Lydia Dean Pilcher on Her Directorial Debut ‘Radium Girls’ and Backing Female-Driven Stories

Lydia Dean Pilcher attends the premiere of HBO Films' "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" at the SVA Theatre on Tuesday, April 18, 2017, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)
Andy Kropa/Invision/AP

Producer Lydia Dean Pilcher, after decades of collaborating with filmmakers like Katheryn Bigelow, Wes Anderson and Gina Prince Bythewood, is stepping behind the camera for the first time as a feature director. Her directorial debut, the historical drama “Radium Girls,” is opening in theaters and on demand on Friday.

The movie, set in New Jersey in the late ’20s, follows two teenage sisters (portrayed by Joey King and Abby Quinn) employed at a nearby American Radium plant. Those working on the assembly line to paint dials were instructed to lick the tip of their paintbrushes to increase their precision, ingesting lethal amounts of radium (an element they were told wasn’t harmful) in the process. But after the self-luminous paint began to poison factory workers (causing them to glow, literally!) the young activists attempt to expose the corporate scandal. The lasting precedent that the case, based on true events, set for workplace safety is what inspired Pilcher to dramatize the story on screen and direct for the first time.

“I’m an environmental activist, and I asked myself: “How can I marry my passions with my storytelling career?” recalled Pilcher, who co-directed the film with Ginny Mohler. “It took a while to find the right one. When I read the screenplay, it was everything that I wanted. It spoke to every bone in my body about how to tell the story through the eyes of these teenage girls.”

Pilcher’s producing credits include “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” starring Oprah Winfrey, the Oscar-nominated documentary “Cutie and the Boxer,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and the Reese Witherspoon-led adaptation of “Vanity Fair.” She also recently directed “A Call to Spy,” a World War II thrilled based on the true story of women spies in Churchill’s Secret Army, which debuted earlier this month, and is currently producing the Netflix mini-series “A Suitable Boy” with her frequent collaborator Mira Nair.

She spoke to Variety about the subjects that inspire her as a producer and how the pandemic may change Hollywood.

What did you learn in your research for “Radium Girls”?

As we developed the screenplay, the whole role that early women’s political movement came forward. These women had gotten the right to vote in that decade, and they were really active, educated women looking now to use this vote. They saw industrialization and worker health and safety as a realm where legislation was needed. When the Radium Girls case came up, this network of women picked up the story and brought it to a bigger level. If that hadn’t happened, we may still not know the story. [At the time] radium was a miracle elixir, and corporations were just making money hand over foot with new products based on this sort of wonder element until these unknown impacts that came to light.

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Joey King in “Radium Girls” Juno Films

As a producer, what kind of stories are you interested telling?

Ever since I was a kid, I was very fascinated by stories about women. I wanted to produce female-driven stories where there was an inherent audience that really felt like it wasn’t being acknowledged. Being on the inside of the industry as a producer and really being able to see all aspects of how decisions get made — Who decides what stories get told? How did the directors get chosen? — it made me understand that there was something being missed on the Hollywood end. It’s not just that the stories were being shut out. A lot of money was being left on the table. That’s something that has started to shift predominantly because of the growth in the economic power of women and being able to dispel the myths that existed early on in my career. What’s great now is the movement to really understand that authentic storytelling, and telling stories through female eyes or any undervalued group in our industry — not just limited to gender.

How did you get started in the entertainment industry?

I was a film critic for my college paper, but I realized one day when I was sitting in that dark theater by myself writing the upcoming reviews that I really love movies more than anything else. It had never been an option presented to me when I was growing up in high school in Atlanta. I finished my degree in political science and communications, and then I went to New York to get my graduate degree at NYU’s film school. From there, I was directing documentaries early on in my career. I was interested in the business aspects of our industry and learning more about the craft. So it’s been an evolution.

Do you think the pandemic will affect how films are consumed?

Virtual cinema is definitely here to stay. The industry has woken up to the fact that there’s a bigger audience out there. Even more importantly, there’s a shift in the demographics of our country. There’s a confluence of Hollywood understanding that there’s people out there who have stories that others are interested in seeing.

Have you been working on any new projects during quarantine?

I optioned a book called “Songs for the Gorilla Nation” written by Dawn Prince-Hughes. It’s a memoir based on her journey to self discovery as someone who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 36. That’s the next project I’m working on to direct.

What are some of your hobbies outside of entertainment?

I love photography, music and art. My activism is primarily focused on the environment. And I teach a course in the graduate school at NYU called “The Audience Is in Revolt.” It’s a deep dive into cultural moments and the culture shift that happens in our world. I find it fascinating.