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Jodie Foster, Tracee Ellis Ross, and More Women Directors on Breaking Down Barriers

The numbers tell the story: In the past television season, women accounted for 21% of episodic TV directors — 16% white and a mere 5% women of color. That’s compared with 62% for white men and 17% for men of color. The statistics are moving in the right direction — it’s a double-digit increase over the previous year — but 50-50 parity is still far in the future.

Yet some of this season’s most compelling installments featured women behind the camera — whether they filmed an entire season or took the chair for the first time. “It’s having that passion in a story you feel committed to tell that’s essential. No matter how long you’ve been doing this, you’re reinventing the wheel every time you start a new project,” says longtime director Lesli Linka Glatter. “I don’t think you can ever feel arrogant about it, no matter how long you’ve been doing it, because you’re always starting over again in some way.”

Variety gathered several top helmers with a range of directing experiences: Pamela Adlon (“Better Things”), Jodie Foster (“Black Mirror”), Linka Glatter (“Homeland”), Mary Harron (“Alias Grace”), Helen Hunt (“Feud,” “Splitting Up Together”), Melina Matsoukas (“Insecure”) and Tracee Ellis Ross (“Black-ish”). What ensued was a frank, funny discussion about the challenges they’ve faced, the barriers that lie ahead and what they’ve learned along the way.

There’s been a lot of conversation lately about the lack of parity for female directors. What can we do to create more opportunities for women?

Melina Matsoukas: For me, it’s about the conversation, and when a door opens for you, opening it for somebody else. Having these kinds of connections and networks, where we can support each other, so that we don’t feel like we’re in competition with each other — because I think we all have very specific and singular voices that are all so important — and that we support each other with those voices. I think it’s just about bringing the next generation up, and also crewing, and being very conscious of that and making sure everybody that you bring into this family has a priority to bring in other women and other people of color. I think that’s something you can do tomorrow.

Helen Hunt: I haven’t yet directed an episode of TV without a female mentee. At least you feel like, if you get nothing else right, you’ve left that on the field.

Lesli Linka Glatter: I think if you’re in a position to hire, you need to be really conscious of that, and grab the hand of the next generation, because that’s the only way this is going to become a nonissue, which is what it needs to be. When I started directing, if I thought we’d still be discussing this in 2018, I would’ve said,“Absolutely not.” And the fact that it is still an issue is just staggering. But I do think things are changing; it’s the first time I really feel they’re changing. For me, it’s about an equal playing field. It shouldn’t be harder for our daughters to direct than for our sons. It should be the same; it’s difficult for everyone. Let’s make it equally difficult.

Pamela Adlon: But it’s true about crewing. The No. 1 thing is education. Look around this room. Every single camera except one is manned by a guy. Sorry, no offense, but I’m just saying! In Season 3 of my show, I said, “I need a female key grip. There is no fucking way that this doesn’t exist.” There are so many jobs that young women don’t know about. My focus puller, my camera department — I just want people to learn about the jobs that are available. Why is it a guy thing?

Tracee Ellis Ross: I do think some of it has to do with the fact that we are still fighting against a system that makes little girls grow up to dream of their wedding and not of the many, many things that they could do in the world, and how they’re going to shape their lives and what kind of life they want to be living, and what they want to do with their hands, and they want to do with their minds. I think that’s part of what is changing. And then we support with, OK, and here are the places you can go.

Mary Harron: It makes great difference to the chemistry of the set. When I started directing at BBC, there were no women. It was a lot of talented but grumpy guys, and you would have to deal with an entrenched perspective.

Glatter: On “Homeland,” our crew is very 50-50. Of course, it’s an action show, a character show with a lot of action and politics. But you come on the set, and you’re like, “Wow,” because 50-50 feels very female, because we’re so used to it being so out of balance.

Jodie Foster: When I grew up, I never saw another female face. Little by little, things did change, and when it did change, I think the crews were so much happier. It used to be me and a whole bunch of guys somewhere. They didn’t see their families, they didn’t see their wives and their kids, and it was like being in a boys’ camp. I don’t think that it was some kind of conspiracy, where there was a secret handshake about it. I think it was just nobody was thinking.

