I’m going to do something I shouldn’t. I’m going to wade into some very murky waters to address something that is a hot-button topic, which I’m sure to get me into trouble… because I’m going to write things that some of you may disagree with or even find offensive - not all of you, but some.
The topic? Gender bias in the film industry - specifically related to directors, but also to the industry as a whole. And let me be clear, there is a bias, to be sure… but not in the way some think.
I’m going to write (cautiously) about this topic because I can’t stand to read another article about it framed, as it often is, by this ridiculous stance that women aren’t hired because they’re women, and I should note that this exact phrase was written to me on Twitter by journalist Melissa Silverstein, who writes for Indiewire, after I saw her article and responded.
The title of Ms. (Mrs.?) Silverstein’s article on her blog Women And Hollywood, is: “Male Privilege Watch: Man With No Directing Experience to Direct Film With Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett.” (*)
To say that the title of Silverstein’s article seemed inflammatory would be an understatement… and her need to push an agenda seemingly without consideration of research or, it would seem, an understanding of the business beyond the fringe, actually bothered me.
When I read that heading, I immediately clicked through to the link, which I suppose is what Silverstein wanted - more hits for the site… I was, as one might imagine, expecting to find an article about some late-20s first-time writer somehow getting the proverbial Golden Ticket and being allowed to direct his first ever screenplay… or worse, some nephew of a studio head or well-established producer simply being handed an opportunity… but it only took me to the second paragraph before I laughed and clicked away… Why? Because all of Silverstein’s credibility was lost for me.
The person who was going to direct this Redford/Blanchett film… this person who was, according to Silverstein, merely a result of “Male Privilege,” wasn’t a newbie at all. He wasn’t some kid with zero experience on a set and no credits to his name, no, no… director is James Vanderbilt, and he also wrote it.
If you don’t follow screenwriters, let me give you a bit of background on Vanderbilt. Family heritage aside, he graduated the film program at USC in 1999 and, only two years later, began his professional screenwriting/producing career when his script BASIC was turned into a film starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Connie Nielsen (directed by John McTiernan).
After selling BASIC, he briefly became the “new hotness” in town and was quickly sought after. He wrote the successful Universal action-comedy THE RUNDOWN (directed by Pete Berg). After THE RUNDOWN, he had a bit of a lull (as often happens) before finally joining up with David Fincher and adapting the non-fiction novel Zodiac by Robert Graysmith. After ZODIAC (which he also produced), he had some heat again.
Next up, he wrote Warner Bros.’s THE LOSERS, followed by THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, then WHITE HOUSE DOWN (again, producing as well), and, finally, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, which brings us up to date.
Now, one would have to be pretty uninformed to believe that a writer on a massive tent-pole studio film these days (like either of Sony’s SPIDER-MAN films or WHITE HOUSE DOWN) isn’t sitting in a Star Waggon (yes, they spell it with two ‘g’’s) somewhere in basecamp, frantically re-writing the very scene that 347 people are waiting to shoot just a van ride away… This isn’t 1944, after all, and while writers these days rarely get the respect of some of the other crafts, they’re not entirely pushed away from set either - especially when they’re also producers on a project. Because of that, Silverstein’s assertion that Vanderbilt is a man with “no directing experience,” is absurd. He may not have actually stood on set and called, "Action," but he absolutely has experience.
In her article, Silverstein mentioned that this new film Vanderbilt would be directing is based on a novel by “former CBS producer Mary Mapes,” and goes on to pose the question, “would a female writer be given this kind of opportunity?”
Well, Ms. Silverstein, as Twitter’s 140 character limit was not sufficient for me to give a detailed response, allow me to answer here: Yes, under certain circumstances, a female writer would be given the opportunity.
As with almost anything, it all comes down to demand. Who wants the material, what are they willing to pay for it and what, if any, concessions are they willing to make in order to acquire it?
From the Deadline article (**) that Ms. Silverstein refers to in her piece, along with a quick check of IMDb, we are able to learn several things about the project.
1). As previously mentioned, the script will be based on the non-fiction novel Truth And Duty: The Press, The President, And The Privilege Of Power by Mary Mapes. (Huh. “Privilege.” I see what you did there, Melissa).
2). Vanderbilt will not only direct, but write and produce as well.
The second item is the important one here. In the Deadline article, it states that Mr. Vanderbilt optioned the rights to the book, along with his partners, via their company Mythology Entertainment and that he will be adapting the book (most likely with the intention of directing it).
This is not a new idea for a writer to control the material so as to move him or herself into a new role.Heck, even actors have made this play… Think back to ROCKY. In 1975, everyone wanted the script by the unknown writer about the underdog who simply wouldn’t quit, and they were willing to pay Stallone as much as $300,000 dollars for his screenplay (an even more extraordinary sum at that time than it is now), but Stallone (who was, as the story goes, literally sleeping in his friend’s closet in New York) refused to sell the script unless he would be guaranteed the lead role. In the end, MGM wanted it bad enough and John G. Avildsen signed off on it. The film went on to be nominated for 7 Academy Awards and, by the time MGM commissioned a sequel, Stallone was already positioning himself to direct the film.
