A Fired Woman Film Director--New Questions, Issue Continues

Times Staff Writer

Exactly what happened to Jan Eliasberg?

On Feb. 1, the 30-year-old theater and television director was riding high. She had begun shooting her first feature film, a 20th Century Fox-financed teen comedy called “How I Got Into College.”

A week later, Fox dropped Eliasberg for director Savage Steve Holland.

The move triggered some hushed debate in Hollywood about the status of women film makers, tensions at the studio, and what some say is a new aggressiveness among movie executives who seem increasingly eager to assert creative control over films backed by their companies.


On one level, the Eliasberg incident provides an intriguing glimpse at the severity with which risk-averse executives can react when they feel an investment is threatened.

Budgeted at about $10 million, “How I Got Into College” is a relatively small film. But it is big enough that Fox took the unusual step of firing its director after seeing only five days of shooting.

The dismissal was particularly striking in that Fox, by several accounts, dropped Eliasberg largely because she was striving to make a film more sophisticated, if less broadly funny, than the studio wanted.

One Fox executive is said to have explained the difficulty in television terms. “She was giving us ‘thirtysomething’ and we want ‘Laverne and Shirley,’ ” the executive said, according to some accounts.

Eliasberg and Fox President Leonard Goldberg declined to be interviewed.

Eliasberg’s firing also highlights a number of incidents in which female directors--a tiny minority in a male-dominated craft--have been severed from pictures after or immediately before shooting began.

To replace a director is a rare and costly event. In the last two years, however, Joyce Chopra was removed from MGM’s “Bright Lights, Big City” and Mary Lambert left Warner Bros.’ “Under a Cherry Moon” shortly after shooting started.

Meanwhile, Martha Coolidge left Paramount’s “Some Kind of Wonderful” and Claudia Weill was taken off Fox’s “Less Than Zero” prior to shooting.

Chopra, Coolidge, Lambert and Weill--like Eliasberg--all were replaced by males. They declined to discuss their experiences.

Lambert only said: “It’s a very difficult time for women who want to be directors in Hollywood.” Another of the women said: “It wouldn’t be good for me if I told what really happened.”

Women have found directing one of the toughest fields to crack among Hollywood’s crafts.

According to the Directors Guild of America, women account for about 8% of the 4,500 movie and TV directors. In 1983, the guild filed suit against Warners and Columbia alleging discrimination against women, but the actions were dismissed by a federal judge here on the grounds that the guild wasn’t a proper plaintiff.

“Directing is by far the hardest for women” to crack in Hollywood’s hierarchy, said Sally Steenland, who compiled a study of female TV workers for the Washington, D.C.-based National Commission on Working Women.

“It’s like being the captain of a ship. You have to give orders to traditionally male crews,” Steenland said. “Women often find their style is just foreign to the male hierarchy. If they’re more collaborative, it can make people very, very nervous. They think they’re weak.”

Others point out that precisely because more women are getting a shot as movie directors, they are more often in the special jeopardy that applies to first-timers.

“A first-time director wants to do a movie, and kind of tells the studio what it wants to hear. Meanwhile, a studio, when dealing with a first-timer, tends to be more dogmatic,” said one top production executive who declined to be identified.

No one has accused Fox of sexism in dealing with Eliasberg. But interviews with a dozen crew members and others familiar with “How I Got Into College” indicate how quickly a studio can pull the rug out from under a beginner in whom it may have lost confidence.

A graduate of Yale’s school of drama and the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, Eliasberg directed for several theaters, including New York’s Circle Repertory Company, and for a number of TV shows--among them “Miami Vice,” “Crime Story,” “Cagney and Lacey,” and “L.A. Law”--before Fox and producer Michael Shamberg hired her last fall.

According to one associate, she had a reputation as a firm and decisive director. Michael Mann, executive producer of “Miami Vice” and “Crime Story,” described Eliasberg as “very talented.” Mann said he was particularly taken with a “highly stylized, film noir look” Eliasberg achieved with a “Crime Story” episode called “Femme Fatale.” Immediately after she left the Fox film, Mann’s company invited her to do another “Miami Vice” episode, but she chose instead to do an NBC pilot called “Three on a Match.”

In filming “How I Got Into College”--which stars a largely unknown cast of young actors, but includes extended cameo appearances by comics Rick Moranis and Harold Ramis--Eliasberg, according to crew members, was reaching for a similar level of visual sophistication.

The movie, written by Terrel Seltzer (“Dim Sum” and “Chan Is Missing”), is about the travails of students caught up in the college admissions process. It is set in Detroit and parts of Pennyslvania but is being filmed in Los Angeles locations to keep costs down. So Eliasberg pushed for a rich but relatively dark look reminiscent of autumn in the East. According to one crew member, she chose costumes, set designs and lighting with a “restricted color palette” of forest green, cobalt, burgundy and cadmium yellow.

Reaching to create a showpiece in the vein of “Risky Business” or “Stand by Me,” Eliasberg also chose to focus on character development rather than punching up or emphasizing jokes in the script, said several sources who worked on the film.

Whether she was succeeding is a subject of dispute.

“It just wasn’t working,” said one studio executive who has seen some dailies from the film.

“Jan was doing a good job. She was getting what she wanted. Evidently, it just wasn’t what the studio wanted. They wanted more slapstick,” countered one of several crew members who assert that Eliasberg’s main problem was her disinclination to punch up sight gags.

According to several sources, spirits on the set were high for the first three days of filming, and producer Shamberg assured the crew that dailies looked “terrific” several times.

On the third day, however, Eliasberg used a somewhat risky approach to a complicated segment dealing with a “college fair” in which recruiters compete for the attention of prospective students. Instead of shooting conventional “coverage,” with many shots from various angles and ranges, she devised a single, long shot designed to show the fair from the young hero’s point of view.

Apparently, the shot was too much for Fox.

The next day, Shamberg--who also declined to be interviewed--told Eliasberg and others that Fox executives didn’t like much of anything about the movie. They found the visual approach too dark, the jokes unfunny, the acting too real and the coverage of the college fair shot much too thin.

By the end of the week, Shamberg was on the set, passing detailed suggestions to Eliasberg as she worked--which some observers considered a violation of an unwritten rule that says a director’s set is his--or her--own domain, producer’s anxiety notwithstanding.

By the beginning of the following week, the film was shut down by Fox and Eliasberg was replaced the next day by Holland, who had previously directed a pair of youth comedies, “One Crazy Summer” and “Better Off Dead.”

According to one crew member, Eliasberg--unaware of Holland’s involvement--showed up at Fox to view dailies and work out a plan to meet the studio’s objections. But the new director was in place.

Shortly after the incident, Scott Rudin--who had been closely associated with the film as Fox’s production chief--decided to leave the studio for an independent producing deal. Rudin has declined to comment, though studio sources say his leaving wasn’t related in any way to “How I Got Into College.”

Still, the Eliasberg firing provoked some serious questions at Fox and elsewhere in Hollywood.

Should the studio and Shamberg, for instance, have given Eliasberg more time to fix the picture?

“The decent, honorable thing for an executive to do is call the director in and say, ‘Wait a minute. Do we understand each other? That wasn’t done,’ ” complains one veteran crew member.

Did Fox executives clearly understand Eliasberg’s approach to the film before shooting started?

It appears they should have, since several crew members say she prepared elaborate story boards and repeatedly told Shamberg and others that she meant to take a character-driven, not gag-driven, approach to the film.

Would Fox have stood firmer behind Eliasberg if she were a male?

It is impossible to know. But, as one male crew member who admired Eliasberg’s work put it, “The question has certainly been asked frequently on the set” since Eliasberg left.