Editorial: There Are More Female Directors Than Gerwig and Coppola (And We Need to Learn Their Names)

By Morgan Roberts

There was a recent post on Twitter asking for the film community to name a female filmmaker but not name famous directors Sofia Coppola or Greta Gerwig. Sure, people were able to name other directors. However, I was struck by the fact that there are truly so many women working behind the camera, but only a few are widely known by audiences.

Following the 2020 Golden Globe nomination announcements, I lamented about male directors and their recognition for subpar and mediocre work.  It continually becomes glaringly obvious the exponentially higher standards women are held to in the film industry – and pretty much all industries and I am talking about cisgender women which means transgender women and non-binary people have even higher standards and barely existent opportunities.  Sorry for the run-on sentence.  But it was necessary.

I mean, just look at when Patty Jenkins helmed “Wonder Woman” (2017).  The fate of female directors getting big budget superhero movies rested upon her shoulders.  One tiny error and all of the Film Broswould immediately go online to trash the film and female filmmakers and women in general.  Meanwhile, Zack Snyder makes “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) and it is merely a shrug emoji and everyone moves on to let him make “Justice League” (2017)!  Are you kidding me??  

 Patty Jenkins, and Gal Gadot on set of Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

“I was struck by the fact that there are truly so many women working behind the camera, but only a few are widely known by audiences.”

As a woman who enjoys film, it is endlessly frustrating to see the lengths in which women must go to for their voices to be heard and their vision to be seen.  The film industry isn’t some finite entity.  There is room for women.  They just need the space.  And women taking up space does not mean there is less space for men.  The universe is ever expanding, which means that there is plenty of space to go around.  It should go around.

So, we need to be doing better, people.  That means when there is finally a vaccine and we can go to theaters again, we go to the cinema and support women.  Because the studios only care about dollars.  And any Tarantino foot fetish film or a Scorsese testosterone film gets to be made because for some reason, people still enjoy going out and seeing the same tired narratives every few years.  Instead, why are we not breaking the box office for Ava DuVernay?  And why are we not as vocal about her Oscar snub as we were when Tom Hanks didn’t get nominated for “Captain Phillips” (2013)?  

Rachel Morrison

There are SO many women making films. Last year, my top 3 favorite films were all written and directed by women. And while Coppola and Gerwig are amazing filmmakers, there are more than just the two of them behind the camera.  

But what makes it so that we only see women directing as an act of tokenism?  It is true, opportunities for women can be scarce.  Women have been forced to make their own opportunities.  Just look at Lynn Shelton, who, before her untimely passing, was just being noticed in more mainstream work after having over a decade of filmmaking in her native Seattle.  Just getting your foot in the door can be met with never-ending hurdles.  Which is why there also needs to be community amongst women.  A sort of, once you get your foot in the door, you then hold the elevator to get more women on board.  DuVernay has only employed female directors for her show “Queen Sugar.”  

“It is endlessly frustrating to see the lengths in which women must go to for their voices to be heard and their vision to be seen.  The film industry isn’t some finite entity.  There is room for women.”

Lynn Shelton and Emily Blunt in Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

While some – aka male executives – comment that television direction is not as esteemed as feature film direction, I can’t help but roll my eyes.  Television has provided more opportunity for women than film.  Television shows can have anywhere from 13 to 22 episodes in a typical season.  To me personally, I think television direction is more difficult.  If you are not directing the pilot, you are jumping into an already established set, have to balance the original vision with your own style/expertise, you may be coming in for just one episode and have to insert yourself into a cast and crew who already have a shorthand, and you are having to produce a piece of work with a different type of oversight – television networks.  Whether it be “Queen Sugar” or a Shonda Rhimes show – who also employs a number of female directors – television provides better, though still not easy to obtain, opportunities for women.  

Jennifer Phang

Television made a seamless jump from cinematography to directing for both Reed Morano and Rachel Morrison.  Meanwhile, Jennifer Phang, whose film “Advantageous” (2015) is the most successfully ambitious work of cinema on an independent film budget I have ever seen, has been working on numerous television shows.  They call the art of filmmaking whether you direct or act or write, a “craft.”  You cannot perfect a craft unless you are working on it regularly.  Phang’s filmography impressively boasts shows such as “Riverdale,” “The Boys,” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”  We cannot look down on television work on it somehow being “less than” because it is affording a number of women the opportunity to direct. And more importantly, television is getting a boost since film directors are working in that media. Have you ever watched an episode of television and thought, “Wow, that felt like a movie.” It is because that same person bringing cinematic quality to film is bringing it to television.

Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, and Ava DuVernay in Selma (2014)

On top of opportunity, financing is also a barrier.  The budgets can be sparse.  Money is a huge barrier for filmmakers and women are hit hardest with having to get their own funding which then leads to a smaller pool of talent willing to work on a tinier film.  So, a female director gets the greenlight to make a movie and has some sort of money to pay people – usually more meager – but then runs into not having actors willing to take the chance on a part due to the limited pay. 

“When women are snubbed for award recognition, there is an outcry and not merely a murmur of disappointment.  Still, there is a long way to go for us to be able to make the playing field more equitable, let alone equal.”

Having a big name can really give more intrigue, and possibly more money, for a film.  Actors – both male and female – should be doing their parts to actively seek work on smaller projects.  It could be a catalyst for something bigger than before.  It could be a way to find parts that they wouldn’t have been given before to help widen their prospects on future roles.  While there are many people in Hollywood vocally supporting female directors, there aren’t many actually walking the walk.  Jessica Chastain works with at least one woman director a year.  Some of her best films have been directed by women.  Beanie Feldstein has primarily worked with female directors for her feature films.  And Keanu Reeves has worked with the most female directors, working with 13 over the course of his career.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Lastly, I know that it can be endlessly frustrating for women who direct to be reduced “female director.”  However, I see “female director” as a badge of honor.  We can’t call everyone a director until male directors are held to the same impossibly high standards as the women in their field.  When I see a film has a female director, I know that the expectation for their work is exponentially higher, and the hurdles for them were much greater.  So, until everyone is at the level expected of women, I want films directed by women to be identified for their higher caliber of work.

So much has been done to open doors for women. When women are snubbed for award recognition, there is an outcry and not merely a murmur of disappointment.  Still, there is a long way to go for us to be able to make the playing field more equitable, let alone equal.  In the meantime, here’s to the women behind the camera.  From Gerwig to Coppola, Shelton to Phang, DuVernay to Jenkins, and the thousands of women directing.

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