As a director it never occurred to me to seek out women crew members. I sought out the guys that I worked with, the guys that I knew that I thought were doing great work. I’m almost ashamed of that, until recently where I realized that we actually do have to make an effort. It isn’t just going to happen because you think it’s wrong and then you don’t change anything. You actually have to make an effort to allow women to have those first jobs.

What were some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced, and how did you get past them? 

Hunt: I find now I get calls about episodic TV, and then I meet on a pilot and the producers say, “There’s football in the scene — can you … ?” I’m like, “I can do this.” Or someone said, “This might be good; you don’t have to blow anything up.” I’m like, “I can blow things up.” I understand it: If I’m writing a pilot, this is a big deal. You want to feel like you’re giving it to someone [who knows]. But I think there might be something going on in their thinking of what it means to hand that to a woman. I think there might be a hiccup. Maybe I even have the hiccup, I don’t know. But I could feel when it’s staring at me.

Foster: It’s gender-biased psychology. It’s so entrenched that we even have it too. That cultural shift is slow to happen, but it happens through a learning process. Women directors are seen as a risk, and I don’t really understand why.

Adlon: Because we get our periods!

Glatter: You’ve probably had this, probably been told, “We hired a woman once, and it didn’t work.” You would never say, “We hired a guy once; it didn’t work.”

Hunt: “I wore a striped blouse once, then I got in a car accident.”

Harron: I think the hardest thing, I always feel as a female director I wasn’t allowed to fail. Every single movie has to do well. And if it doesn’t do well, suddenly you just feel your star drop. Whereas I do feel a male director would stay level. “Oh, give them a couple of movies, let them just work it out, they’re so good.” I think the thing that I’ve learned to fight with is not internalizing that. I don’t think that men blame themselves the same way that we do if a film doesn’t do well.

Foster: I have found that sometimes producers, in a difficult situation, if they lob something at me that’s horrible and nasty, I think they have two expectations. One is I’m going to cry and say: “You’re right. Oh, my God, I’m sorry!” Or that I will bully back and punch them in the face. Those are the two expectations that they have. One is a very typically gender-specific masculine idea; the other one is a very feminine idea. I don’t do either of those.

Harron: Part of what we have to do is open up the idea on set of what a director is. They don’t necessarily walk around yelling, shouting out lenses.

“I always feel as a female director I wasn’t allowed to fail. Every single movie has to do well.”
Mary Harron

Hunt: I know when I know nothing else, my job is to say, “In this scene, she has to get one step more fired up.” If you have that, I think you’re doing your job.

Matsoukas: I think the way to change that is with the content. If the content demands a woman to have this voice because she understands the story better, then they’re going to see that.

Glatter: I also don’t think stories are gender-related. Men have directed women wonderfully in romantic comedies. If a woman is interested in directing an action piece or a comic book movie, that’s fantastic. I remember directing a pilot years ago, and it didn’t work. The network made us hire an actress who was totally wrong for the role, yet that’s who they wanted, so they basically said, “If you don’t cast her, it’s never going to happen.” So you end up casting the person that every instinct tells you not to, and of course it didn’t work, because she was the wrong person for the role. And I got black-balled. So how do you dig yourself out of that?

Matsoukas: How did you?

Glatter: Tenacity. “No” cannot be a possibility. And you have to just keep moving forward, and go on the meetings again. I think I developed something that got made, a pilot got made, it was successful. It wasn’t easy, it took a while.

What’s your process as a director? How do you approach material?

Glatter: I plan everything, and then I hope magic will happen. I hope something will happen that I’ve never thought of alone in a room.

Matsoukas: I always base a story on the research. I just dive into a time, the characters, the story, the colors, the art, the history of whatever story I’m trying to tell, the architecture. And then from there, a painting kind of comes alive, and I have a vision for how to tell that story. I prepare myself in that way, and then I do a shot list, and storyboards, and overly prepare, and then get on set and it stays in my pocket usually, but I know I have that confidence if I need to go back into it. And then still trying to be open to seeing when you’re on set, because that is where the magic happens, things that you would never expect to happen.

Harron: It’s funny because I do a lot of preparation, a lot of research, and I work out a visual plan. But I actually hate that. I hate to storyboard. I’ll do it for an action sequence or something involved in visual effects, but it’s not my strong point. I realize that I come from a very different mentality, and I’ve had to fight and get confidence in myself that I work in a different way.

