LAFF: Women Writers, Directors Reveal Challenges They've Faced

Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images for BFI
Nicole Holofcener

At a Los Angeles Film Festival panel, director Gina Prince-Bythewood observes, "Talent has no gender."

“Talent has no gender,” Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed the 2008 film The Secret Life of Bees, asserted Saturday at a panel titled “Women Who Call the Shots,” presented by the Los Angeles Film Festival.

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For the third consecutive year, the festival gathered writers and directors to discuss their experiences in the film industry. In addition to Prince-Bythewood, the group included Nicole Holofcener, writer-director of last year’s Enough Said, Debra Granik, writer and director of 2010’s indie feature Winter’s Bone, and Marta Kauffman, the co-creator of Friends.

The discussion focused on each woman’s previous successes in the industry and introduced their upcoming projects. Granik showed a clip from her new documentary Stray Dog, which premiered at the festival June 14 and follows Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a Vietnam veteran and biker whom Granik met while filming Winter’s Bone.

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Said Granik of her inspiration, “I feel like sometimes I started with this impulse, telling some of the stories of the lives of ordinary Americans. But then people say, ‘But Ron doesn’t seem ordinary.’ But Ron feels that he’s ordinary, you know, ‘I’m one of many, my story is one of a lot of Americans.’ So that tension is kind of interesting.”

Holofcener discussed her experience with the romantic comedy Enough Said, which starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini shortly before his sudden death. “People didn’t think those particular actors could play parts like this,” she said. “[But Gandolfini] was funny and he was smart and very charming and very sexy in person, so I felt like ‘Oh, he could do this for sure.’ ”

Kauffman’s next project is the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, which will star Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. She shared her formula for a great sitcom, namely, “having a really good writing staff, a really good cast, and a story that people would like to watch while they’re in their pajamas.”

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Prince-Bythewood screened the trailer for her upcoming film Beyond the Lights, which she described as a “love story set in the music world,” starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Getting the film to this point was a difficult process, as her determination to cast Mbatha-Raw led Sony to drop the project. “My husband said … ‘If you had all the money in the world, what would you do to get it made?’ ” she said. “I said, ‘I’d shoot a presentation to showcase Gugu in this role.’ ”

The panelists also discussed the current status of women in the industry. “In respect to celebrating women directors, I do feel like it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword,” Holofcener said. “We’re being celebrated and at the same time, we’re being segregated.… One day I would love to not be on a woman panel. And at the same time, I’m honored and feel incredibly fortunate to be here.”

Overall, the women were hopeful about the emerging crop of female filmmakers. “The industry statistics don’t always reflect how I feel,” said Granik. “My list of female directors that I really like … starts to grow and that statistic stays there.”