Fledgling female directors are forging their own pathsAfter 24 years as an actress, the Emmy- and Oscar-winning Helen Hunt just added "director" to her resume, helming ThinkFilm's "Then She Found Me," a melodrama about a middle-aged schoolteacher reluctantly reconnecting with her birth mother. And while 44 might seem like a late age to be making a directorial debut, Hunt says that she's had the itch to direct for years, and has been encouraged by other directors she's worked with. "My personality is pretty well-suited to this job," Hunt says. "Maybe even better-suited than being an actress."
Hunt has company, too. Not so long ago, female directors were a relative rarity, but 2007 has seen a good number of female first-timers -- many of them migrating from other careers in the business. The 55-year-old veteran screenwriter Robin Swicord wrote and directed Sony Pictures Classics' sprawling romance "The Jane Austen Book Club" after spending nearly 13 years trying to get a shot in the director's chair. And model-actress Alison Eastwood has followed in the footsteps of her father, Clint Eastwood, in taking charge of Warner Independent's low-budget melodrama "Rails & Ties," about a tragic train accident that shakes up two families.
For Swicord, getting a chance to direct realizes the dream that first brought her to Hollywood back in 1980. "Early on," Swicord says, "I was told that if I wanted to be on a movie set, I should become a script girl." Instead, Swicord wrote a play, which was produced off-Broadway, and from that she got an agent, who sold her first screenplay. "But I never saw myself as somebody who would only write for films," Swicord says. "I didn't completely understand that films were written when I got interested in film as a young teenager. As soon as I figured out how films were made, what I wanted to do was be the person directing actors and setting up shots and determining what the film would be about."
Eastwood, meanwhile, stepped into the director's role because of her love for a project that she worked on for four years before shooting began. "Through it all, I kept envisioning the film," Eastwood says, "And it got to the point where I felt this was a story I wanted to tell. I was kind of obsessed, really. I spent a couple of years with it until it was infused in me."
Hunt had a similar experience, becoming deeply involved with the development of Elinor Lipman's novel "Then She Found Me." "I don't think I was interested in directing just to direct," Hunt says. "I knew it would have to be a story that I'd love so much that I'd pour my heart and soul into it and be the general that leads the troops up the hill, against all obstacles. When this story came along, I felt I understood a particular part of the story. I'm the person who knows how to do that. That fueled me through year after year of trying to get it made, then trying to make it for the small amount of money I had."
The part of "Then She Found Me" she understood? Hunt explains: "In all the movies I've loved, I truly believe that there's a movie beneath the movie. So on the surface, 'Then She Found Me' looks like a movie about motherhood and daughterhood, heartbreak, divorce, romance. Those are the things the movie looks like it's about. But for me, it's about betrayal. Particularly betrayal by God. So I got very interested in that as a theme, and this seemed like a good story and good characters to talk about that subject."
Like Eastwood, Hunt is the daughter of a Hollywood veteran: Gordon Hunt, a voice-over supervisor and TV sitcom director. Kirsten Sheridan, director of Warner Bros.' "August Rush," is a legacy, too. Her father, Jim Sheridan, has been nominated for six Oscars for writing, directing and producing 1989's "My Left Foot," 1993's "In the Name of the Father" and 2002's "In America." When she was young, Kirsten Sheridan intended to be a photographer, but she says, "Once it clicked in my head that I could put photography together with acting and music, which are my three favorite things, it was fantastic."
That love of actors has been key to Sheridan's success both in her earlier indie films and now on the comparatively larger-scale "August Rush," a family-friendly drama about an orphaned musical prodigy roaming in a magical New York. Sheridan says that unlike other fledgling directors, she's never been intimidated by actors, because her dad would bring them home on a regular basis. "Everyone was broke, and it was kind of a wild time," Sheridan says. "But we didn't realize it was a wild time, we just thought it was a normal life. Sometimes I think directors are afraid of actors, because actors are the most vulnerable on a set and can therefore kind of smell bullshit a mile away. But I wasn't really afraid of them."
