Hello and welcome to Gaming Respawn’s regular feature, Primal Screen. Every Friday, I’ll take an in-depth look at something in the world of film, TV and video games, ranging from the little details that really make them work to genre-spanning trends. Basically, just whatever’s got me fired up that week. This week, four female directors who really deserve a shot at helming a blockbuster.
You don’t have to look far for Hollywood sexism, leading actresses are finally speaking up about their experiences with male producers and directors, and a quick glance at the credits for most films reveals where women are underrepresented in movies (everywhere). However, the statistics are truly shocking, the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University produces an annual report entitled The Celluloid Ceiling, whose headline stat in 2016 was that women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 grossing films in the US. Just look at directors and the figure falls to 7%, down two percentage points from the 9% recorded in 2015. In this context, the news that Wonder Woman broke the domestic box office record for a female director feels less like a justified reward for an entertaining movie and more like an indictment of Hollywood sexism. Equally damningly, with Wonder Woman Patty Jenkins became only the second woman to direct a live action film with a budget of over $100m, joining Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: The Widowmaker) in a depressingly elite club. Thankfully, there are signs that this desperate situation is slowly changing, with Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife) directing a live action Mulan adaptation, Selma’s Ava DuVernay handling the 2018 adaptation of the 1963 science fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time, and The Secret Life of Bees writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood taking charge of Silver & Black (a Spider-Man spin-off movie that will centre on Silver Sable and Black Cat). With this in mind, here are four female directors who would make distinctive blockbusters.
An Oscar winner for her 2008 masterpiece, The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow is one of the most talented filmmakers of our generation. As noted in the intro, she has handled a blockbuster before, but K-19: The Widowmaker was released back in 2002 and, despite a budget of $100m, was arguably an independent film (it was financed by National Geographic Partners, a joint venture between The National Geographic Society and 21st Century Fox). It received a somewhat muted critical and audience reaction, but since then, Bigelow’s filmmaking has improved immeasurably; working with her regular screenwriter Mark Boal, she’s taken on bomb disposal in the Iraq war with The Hurt Locker, the torturous hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty and will shortly bring to screen a film based on the notorious 1967 Detroit riots. Her work is marked by a keen interest in character, such as the fragile masculinity and flawed mental state of the bomb disposal experts in The Hurt Locker or the single-minded obsession that fuels Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty, but she has also handled some superb action scenes (including relentlessly kinetic surfing and skydiving sequences in 1992’s Point Break or the climactic raid on Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty). She would, therefore, be the perfect fit for an intelligent action film that truly cares about its characters and is, quite frankly, too good for the indie Hollywood bubble that she currently seems to be installed in. This is not a criticism of the films she makes, they’re smart, funny, visually arresting and really probe their protagonists, but they’re only seen by a relatively small audience of arthouse film fans. For the sake of cinema, she deserves a bigger canvas.
Another Oscar winner (in this case for her 2003 short Wasp), Arnold made her name with gritty portrayals of life in the urban landscape, most notably the tower blocks and dark spaces of her 2006 feature debut Red Road and the suburban council estate that hosted the action in 2009’s Fish Tank. The two films were very different, but both showcased Arnold’s characteristic style of in-your-face filmmaking, the viewer thrust right into the middle of the action, a surrogate protagonist rather than a detached observer. Eyebrows were raised, therefore, when she took on Wuthering Heights in 2011. How would such a verité style suit a period drama? What Arnold produced was unlike any period drama that had gone before, stripping the story down to a tale of love and prejudice on the North Yorkshire Moors and filming the whole thing in an expressionist style that conveyed the chaotic emotional states of the protagonists. It was a bruising, physical piece of cinema, a whirling kaleidoscope of darkness and light where the setting almost became a character, a raw force of nature that both reflected and shaped the love story between Cathy and Heathcliff.
In 2016, her palette broadened further, and she inched closer towards the mainstream with American Honey, a coming-of-age road movie that followed a misfit group of magazine sellers as they partied, fought and fucked across the Midwest and which starred Shia LaBeouf, Sasha Lane and Riley Keough. Again, while character is at the heart of the movie, Arnold’s passion for landscape shone through, this time showcasing the US’s technicolor intensity and wide open spaces. With her career seemingly defined by a desire to constantly widen her output and try new things (most recently, Arnold directed three episodes of the Amazon series Transparent and four episodes of a Kevin Bacon vehicle called I Love Dick), helming a blockbuster seems like a natural, eventual next step, and whatever story she tackled, Arnold would be guaranteed to make a distinctive, personal film that stood in contrast to the identikit nature of so many big-budget movies.
Sofia Coppola recently celebrated another success in the world of cinematic gender equality, becoming only the second woman to win best director at the Cannes film festival in 71 years (you’re unlikely to have heard of the first, Russian Yuliya Solntseva, who won in 1961 for Chronicle of Flaming Years). Coppola won for The Beguiled, a Southern Gothic Civil War tale of a wounded Union soldier who’s taken in by a girls school and soon seduces the girls there, leading to rivalry, tension and violence. It’s the latest stop on an eclectic cinematic career that’s taken in period drama (Marie Antoinette), urban anomie (Lost in Translation), suburban desperation (The Virgin Suicides), and the mansions and parties of Hollywood celebrities (The Bling Ring). Given that she grew up as the daughter of cinematic icon Francis Ford Coppola, it’s perhaps unsurprising that celebrity is something of an overarching theme in her work. Lost in Translation featured Bill Murray as a famous actor who’s sunk to endorsing whisky in Japan, her 2010 film Somewhere revolved around Stephen Dorff as a relatively aimless movie star whose life is redefined by the sudden visit of his 11-year-old daughter, The Bling Ring concerned teenage thieves who robbed the celebrities they idolised and attempted to live out their fantasies, and even Marie Antoinette ties into this theme of exploring the private lives of public individuals. While not readily associated with a particular cinematic style, Coppola always brings a unique perspective to her work and has written the screenplay for every film she’s handled; indeed, she won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for her Lost in Translation script. This desire for creative control has already led to issues on one blockbuster, Coppola eventually leaving the live action remake of The Little Mermaid due to differences of opinion over casting and approach. It’s understandable that movie studios get uncomfortable when budgets soar and are, therefore, scared of creative risks on blockbuster movies , but Coppola has surely earned the right to be properly backed on a major project. The results could be spectacular.
Lesli Linka Glatter
Lesli Linka Glatter is not a household name, but in an era where TV is being given greater critical respect than ever before, arguably she should be. Currently, her primary role is acting as an executive producer and director on Homeland, but in her lengthy TV career, she’s directed shows including Mad Men, Twin Peaks, The West Wing, Freaks and Geeks, The Walking Dead, True Blood, ER and Ray Donovan (and that really is just a sample, her IMDB page lists practically every decent show in the last 25 years). She’s also been nominated for four directing Emmies, two for Mad Men and two for Homeland, helmed two feature films (Now and Then and The Proposition) and numerous TV movies. Despite her extensive back catalog, before even getting involved in TV and movies, Linka Glatter spent a decade travelling the world as a dancer/choreographer, an experience that, according to Homeland star Claire Danes, gave her a special understanding of time and space and how to handle dynamic scenes. While Linka Glatter insists that she doesn’t view TV as the lesser medium, film is still viewed by most as more prestigious, and it’s a real shame that Hollywood hasn’t taken greater notice of her skills up to now. Her vast experience means that she can handle everything from huge action scenes to the one-room setup of a sitcom, and it would be fascinating to see what she could do if given the chance to helm a blockbuster.