…even if you only do it once.
This year, when Sundance reported that women directed 8 out of its 16 narrative features–it was big news. After all, it wasn’t until 2009 (81 years of Academy Awards) that an actual skirt-wearing human, Kathryn Bigelow, ever won an Oscar for best director; sadly, only a fraction of women do manage to crack the glass ceiling and enter the elusive boys club. Although, curiously, according to a study done by Sundance (assessing the festivals, years 2002-2012) it showed that females were half as likely to be directors of narratives than documentaries. In an egocentric field, where the assumption of maleness is so prevalent that male directors are simply called directors, but when it’s a woman at the helm there must be a gender-warning-label attached–it makes me wonder about the nature of women directors. More specifically, what makes a woman choose to venture on this unwelcome path in the first place?
Throughout time there have always been women who defied stereotypes: take Dorothy Arzner, one of the few women directors working in 1930’s pre-code Hollywood. Arzner once said, “My philosophy is that to be a director you cannot be subject to anyone, even the head of the studio. I threatened to quit each time I didn’t get my way, but no one ever let me walk out.” Arzner was also the first woman to join the Director’s Guild, and inventor of the boom microphone.
Not long ago, I was at a soiree, part of a group of women, chatting with a male producer of a production company, who said he didn’t believe men kept women out of the film industry at all. He simply felt women just didn’t want to work the grueling hours and take the grunt jobs that new directors had to start out with; he went on to say, he believed more women chose to go into television instead, where they could have a greater measure of stability and raise families. At the time, these women, we listened and politely sipped our cocktails. Each of us, raised eyebrows, about to speak up in challenge… But soon enough, the silence grew into a pause, and we held our tongues. Later on the subway ride home, it got me thinking about the differences between female and male behaviors. How little girls are taught to play nice and be people-pleasers, while their boy counterparts learn to snort back tears and fight. And how, I wondered, did that influence one’s choice to become a director?
I’ve directed, and know a handful of women directors who’ve carved niches for themselves in the field. At the same time, I see many more women writers who don’t even entertain the notion of directing. When I’ve asked why they don’t try, they responded back with modest answers such as: “oh, I don’t know enough about camera angles, other people have much more experience than I do,” and a wistful, “maybe one day.” And yet, I’m perpetually baffled by males attitudes on the same subject; both those talented, and others not-so-much, who just went out and directed without the teeniest hesitation they might not be up to the task. And often they weren’t. But that didn’t stop them from trying their hands at it again. And, again.
We all know the cliche: sink or swim–it’s the director’s ass on the line. It’s true. The job requires a certain kind of unstoppable internal push. To play God within the confines of a mini-celluloid universe means possibly: people will hate, scream, and curse at you before breakfast; from the mundane to earth shattering, you will be the decision-maker. Forget about beauty sleep: you’ll likely work fourteen-hour days. Even when your head hits the pillow you may dream about the project, making it seem as though you’ve been working for free until sunrise. No matter how many people are working on it, ultimately, this is your film. So you will call upon every morsel of strength and hidden talent you possess–including x-ray vision and psychic ability–to get the job done. 50’s bombshell, Ida Lupino, was a successful B movie director, with seven movies to her credit; Lupino wasn’t above using her feminine charms to make things run smoother on set; often, she said, she resorted to playing dumb: pretending to a cameraman that she knew less than she actually did, in order to get more cooperation from her crew.
Before you sigh in relief, glad you’ve stayed clear of that dreadful director’s chair so far—open your mind to the alternate possibilities… What if you rise to the occasion? Instead of relying on a limited perspective, you view life through numerous POV’s. And in the process, you expand your senses to such a heightened degree that you’re able to notice the slightest details–from your leading lady’s subtle dialog change, to the varied shades of violet during the sunset scene. Never mind sleep, those fourteen-hour days leave you so adrenaline-charged—when your head finally hits the pillow, the film enters your dream-state. Truth be told, you’re so enmeshed in the creative process, you don’t know where the camera ends and you begin. Surprisingly though, you realize directing isn’t as ego-driven as you once believed. It’s largely collaborative. And your instinct pays off. It seems that your willingness to listen to the wisdom of others, and incorporate their ideas, only makes for a better film.
Eventually when the project wraps, you’re melancholy. At the same time, you realize this is the beginning of your third act. You’ve made a picture! Soon you’ll sit in a darkened theater amidst a room filled with strangers, all breathing together in the darkness…awaiting your film. And as those opening credits role, you remember your predecessors who pried open locked doors to pursue their dreams. Women like, Barbara Loden, who in 1970 wrote, directed and starred in the feminist classic “Wanda.” Loden, an accomplished actress, married to director Elia Kazan, was said to be overshadowed by her husband’s enormous success. However, with “Wanda,” she brought a uniquely raw and honest directorial voice to cinema, and won the International Critics Award. Unfortunately, Loden passed away at a young age and never directed another film. One wonders what she might’ve created had she been able to fully flourish behind the lenses. Unlike Loden, you have that chance.
Even if you only try it once. Go ahead. Be brilliant.
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