Three female helmers who found a way to tell their stories



There's no question that the biggest headline to emerge from January's Sundance Film Festival was Fox Searchlight's $10 million acquisition of the offbeat, uplifting comedy "Little Miss Sunshine," a sweetly cynical ode to individuality that the specialty distributor hoped would play in much the same way as its 2004 pickup, "Napoleon Dynamite," had. What no one could have imagined was that the film would earn, at press time, upward of $59 million at the domestic boxoffice and be a dark-horse contender for a best picture Oscar.

But perhaps what is most interesting about the project in terms of current trends in independent cinema is the fact that not only did "Sunshine" have two directors, but one of them happened to be a woman, Valerie Faris. As anyone in the industry knows, women have made great strides in so many entertainment disciplines, but the greatest disparities remain on the set, behind the camera, specifically in the field of directing.

Sundance is, of course, world renowned as the premiere showcase for emerging American directing talent -- and an incubator of talent through its long-running filmmakers lab and institute programs -- but all of the year's major festivals had something very heartening in common with Park City's claim to fame: the Festival de Cannes, the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Telluride, Toronto and AFI film fests all showcased interesting, challenging films from female directors, several of whom are in the earliest and most promising stages of their careers. Following is a spotlight on three of those women.

Joey Lauren Adams
"Come Early Morning" (Roadside Attractions)

Frustrated by the lack of interesting roles available to actresses, Joey Lauren Adams began writing the script for "Come Early Morning" seven years ago with plans to star in the project herself. An intimate portrait of a Southern woman, played by Ashley Judd, who, Adams says, "excels in some areas of her life and has troubles in others," the film recalls 1970s slice-of-life pictures that offer a brief glimpse into the day-to-day travails of at least one complicated character, in this case, Judd's successful construction manager who is somewhat less successful when it comes to her romantic relationships.

The project went through many incarnations on paper, but it was only when her agent suggested that Adams step behind the camera to direct the film -- after she'd spent five long years searching for financing -- that "Morning" finally came together. Adams says that she drew on her own acting background to develop a rapport with the cast, which also includes Tim Blake Nelson, Ray McKinnon and Diane Ladd, and she relied heavily on her crew to guide her through the 25-day location shoot around her native Arkansas, where the story takes place.

"I think having been an actress, I knew things like, 'You've got to feed the teamsters well, or your generator won't show up' -- things that I don't think they teach you in film school," she says.

But the politics associated with directing still proved difficult to navigate. "As an actress, you're not really forced to deal with that," Adams says. "It's the art meets commerce and you're the one in the middle, and I didn't do well. I knew the story was small, and I knew some people would find it boring. I think just because it was so precious to me -- I had had it for so long and worked so hard to get the money -- it was too emotional."

The film played at Sundance in January to solid reviews, with critics praising Judd's complex performance and Adams' direction. Adams says she's looking forward to directing again -- she's got another "labor of love about two old people in an old folks home" -- just not right away. "I'll get no money to make it, and I don't think I'm quite ready. I've got a writing job, so I think I'm going to just do that and sit back a little bit," she says.

Laurie Collyer
"Sherrybaby" (IFC Films)

New York University film school grad Laurie Collyer first went to Sundance in 2000 with her feature-length documentary "Nuyorican Dream," a portrait of a Puerto Rican family living in New York and grappling with, as Collyer says, "dysfunction, crime and addiction." She returned to the Sundance lab the following year with the script for "Sherrybaby," an equally gripping portrait of a recovering heroin addict struggling to reunite with her young daughter after a stint in prison, which was inspired, in part, by a childhood friend and also by the six years Collyer spent doing social work in California.

"What took a long time was financing it -- it's a tough story, and it's character-driven, but I think women's stories are harder to tell," Collyer says. "There's a perception, whether or not it's true, that women's stories don't sell."