How does a first-time director command authority on a set? And does that approach differ for female directors? According to Sheridan, "I've never thought of myself as a 'woman director,' but I do think women are good at balancing people. Our natural inclination is to be a buffer between big personalities, helping everybody get along. And sometimes you have to go, 'You know what? That's not what's important here.' The crew wants you to speak up. They want just one voice. If you're running out of time and you're running out of money, you have to be much more authoritative than you might be inclined to."
The first person Sheridan had to stand up against was her own father, who offered a lot of advice, especially in the cutting room. "The thing is, with my dad, he has such a certain specific way of seeing things. He'd start saying, 'Why don't you turn it on its head and start at the end and end at the start and throw the middle up in the air.' And I'm going, 'Oh, shit,' you know? Sorry I asked. He helped me cut a scene once, and I went, 'Whoa, that's a good movie, but it's not my movie.'"
Both Hunt and Eastwood drew on their own experience with directors when it came time to assert themselves. Eastwood says: "Some of the better directors I've worked with were pretty supportive and attentive. Unfortunately, I've done a lot of not-so-great projects that weren't full of really smart people. So on 'Rails & Ties,' I wanted to be there for the actors as much as I could, when they needed it. I also sometimes left them alone so they could do their job. That's what I think a good director should do: be a support system and a sounding board and a collaborator with the actor, and then step away and let them have some space to figure things out on their own."
Hunt says: "The first-time directors I've loved working with had the poise to announce when they didn't know what to do next. I worked with a first-time director once who in the middle of a big, huge sequence, with fire and all this stuff, just stopped and said, 'Wait a minute, I don't know what to do.' And everybody calmed down and lined up to help him out. By the same token, I've worked with directors who wouldn't admit when they didn't know what to do and wouldn't take a suggestion from the crew because they thought it would undermine their authority. I tried to emulate the directors who put themselves in service of the story getting told right and didn't particularly care if a good idea came from the camera operator or the makeup artist. There were plenty of times on this movie where I looked at the DP and said, 'I don't understand.
Say it again. Say it a different way.' I think I was able to do that because I did spend an obscene amount of time preparing, and I knew what I wanted. There's no such thing as being too prepared, in my opinion."
Male or female, preparation is obviously the key to making a directorial debut -- or even a studio directorial debut, as Sheridan has done with "August Rush." She says that she lets the story guide her preparations and her decisions. On every project, she reworks the script until it's a complete template, so that it gives her all the cues. "I think in some ways if you start asking yourself where to put the camera, you're on the wrong track. The script should really tell you. The story should tell you."
Swicord says her preparations were mitigated by "The Jane Austen Book Club's" low budget, which had her shooting six story lines in 37 locations in 30 days for less than $6 million. She had to use three cameras and spend most of her time on blocking and rehearsing, not on designing impressive tracking shots or waiting for magic hour. "It was an interesting hybrid of a theater experience and a film experience," Swicord says. "I've had a lifetime of watching movies, and I worked as a photographer for seven years before I became a screenwriter. And I'd made some short educational films in the South before I moved to New York and had my first play done. So I felt prepared in my mind, in terms of knowing what the film would look like and how I would proceed with actors and crew. The greatest challenge for me was the degree of difficulty. I was trying to make 'Book Club' meetings exciting, just through performance and cutting."
Eastwood says she prepared "by talking as much as I could." Having spent so much time around her father's movie sets, she had a basic understanding of what everyone does and how to treat them. And she says, "For me, it's much more of a collaborative effort. At the end of the day, I made all the final decisions, but I definitely liked to trust that (the people) I'd surrounded myself with were smart, seasoned people, with good instincts and good opinions. Sometimes they didn't, and I'm sure they felt the same way about me. But I'd try to get as much input as I could and then make the final decision, going with my own ideas."
As for Hunt, the reason other directors have always felt she should direct is because she's so meticulous. "I've never thought of myself as an authority figure," Hunt says. "But details are important to me. When you're acting, you mainly concern yourself with the details of your character, but if I really care about the whole movie, all the details are important to me. To be the one in charge of all those details is a huge responsibility, but it also allows you to execute each of them in a way that feels right. I know how a small thing can ruin a movie. I truly believe that one bad line reading or one bad prop can throw a movie out of whack. I know that's true. So, to not have to convince someone of that, but to be the one in charge of making sure that all those details have really been explored in the best possible way ... it really felt good."