New Book Showcases 15 Groundbreaking Women Directors Changing The Face Of The Film Industry

With recent major Hollywood films like ‘Little Women’, ‘Nomadland’, and ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, women directors are redefining what leaders look like in Hollywood. More and more women are reshaping the film and television industry, proving they can shine behind the camera as much as their male counterparts.

Film Makers: 15 Groundbreaking Women Directors‘ by Lyn Miller-Lachman and Tanisia Moore (Chicago Review Press, Ages 12-18, September 6, 2022) highlights talented and diverse women who have left their mark in this competitive industry. Shonda Rhimes, Chloé Zhao, and Greta Gerwig are just some of the women featured in this inspirational collection.

Although it may seem as if the increased presence of female directors and tipped the scales to be about equal, the actual numbers show we still have a long way to go. A report from January 2022 found that the number of top-grossing films in 2021 directed by women actually decreased. According to the latest Celluloid Ceiling study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, women accounted for 17 percent of directors working on the top 250 films, down from 18 percent the year prior. In the top 100 films, the percentage of women directors also decreased from 16 percent in 2020 to 12 percent in 2021.

But don’t be discouraged just yet. Chloé Zhao’s Best Directing Oscar win in 2021 and Jane Campion’s ‘Power of the Dog’ in 2022 show how powerful representation and visibility are, and how they can go a long way to encouraging others in their wake. And this new book is part of the movement!

Each of the 15 women profiled in ‘Film Makers’ share a common trait: she is, as Shonda Rhimes says, “First. Only. Different.” These phenomenal women have redefined the film and television industry, winning awards historically given to a male counterpart, being the only woman in a writers’ room, or portraying stories no one else could tell. While their resumes are impressive, it is how they live their lives that has made a greater impact in the communities they serve. Young readers will learn of these women’s journeys and their struggles to break into a male-dominated industry.

We had the chance to speak with both Tanisia and Lyn to learn more about the women in film who have inspired them, and what they hope for the next generation of women film makers.

How did the idea for ‘Film Makers: 15 Groundbreaking Women Directors’ initially come about? 

Lyn Miller-Lachman: When we started thinking about this book, Tee and I were represented by the same agent, Jacqui Lipton, and she approached us about writing one of the collective biographies in the Women of Power series, which is focused on contemporary women achievers. I thought about filmmakers right away because I’m a fan of international and indie films and regularly review them on my blog. One of my favorite filmmakers is Ava DuVernay, the director of the documentary ‘The 13th‘, about mass incarceration and racism, the docudramas ‘Selma’ and ‘When They See Us’, and the adaptation of the classic novel ‘A Wrinkle in Time’.

Given Tee’s background as a lawyer and her love of big-budget popular movies – an interest that complements rather than duplicates mine – I approached her about the possibility of co-authoring the book and dividing the entries between us. We came up with a list that reflected the diversity of women in the industry. For those who didn’t make our primary 15 (such as Patty Jenkins and Nia DaCosta), we’ve included sidebars that highlight their careers and major films.

Over the past few years we have seen some groundbreaking movies being made by female directors. What are some of the highlights featured in the book? 

LML: After saying in 2011 that she would never make a feature film because she’d experienced much more freedom directing television series, the award-winning New Zealand-born director Jane Campion released ‘The Power of the Dog’ in 2021. Throughout her career, Jane made bold films about women finding their voice in the face of men who would dominate and silence them, the most famous of which was her 1993 release ‘The Piano’.

Like this earlier film, ‘The Power of the Dog’ takes place on the frontier in an earlier era, but the main characters are two men confronting each other with very different ideas of masculinity, with the fate of a woman hanging in the balance. In this sense, Jane has broadened her exploration of femininity and masculinity into one of wealth and power, how those who have these things (usually men) use their advantage to permanently silence those who don’t.

