Inside look: The Hollywood Reporter Female Directors Issue

Inside look: The Hollywood Reporter

En route from New York to L.A., I sat beside a film producer. As you do. Her fear of flying quashed by several glasses of wine, she told me she had made her start at age 23 as Ridley Scott's assistant. I didn't want to press on: I imagined she'd be the sort who gets a lot of eager, opportunistic types wanting to push paper her way ('Hey, maybe you can get Ridley to read my stuff or my friend's stuff or my friend of a friend's stuff?!'). It must be dispiriting to be wanted and admired and celebrated for your job and connections and not for who you are. But I did overhear a conversation she had about being on-set and ogling the boys and how fun it is when the shoe is on the other foot.

In an industry that is not altogether kind to women – that sees actresses expire way before their male counterparts, where gutsy roles for older women have been thin on the ground (thin being an all-too-familiar operative world) – there's hope of progress on this front. While Anna Wintour has put Meryl Streep on the cover of her magazine (a 62-year-old woman on Vogue? Hard to believe we're celebrating that in 2011, but there you go), Geena Davis' Institute on Gender in Media is also making educational inroads. Still, at the top end, where decisions and films get made, there's still a great divide.

According to the latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter, which takes women directors as its theme, just 13.4% of the Director's Guild members are female. Still, the issue showcases a range of women making significant contributions to the screen, which undoubtedly has repercussions for how women see themselves in the world: their stories, their dreams, their bodies.

Angelina Jolie and director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2) grace the cover and inside banter with Pamela McClintock about their projects and the macho movie industry. The story gives me a new respect for Jolie, who is still just 36 years old and a first-time director. "I hid my name from the script when it went out because it was important to get a genuine reaction," she says of her Bosnian war film In the Land of Blood and Honey.

Jolie credits Nelson with bringing "an extra level of elegance and humanity" to Kung Fu Panda 2. Nelson says there is no room for ego on set: "When people feel safe, they can come up with ideas... If the actor doesn't feel it's right, that's when you say, 'OK, let's find something else'."

Feminising film sets; being unafraid to exercise your God-given female qualities in the work place regardless of the culture – indeed, railing against the culture? I LOVE this idea.

Of course, there are still practical disadvantages. Jolie shares that she worked on her script when her kids slept or were in class:

"Halfway through some of the most horrific scenes, I'd hear, 'Mommy, I need another story, I can't go to sleep,' and so I'd pause what I was doing and go tell happy stories about bunny villages. I studied a lot about the war, and watched a lot of documentaries... [The kids] know that mommy, on occasion, goes off to Libya or other places. I make them very conscious of the fact that there are a lot of people struggling through different things, and I don't protect them from the fact that war isn't a video game, it's a very, very horrible thing."

The Nelson/Jolie story is followed by short profiles of five other female filmmakers: Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground), Dee Rees (Pariah), Phyllidia Lloyd (The Iron Lady), Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) and Patty Jenkins (Thor 2).

Farmiga, who starred in Up in the Air for which she got an Oscar nomination, moonlighted as director on her film while also starring in it. The film's about a born-again Christian who starts to question her faith. At one point, reports, Pamela McClintock, "a male director was attached to the project and was uncomfortably psyched about casting bikini-clad actresses for a waterfall scene. Farmiga quit the film, but returned when he vacated the director's seat." While the scene was cut, she made sure to "cast the most dimply, chubby women I could find."

That's POWER!

But then... while she says, "the proportion of films being made by women is disgustingly low", she knows she's "butting up against the glass ceiling as an actress because of her age."

She's 38! Madness.

Lloyd, meanwhile, who also made Mama Mia!, says only a female team could have made The Iron Lady. "The film is a genre-buster. People anticipate a biopic, which it just isn't... It's really a film about power and loss of power. Meryl calls it King Lear for girls." She adds: "Women are being given the opportunity on the independent circuit, but there are very few who are given the reins of a big studio movie. I don't think it's necessarily a lack of faith in the vision of a woman, it's just not trusting them with the big pot of cash. On the other hand, it could be – and I feel this myself – that women are drawn to the kind of stories that don't fit into an automatic pre-packaged genre."