Glatter: There’s no right way.

Hunt: You have to plan sometimes just to have the right toys there.

Adlon: I don’t shot-list my show, “Better Things,” in particular because it’s very fluid. So I mean, my whole thing when I came into my own as a director was these “oners,” and I would just get off on “Everybody keep going! Twenty minutes, let’s go!” And then I’d be devastated because it would be a beautiful oner, but the show can only be 20 fucking minutes long, so you’re like, “I can’t have this sequence; I’ve got to cut into it.” But I do an enormous amount of prep, because Season 2 was 39½ days, all on location, 10-plus pages a day, cross-boarded, four to five pieces of episodes a day. I was in every episode.

Hunt: Ten episodes? I’m doing the math. That’s four days a week?

Adlon: Yes. Two countries, two crews, five Steadicam operators, and I only went over 12 hours three days, maybe two, that I know of. I’m only saying this — not to brag — I’m saying it because I feel like this is a female skill. You don’t waste time. Also, it’s a mother thing.

Hunt: The mother thing!

Adlon: I’m a single mom, and I don’t want to mess around. I don’t want to take marrow out of the crew. I remember being an actor and being on a set, reporting to work at noon on a Friday and at 11:30 Friday night, they’re like, “We still have eight more scenes,” and you’re like, “None of you people have families or kids or anything? Seriously?” But, for me, being able to know that your crew’s OK [means] taking care of your crew. I feed my crew four times a day. My craft service person is just as important as anybody else on the crew. The last thing I ever want to do is give another actor direction. When I was a teenager I was doing a play, and I asked a kid to push a shopping cart faster, and he threw a chair at my head. I was like, “OK, check, not giving anybody any acting tips.” And now I have to do it.

Hunt: I like it when a director gives me direction.

Adlon: I love it, but as an actor, it’s anathema to me to give an actor an adjustment, so now I have all these world-class actors who come and work with me. I let them come in; let’s see what they do. I don’t marry myself to a voice in my head even if I wrote it. I just want them to come in with their bag of gifts — that’s the greatest thing. And then, with my crew, I’m like, “Luke, what’s that lens I like?” And he’s like, “You like the 30 for this.” That’s the way I’m learning. All of the technical things that will come.

Ross: I actually asked a lot of questions. The best note I got, because I didn’t know what things were called — the best note that I got was make sounds and use your hands. I did so much of that, and it totally worked, and then by the end of the scene, I knew what that thing was called. And on our show, the thing that’s fascinating is so much of the comedy is told through the editing. I think that that challenge is what I found really exciting, is how do you think of the story before, and how you’re going to tell it through shots so that when you get in the editing room, it’s in there. I found that to be the most exciting puzzle. Especially when I was in scenes: Don’t do that!

Adlon: I can’t help it!

Foster: I always have this idea that film school would’ve been fabulous because you would’ve been running around with a camera with your friends and all of that, but basically you’re just learning equipment and tools in order to do what you all learned anyway in the midst of that.

Matsoukas: Education is never over. I’m constantly learning. What I feel like I need to work on is how I work with actors and how I give those notes.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started out?

Glatter: I think I used to worry about everything equally, including things I had no control over, like whether it would rain. I could worry about the rain for a very long time. I think one of the things now is that I will worry about things I can actually have an impact on. But the things I can’t, I don’t spend a lot of time on. I love accidents. It’s just an opportunity for something amazing to happen.

Harron: I wish I’d known that the technical stuff is just a means to an end, and if you don’t know it, you just ask somebody, and that there is an entire team of people there who know it better than you ever will. You simply have to know what you want.

Hunt: I did a movie with Nancy Meyers 20 years ago, and I remember her saying, however the [executives] were pounding on her, what I remember her saying is, “You’ve hired me to land this plane safely.” So I’m very open and collaborative, and I feel like I have a really good “I’m not sure what to do — what do you think?” while secretly holding on to my plan. But to also always have that muscle of, at the end of the day, “You’ve hired me to do this.”

Glatter: And you have to trust that.

Adlon: I wish I’d done more sit-ups.

 

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