Kimberly Peirce, Chloë Moretz, and Julianne Moore on the set of Carrie
After losing out on a 2013 Oscar nomination in the Best Director category, Ben Affleck and his film Argo became the season's biggest talking point. After losing out on a 2013 Oscar nomination in the Best Director category, Kathryn Bigelow and her film Zero Dark Thirty faded out of the picture.
Already battling wishy-washy political arguments that threatened to shift the spotlight away from the film, Bigelow's docudrama thriller was all but knocked out of Oscar consideration when the critically acclaimed director failed to sit alongside 2012's contenders. The snub was a reminder of a sad fact that remains a talking point each year: In the 85-year history of the Academy Awards, only four women have been nominated for the "Best Director" Oscar. And only of them won: Bigelow, for 2009's The Hurt Locker.
There's an imbalance of female and male directors represented in the Hollywood mainstream. It's a point argued year after year, yet it's a statistic that never seems to change. According to a study by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, Executive Director, Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, School of Theatre, Television and Film, 18 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2012 were women. And only 9 percent of all directors working on those films were women. While that's a 4 percent bump up from 2011, the percentage of women directors working in 2012 was the same as in 1998.
In 2013, three women are slated to direct studio-driven, wide-released feature films: Tyler Perry Presents Peeples (May 10), directed by Tina Gordon Chism, Carrie (Oct. 18), directed by Kimberly Peirce, and Disney's animated feature Frozen (Nov. 27), co-directed by Jennifer Lee alongside Chris Buck. A few more will sprout from between the blockbusters into limited releases: Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa (March 15), Sofia Copolla's Bling Ring (June 14), Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (April 26), Maggie Carey's The To Do List (Aug. 16), Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves (Sept. 20), Susanne Bier's Serena (Sept. 27), Diablo Cody's Paradise, and the Soska sisters' American Mary. Women are making movies, but considering the sheer number of films in theaters from year to year, they're not making enough movies — and they're rarely making them with the support of Hollywood.
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Chism, screenwriter of 2002's Drumline and 2006's ATL, makes her directorial debut this spring with Peeples, but breaking through as a female force in Hollywood required hard bargaining. "I've always been attracted to writer/directors and Nancy Meyers was a huge inspiration for me in her work," Chism says. "So, as a writer, I've used my script as leverage to get in the room to plead my case to direct it. If I didn't have that script, I don't think I would have been given the opportunity."
With Peeples — which stars Craig Robinson and Kerry Washington — ready for release, Chism already has a follow-up in place, a thriller set up at Sony. Despite having a feature under her belt, Chism says the process was the same: more teeth-pulling, more clinging to her script, more proving herself capable.
The writer/director recalls her first studio meeting, during which Fox gave her a number of different script ideas, none of which worked for the budding filmmaker. "We talked about all kinds of ideas and I hated all of the things they pitched me," Chism says. "I thought, 'This is a nightmare.' In that meeting, they told me they were toying around with a movie about a band. At the time, it was about a white kid and a black kid who can't read. And I come from the South and my mind went to historically black colleges. Thank God. And I remember, they were like, 'There are all-black colleges?'"
"I'm not sure if I'll have to do that forever," Chism says. "I think it has to do with power, basically, and in this industry, the writer doesn't hold the largest bit of power. So it's more palatable for people to deal with women as writers." Hollywood does appear to be more receptive to hiring females in that role; Lauzen's study reveals that women account for 15 percent of the writers working on the top 250 films of 2012.
Like Chism, Jennifer Lee also comes from a writing background. Before being recruited by Disney Animation head honcho John Lasseter to co-direct Frozen, Lee had sold two screenplays: an adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights and an original script being developed at Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way production company. She was brought into the Disney fold by her Phil Johnston, a friend from Columbia University's film school who recruited her to write on Wreck-It Ralph. After meeting weekly for years in order to "push each other as writers," Johnston asked Lee if she would be willing to move to Los Angeles on a week's notice to take over Wreck-It's script, which he had initially developed years before. The success of the 2012 Oscar nominee — and the nurturing environment of a long-gestating animated film — landed her the job co-directing Frozen.
Concept art from Jennifer Lee's Frozen
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Unlike live-action's homogeneous roster of filmmakers, animation has traditionally welcomed female directors. In 2012, Brenda Chapman became the first woman to receive an Oscar for Best Animated Feature for Brave (sharing it with Mark Andrews, who took over as director halfway through production). Vicky Jenson (Shark Tale) nearly took home the award in 2001 for co-directing Shrek — in the category's first year, only the producers were awarded with the gold statue. In the grand scheme of Hollywood, Jennifer Yuh Nelson possessed the most important honor: Her Dreamworks Animation film, Kung Fu Panda 2, is the highest-grossing female-helmed movie of all time, with a whopping worldwide gross of $665.7 million.
