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Women film directors

by Douglas Eby

"I never realized that there weren't any women role models. 
I just thought, Oh, director, I'll be that."

 An acclaimed director of TV commercials, Leslie Smith recently sold her first screenplay for a feature film, which she's going to direct. A graduate from Art Center College of Design (Pasadena, CA), she says only recently has she thought about this lack of role models. 

When Smith was starting out, Barbra Streisand had just directed "Yentl" and became one of the first women to direct a feature. "And she was not very well accepted in the film community," Smith recalls.

There are more efforts now to encourage women, and Leslie notes The Directors Guild has a mentor program for women and minorities.

Several women directors have commented on their lives and careers.

Betty Thomas ("28 Days"; "Doctor Dolittle") has said she thinks directing "is a woman's job. You don't have to lift anything. All you do is use your brain and sort of coddle everybody. You get the crew.. the actors.. everyone to do what you want. Which is a very 'feminine' thing to have happen. It's a great women's job."

Director Allison Anders (episodes of "Sex and the City" and films including "Grace of My Heart") commented about leading her small production company: "They say I'm the heartbeat, which I think is pretty cool. I feel women actually are far more suited to directing than men, because we're more oriented to synthesis. Especially if you've been a mother, you have to do ten things at a time, and that's the kind of mindset you have to be in as a director."

Caroline Thompson has screenwriting credits for the films "Edward Scissorhands and "The Secret Garden" and directed "Black Beauty." She noted in our interview about directing "Buddy" that the film community is an "odd" one to work in: "Because when you're hot, everybody loves you; when you're cold, everybody shuns you. And if you start to take that personally, you're really in trouble.

"What supports me is that I love my work. That's what keeps me going. A director's life has many wonderful things in it... but if you crave a life, as well as an artistic life, it's a really tough one. So for me, just turning away from being a director, to write for a while, is really important just so I can feel grounded again."

She also feels having a resilient attitude about other people's opinions is helpful, even necessary: "The thing that has really allowed my creativity to flourish is a belief that I have nothing to lose, no expectations, so it's given me a tremendous amount of freedom. There's no harm in trying; they can only laugh at you, and it's probably a badge of honor when they do." 

Another example: Mimi Leder, who developed a strong reputation as an "action director" on the TV series "E.R." was picked by Steven Spielberg to direct "The Peacemaker" which she followed with "Deep Impact" and "Pay It Forward." 

When I asked her about whether being a woman helps maintain emotional intensity in filmmaking, Leder responded, "I could say, 'Of course it does' -- and I'm a very emotional person -- but then I can't say I'm more emotional than another director, a male director. I can't say that because I'm female I have stronger emotions. There are a lot of male directors out there who have very strong emotions."

Sofia Coppola has said that directing "The Virgin Suicides" was "so consuming you can't do a lot of other things. But I definitely want to continue because it combines all these things that I like, photography and designing."

Leslie Smith doesn't thinks her career development is especially different because she is a woman, she says: "For me, it's been just really believing in myself, and knowing that I'm good, and that what's being done out there -- I could be doing that, and that I'm as good as anybody else doing it, and I should have the opportunity. Maybe I've had to work harder to make that opportunity, but I think it's by having that sort of vision and clarity and confidence, that I've made it happen. And I don't know that that is gender-specific. It's just knowing yourself and having confidence and wanting something.

"And I think creativity is something you practice with yourself, and it's a part of you. It's when you go to plan a meal, when you go to pick out an outfit, when you see light hitting the street and a shop window a certain way. It's just something you keep your eyes open to, and it's a non-tangible piece of you that's just there, that you have to let explore, and let move and grow."

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books:

Women Directors by Barbara Koenig Quart

My First Movie : Twenty Celebrated Directors Talk About Their First Film, by Stephen Lowenstein

organization: Women In Film

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