In the 14 years that elapsed between her debut feature, the Oscar-winning “Monster,” and her blockbuster second film, “Wonder Woman,” Patty Jenkins kept her skills sharp by directing episodes of “The Killing,” “Entourage” and “Arrested Development.”
Jenkins is hardly alone in following this path. Some of the most distinctive and acclaimed female filmmakers of the last 25 years — Jane Campion, Mary Harron, Allison Anders, Nicole Holofcener among them — have turned to television for opportunities not readily available in the feature film world.
Writer-director Kimberly Peirce struck gold with her first feature, “Boys Don’t Cry,” whose lead actress, Hilary Swank, also won an Academy Award. But it took her nine years to make her follow-up, the Iraq war drama “Stop-Loss,” a commercial disappointment.
“People would say to me, ‘Why don’t you make more movies?’ You should never ask a woman why she hasn’t made more movies, any more than you should ask a person of color why they’re not doing certain things that are inherently more difficult for people of color to do,” says Peirce. “What you need to ask is, ‘Why are these competent, brilliant people being stopped in their tracks?’ The systemic obstacles and the systemic discrimination against women are horrifying.”
Having risen up in New York’s indie film community, she was frustrated by studio meddling and the way that the best material and the best screenwriters inevitably went to male directors. “There was a subtle, kind of putting down of where women were,” she says. “If you did get onto a set with a halfway decent story, the level of interference was so crazy. It’d be like, ‘You sit down to dinner, and somebody takes your food away.’ In retrospect, the interference had solely to do with my gender.”
You should never ask a woman why she hasn’t made more movies. What you need to ask is, ‘Why are these brilliant people being stopped in their tracks?’
Peirce also directed “Carrie,” a remake of the horror classic released in 2013, but has since focused on television, directing shows including “Six,” “I Love Dick,” “American Crime” and “Halt and Catch Fire.” She says the medium offers a chance to stay current with technology, work with different casts and crews, amass more on-set experience quickly — and even get paid for it, unlike in features, where directors often aren’t compensated during the protracted development process.
After her debut picture, “Girlfight,” took the Sundance Film Festival by storm in 2000, Karyn Kusama directed two underperforming, female-centered genre movies, “Æon Flux” (2005) and “Jennifer’s Body” (2009), that were hampered by studio meddling.
For female filmmakers,“the expectation is only that you hit three home runs in a row,” says Kusama. “Failure isn’t even quite perceived as failure for male filmmakers.
“I don’t see myself as a quote ‘woman filmmaker’ so much as I see myself as a filmmaker. So it didn’t occur to me until later in the game why there was so much crowing about the failure of ‘Æon Flux.’ It really took me a second to come to the disheartening conclusion that being female is a component of that animus.”
But a few years ago, Kusama broke into TV and has directed episodes of “Billions,” “Casual,” “The Man in the High Castle” and “Halt and Catch Fire.” On a practical level, working in television, where the budgets are often more generous than the indie film world, is also appealing. “A lot of times, you get more tools per hour in TV,” says the filmmaker, whose micro-budget feature “The Invitation,” was released to positive reviews in 2016.
Mimi Leder didn’t earn her stripes in the indie world — she got her start in TV, working on shows including “L.A. Law” and “China Beach” before winning an Emmy for her groundbreaking work on “ER.” By the late ’90s, she was directing big studio releases like “The Peacemaker” and “Deep Impact,” the latter of which set what was then a record for highest opening weekend box office for a film directed by a woman. Then came “Pay It Forward,” a critical and commercial disappointment, and she couldn’t get hired on another movie.
“When a woman makes a movie that is not successful, she goes to movie jail ,” Leder says. “Women are constantly having to prove ourselves over and over again. No matter how many Emmys you win or have been nominated for.”
Leder has continued to thrive in television, most recently earning rapturous praise for her work on HBO’s “The Leftovers.” She was also an executive producer on the series, which she calls a “life-changing experience,” and she has made a point of bringing more women into the fold.
Despite the obstacles they’ve faced, Leder, Peirce and Kusama have fared better than most women in Hollywood. A recent report by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that 84% of female directors made just one film — the “one and done” phenomenon — and that men were almost twice as likely to helm a second feature.
Ironically, for many of these women, their TV work is getting them noticed once again by the film world. Leder is in post-production on “On the Basis of Sex,” a biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Kusama just wrapped “Destroyer,” a crime thriller starring Nicole Kidman. And it was recently announced that Peirce would direct “This Is Jane,” a fact-based drama about an underground abortion service, for Amazon.
Says Kusama: “Part of why I decided to take a break from studio filmmaking was that I need the world to catch up with me a bit. Constantly having to defend my creative honor was getting tiresome.”
The world — or at least Hollywood — may finally be catching up.
This story is part of our package on women directors. For more stories from the series see here.
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