In terms of creativity, box office numbers are inconsequential. But in Hollywood, they're a calling card and a record-setting number like Nelson's Kung Fu Panda 2 gross goes a long way. Which explains why women filmmakers are climbing uphill to get projects with larger budgets off the ground. Running down the list of the highest-grossing directors of all time (based on BoxOfficeMojo.com's director filmography totals), we don't find a woman until No. 60: Lana Wachowski, director of The Matrix trilogy, who first entered the industry as a man. Further down at No. 81 is Betty Thomas, one of the few women to have shaped a career out of directing modest blockbusters. Including The Brady Bunch Movie, Doctor Dolittle, 28 Days, and the recent Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Thomas' films have collected nearly $563.3 million.
NEXT: Moviegoing Demographic Myths and Why Female-Driven Blockbusters Work
Chloë Moretz in Carrie
For women to stake a claim in box office history, they must be given the opportunity to direct blockbusters, the type of genre filmmaking narrowly aimed at adolescent boys. A 2011 study released by the Motion Picture Association of America cites that the gender composition of moviegoers was balanced, about 51 percent women, 49 percent men, with the 25 - 39 age demographic representing the largest portion of the audience, around 28 percent. Yet most of the major studio tentpoles are male-driven. Out of 45 movies based on comic books released between 2003 and 2013, only one of them was directed by a woman: Lexi Alexander's 2008 film Punisher: War Zone.
The lack of women represented in genre movies makes Kimberly Peirce's horror remake Carrie an event in itself. Like many female directors actively working in the film industry, Peirce is hesitant to make gender divide a talking point when discussing her new adaptation of the Stephen King classic. The Boys Don't Cry and Stop-Loss director wants to be seen as simply that — a director. Still, she believes women do add perspective to genre stories, and in the case of Carrie, perspectives that echo themes laid down by the book's author.
"What I love about King was, he was writing about a fear of the period," Peirce says. The director recalls King's notorious experience of working as a janitor and discovering a bloody tampon, a terrifying event that Peirce revels in. "Women may have fear about their tampons and their menstrual cycles, but you know what? They’ve got to deal with it on a monthly basis. It’s a fear that you know in a way that this guy may not know. So it took on epic proportions. So it is really interesting that it was a man’s fear that birthed [the story], and then I get to [view it] through a different tunnel."
Peirce acknowledges that Brian De Palma, director of the acclaimed 1976 version of Carrie, knows "a lot about women." Peirce also finds her approach to the material unique, because it's informed from personal experiences. "The truth is, I have a mother and I have had wars with my mother [and] I know what those wars feel like," Peirce says. "I know what those feel like from my perspective, the claustrophobia in the female-female, mother-daughter relationship. I also know how snarky the girls can be. It doesn’t mean the men can’t be. Female terror is a very interesting terror. It’s relentless, it’s diffuse, it communicates."
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For her follow-up to Peeples, Chism made a point to pen a thriller with a strong female voice, and it's a challenge for her. According to the writer/director, Drumline, ATL, and Peeples all tested higher with men, and she sees that as the result of an ability to write strong male characters. With her next movie, she wants to challenge the pre-conceived notions of what a movie with strong female characters has to be about. "I think that the similarities that a lot of minorities have to face — whether it's a woman in business or African-American — sometimes the reaction is, 'I don't want to make it about me being a woman,'" Chism says. "But I've yet to find the formula to walking into a room and an executive not seeing both things when they see me."
Over the course of her career, she's well-aware of what an executive is looking for from her. "I [can] feel the expectations that, 'Oh, you're going to do a chick flick and that's going to diminish the numbers we do.' I'd say that's 100 percent the case."
Producer Gale Anne Hurd is one of the rarities, a female producer who, while never stepping into the director's chair, has helped both men and women bring sci-fi blockbusters, independent dramas, and hit TV shows to life. In 2013, Hurd launched another season of her hit horror show The Walking Dead and debuted the teen romance drama Very Good Girls at the Sundance Film Festival. And yet, even she doesn't see much of a home for women at the movie studios. "I think it speaks to the fact that independent film is where it's at, because there were more films than ever at Sundance directed by women," Hurd says. "And mainstream film has really taken a step backward in so many ways and one significant factor is that you don't find much diversity in the ranks of directors. Now that's changing a lot in television and I think some of the best work right now is on television. The strides that women are making as directors on television is more than compensating for the steps back in the ranks of major studio directors."
