Female Directors, Still A Scarce Movie Commodity Of the films you saw last year, it's likely that fewer than 10 percent were directed by women — which makes it remarkable that seven movies now in theaters have women's names above the credits.

Female Directors, Still A Scarce Movie Commodity

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Here in California, one of the most male-dominated professions is movie director. Last year, of the 250 top grossing films, fewer than 25 were directed by women, and no woman has ever won an Oscar for directing. But in theaters this week, there is an unusually high number of films made by women: seven.

NPR's Neda Ulaby talked with some of those directors about how they beat the odds.

NEDA ULABY: Movies directed by women in theaters now include the summer's biggest romantic comedy "The Proposal."

(Soundbite of film, "The Proposal")

Mr. RYAN REYNOLDS (Actor): (As Andrew Paxton) Margaret and I are getting married.

ULABY: And a critically acclaimed super-macho movie about U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

Mr. JEREMY RENNER (Actor): (As Staff Sergeant William James) Go.

Mr. ANTHONY MACKIE (Actor): (As Sergeant JT Sanborn) Everybody get back.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Go, go, go.

ULABY: See, "Hurt Locker" has something in common with another movie opening this weekend, a modest, independent film by newcomer Lynn Shelton.

Ms. LYNN SHELTON (Filmmaker): You know, they both are looking at the male psyche but from completely different, you know, angles.

ULABY: Shelton's movie is about a couple of straight guys who decide to make a gay porn movie together.

(Soundbite of film, "Humpday")

Mr. MARK DUPLASS (Actor): (As Ben) I don't think I'm gay. I just thought…

Mr. JOSHUA LEONARD (Actor): (As Andrew) I mean, you're pretty solidly not gay.

Mr. DUPLASS: (As Ben) I think - yeah, I think the same thing about you too. I just, I just…

Mr. LEONARD: (As Andrew) I wish I was more gay.

ULABY: The movie is called "Humpday." It was filmed far off the Hollywood map, in Seattle, land of the handmade and the do-it-yourself ethos. "Humpday" captivated reviewers who call it not a typical broad bromance, but delicate, subversive, even sweet.

Shelton made it with friends on a minuscule budget, and she was shocked as anyone, she says, when a bidding war broke out for her little movie at the Sundance Film Festival.

Ms. SHELTON: If it hadn't worked, nobody needed to be the wiser. It would die a quiet little death off in the hinterlands of Seattle. Nobody would have to know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Shelton financed "Humpday" with grants, sponsorships, even tax-deductible contributions, all tricks learned during her previous career as a visual artist. But before Shelton was an artist, she was an actress. That, she found, did not satisfy all her creative needs.

Ms. SHELTON: I also found the powerlessness of it a little bit bad for my mental health, just waiting to be chosen.

ULABY: When women direct, they're in control, and major Hollywood studios cannot exactly brag about their legacies of female empowerment: Historically, women directors tend to work from outside the traditional studio system.

Director Kathryn Bigelow also came to movies from the art world.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Nice and hot in here.

ULABY: Bigelow directed "The Hurt Locker," the war film about bomb techs in Iraq. "The Hurt Locker" is one of the best reviewed movies out in theaters right now. It's gorgeous, pretty much perfectly acted and almost unbearably suspenseful.

Bigelow says being a woman filming a nearly all-male movie in Jordan was simply not a big deal. She says you don't think about being a lady while you work.

Ms. KATHRYN BIGELOW (Director, "The Hurt Locker"): You've got a four-story-high explosion taking place along an avenue, of which there are, on any given day, there's 250,000 cars. So that begins to take precedence.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

(Soundbite of explosion)

ULABY: Bigelow is known for making action movies: "Blue Steel," "Point Break," "Strange Days." They seem like big studio flicks, but all of them were financed independently then distributed by major studios. Bigelow says she has no idea why still, so few women are given the money to direct major films.

Ms. BIGELOW: You'd have to sit somebody down here and ask them.

ULABY: And by somebody, Bigelow means a studio head, a Hollywood mogul. If you ask Lynn Shelton why there are not more go-to female directors, she also points to the studio heads, and so does Nia Vardalos.

She directed a new romantic comedy called "I Hate Valentine's Day." She stars in it too.

(Soundbite of film, "I Hate Valentine's Day")

Ms. NIA VARDALOS (Actress): (As Genevieve Gernier) I do not want a relationship. They're just an emotional cage that sad couples peak from behind the bars of, looking at all those happy, single people, wondering what fear of being alone made them say I do.

ULABY: Seven years ago, Vardalos created and starred in one of the biggest ever independent film successes.

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was filmed for only around $5 million. It was directed by a man. It brought in a fortune, hundreds of millions. But for the movie she's directing, the budget was less than half of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding's."

Ms. VARDALOS: We were so low budget, we couldn't afford a real director.

ULABY: Vardalos says it's no secret that women directors are treated differently by studios, even sometimes by their own crews. She said she had no sense of being an artiste, entitled to challenge the budget, the number of shooting days or the rules.

Ms. VARDALOS: And one day, my focus puller turned to me and he said: As a female filmmaker, you get one shot, and if you go over budget, that bond company will be in here in a second breathing down your neck. So you're right to keep everybody on the schedule.

ULABY: Nonetheless, Vardalos enjoyed directing for the first time.

Ms. VARDALOS: I'll describe it to you this way. It's like jumping into an orgy while you're still shaving your legs.

ULABY: Of course, first she has to find the orgy or start it by herself and pay for the hotel room.

A very small handful of women do thrive in the studio system, more or less. But for these three extremely different filmmakers — Nia Vardalos, Kathryn Bigelow and Lynn Shelton — they have to be outside, so far.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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