouf assuming the role of his abusive dad. At first, the director wasn’t fully aware of the troubled actor’s battle with PTSD, even though they were both children of alcoholics and struggled with addiction. But she learned about the condition and created a safe, trusting set environment. During the production, she witnessed LaBeouf being the first one in, last one out.
To Har’el, the story was about expectations of masculinity transferred between generations, anchored in a complex understanding of an abusive father. “Being a woman in the world means [wanting] to believe that healing is possible, even after [being] harassed or sexually abused, which I dealt with. [This] does give you a different perspective on masculinity. Boys are not born toxic. [But] there is a mythological kind of fable being perpetuated and passed to men, [who] only see themselves through the eyes of other men. [But] they reveal different sides of themselves to women. I’m sure there is a distortion when a society sees itself only through [male eyes]. It’s maybe getting very slowly corrected.”
Her cinematographer, Natasha Braier, heartily concurs. “White, privileged men have been filming stories about men and women from [different] backgrounds for over 100 years. Why [should] female filmmakers only tell stories about women?” Raised by Freudian psychoanalysts, Braier has always been interested in the therapeutic process, gravitating towards narratives about identity, transformation and liberation. To her, watching Har’el’s emotionally and visually bold “Bombay Beach” was like “meeting another filmmaker of her tribe, who creates from a guttural place; the stomach instead of the mind.” Their union was ideal for LaBeouf’s “psycho-magic act.” “It’s as if [Alejandro] Jodorowsky had given Shia the homework of making a movie.”
To sustain the film’s emotional nuances that blend documentary and fiction, Braier favored pronounced lighting while allowing the actors (who sometimes improvised) non-invasive space for fluidity of movement. “It was like quantum cinematography; [we were] lighting for a few possible scenarios at [once]. I would put everything on wireless and dimmers; go to my monitor and DJ with my dimmer boards, like a jam session. I only said yes to the movie once I was certain that I could assemble a crew that could hold the space for [Shia]. I was thinking about the human being more than the actor; about my respect for the therapeutic process more than my ego.”
While her personal affiliation with psychology informed Braier’s craft, being a self-professed history buff came in handy for Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the co-scribe of Sam Mendes’ “1917” (Universal Pictures). “I have started with quite a big one, haven’t I?” she jokes about her feature debut, a massive WWI picture simulating a single shot. She already had a robust knowledge of the Great War when she first sat down with Mendes, also a writer. For research, she visited London’s Imperial War Museum and drove around battlefields in northern France. “I visited the entire Somme region. Standing [by] the grave of a 17-year-old who died for inches of land brought the unimaginable cost of war [home],” she says.
The ambition to conceive one continuous take had always been in the project’s DNA, before a single word was written. “It’s impossible to tell where my work ends and [Sam’s] begins. We [were] a team. But this script could never have been written without someone who understood every aspect of filmmaking. It’s the kind of movie I would have been obsessed with growing up. To have my name on it is a dream come true.” Still, Wilson-Cairns confesses she sees hints of shock in people’s faces when she introduces herself as one of the writers of “1917” — the surprise that a woman was involved in the creation of a WWI epic. “There is [perhaps] the assumption that it’s not my lane. F–k that assumption. I am certain my gender never entered into [Sam’s] mind, but he did defy convention by [collaborating with] me. He treated me as an equal, from equal pay to respecting my knowledge of the war.”
Elsewhere, on the southernmost tip of Nova Scotia, genre filmmaker Robert Eggers and his repeat editor Louise Ford (from “The Witch” and an older short) boarded their shared mental picture of “The Lighthouse,” an unnerving, black-and-white two-hander that plunges into the depths of the human psyche. “We share a similar sensibility; a taste for the weird and wonderful, a love of language, a sardonic sense of humor,” she says, appending that their joint affections expand also to old Hammer horror films, and Victorian writers and illustrators.
For “The Lighthouse,” Ford indulged in the offline sound and music edit, spending as much time on it as the picture. “One example is the sound of the foghorn. My assistant [Katrina Pastore] sourced a recording of one of the only steam-powered foghorns in working order.”
Shooting on film at a remote location added another layer of difficulty. They shipped the dailies to Fotokem in L.A. with a four- or five-day turnaround, a long wait for a low-budget film on a schedule. So Ford insisted on a video tap she had her assistant process like dailies. “We could at least see a version of what we would get, to give Robert time to reshoot if necessary.”
Centering in a much softer shade of male camaraderie, Quentin Tarantino’s 1969-set Hollywood tale “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” found its authentic look through the creations of production designer Barbara Ling. When she read the script’s only printed copy — worn, water and coffee-stained — Ling was taken by the novelistic quality of the writing that captured an idiosyncratic map of L.A. “The characters weave in and out through TV shows, Westerns, freeways, airports, restaurants, canyon drives, movie theaters. … Being raised in Los Angeles, and as a teenager in 1969, this L.A. was my backyard.”
With researcher Lance Malbon on board, she collected references from libraries, newspapers, museums and even individual ’60s photographers that had essential color photos of the era. Tarantino offered his theater, the New Beverly, for cast and crew screenings of ’60s L.A. movies, from “Model Shop” and “Valley of the Dolls” to “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” Along with set designer Nancy Haigh, she engineered believable layers of the period’s advertising, stores and signage, hunting for vintage objects everywhere. The Western sets were the toughest to re-create from what was available in L.A. “We were able to use a section of the old Melody Ranch in Simi Valley for the black-and-white ‘Bounty Law’ set. The ‘Lancer’ set was much harder. We had to get the Universal Studio backlot to let us rebuild their Western street. They luckily said yes.”
On the opposite coast, production designer Beth Mickle transformed segments of New York City neighborhoods into the 1950s for Edward Norton’s noir-esque Jonathan Lethem adaptation “Motherless Brooklyn” (Warner Bros.). Having explored the New York City of the 1970s through her work in “The Deuce,” Mickle was excited to discover another time in city’s history. Norton was definitely a big draw for the artisan. “We were very much in sync, aiming for a timeless yet authentic feel.” Mickle relied on a team of scenic artists (led by Lauren Doner Hirn), as well as photographs from the late 1800s all the way through mid-20th century. She visited historic locations, from the Public Library on 34th Street to the Hansborough Recreation Center in Harlem. Wear and tear was an important component of a lived-in world with a sense of history, as was having furniture and garments from the previous decades.
Mickle admits she contemplates gender balance, both in front of and behind the camera, when considering a project. “But as a female production designer, I think it’s equally [essential] to jump into projects that are male-driven, to help reshape those landscapes. Largely due to director James Gunn’s support, I recently started working in the superhero genre, where productions are almost entirely male-dominated. It’s important for women to demand a seat at that table. I know in 10 years, the table will look very different. That makes me proud.”