Director Kimberly Peirce
Director Kimberly Peirce

When the American Film Institute's Directing Workshop for Women (DWW) was launched forty years ago, women made up less than 10% of Hollywood's directing ranks. Sadly, the numbers have not improved but since 1974, the DWW has provided mentorship and training to aspiring female filmmakers interested in narrative storytelling. More than 275 women have participated in the program, including Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn and Lesli Linka Glatter. 

DWW head Patty West spoke with Women and Hollywood (by email) about the origins and effectiveness of the program, her new artist-in-residence initiative, and the selection of Boys Don't Cry and Carrie helmer Kimberly Peirce as the keynote speaker at the DWW's showcase on April 29

What does it mean that you are going into your 40th anniversary?

The significance of AFI DWW's 40th anniversary can be traced back to its roots as a trailblazing program to support the narrative of women in film. The AFI Directing Workshop for Women (AFI DWW) was established in 1974 as a pilot program by the American Film Institute. Matilde Krim, a research scientist and distinguished humanitarian, secured funding for the program from the Rockefeller Foundation and was the driving force behind the program. 

The program was developed in response to a major need voiced by talented, professional women working within film and television -- the need for opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and skills as screen directors. Although women had achieved distinction in many of the professions within film and television, they had often been denied employment opportunities in directing. In 1974, the first class included Maya Angelou, Ellen Burstyn, Lee Grant and Lynne Littman, among others. Today, we have trained over 275 women in this tuition-free program and 25% have gone on to direct professionally after the program. 

What has the DWW meant for women directors? 

The AFI DWW has maintained a solid commitment to diversity in storytelling and representation for 40 years now. Many directors attribute their start to the AFI DWW and our credits tell that story. Additionally, the women from the program find a community in each other, which is really valuable. The women can and have been great resources for each other. This year, we've tried to build on that community and start offering monthly career development classes on everything from script development to agents and managers to pitching. 

As a person training women directors, what do you think needs to happen for the numbers of women directors making big-budget films to change?

I wish the answer were simple. We talk about it every day. There are a few things we're thinking about -- awareness, mentoring, networking and pipeline changes that could make a real difference. We are talking to everyone -- directors, producers, reps, studio execs, critics and journalists -- to see where there are opportunities. I only see opportunities.

Why did you pick Kimberly Peirce to deliver your keynote?

Kimberly Peirce is one of the most talented directors of our time, and we want to surround our emerging filmmakers with the best. Her body of work is not only impressive but also diverse, and that is exciting for directors to see. I think her inherent ability to weave commercial viability with artistic integrity is what a lot of filmmakers aspire to do. We are thrilled that Kim was willing to participate.

What do you hope to accomplish with the new artists-in-residence program?

We have asked Jamie Babbit, Patty Jenkins and Kimberly Peirce to be Artists-in-Residence. They'll be teaching both the art and craft of directing and "the business," as they know it. On top of our traditional hands-on-filmmaking approach to learning, we think it's important to address some of the challenges in navigating careers, and we think we've assembled a great team to lead that charge.