Tanisia Moore: In 2020, Regina King made her directorial debut with ‘One Night in Miami’. This movie followed an actual night that happened in 1964 after Muhammad Ali—then Cassius Clay— had won against Sonny Liston. Following the boxing match he along with Malcom X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke went to a famous hotel in Miami. No one has record of the conversation between the four men, but it is known that the course of history changed that evening. In the book, we share about how she decided to take on the project and bring this story to life. 

It’s not just the films that are groundbreaking, but also the directors themselves. What are some of the incredible stories we will get to read about in the book? 

LML: One of the mind-blowing stories I read when researching this book has to do with the Chinese-American director Lulu Wang. She was born in Beijing but spent summers with her grandparents and aunt in Changchun, a city in China’s northeastern province of Jilin. Although she moved with her family to the United States at the age of six, she spoke regularly to her grandmother and aunt. In 2013 her aunt told her that her grandmother had terminal lung cancer and only a few months to live – and the family was keeping it a secret from the aunt.

When Lulu told this story on the podcast “This American Life” in 2016, her grandmother was still alive (and still didn’t know about the diagnosis). When Lulu directed her 2019 movie ‘The Farewell’, based on this story and filmed in Changchun with the aunt playing herself, her grandmother was still alive and still didn’t know. Lulu’s grandmother only found out after the movie was released in China under the title ‘Don’t Tell Her’, and some friends finally told her.

TM: Readers will also be introduced to Gina Prince-Bythewood and how she faced rejection throughout her career. I also think adoptees and foster children may find inspiration in her journey. Likewise, readers may enjoy learning how Ava didn’t attend a film school but is one of the most respected filmmakers in the industry. 

What are the current stats on female directors vs men today in Hollywood? And why should we be paying attention to these? 

TM: According to a report done by San Diego State University, in 2021 there were a reported 12% women directors who worked on the top 100 grossing films. This was a steep decline from the previous year when 16% worked on such films. 

We should pay attention to these numbers because they seem to correlate to other behind the scene roles on film sets. For example, Ava is known for hiring a diverse crew to help with her projects. She intentionally hires people of color and women who may not otherwise be given a chance. If we want to see change, it’s important to allow more women to take the lead. The answer may not be as black and white as we think because studios sometimes hire directors and may choose to hire more dominant names.  

A lot of what these women have done is redefine how the film industry works, and who gets hired. Can you explain why this is significant? 

TM: In a word. Diversity. As we mentioned above with what Ava does for her projects. But also take for example, Shonda Rhimes. Kerri Washington, who played Olivia Pope on the hit show ‘Scandal’, shared in an interview about working with Shonda, that it was important for Shonda to normalize differences to be reflective of the world we live in. She was adamant not to use race, sexual orientation, or disabilities as a plot point in order to tell a story. 

Also, Regina King, shared how Shonda gave her an opportunity to learn more about becoming a director through a program put on by ABC. It’s opportunities like that that can help with the hiring within the film industry. Most often, women and in particular women of color do not have the connections or resources to break in. A lot of what the women in this book have done is try to close that gap by hiring people who may not have gotten a chance.

Who were your favorite women and stories to write about, and why? 

LML: I’ve published four historical novels for young readers, including one that’s coming out this November. Titled ‘Torch’, it’s set in Czechoslovakia in 1969, the year after the Soviet invasion that crushed a pro-democracy movement known as the Prague Spring. That novel was inspired by the work of one of the women directors featured in ‘Film Makers’, Agnieszka Holland. Agnieszka has directed three historical films set during the Holocaust and World War II in her native Poland as well as a newer film that takes place in Ukraine during the Soviet terror-famine of the 1930s, ‘Mr. Jones’.

In 2013 she directed the TV miniseries ‘Burning Bush’, which presents a group of people in Czechoslovakia – some real and some invented characters – whose lives are forever changed after the Soviet invasion and the repression that followed. The main characters in the miniseries are adults, but I wanted to write a novel about teenagers, who were just coming into their own and had the most to lose from having their freedom taken away. In a sense, my book was my way of fleshing out stories that ‘Burning Bush’ hinted at while its focus lay elsewhere.