How about Damon and Affleck with GOOD WILL HUNTING. Billy Bob Thornton with SLING BLADE.
So. Knowing this, could one make the assumption that a writer (or actor) with a script that people want, leverage that desire into a job in the directors chair? Could, say, Kelly Marcel, coming off her BAFTA Nominated work on SAVING MR. BANKS, leverage her next script as an opportunity to direct? Yes. I’d say that she could.
Let’s talk about some other (female) directors…
What about the excellent Nicole Holofcener? Holofcener had written and directed four films - all of them modestly budgeted - that found an audience. They weren’t blockbusters, but their investors (one assumes) recouped.
During the two years between PLEASE GIVE and ENOUGH SAID, she went back into television (where she’d been working steadily as a director on shows like Six Feet Under for HBO and Enlightened for Showtime). ENOUGH SAID was, again, a modestly budgeted film, but this one connected on a level her other films hadn’t. The film was unique and funny (and also, sadly, benefitted from being one of James Gandolfini’s last performances). It grossed an impressive $25 million worldwide. Since then, she’s gone back to tv again, working on the hit series Parks and Rec for NBC.
How about Susannah Grant? Back in 2001, she was an Oscar and BAFTA Nominee for ERIN BROCKOVICH. She went on to write IN HER SHOES for Curtis Hanson and, in 2006, wrote and directed CATCH AND RELEASE. Since then, she’s gone on to write films like CHARLOTTE’S WEB and THE SOLOIST and, like Holofcener, is now working in television…
Why isn’t she directing now? My guess is because, like any director, when you film tanks (CATCH AND RELEASE made on $16.1 million worldwide on a reported $25 million dollar budget), you go to “director jail” for a while. Sometimes you get out for good behavior (Joseph Kosinski), and sometimes you literally go to jail and try to make a comeback later like the aforementioned John McTiernan. As an aside, he was jailed for his involvement in a wire-tapping scandal, not for ROLLERBALL, despite maybe deserving prison for that film, too.
I should probably mention at this point that I am a huge fan of a number of female directors… but the fact that they’re women has, literally, nothing to do with my fandom. I, like most people I know, judge a filmmaker on the quality of their work, not on their gender… and that goes for the casual film viewer in me as well as the producer who might be considering potential director candidates for a project.
Of the three films I’ve produced, all have been directed by men - however, two of the three have been shot by the same woman, and the reason the directors were male was because, in two of the cases, the director was also the screenwriter and in the other, my Co-Producer had optioned the material specifically so that he could direct it. I wasn’t, as a producer, not hiring a female director because I don’t like women or don’t feel a woman would be up to the task… it was that the projects were generated by men, and those men controlled the material.
On my second film even our Key Grip was a woman (talk about a rarity!). DP, female (another rarity). Costume Designer, female. Script Supervisor, female. Co-Producer. Another Co-Producer. All female.
On my third film? Two female producers, (excellent) female Co-Writer, (the same, badass) female DP (still a rarity) and her two female AC’s. We had the same (genius) female Costume Designer, a (smart, meticulous) female Script Super., and our Production Designer was another (brilliant) woman. We even had a (phenomenal) female Prop Master. Hell, our Travel Coordinators were both women! I mean, I could go on and on.
Did I hire these people because I specifically didn’t want to hire men? Did I hire them because I thought the fact that they were women somehow gave them a better sense of the material? No. That’s an absurd idea. They were hired, all of them, because they were A).Talented and B). If I’m being candid, they were willing to work on the film within the given budget constraints.
Could women have directed any of my three feature films? Sure. Each film I’ve done could’ve been directed by a man or a woman and gender would have had nothing to do with the outcome. Story is story is story, and if women had written the films, they likely would have been directed by women.
Hopefully this illustrates that I, personally, prefer a set with women around… as long as they tend to be those with a calming presence and not the, sort of, (here’s where I get in trouble) shall we say, overcompensating presence… and I’m referring to those women who, in order to compete in this (admittedly) male dominated business, feel they need to yell a lot or… assert themselves lest they be perceived as weak. And don’t get me wrong - I don’t want to deal with men like that either!
Looking again at Silverstein’s statement that women can’t get hired simply because they’re women, let’s dig deeper. First, some (sad) stats just to show that I’m not ignorant of the numbers:
(Courtesy NY Film Academy)
Clearly, there is an imbalance… but I honestly don’t believe it’s simply that women can’t be hired as directors. Look at television, which is in the midst of a new “golden age.” TV in the last few years has seen an enormous influx of women directors… from feature directors like Jodie Foster (who received an Emmy nomination this week for her work on Orange Is The New Black) and Lena Dunham, to Lynn Shelton and the aforementioned Nicole Holofcener.