The latest from Jane Campion — another of the female quartet to have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar — is a prime example of Hurd's observation. Sundance Channel's upcoming series Top of the Lake, a deeply cinematic crime procedural, was written and directed by Campion. The series premiered in full at this year's Sundance — the first TV series to do so at the festival. Along with Campion's ambitious project, the festival also played host to a number of female-directed indies, including Lynn Shelton's Touchy Feely, Lake Bell's In a World…, Jerusha Hess' Austenland, and Stacie Passon’s Concussion. Thanks to a frenzy of distribution company purchasing, most are expected to arrive in theaters this year.
NEXT: Hollywood, Wake Up and Make a Change
Kerry Washington, Craig Robinson, and David Alan Grier in Tina Gordon Chism's Tyler Perry Presents Peeples
In the male-dominated world of directing, those with clout are the ones who can bring along sea change. The female voices are there, they just need to be cultivated and supported. Lee has not been working with Disney for long, but the animation process naturally helped her rise to the top. It promoted her organically. "Animation relies on a large team of people — story artists, visual development artists, animators, and a diverse production staff," Lee says. "And we don't just work together on one film and move on; I'm working with a lot of the same folks I worked with on Ralph. Working together for years, we really get to know each others' strengths and talents. The women get the chance to shine equally."
Chism's film recently swapped titles, shifting from We the Peeples to Tyler Perry Presents Peeples. After persisting to hold onto her romantic comedy and direct it herself, she was okay with the change. "They got the movie, they got the script. Leverage diminished."
Adding Perry to the marquee also works in her favor: With a built-in audience, a stamp of approval from the Madea mastermind is the cinematic version of "Oprah's Book Club." He also worked as Chsim's biggest supporter. "Tyler was very supportive," she says. "He just let me do my thing. He read it, he had his ideas, and then he said, 'You know what, I'm just going to let you go for it and I want to see what your voice would be, your take would be.' When he needed to block for me or support me, he did that. I have nothing but appreciation for him as a producer."
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Diablo Cody, who wrote the upcoming Evil Dead remake and is expected to have her own directorial debut, Paradise, arrive sometime this year, shares the frustration over the gender divide. She sums up her feelings with comment that may sound defeatist, but it's honest and steadfast: "It's been that way for a long time, so I'm just doing what I can."
Lee feels similarly, letting her work on Frozen and her collaboration with co-director Buck speak for itself. "We share a sense of storytelling that doesn't feel male or female. I think we were cast together because of our shared vision for Frozen, and because we work well together."
On the first day of shooting Peeples, Perry phoned Chism with words of wisdom. "He called and said, 'Put your head down and make a great movie. That's all anyone cares about. No one cares about anything else other than delivering a great movie. Have a great one, bye.'" From childhood, Chism was taught that "excellence in work is really the only barrier-breaking formula." The mantra pushed her each day on Peeples, even when the scenes were at their silliest. "At the end of the day, for me, whether I'm a female or male, there's a lot of investment, a lot on the line, and you have to make your day, make it good, and make a great film."
This year will see the release of three studio films directed by women — a minuscule number. Diversity doesn't have to be forced into the industry — hiring talented directors should always be the priority — but capable and creative female filmmakers are out there, waiting to be employed. They can take on any project, not just ones that boast demographics skewing towards their own gender. "I think a good director can do anything," Peirce says. "James Cameron was not an Avatar. Coppola was not a Godfather. You’re always looking to any character and figuring out where you want to take it."
Cody gives us a little hope for the future (or at least, this year): "Let's look at the positives, which is that the worst movies are dumped in the first quarter of the year. So maybe it means the women directed all the good ones."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
Additional reporting by Michael Arbeiter and Kelsea Stahler
[Photo Credit: Screen Gems, Hollywood.com, Walt Disney Pictures, Screen Gems, Nicole Rivelli/Lionsgate]
The basic premise of most crime revenge dramas is how much of our humanity we're willing to trade to get back what the other people — the ostensible baddies — have taken from us. Oliver Stone returns to this familiar stomping ground with Savages a splashy adaptation of Don Winslow's novel about a unique love affair a major marijuana-dealing business and an increasingly violent pissing match between two SoCal growers and the Baja Cartel.
