According to an oft-cited statistic, women comprise only 9% of directors in the film industry. But the participants of the "Directing the Future" panel at Pepperdine University School of Law's Women in Hollywood: 100 Years of Negotiating the System haven't let those numbers stop them.
Homeland director and co-executive producer Lesli Link Glatter, producer and documentarian Linda Goldstein Knowlton, and Brave co-director Brenda Chapman spoke about what led them to careers in directing despite the odds against their favor. In another panel, "YA: Raising Up New Heroes," Twilight screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg and Divergent producer Lucy Fisher also expressed their commitment to featuring strong, young heroines on the big screen.
Interestingly, none of the female directors on the "Directing the Future" panel started their careers with the director's chair as an end goal. Glatter began her career as a dancer and choreographer. "It never occurred to me it was going to be harder [to direct] as a woman," Glatter said. Coming from the dance world, where almost everyone was female, she arrived at the entertainment industry with the assumption that it would be a similar environment and never gave her gender a second thought.
Knowlton followed a similarly circuitous route in the industry. She credited a male colleague with pushing her towards directing, though not in the most helpful way. Knowlton worked as a producer for a number of years and decided to leave her position, she said, "because Harvey Weinstein almost killed me."
Chapman just wanted a job where she could sit in a corner and draw all day. She credited Jeffrey Katzenberg with pushing her towards directing.
Glatter had just returned to Los Angeles after filming the Homeland finale in Rabat, Morocco. She has directed many drama series, including Twin Peaks, NYPD Blue, Gilmore Girls, The West Wing, ER, Mad Men, and most recently Showtime's Homeland and Masters of Sex. She noted that one of the difficulties of working in television is coming in to a show's pre-existing crew and having to quickly establish herself as a director. "In my experience, the crew doesn't care if you're male or female as long as you know what you want. They want you to steer the ship, because if you don't, that means they have to do your job, too," said Glatter.
If anyone doubted Glatter's directing prowess, they got to see her in action on Saturday. When a clip from Homeland started to play, she commented it wasn't at the right spot and got up to assist the tech crew to find the correct starting place. When faced with people's inability to see past her gender, Glatter always found humor helpful. During the hiring process, she's been told, "We hired a woman once and it didn't work." Turning the statement around on them was helpful. "Can you imagine saying that about a white guy," she quipped. "Oh, we tried a white guy once and that didn't work out."
Knowlton simultaneously developed and produced The Shipping News and Whale Rider. "I spent so much time on The Shipping News. I had that book when it was in galley form and then it was getting changed because of Harvey [Weinstein], who was the bank, and you can't really say no to the bank," said Knowlton. After she quit producing, she fortuitously met a woman who worked on Sesame Street. When Knowlton asked if the show incorporated specific themes for young girls, she learned that the American version did not, though the international versions of the show did. That conversation evolved into Knowlton's first foray into directing, the documentary The World According to Sesame Street. That's how ideas usually start for me. They form around a question, and then I realize that if I have these questions, then other people will too," said Knowlton.
A recent project, Somewhere Between, is more personal. It focuses on four young girls who were adopted from China and how their adoptions have affected their lives. Knowlton's own daughter was adopted from China. The issue of adoption has frequently been written about from the parental point of view, so she wanted to tackle the children's perspective. "On scripted films, your goal is to eliminate all surprises for a director," Knowlton explained. "But on documentaries, you have to be open to all surprises."
The autonomy of working in documentary was both rewarding and challenging for Knowlton. She doesn't have to deal with getting large crews to trust her, as she only travels with two crew members who are her camera and sound. When Somewhere Between was released, she was frustrated with the small distribution offers the film was receiving, so she learned how to raise money through Kickstarter and distributed the film herself without losing any of her rights as an owner of the material
Prior to Brave, Chapman directed Prince of Egypt for Disney. Animated films go through many more stages of production than do live-action ones. On Prince of Egypt, Chapman was frustrated that watching the frames and sketches didn't help her know exactly what was going on with the effects. "So I asked the effects guys to walk me through it. It established a great relationship between us. They knew I wanted to learn and they were very supportive once we established respect for one another. Throughout the process of making Brave, they were cheering me on," said Chapman.
Chapman briefly explained the long creative process behind Brave and how she almost got pushed off the film. Chapman had started developing the film in 2004 but once Disney bought Pixar, the release date kept getting bumped for Disney sequels. With all the time to pick and prod at the film, upper management and Chapman began to have creative differences. "Eighteen months before release, they replaced me with a less experienced male director. I saw an early screening of the film and it was completely different than my vision," said Chapman.
The test screenings of Brave did not go over well, and a few months later, Chapman's scenes were back in the film and she was reinstated on the project, which went on to make over $200 million at the box office. She credits her daughter with being the inspiration behind the feisty Scottish heroine Merida.
Later in the afternoon, the "YA: Raising Up New Heroes" panel brought in Melissa Rosenberg, screenwriter of the Twilight saga, and Lucy Fisher, producer of Spring 2014 release Divergent.
These panelists, too, are beating the odds in a different sense. While Fisher and Rosenberg are women working at the top of their fields in the industry, the theme of the panel was how films with a young, strong female lead are doing well at the box office, while the common sentiment is that studios only produce projects that attract thirteen-year-old boys.
Rosenberg discussed how making Bella a stronger character than in the Twilight book series was very important to her and the director of the first film, Catherine Hardwicke. "She was a difficult character because most of her thoughts are internal, which does not translate easily to the screen, so you have to externalize her. Then I would take scenes where she was passive and twist them a little so she's propelling the action forward. But that's not a decision based on gender, that's just good writing," said Rosenberg.
Fisher cited Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate as being instrumental in stepping up to the plate and supporting films with strong, young female characters. She said that it was necessary in previous years to sneak women-driven content through a studio's back door, citing The Color Purple, which reportedly was only made because of Steven Spielberg.
In addition to the young female lead, played by Shailene Woodley, Divergent features two other important female characters, Ashley Judd as Tris' mother and Kate Winslet as the villain. While it remains to be seen how Divergent does at the box office, Summit's hope is it will fall in line with the success of Twilight and The Hunger Games.
Lauren C. Byrd is interested in exploring the documentary and social impact film space in Los Angeles. She enjoys writing about women in the industry and studied film and television at Syracuse University.