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Martha Coolidge Talks Valley Girl and Female Directors

by Melissa Silverstein
June 9, 2011 5:00 AM
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Martha Coolidge will be in NYC this weekend for a Saturday screening of Valley Girl at the opening of the new film center at Lincoln Center. The film is presented by director Kevin Smith who picked it for its inclusion in the program. The event is free and reservations are full, but you can go and stand-by. Details here.

Martha Coolidge answered some questions about the film and her role as one of the deans of women directors.

Women and Hollywood: Valley Girl was your first big break at a time when very few women were directing films. What did this opportunity mean for you and your career?

Martha Coolidge: When I read the script I knew I could make a really good movie with it and that it would change my life. It was the fire that drove me for that whole year. I borrowed money to live, stayed above a friend's garage and lent my editing equipment to the show. I called in all my friends and everyone was very committed to it. I think it was the unique combination of the fact I had spent the last three years studying and immersed in the music scene, the innocent but genuine teen love story with a truthful edge, and the humor that made it so appealing to me. It was an inherently commercial movie and those are rare.

WaH: It's going to be 30 years soon since you directed that film and there are still so few female directors. Why do you think it is such a struggle?

MC: I think that when it comes to power, money and (macho) sexual appeal in our society men rule most of the time. The mythology, the qualities that we value and revere even in storytelling, much less film genres and styles have muscle, aggression and toughness - even when they are made for children. But most of all there is a male network (actually multiple male networks) made of studio heads, show runners, producers and stars. These are overwhelmingly men and they are most comfortable hiring their friends that they have experience with, or the new hot shot who is promising. Either way this is still all made up of 90% (a guess) men. Even our symbols are male: rockets; towers; gun barrels etc. The assumption by many men in the business still is that women will make a "soft" product, or won't be able to keep up, or will be uninterested in the kind of subject matter that makes the most money.

Also marketing has now split the audience into smaller and smaller subgroups, some split by gender, and this has not helped women getting hired. If they perceive their audience as 16 and male they want something close to that in sensibility.

WaH: You were the first female head of the Director's Guild. What was that experience like?

MC: It was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. A great education in terms of understanding the world at large and how it runs - which is very differently than how film sets run. It's also a subject that could fill a book.

WaH: Do you think Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar win has had any positive effect for other female directors? Do you think there has been a Bigelow effect?


MC: Yes of course it's positive, but big enough to notice? I don't know. I didn't see her featured in the big article about all the Oscar winning directors who are becoming moguls in TV.

WaH: What advice do you have for young women who want to become directors?

MC: We have opened the door. It's a very competitive field, and only a few do it well, but if you love it, do it. It's a job very well suited to women. Half the traits of any good director are female traits and half are male. Nurturing, listening, creative thinking, and all the people skills are very female. Leading, making tough decisions under pressure, long hours doing very physically and mentally demanding work, managing equipment, large numbers of people and machines is very male. But all good directors have these.


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