Female directors are just one part of the diversity in Hollywood conversation. While many are taking steps to help guide the industry in a different direction, some of the biggest studios seem to be lagging behind. While Disney has been proactive in some areas, they need to step up in a big way when it comes to female directors.
Variety spoke with Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy about the upcoming Star Wars film slate. While she told them she’s committed to make the face of the films diverse (which is weird considering they’ve cast three white women with brown hair in a row to lead them), she also mentioned wanting there to be diversity behind the camera.
“We want to make sure that when we bring a female director in to do Star Wars, they’re set up for success,” she told them. “They’re gigantic films, and you can’t come into them with essentially no experience.” Ahh yes, the old, “we need someone with experience.” That’s always the fall back, isn’t it? But depending on who you talk to and where you look, it’s clear that’s not always the case.
Rachel Talalay has a ton of experience. She directed Tank Girl, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, and a ridiculous amount of TV including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Arrow, The Flash and more. Earlier this year she recounted an experience when receiving the 2016 Woman of the Year Award from Women In Film + Television Vancouver:
Recently I was talking to my agents about my ambitions after finishing directing Sherlock. And they said ‘Yes, you have done Sherlock. Yeah, the other Sherlock directors have all been offered pilots and features off the back of it. But remember, you are a woman”. It kind of took my breath away, to hear it stated so plainly. It wasn’t aggressive. It was so painfully casual, they probably wouldn’t even remember saying it. That’s what shocked me.
Talalay puts it pretty plainly, even with experience, women are looked over for work. Whether it’s outright sexism or merely so ingrained over time that no one notices the bias, it’s a problem. But let’s look at Disney specifically, where male directors have absolutely been given opportunities to take on big-budget, high-profile projects with the same, if not less, experience than many female directors working today.
David Lowery, director of this year’s Pete’s Dragon, worked on shorts and indies before nabbing that live-action remake. Just a few years earlier Robert Stromberg got his first ever directing job on the live-action Maleficent starring Angelina Jolie. His previous credits were in visual effects. Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who are directing the next Pirates of the Caribbean film Dead Men Tell No Tales both have very short resumés, mostly abroad. Cars 3, the film we just got the first bizarre teaser for, was directed by Brian Fee. His experience? He was a storyboard animator on the first two films. This is his first directing gig.
What about Marvel Studios, which falls under the Disney banner? Before Thor: The Dark World Alan Taylor directed a slew of TV episodes. Before Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War Anthony and Joe Russo also worked mostly in TV. Veteran screenwriter Shane Black went from his first directing job, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, straight to Iron Man 3. Next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming was directed by Jon Watts, who directed Clown and Cop Car before that. Are you noticing anything here?
Let’s look at one more area, the Star Wars franchise.
Before Star Wars: Episode VIII Rian Johnson directed Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper. Gareth Edwards impressed Hollywood with his feature Monsters, went on to direct Godzilla and now he’s leading Rogue One. He also started out in visual effects. Colin Trevorrow was given Jurassic World after Safety Not Guaranteed because Brad Bird didn’t have the time to direct it and thought “there is this guy that reminds me of me.” In turn, his work on Jurassic World impressed Kennedy enough to give him Star Wars: Episode IX .
To his credit, Trevorrow is at least aware of how messed up the situation in Hollywood is but why aren’t we seeing improvement when we know there’s a problem? Also from Variety‘s interview with Kennedy:
Kennedy says that because there haven’t been many opportunities for women to direct big movies, the Lucasfilm team is trying to identify talented helmers at the early stages of their careers. “We want to really start to focus in on people we would love to work with and see what kinds of things they’re doing to progress up that ladder now, and then pull them in when the time is right.”
Once again “there haven’t been many opportunities for women to direct big movies” is just a snake eating its own tail. You make the opportunities. You’re the one that can effect change. What is this wait and see stance for female directors that clearly isn’t there for the men? Female directors are out there and they’re working constantly on films, television, and in some cases both. People like Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Lexi Alexander, Patty Jenkins, Michelle MacLaren, Mimi Leder, Angelina Jolie, Kathryn Bigelow, Ana Lily Amirpour, Tricia Brock, Sofia Coppola, Karyn Kusama, Catherine Hardwicke, Nancy Meyers, and Sam Taylor-Johnson. And their projects make money! And these are only a few of the women out there.
So it’s strange to see Kennedy wondering what female directors are doing to “progress up that ladder now” because they’re doing it everywhere you look. Are they watching films by female directors so they can be impressed by them just like all those impressive male directors? Are they looking inside the house?
Several times Disney has paired female directors with a male director on their big animated features. Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews worked on Brave, Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck on Frozen, and Meg LeFauve is directing the upcoming Gigantic with Nathan Greno. LeFauve also wrote Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Captain Marvel (with Nicole Perlman) for Disney. Niki Caro has directed McFarland, USA for them and Mira Nair recently helmed Queen of Katwe starring Lupita Nyong’o. Where are their big-budget blockbuster offers?
Captain Marvel still doesn’t have a director, though it’s been reported Marvel was looking for a woman, and there isn’t going to be a shortage of Marvel film opportunities moving forward (though their current slate is spoken for). DuVernay is the first woman of color to direct a film with a budget of $100 million with Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, a budget rarely given to any woman, and it’s my hope she’s in the running for an upcoming Star Wars film. But don’t forget the other uphill battle female directors face, as Reese Witherspoon put it earlier this year:
“As a male director, if your first movie out of the gate is not very good, you’re definitely going to get a second movie and a third movie — now you have a reel. If you’re a woman and you direct your first movie and it’s not very good, it’s terrifying because you might not work again, and we don’t get that second, third, and fourth, and fifth chance to make it right. Also they’re not plucking women from Sundance and saying, ‘Hey, direct Jurassic Park.’ They’re not.”
The problem isn’t only on film but on television as well. HBO’s Game of Thrones has a horrible track record of three years without a female director. Last year, female directors working on TV went up by just 1% leaving us with the still-dismal 17% overall. It’s just one reason we’re seeing DuVernay’s Queen Sugar and Melissa Rosenberg’s Jessica Jones hiring all women to direct an entire season. They shouldn’t have to do that but it seems the only one to make a dent. But when it comes to Disney hiring women in the same way they hire men to direct “gigantic films,” one has to wonder, what are they really waiting for? They should be setting the pace for Hollywood, not lagging behind.