Ever since Universal-DreamWorks’ “1917” debuted, reporters have seemed fascinated with the fact that women played key creative roles in the film. The list included Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who co-wrote it with director Sam Mendes, and producers Pippa Harris and Jayne-Ann Tenggren.
The surprise is surprising.
Neal Street Prods., which Harris, Mendes and Caro Newling formed in 2003, has always maintained a 50-50 gender balance. “It’s in our company’s DNA. Plus, Sam didn’t want production of ‘1917’ to be a macho environment,” says Harris.
Further confounding stereotypes, the film’s strong emotions were not a “feminine touch” but came from both writers, Wilson-Cairns and Mendes, while she was the expert on all things dealing with World War I.
This shouldn’t be a shock because Hollywood history is filled with women who helped create some of the greatest “male-driven” films ever. In 1921, June Mathis scripted “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a WWI epic that introduced Rudolph Valentino to the world. Frances Marion won the writing award for “The Big House” (1930), a look at brutal conditions in an overcrowded prison.
MGM advertised the film as offering “No bunk, no hokum, no backstage flapdoodle … instead, a really well-done sincere drama with characters that are real and subject matter that excites.” Hollywood knew 90 years ago that a woman can create a film that goes way beyond the definition of a “woman’s picture,” as they used to call them. Marion won again for “The Champ” (1931), becoming the first writer to win two Academy Awards.
The tradition of women tackling rugged topics continued over the decades. The Oscar honor roll is led by Fran Walsh, writer, producer and a creative force behind “The Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies. Though “LOTR” films are synonymous with Peter Jackson, the writer-director-producer is the first to acknowledge the contributions of Walsh (three Oscar wins) and Philippa Boyens (two noms, one win).
Other notable producers include Kathleen Kennedy, who has eight Oscar noms for such films as “The Sixth Sense,” “Munich,” “War Horse” and “Lincoln.” Kathryn Bigelow was a double Academy Award winner, as the director and a producer of the 2009 “The Hurt Locker,” and was nominated as a producer of “Zero Dark Thirty,” which she also directed.
Oscar-nominated producers include Julia Phillips, on “Taxi Driver”; JoAnne Sellar, “There Will Be Blood”; Emma Thomas, “Inception” and “Dunkirk”; and Carolynne Cunningham, “District 9.” Dede Gardner has six best-picture noms for such fare as “Moneyball” and “Vice,” winning for “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight.” (And when do she, Adele Romanski and Jeremy Kleiner get to finally give their acceptance speeches for that 2016 winner, after being upstaged by the envelopegate pandemonium?)
As for writers, there are Jay Presson Allen, co-scripter of “Prince of the City,” the gritty look at N.Y. cops; Hilary Henkin, co-writer of the savage political satire “Wag the Dog”; Iris Yamashita, co-writer (with Paul Haggis) of “Letters From Iwo Jima”; Terri Tatchell, “District 9”; and Bridget O’Connor, co-writer of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
Just think: All those great films and not a chick flick or rom-com in the entire bunch!
So the “1917” team is carrying on a proud tradition, reminding people that filmmaking is not a matter of gender; it’s a matter of talent, and stereotypes were never applicable.
As “1917” actor George MacKay told me, “I don’t think it’s strange that Krysty would be writing about a war. She has a great work ethic, and her knowledge of the First World War is encyclopedic. Pippa does such amazing work, a constant facilitator and support. They’re just two of the many women who were the bedrock of this film. It’s vital to take note of this work, but don’t patronize them. It’s about recognition.”