By David Raether, veteran TV writer and essayist
Back in my fancy-Hollywood-writer-guy days, I had a series of meetings with movie studios about doing what’s called “a punch-up.” Basically, you take a script the studio has already bought and come up with better jokes and sharper dialogue. It’s rewrite work. I took a lot of meetings and ended up doing a few of these fun, reasonably well-paid jobs.
In these meetings, I noticed a couple of things about the movie business. First of all, it was unlike any corporate environment I had ever experienced. The offices were casual; they had crazy artwork on the wall and mountainous piles of scripts stacked up on the desks. Everybody always offered you bottles of water and dressed like they were heading out to Starbucks on a Saturday morning. I remember meeting with one studio executive and thinking to myself, “Dude, you’re 53 years old. Don’t wear red Converse sneakers and cargo shorts. You’re not fooling anyone. Get in your Range Rover, drive home, and come back here dressed like a decent person.” After having spent 15 years in the fairly straight-laced worlds of newspaper and magazine publishing, the leisurely atmosphere of these offices seemed almost laughably posed.
The other thing that struck me was, despite all appearances, the movie business is really old-fashioned. Hollywood (as a name for the American film industry) has been around for more than a hundred years now, and things don’t change quickly in terms of how business gets done. Films are highly speculative ventures, so executives tend to hire people they know or have worked with before. Or who look like them (i.e., white and male).
All of this means that for women and people of color, breaking into the directorial ranks has been notoriously difficult. An American Civil Liberties Union study in 2015 indicated that while half of all film school students are female, only 1.9% of big budget movies are directed by women. Which is an outrageous statistic for an industry that often is accused of being the Bastion of Liberalism.
But things are changing. This past summer’s huge blockbuster hit, Wonder Woman, was the first superhero blockbuster directed by a woman—Patty Jenkins. It’s on its way to $1 billion in global box office sales, and represents an enormous breakthrough for women directors, just as Jordan Peele’s Get Out (and its quarter of a billion global box office) represents a breakthrough for African-American film directors.
Jenkins may be the opening of a tidal wave of women directors, but she didn’t come from nowhere. The past thirty years have seen a number of outstanding films with women at the helm.
Sofia Coppola pulled a brilliant performance out of Bill Murray as a washed-up movie star making TV commercials in Japan in Lost in Translation (2003). Another must-see is director Mira Nair’s lovely interracial romance Mississippi Masala (1991). While you’re at it, check out her equally marvelous Monsoon Wedding (2001).
There are numerous other women directors I could mention, but I’m going to end with one woman who I think is among the best directors in world cinema over the past thirty years, France’s Claire Denis. You absolutely must watch Chocolat (1988) (not the Johnny Depp movie) and Beau Travail (1998). No excuses.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication. You can follow him on Twitter @davidraether.