TM: As cliché as it may sound, I was inspired by each of the women I researched. However, I’ll admit that I was partial to the moms in the book. As a mom of three littles, I felt inspired to keep pushing forward. I enjoyed how Gina, Shonda, Regina, and Mindy, never stopped because of their kids. Instead, it was fuel for them to keep going and to be more selective of their time and energy. Also, I loved writing about Issa Rae. I personally got introduced to her brand of storytelling when her show ‘Insecure’ debuted. I think what resonated the most with me is how she just did what needed to be done. She didn’t wait for someone to give her an opening and instead took matters into her own hands.

What have been your favorite female-directed films in recent years? 

LML: With my interest on historical and international films, one that I’d like to highlight is not from one of the 15 directors who have chapters in the book, but from a younger director who I’ve included in a sidebar. ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’, directed by Jasmila Žbanić, hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in the U.S., though it was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best International Film category in 2021.

It’s the story of a teacher in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica who becomes a translator for the United Nations peacekeeping force during the war between Bosnian Muslims and Serbian troops and paramilitaries, who had outnumbered and outgunned the Muslims and were executing all the boys and men over the age of 16. When the Muslims of Srebrenica seek refuge in the UN compound, the teacher/translator Aida tries to save her husband and two sons from being evacuated to certain death by hiding them in the compound. Jasmila herself is a native of Sarajevo, where fighting took place over several years, but she was in the U.S. working with a puppet theater while most of her family remained in the city during the war.

TM: I recently learned that ‘Turning Red’ was directed by a woman named Domee Shi. My kids and I love that movie! I’m sure Pixar will make a full soundtrack with 4Town. I’m also pretty excited to see ‘The Woman King’ directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and ‘Captain Marvel 2’ directed by Nia DaCosta. 

The female gaze is a concept being talked about more. Can you explain why it matters WHO gets to tell stories on screen? 

LML: With women directors, we’re seeing women characters in all their complexity. They are protagonists, not just supporting characters in stereotypical roles. All of these directors draw on lived experience as they create their characters and/or bring them alive through their work with the actors. In each of our biographies, we talk about that lived experience and how their upbringing and major life events are reflected in the stories they bring to life on the screen.

So, for instance, Jane Campion’s theme of repressed women finding their voice grows out of her experience growing up in a theater family, in which her father mistreated and silenced her mother. And Greta Gerwig’s early failures – she was rejected by every graduate school in the arts to which she applied – have inspired her to mentor other women in the industry the way she was mentored, which allowed her to become a screenwriter and director through the back door. 

What do you hope aspiring filmmakers will be inspired by after reading this book? 

LML: I hope this book will inspire you to use film to tell your stories. Technology has made it so much easier to do so, as Lulu Wang’s short film “Nian,” shot using the iPhone, shows.

TM: One thing we want aspiring filmmakers to do is not call themselves “aspiring”. They are filmmakers. Once that decision has been made, it is our hope that they will not wait for someone to give them permission to create their art. Because by waiting on another person, the creative is missing out on building upon their skill set and talent. It won’t be perfect starting out nor should be. But do it anyway. That’s the only way we get better at our art. Also, tell the story that you want to tell. It is easy to want to tell a story that we think will bring us the money and accolades. And while nothing is inherently wrong with that, we can lose a piece of ourselves when we try to cater to what other people want. There is an audience for everyone, so stay true to yourself.

Just like the filmmakers we featured in this book who kept going despite the obstacles they faced along the way, rejection is a part of the process. Don’t let the “no “stop you. Eventually, the right people will take notice and will want to offer up their help. But most of all have fun creating your art!

Click HERE to pre-order your copy of ‘Film Makers: 15 Groundbreaking Women Directors’ by Lyn Miller-Lachman and Tanisia Moore, out September 6, 2022.

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