Female helmers seem a foreign concept here


Of the 61 films submitted for the foreign-language Oscar, 12 were directed by women. Check their resumes, and many of them are veterans who have been churning out films for years. Around the world, somehow, women find it a lot easier to make movies than they do here in the U.S. The feminist movement in this country has come and gone, leaving many women striving to make their way in the workplace, yet in Hollywood the state of support for women directors remains woeful. Even when someone brilliant comes along like Karen Moncrieff, who wrote and directed the 2002 Sundance hit "Blue Car" and this year's just-released "The Dead Girl," it's hard to summon up much optimism for her future.

Even the most talented women, who usually establish themselves with low-budget indie fare, somehow wind up directing movies for television, lame romantic comedies or studio family films that no self-respecting male would touch. Or they go back to screenwriting. Whatever happened to Martha Coolidge, Joan Micklin Silver or Penelope Spheeris? Such writer-directors as Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron make glossy, big-star studio romantic comedies but seem constrained by the demands of mainstream filmmaking with expensive stars. Meyers admitted at a recent writers' panel that she probably could have made Sony Pictures' "The Holiday" at Fox Searchlight with the same cast for half the price. (But then she wouldn't have earned her hefty multimillion-dollar fee.)

Women would have an easier time if movies weren't so hideously expensive. (So, for that matter, would men.) The thing about the movies made overseas: they're relatively cheap. "We have very few big-budget films in France," says veteran screenwriter-turned-director Daniele Thompson, whose third film, "Avenue Montaigne," is France's submission for the Oscar. Like many French films, "Montaigne" is a sophisticated and emotional relationship drama in the tradition of Claude Sautet and Eric Rohmer. But as an average, commercial, nonaction movie, it cost less than $10 million, Thompson says. "Most films cost between $5 (million) and $10 million," she says.

France's top stars, such as Daniel Auteuil and Catherine Deneuve, get paid about $1 million a picture but often shave their fees to do smaller roles or special films that they care about. (Jean Reno charges the really big bucks for international action pictures, which tend not to be directed by women.) "We have many women directors in France," says Thompson, who estimates that there are about 20 established women directing films there every year. "There are going to be more and more. I feel very supported. I never felt treated differently. I was very happy as a writer. It took me a long time to decide to direct films myself."

Thompson would be leery of directing an English-language American film, she says: "We have total freedom in France. (In America), there are so many controls from the producer, you don't get final cut. That seems like a crazy thing for us."

For her part, Denmark's Susanne Bier has 10 movies under her belt, including the acclaimed intimate dramas "Open Hearts," "Brothers" and this year's Oscar submission "After the Wedding." Similarly, Bier, who had the first of her two children a year after she graduated from film school, feels supported in Denmark. "The major difference we have is that we have developed a child-care system," she says. "You have lots of young women applying to film schools knowing they can pursue an artistic creative career. Scandinavian countries enable women to have a career and a family life. It makes a lot of difference. It's not about women thinking differently from men. It's about having a sense of possibility."

The idea for "Wedding" started off with a dad (played in the film by "Casino Royale" villain Mads Mikkelsen) who is late to his daughter's wedding. The final film is a lot more complex than that. Bier usually writes her films with a collaborator, Anders Thomas Jensen. They go off to a retreat where she paces and acts out scenes, and he writes them up. "We are both obsessed with moral issues," she says. "We usually have one or two characters we are passionate about. How would we react in each case? Are we morally sound?"

It helped to have learned from seven successes and two failures when Bier embarked on her 10th film, her first in English. Producer Sam Mendes brought Bier in to direct DreamWorks' love story "Things We Lost in the Fire," starring Halle Berry as a widow who finds unexpected solace from Benicio Del Toro. Bier was surprised that the studio kept asking her to be "more edgy and forceful," she says. "They were wanting a truthful and artistic movie."

The biggest problem for American women, Bier suggests, is our culture's obsession with youth. "A whole major part of creativity has to do with women being truthful to themselves in a very basic sense," she says. "That's easier to do in Europe. We have a lot less pressure of being someone we are not. It makes it easier to make movies."

Someone who is quite clear about what she wants to do is Los Angeles-based actress-turned-writer-director Moncrieff, 42, who acted for 10 years ("Santa Barbara") before writing and directing the $400,000 "Blue Car" in 18 days. She followed up her Sundance moment, which was tarnished when "Blue Car" was acquired and then dumped by Miramax Films, with TV assignments ("Six Feet Under") and scripts that went nowhere. "I wasn't interested in being the go-to person for stories about 16-year-old girls," she says. "Like a lot of other people, I was writing stuff I didn't care deeply about. So no one else did either."

For the second time, she says, her husband and producer, Eric Karten, told her to go back to her own writing and forget listening to voices from the outside and worrying about what was commercial. So Moncrieff decided to "dig deep again," she recalls. She went back to her experience as a juror on a murder case, when she was fascinated by the process of filling in the gaps in the jurors' knowledge of a dead prostitute as the case went on. "Something about her character as it emerged was compelling to me," she says. "I was picking up a rock and looking at the darker side of life."

With the script for "Dead Girl," Moncrieff re-created the sense of working from the outside in, relating five seemingly unrelated but interlocking narratives: the fifth is the story of the dead prostitute, played by Brittany Murphy. "Each of the segments leading up to her segment offer a piece of the puzzle," she says. "Each has a piece. No one has the whole picture."

Financed by First Look's Henry Winterstern and Lakeshore's Tom Rosenberg, Moncrieff's script for the $4 million "Dead Girl" attracted an astonishing cast: Toni Collette, Rose Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, Giovanni Ribisi and Mary Beth Hurt. "They knew I was going to push them hard," she says by way of explanation. "I made them surprise themselves." She had to wait, though, until she gave birth to her first child. She shot the film while she was still nursing. "I was completely vulnerable, which changed the way I shot the movie," she says. "I felt so ripped open."

Unfortunately, Rosenberg's insistence that First Look release the film before the end of 2006 sealed its fate. Although well-reviewed, it ended up being a year-end also-ran. Moncrieff's career -- despite her gender -- should have a longer life.