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Five filmmakers on why studios so often exclude women, the wider range of stories they love, and how it feels to find success.
Higher Ground (Opened Aug. 26, 2011)
The only way Vera Farmiga was going to be able to star in Higher Ground was by directing the movie herself. “I quite simply fell in love with the role and had to moonlight as a director,” recalls Farmiga, adding that she used her Oscar nomination for Up in the Air as clout. The film, about a born-again Christian who begins questioning her faith, mirrored Farmiga’s own efforts as a director. “It’s a story about a woman who was trying to engender herself.” At one point, a male director was attached to the project and was uncomfortably psyched about casting bikini-clad actresses for a waterfall scene. Farmiga quit the film, but returned when he vacated the director’s seat. “The scene was eventually cut,” she says, “but I made sure to cast the most dimply, chubby women I could find.” Though Farmiga, 38, isn’t itching to direct again, she knows she’s butting up against the glass ceiling as an actress because of her age.
Pariah (Opens Dec. 28, 2011)
Rees, 34, has already enjoyed the sort of success most budding filmmakers only dream of, and her movie hasn’t even opened. She was named breakthrough director of the year at the Nov. 28 Gotham Awards (she competed against Farmiga, among others) and still remembers the thrill of selling Pariah, her first narrative feature, to Focus Features at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Not that it was easy raising the money to make it (Pariah cost under $1 million). She and her producer, Nekisa Cooper, quickly learned that none of the traditional sources wanted to finance a film about a black teenager’s struggle coming out to her parents and Brooklyn community. They got a break when a lesbian couple invested in the project. Between that and some grant money, Rees had enough to shoot the semi-autobiographical film, which she also wrote. “It was done on a combination of layaway and coupons,” Rees jokes. One of Rees’ mentors is Spike Lee, whom she took a master’s class from at NYU’s film school.
The Iron Lady (Opens Dec. 30, 2011)
According to British director Lloyd, only a female team could have made The Iron Lady, an examination of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s life that was directed by Lloyd and stars Meryl Streep. “Abi Morgan, the screenwriter, and Meryl and I are all interested in the details, the miscellaneous fragments. It’s a film about memory and strays into territory you wouldn’t expect a big political film to stray. It looks behind the doors, and into the cupboards,” Lloyd, 54, says. “The film is a genre-buster. People anticipate a biopic, which it just isn’t. Our film tries to do something totally different and look at Margaret Thatcher’s story not in terms of whether her policy was right or wrong, but in terms of her journey. It’s really a film about power and loss of power, and the cost of a big life. Meryl calls it a King Lear for girls.” The Weinstein Co. opens The Iron Lady in the U.S. on Dec. 30, and Streep’s performance as Thatcher is already earning awards attention. In late November, she won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best actress, and there’s rampant speculation she’ll land Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. Lloyd — one of the U.K.’s preeminent stage directors — has made only one other feature film, Mamma Mia!, which also starred Streep. The film adaptation of the ABBA musical turned into a runaway hit at the box office in 2008, grossing $609.8 million worldwide and making Lloyd the most successful female director in history, a crown she held until Kung Fu Panda 2 came along this year. Lloyd isn’t sure why female directors aren’t given more studio jobs. “Women are being given the opportunity on the independent circuit, but there are very few who are given the reins of a big studio movie. I don’t think it’s necessarily a lack of faith in the vision of a woman, it’s just not trusting them with the big pot of cash,” she says. “On the other hand, it could be –and I feel this myself — that women are drawn to the kind of stories that don’t fit into an automatic prepackaged genre.” Lloyd’s nontraditional biopic of Thatcher already has sparked the ire of Thatcher’s supporters, but the director is prepared for the criticism. “This movie,” she says, “has been a life-changing experience, and an extraordinary journey of research. History has unfolded in such a way as to make the film feel prescient in a way we couldn’t have anticipated, and mirrors what’s happening today.”
Thatcher is an extraordinarily divisive character, according to Lloyd: “She’s either a monster and a she-devil, or the blessed St. Margaret who delivered the nation from its postwar decline.” The Iron Lady, with a production budget of $15 million, was produced by Pathe and BBC Films and sparked an immediate bidding war among U.S. buyers at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Opens 2012)
Scafaria is part of “The Fempire,” a group of four female screenwriters — the others are Diablo Cody, Dana Fox and Liz Meriwether — who decided there was power in numbers and started writing together. At first, they would meet at each other’s houses. “Everybody got real fancy, so now we have an office in Hollywood,” Scafaria says. Scafaria’s gotten fancy too: This year, she directed her first feature, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. Scafaria, 33, best known for writing the screenplay for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, made a bold move and attached herself as director when Anonymous Content, which developed and packaged End of the World, sold the pitch to Mandate Pictures. “No one was going to be able to talk me out of it,” she says. Still, she was surprised when Carell read the script and signed on, even though she was a first-time director. Focus Features boarded the project before it went into production, and will release the film next year.
Thor 2 (Opens Nov. 15, 2013)
Editor’s Note: The original copy of this profile appeared in the Dec. 16th issue of The Hollywood Reporter. As the magazine went to press, Marvel Studios severed ties with Jenkins over creative differences and she is no longer directing Thor 2. The story has been updated to reflect the change.
It’s little wonder female directors are all but missing from the list of the world’s top-grossing movies, considering women aren’t usually tapped to helm the big Hollywood franchises (save for the first Twilight, hardly considered a franchise at the time). That’s about to change. Jenkins, who directed the indie hit Monster and the pilot of AMC’s The Killing, is in preproduction on Thor 2 for Marvel Studios. “I have a long love of superhero films and I’d been saying over and over again to my agents at CAA that I’d like to do one. The Marvel guys are so brave in terms of who they choose overall, and I don’t think they had any pause about me being a woman,” she says. “That’s the real revolution.” Jenkins, 40, has stayed away from features the last several years because of her young son, but eagerly accepted the Marvel assignment. “I met with all the actors and to my surprise, here we are.”
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