Scafaria, 33, directed her first film in 2011 – Seeking a Friend for the End of the World starring Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley – after writing the screenplay for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Part of 'The Fempire', a group of four female film writers including Diablo Cody, Dana Fox and Liz Meriwhether, who started writing together at each other's houses but "got real fancy" and now have an office. Jenkins, meanwhile, didn't see her gender as an issue. "I have a long love of superhero films...The Marvel guys are so brace in terms of who they choose overall, and I don't think they had any pause about me being a woman."

The women directors portfolio rounds out with 'The Femmes to Watch', a list of contemporary film luminaries including Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), Jane Campion (Bright Star), Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), Mira Nair (Vanity Fair), Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Lone Scherfig (An Education), Sam Taylor Wood (Nowhere Boy) and Tanya Wexler (Hysteria).

All this culminates in 'The Power 100' Women in Entertainment list, which puts Anne Sweeney, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group in the number one place (for three straight years) followed by Amy Pascal (co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment) and Bonnie Hammer (chairman, NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment).

This is not to dismiss the unique talents, attributes and vision that can help bring a film's vision to fruition when men and women work together. The feature spread 'Making of The Help' was a wonderful visual and textual surprise, detailing filmmaker Tate Taylor's journey in taking Kathryn Stockett's novel to the screen.

"It involved standing firm when major studios tried to pry the book from him; persuading DreamWorks that this man – who had made only one short and an $800,000 feature, 2008's Pretty Ugly People – could handle a $25 million period piece; convincing the Mississippi legislature to throw in almost $3 million; and borrowing $10,000 from actress Allison Janney so that he could avoid foreclosure," writes Stephen Galloway. He also borrowed money from his dad.

What we get is a portrait of a man driven by his heart's desire – to bring a story he experienced, in his own way, to life – as well as a series of events (such as producer Chris Columbus' wife reading the script and telling him he'd be crazy to pass on the project) that saw a team come together who wholeheartedly supported his talents and Stockett's vision despite the odds.

"Companies such as Sony, Universal, Warner Bros. and Summit Entertainment toyed with the project but never signed on," writes Galloway. "Then DreamWorks stepped in. CEO Stacey Snider (who reveals they're now working on a feature about Martin Luther King Jnr.) had loved the book; reading Taylor's script, she was equally impressed." Then, a meeting with Steven Spielberg. And the green light. Whoopee!

Further insight comes via a section titled 'The Screenwriters', which includes Todd McCarthy's piece on 2011's screen adaptations and the challenges they posed: "Sometimes, fidelity to a well-known text was paramount; in other cases, it was boiling down massive books or making reams of specialised information digestible to a mainstream cinema audience." Oddly, given the notoriety of screen adaptations compared to their novel roots, McCarthy pays tribute to The Descendents: "it turned a fair-to-middling novel into a far superior film," he writes.

This feature is accompanied by 'The Feinberg Scorecard', penned by film blogger Scott Feinberg, showcasing 'Adapted' and 'Original' movies, and is followed by 'How Top Screenwriters Hone Their Craft', which includes enlarged quotes from writers including Kristen Wigg, co-writer and star of Bridesmaids.

"Bridesmaids was our first screenplay," she says. "I knew how scripts worked, but I didn't know what should generally happen on page 30, or in three acts, so we bought one of Syd Fields' books on screenwriting... There are a lot of sad moments in the film, which we really wanted. In the end, the story is the most important thing. It's story first and funny second."

The Hollywood Reporter is chockers full of ads taken out by film companies 'For Your Consideration'; that is, for votes in the upcoming awards season. Soon Tinsel Town will celebrate the Critics' Choice Awards (January 12), the Golden Globes (January 15), the SAGs (January 29) and the Academy Awards (February 26). These include a one-page ad for We Need to Talk About Kevin and its leading lady Tilda Swinton.

Let's hear if for the girls (and the boys who help bring their stories to the world) this awards season!

Girl With a Satchel