Then there’s Michelle McLaren who has proven more than capable at handling shows that might be perceived (and rightly so) as coming from a rather masculine point of view, like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. Is she being asked to do features? I don’t know, you’d have to ask her. Would I ask her to direct a feature? You’re damned right I would. She strikes me as capable of working in any genre and is on par with, say, Kathryn Bigelow.
Since I mentioned Bigelow, I want to point out a comment she made right after her film BLUE STEEL opened. She had already done the violently brilliant NEAR DARK, and BLUE STEEL was, once again being pointed out for being very violent and intense “despite having been directed by a woman.” She was asked if she found it difficult, as a woman, to get films made. She replied, “If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.”
Clearly, Bigelow has done just that. While not all of her films have been successful and she’s had to occasionally get bailed out of director jail (hello, K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER, I’m talking to you), she has always come back, and her recent work (THE HURT LOCKER, ZERO DARK THIRTY) has been her best yet…
Now, Bigelow doesn’t write her films (she has partner Mark Boal for that), but if you look at the majority of the examples I’ve made, you’ll find that most of the successful (female) filmmakers have written the films they direct - including Nancy Meyers who years ago surpassed Penny Marshall as the highest grossing (female) director. Look at this little collection of names below:
Of the names in that little cloud, only five of the nineteen names listed are not writer/directors. Five.
And I didn’t even include Nicole Holofcener (writer/director), or Susannah Grant (writer/director) there because I already mentioned them above. That makes five out of twenty-one names who are not writers.
And then we get to Dee Rees.
I met the extremely talented, extremely intelligent Dee Rees at the Mill Valley Film Festival (back in, 2011 I think it was), when my film GIRLFRIEND tied with her film PARIAH for Best U.S. Feature.
You want to talk about industry bias? How about being female, black and gay. Funny how that hasn’t seemed to stop her, Ms. Silverstein.
Dee picked up a host of awards (from Breakthrough Director at the Gotham Awards, to a GLAAD Media Award for outstanding film), and is currently working in television.
I also didn’t include Ava DuVernay in the little cloud of names. DuVernay is currently directing SELMA about Martin Luther King, Jr., which was long tied to (male) director Lee Daniels. She’s also credited as a writer on the film.
DuVernay was the first black woman to win Best Director at Sundance (for her second feature MIDDLE OF NOWHERE), and in regard to SELMA, even Melissa Silverstein herself (in another article) pointed out that, “movies about epic male historical figures are usually reserved for [male directors]”.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t call attention to Haiffa Al-Mansour, who is the perhaps the most intriguing person in this blog. She is the first ever (female) director from Saudi Arabia. Her film, WADJDA is also the first film to lens entirely in Saudi Arabia, as well… and to direct the film, she often had to hide in a van so as not to be seen giving instruction to male cast and crew members. I mean… really, ladies of the U.S. film industry… do ya really have that much to complain about? I know it’s a rough, male dominated, sexist industry… but would you have to direct from a fu*king van in order to avoid being… I don’t know… stoned in the street?
So, what am I saying here? I guess I’m saying that if we want more women directors, we ought to be cultivating more women screenwriters… because, though they may appear to have limited power, a phenomenal screenplay in this town is gold. Solid, f*cking gold… and if you have it and they want it, they’re going to let you direct it.
So stop complaining about inequality. You cannot compare yourself to anyone else. You are on your journey, whatever that is. It does no more good than me saying, “I can’t greenlight a movie because my father isn’t Larry Ellison and I didn’t get a blank check to start my company.” Is that true? Sure. If I had been given a blank check by my dad, would I have had an even shot at some Oscar nods by now? I gotta think, “yes.” I have a good sense of story and I would seek out filmmakers (male or female) the way Megan Ellison did. But, for now, I can’t do that… and holding myself up to Megan Ellison or her brother or even Lawrence Bender or Chis Moore isn’t going to help me.
You simply have to focus. Stop making excuses and make art. Create. Write a goddamned script and then go and direct it. If it’s good, the door will open for you. At least for a few seconds. Then you can slip through. I’m still working on getting it open myself and moving up to that next level.
Two more quick things:
1). Lynn Shelton agrees. #GetWriting
2). My extremely talented (male) director (also a Gotham Award winner) has been unable to work outside of his own projects despite the fact that he’s repped by WME and is an incredible talent… Perhaps “they” don’t like Jewish/Quaker/Sicilian men… I think it’s some kind of… religious… gender… racial bias, but if you’re not opposed to hiring a man for your tv series, you could do a lot worse.
Now. How much trouble am I in?
Shaun O’Banion is an independent film producer and member of the Producers Guild of America. He has produced three films: DAKOTA SKYE, Gotham Award-winner GIRLFRIEND, and THE AUTOMATIC HATE (due in late 2014/early 2015).