Stone's frenetic visual style is in full swing but even this Oscar-winning auteur can't quite raise the film from mediocrity. It's hard to care whether or not Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) rescue their gorgeous mutual girlfriend O (Blake Lively) from the cartel if O isn't engaging enough to persuade us she's worth the bloodshed. O (short for Ophelia — an allusion to her earthshaking climaxes) is not a well-written character to begin with but she's even less engaging as played by Lively. Johnson is unconvincing as the bleeding heart Ben and the details his character is given — extra earrings a shoddy-looking tattoo on his neck even white boy dreads at one point — undercut his believability even more. Kitsch is given a few prominent scars and a mean squint but he doesn't quite bring the weird slightly empty vibe of Chon to life.
On the villain side Benicio Del Toro chews every inch of scenery from Laguna Beach to Tijuana as Lado. He's rocking an intense moustache that he strokes when he's lying or being a creep (which is most of the time) a vaguely mullet-like wig and a fondness for torture. Salma Hayek takes no prisoners as the head of the cartel nicknamed Elena la Reina who is both a frustrated mom whose college-age daughter is blowing her off (aw!) and a brutally tough woman in a man's world. John Travolta definitely enjoys a bit of Pulp Fiction ridiculousness as Dennis a DEA official who's in Ben and Chon's pocket. It's hard to tell just how funny Savages is aiming to be. Lado Elena and Dennis are cartoonish but Ben Chon and O are earnest — which is to say a little bit boring.
The double- and triple-crossing is practically moot as is the wacky technology that Ben and Chon employ; it's like The Social Network meets surfers. The real meat of the movie is the flash and violence but it's not the kind of thing that stays with you like Stone's Natural Born Killers. Savages doesn't have the same lingering aftertaste. It's not that a movie needs to have some sort of message with its pointed commentary on the media's bloodlust but the gist of Savages — that we're all savages at heart or that we can easily become a savage given the right circumstances — is not that interesting or unique.
Oddly enough Savages pulls a few punches when it comes to its source material (hard to believe when the movie kicks off with a glimpse of an abattoir-like enclosure and close-ups of men begging for their lives just as a chainsaw revs in the background). Winslow's book is a quick enjoyable read with an interesting on-page style that's hard to replicate verbally. It has a sort of ADD-addled feel that the movie tries to but doesn't quite capture. While it's not always fair to compare an adaptation to the book it's based on Winslow is both the author and one of the screenplay writers so some of the choices made behind the scenes don't quite add up. Cut are significant and menacing back story for Lado and all of the zestiness out of O. Why add in certain plot points and take out others unless it was to give one of its big name stars more screen time? The most interesting part of the story the love story is treated like a wink wink homoerotic thing than an actual relationship between three people who adore each other which is how it's portrayed in the book. It's hard not to be a little disappointed especially given Stone's no-f**ks-given attitude. (Or as O would say baditude.)
That said it is a somewhat entertaining diversion and a nice tour of lifestyles of the rich and criminal. Lively is all tangled tan limbs and luxurious hippie clothes and the homes they frequent whether on Laguna Beach or a desert compound are meticulously decorated with exquisite expensive taste. Santa Muerte imagery also figures heavily in the background of many scenes. The scenery is gorgeous — even the marijuana looks amazing. It's good for adults to have another R-rated choice in what's usually a season dominated by blockbusters but in years to come you'll more likely to reach for your old True Romance DVD than Savages.
When we last saw the armed-to-the-teeth vigilante Frank Castle he was fleeing Tampa after exacting his revenge upon the money launderer responsible for murdering his son wife parents aunts and uncles third cousin twice removed … But that was the old Punisher. Meet the new Punisher. Like Incredible Hulk Punisher: War Zone reboots a franchise by assuming we know enough about the Punisher without having go into excruciating detail about why he became judge jury and executioner. Another good sign: Ray Stevenson’s Punisher is back where he belongs in a dirty grimy New York not sun-kissed Florida. And he’s got his sights set on comic-book nemesis Jigsaw the alias of mobster Billy “the Beaut” Russoti (The Wire’s Dominic West). While trying to assassinate Russoti the Punisher accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent compelling him to hang up his guns. Russoti escapes but his face is torn to shreds by glass. With his once-handsome face stitched up like a 12-piece puzzle the rechristened Jigsaw springs his brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) from -- of course -- a loony bin to help him punish the Punisher. So much for the Punisher locking up his war journal for good … No disrespect but Jane’s too much of a pretty boy to pass himself off as the Punisher. The big burly Ray Stevenson (HBO’s Rome) looks every bit the cold-blooded dispenser of justice fanboys know and adore. And the Northern Irish hard man possesses an intimidating physical presence something Jane inherently lacks. Jane though received significant leeway to explore the anguish resulting from the loss of Castle’s family. Stevenson wears nothing but a scowl as the taciturn and psychologically scarred human weapon which admittedly is in keeping with the comic-book character’s stony disposition. Then again the out-of-control West does enough emoting for an army of Punishers. With his exaggerated gestures dancing eyebrows and thicker-than-Italian-cheesecake Noo Yawk accent the Brit blasts through War Zone with the destructive force of a rocket-propelled grenade. This is a money gig for West and damnit if he isn’t going to have fun earning his paycheck. The Green Mile’s Hutchinson as Jigsaw’s organ-chewing sibling almost keeps pace with West. Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight does his usual shtick as weapons supplier Microchip. Colin Salmon fills space as a by-the-book lawman pursuing the Punisher. Rambo and Saw V’s Julie Benz -- who obviously can’t say to any sequel or reboot she’s offered -- is wasted as the FBI agent’s widow and the voice of Castle’s conscience. Try counting the ways the Punisher dispatches of his foes. He hangs from a spinning chandelier and sprays a roomful of mobsters with bullets blows up a man leaping between buildings punches his fist through a bad guy’s face sets another on fire and … well we could be here all day. Fair to say director Lexi Alexander’s blood lust drives her to come up with one grisly laugh-inducing death after another. With its Empire State Building-high body count Alexander’s does the impossible and out-Rambos Rambo. And quite frankly it’s everything a Punisher quest for vengeance should be. The 2004 Punisher seemed too disconnected from its source material. Why relocate from New York to Tampa? Or pit the Punisher against a villain from not from the comic book? Or have the Punisher setup Travolta for his fall when he lives by the gun? Jane’s departure paved the way for a reboot that’s closer to the spirit of the comic book and wants nothing more than to be an old-school shoot ’em up like Commando or Lethal Weapon. There isn’t a moment that goes by when you’re not howling at the disgracefully bad dialogue gasping in shock at each and every execution or wondering at just how much more dumb and fun things can get. Alexander the German director who turned sweet little Elijah Wood into a soccer thug in Green Street Hooligans isn’t trying to transcend the comic-book genre á la The Dark Knight. Instead she’s just wants to give us one hell of an adrenaline rush. “This is just the beginning ” Stevenson growls after taking care of business. Let the bodies continue to hit the floor.
Promising journalism student Matt Buckner (Wood) gets tossed out of Harvard for taking a drug rap for his highly privileged roommate the son of a governor. He knows he can't fight the charges so he heads to London to visit his sister (Claire Forlani) who's married and has a child. Their absentee father (Henry Goodman) is a foreign correspondent and Matt can't reach him to tell him of his expulsion. Meanwhile he meets Pete (Hunnam) the crass and unsophisticated brother of his new brother-in-law Steve (Marc Warren). Steve sends Matt off with his brother Pete with a bribe to show him one of England's best cultural event--a football match (that's soccer to us Yanks). That trip results in Matt's involvement in the Green Street Hooligans a gang or "firm " as they're called that supports the local team and pounds each other in violent street battles. Matt learns about camaraderie loyalty machismo and street fighting as well as realizing he can pack a wallop when called upon. He's getting a reputation for being tough but things get more complicated as Matt becomes the sole American in the Hooligans as well as the fact he's hiding that he's a journalist. The firms don't take kindly to the tabloid types.
We know Wood as Frodo Baggins the hobbit of the Lord of the Rings movies and Hunnam is known as the pretty boy from the British version of Queer as Folk and Nicholas Nickleby. But in Green Street Hooligans both of them dirty themselves up a bit. Hunnam is the standout showing his true acting chops with his close-shorn hair and spontaneous mean streak. He's smart and multi-dimensional alternately showing his rough side as a gang fighter and then his sensitive side as a schoolteacher and football coach. Wood isn't nearly as believable as a street thug but he's adept at playing the fish-out-of-water roles. Warren is noteworthy as the brother-in-law with a secret and Leo Gregory puts on quite a performance as a police lieutenant suspicious of Pete. The supporting cast looks like they were taken right off the streets of West Ham.
Director and co-writer Lexi Alexander does a nice job showing the British versions of gangs and their bloody street fights. Americans may be shocked by the senseless violence surrounding a sports franchise (or maybe not) but it's realistic. The British press however are vilifying this film because it's too cleaned up and doesn't accurately show the "yob" subculture. But if Hooligans is viewed for its brutal but effective fight scenes as well as a window into machismo then its not disappointing. It gets a bit corny at times and heads in a predictable direction but it remains captivating partially because of the handheld cinematography by Alexander Buono. The film shows how the sense of belonging and desire to bash heads can become addictive among the guys in the pubs who don't have much to lose.