Betty Thomas, at the Forefront of an Evolution (Not a Revolution)

Susan King is a Times staff writer

Just like Penny Marshall, Betty Thomas has segued from a successful acting career to become one of Hollywood's top directors.

Thomas, who came to fame in her Emmy Award-winning role as Sgt. Lucy Bates on the classic '80s TV series "Hill Street Blues," began directing episodic television in the late '80s. She hit her stride on HBO's adult comedy series "Dream On," winning an Emmy and a CableACE Award. Thomas also won the Directors Guild of America Award for "The Late Shift," HBO's docudrama about the Jay Leno and David Letterman quest to be host of "The Tonight Show."

Thomas has also directed the popular feature comedies "The Brady Bunch Movie," "Private Parts" with Howard Stern and "Dr. Dolittle" with Eddie Murphy. Her latest film, the comedy-drama "28 Days," stars Sandra Bullock as a writer with a drinking and drug problem who is forced to undergo treatment at a rehab center after she shanghais a limo at her sister's wedding and crashes into a house.

A few weeks before the opening of "28 Days," Thomas seems a bit preoccupied as she sits down in the Hollywood office of her and partner Jenno Topping's production company, Tall Trees. "Do we have a time limit on this? Because I have a million things to do today," Thomas states firmly before starting the interview.

Question: Do you think directing is still primarily a boys' club in Hollywood?

Answer: When I go to the Directors Guild of America and we have our meetings, in general it's still a boys' club there. But it's changing. Look at our offices. It's staffed by all women--women producers, women writers, women development people. This movie had so many women involved. It's an evolution, it is not a revolution. Women have things to say, and they want to speak culturally about it.

You know, I heard Sundance had 40% women directors this year. In France, it's very different there--over 70% of the directors are female.

Q: Women directors also are not just doing "women's movies" anymore.

A: Chicks don't do chick flicks, they do whatever flick interests them, whatever subjects. It's a business and it's a huge business involving billions and billions of dollars. If you can prove that you are not a business risk to [producers] in some way, they want to be involved [with you].

Q: Your 1998 version of "Dr. Dolittle" took in more than $144 million domestically, making it the highest-grossing film directed by a woman.

A: All my movies are in the top 25, I did "Dolittle" for a particular reason. I wanted to do an extremely commercial movie. I love animals and I love Eddie Murphy, so I thought, "Here is a really commercial movie." I would never have thought I would have done something like this. The script wasn't particularly good when I started. It got a lot better, and it allowed me to form this company and hire Jenno Topping as my producer.

Q: How did you get involved with "28 Days"?

A: [Columbia Pictures Chairwoman] Amy Pascal sent me that script. It was pretty much a drama and it was a pretty good script, but it wasn't funny. I called her back and said it wasn't funny enough and didn't seem to have the point of view you needed to have to tell the story and have it be an accessible sort of dramatic comedy. She said, "Oh, good. It sounds like you're the perfect director." I said, "Wait a minute. I don't know how to" turn it into a dramatic comedy.

Q: So what did you do?

A: I looked at "MASH" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." I tried to get what people had done in the past about serious subjects, and then you try to find your own way. I went to rehabs. I interviewed people. I actually went through three days of the process of rehab. I saw that there was a lot of laughter around.

Q: Was there laughter because it helped the recovering addicts get through their problems?

A: Yes. There was also this identification with each other's problems. They laughed harder than any other normal person because they had been there. I thought it was important to have that in the film.

Q: Were you afraid of going too far with the humor?

A: There is no such thing as too funny. I just plowed ahead. I encouraged improvisation on the set. I hired actors I knew had comic backgrounds. I knew Sandy [Bullock] was comfortable in that area. And then I did the same thing with the so-called emotional moments of the movie. I tried to let them fly. . . . I don't have much trust for emotional moments in movies. I find them manipulative and fake in general. I just never held back in any of the comedy.

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