Are women finally welcome in the film- directors club?
Last year, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award as best director, for the Iraq war thriller The Hurt Locker. Then in February, Danish director Susanne Bier won the Oscar for best foreign language film for the pacifism parable In a Better World.
During the next few weeks, three more movies by female directors will open: Cracks, a girls-school drama from Jordan Scott; Meek's Cutoff, a revisionist Western directed by Kelly Reichardt; and The Beaver, a midlife crisis dramedy directed by Jodie Foster. So it's tempting to say the glass ceiling has been shattered.
Yet for the rest of the summer, there are only two more mainstream films directed by women: the animated sequel Kung-Fu Panda 2 (May 26) directed by newcomer Jennifer Yuh, and the romance One Day (Aug. 19), from Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education).
Recently we spoke with Foster, Scott and Reichardt about opportunities for female directors. Here are excerpts.
Foster, 48, was a Disney star before the controversial Taxi Driver steered her onto the prestige path that would lead to two best actress Oscars. She directed her first film — the child-prodigy drama Little Man Tate — in 1991. After the comedy Home for the Holidays (1995) it would be 16 years before she would direct The Beaver, in which she co-stars as the wife of a depressed toy-company executive, played by Mel Gibson.
"My interest in this project was as a director, not an actor. But as I was looking for someone to play the wife, who was the appropriate age, who you would believe had known Mel for years, I realized it was me. Fortunately, I knew Mel would be receptive to me acting and directing at the same time, because he has also acted and directed at the same time.
"It's crazy that there aren't more women directors, especially in mainstream movies. There are more women directors in independent film, and there are many, many, many more women directors in Europe. I don't know why it's that way in the United States. Maybe unconsciously the studio executives still think it's a big risk to put a woman in a position of responsibility.
The family business
Scott, 32, is the daughter of British director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) and niece of director Tony Scott (Unstoppable). Her background is as a photographer and director of TV commercials. Cracks, her debut feature, is a drama about rivalries and repressed sexuality at an English girls' boarding school in the 1930s.
"There was always a lot of conversation about film at our dinner table, and I always thought it was very intriguing, so that probably has a lot to do with why I wanted to go into this field.
"But I underestimated the physical side of filmmaking, the marathon element of it. You get very tired very quickly. My father never told me that. But he was always just a phone call away if I needed guidance.
"I'm developing another project that is character-based, like this one. But I'll never say never about making a movie like my father and my uncle, the kind with lots of explosions or out-of-control trains. Imagine how fun that would be!"
Like Scott, Reichardt has a background in photography, but she has been directing features in relative isolation since 1994 while also teaching college in upstate New York. Her friends-on-a-hike film Old Joy screened at Sundance in 2006 and was identified with the minimalist "mumblecore" aesthetic. Her equally austere follow-up, Wendy and Lucy, starred Michelle Williams as an itinerant woman looking for her lost dog. Reichardt reteams with Williams in Meek's Cutoff, based on a true story about a pioneer wagon train that gets lost in the Oregon desert.
"The Western tale through a male perspective has been pretty much covered. If you get your history through Western movies, you think there was a gunfight on every corner. But ... the female experience was more monotonous, even trancelike, as they walked across the country for six months. A lot of pioneer women did the trek pregnant and gave birth in the back of their wagons and then continued walking the next day.
"But the films I want to make aren't necessarily about women. They're about people outside the power structure, who don't have the money or whatever it is that allows you to move forward in America.
"In the '90s, when I was just starting out, ... every interview I did was about being a woman. Now I can just talk about being a filmmaker, which is nice."