In fact, it took Collyer three years to assemble all the right elements for the film -- landing star Maggie Gyllenhaal and assembling a production team that included "Sunshine" producer-financier Marc Turtletaub. "Sherrybaby" ultimately began production on location in New Jersey in July 2004. "What happened was I got Maggie Gyllenhaal interested before landing a producer -- that created this sort of domino effect," Collyer says. "At the lab, all the advisers (told me) that a story like this would get financed only with an actor attached because the material isn't very Hollywood-friendly or even American independent-friendly these days."

In Gyllenhaal, Collyer says she found her perfect creative collaborator, an actress who was striking but believable in the role of Sherry and willing to push herself to convey the character's inherent contradictions, her desperation to reclaim a sense of normalcy in her life but her inability to make the changes necessary to do so. "For Maggie, having to shoot these really emotionally harrowing scenes one right after another and nine times out of 10 out of sequence -- I made sure that even if we were fighting over the character or bits of dialogue, I would always try to take care of her and comfort her."

Like Judd, Gyllenhaal won over critics at January's Sundance fest with her unabashed honesty and heartbreaking vulnerability. Collyer says she was humbled by the reception, and she hopes that the film's success helps to underscore the fact that women's stories -- be they gritty indie dramas or mainstream studio ventures -- are vitally important to tell. "Things are changing way too slow, I think," Collyer says. "For me, personally, (Fox's June release) 'The Devil Wears Prada' is such a victory. It's entertaining, and it's about something that we are dealing with as women who want to have careers, the choices that we make. That's a really serious subject, and it's made what? (A worldwide cume of) $250 million?"

Karen Moncrieff
"The Dead Girl" First Look Studios)

Karen Moncrieff had been looking for a way to explore issues of violence against women for some time before she was impaneled on a jury in a murder trial. "When I went into the trial, I had this preconceived idea about who (the victim) must be as a drug-addicted prostitute who got murdered," Moncrieff says. "But she was a study in contrasts because she was also this passionate mother, and she was loyal to her friends. By the end of the trial, the reality of her life was sitting with me really heavily. I needed to exorcise those feelings, so I started writing."

The result was the screenplay for her second feature, "The Dead Girl," which begins with the gruesome discovery of a young woman's body in a field and unfolds in five chapters that explore "the community that springs up around a murder," Moncrieff says. "I guess I wanted to find some way to make something redemptive out of something that was just a sad waste."

Shot in 25 days around Los Angeles on a budget of $4 million -- First Look CEO Henry Winterstern originally agreed to finance the film and then brought on board Lakeshore Entertainment as producing partners -- "Dead Girl" features impressive turns from a host of actresses in separate segments of the story: Toni Collette is the woman who finds the body; Rose Byrne is the coroner who is scheduled to perform the autopsy; Mary Beth Hurt plays the wife of the man who might, in fact, be responsible for the murder; Marcia Gay Harden is the woman's mother; and in the movie's final sequence, Brittany Murphy stars in flashback as the young prostitute whose grim fate is at the center of the film.

"It was a lot like shooting five different films, each with its own cast," says Moncrieff, who had previously directed 2003's indie drama "Blue Car." "As a director, I try to be a bit of a chameleon with actors. I find out what an actor needs, how to really help them and support them. Then they're wrapped, and it's a new crew of actors, and you need to start all over again. It was a wonderful challenge and not one that I'd really thought about in the writing of the piece."

Another challenge that Moncrieff hadn't counted on was going into production when her infant daughter was only 51?2 months old. But she says that the experience was overwhelmingly positive, and, in some ways, the timing couldn't have been better. "Dead Girl" premiered at the AFI Fest Nov. 7, her daughter's first birthday, giving Moncrieff plenty to celebrate.

"I feel like now there are women making films that are certainly interesting to me," she says of the modern cinema landscape.

"I grew up in the Midwest -- I didn't know women could be film directors. I didn't have any models. I think that will be different for my daughter, not that she's going to want to be a film director necessarily. But you see women doing more interesting things and certainly many more women telling their stories, and that's really good for film and good for humanity and definitely good for women."