Though the world’s film directing ranks are still unarguably over-stuffed with men, that disappointing imbalance is slowly, encouragingly starting to tilt, as the fine work of these bold, daring, and keenly intelligent female directors – all under the age of forty – excitingly and amply demonstrates.
While probably best known for her sassy turn in the 1999 cult hit, Go, and her surprising decision to topline Zack Snyder’s excellent 2004 horror remake, Dawn Of The Dead, 36-year-old actress, Sarah Polley, has a literal armoury of guns-blazing work (My Life Without Me, The Secret Life Of Words, The Weight Of Water, The Claim, Don’t Come Knocking, Guinevere, Splice) that would put most Oscar winning actresses to shame. Though performing since the age of six, and a well-known and divisive figure in her native Canada, Polley’s true calling might just be as a writer/director. After four well received shorts behind the camera, Polley made a striking debut in 2006 with Away From Her, the heartrending story of a longtime loving couple confronted with the intimate horrors of Alzheimer’s Disease. Polley followed that in 2011 with Take This Waltz (a wonderfully against-the-grain look at infidelity) and the remarkable 2012 documentary, Stories We Tell, in which she bravely navigates her own family’s complicated history. “I found out that I’m a lot tougher than I thought, but I also discovered things that I didn’t like about myself,” Polley told FilmInk in 2006 of her move into directing. “When you’re making a film, no matter how smooth it goes, you’re basically in an emotional crisis all the time. You find out who you are in a crisis, and it’s sometimes not that flattering. I found out that I’m a complete control freak! I had absolutely no idea! The people in my life were probably less surprised to figure that out than I was, but I was a little shocked by it!”
2014’s touching, finely crafted low budget Aussie drama, 52 Tuesdays – about a teen dealing with her mother’s gender reassignment – announced two major talents in the form of dazzling young actress, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, and 37-year-old filmmaker, Sophie Hyde. This gifted Adelaide writer and director (who also co-runs the innovative production company, Closer Productions) lit up the festival circuit with the film, snagging The World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award at The Sundance Film Festival, and The Crystal Bear at The Berlin Film Festival for her soulful and unconventional feature debut. An ambitious experiment, 52 Tuesdays goes against the grain in both plot and creation, with Hyde shooting the film piecemeal-style, one day a week for a year. “We had no idea what was going to happen next, just like in life,” Tilda Cobham-Hervey told FilmInk. “This gave the film a strong authenticity.” As well as this authenticity, 52 Tuesdays is also nothing short of an emotional tour de force. “I hope that the audience will feel moved,” Hyde told FilmInk at Sundance, where 52 Tuesdays made its first big international splash. “I hope that they will have a chance to reflect on their own lives and experiences in their relationships. I hope that they will feel immersed inside a world with these characters, and feel that they are seeing the inside worlds of other people – people who they might not necessarily think at the outset that they have a connection to, but in the end, they surely do. I hope that their attention will be drawn to time, and how it keeps moving through our dramas and domesticities and lives.”
ANA LILY AMIRPOUR
“Ana Lily Amirpour is the next Quentin Tarantino,” said Eddy Moretti, the creative director of Vice Media, the uber-hip company that picked up the director’s debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, for distribution in the US. It’s high praise indeed, but the genre bending sensibilities of the British-born, Miami-and-California-raised, Iranian-heritage writer/director (who cites David Lynch, Lars Von Trier, Robert Zemeckis, Steven Soderbergh, and the aforementioned Mr. Tarantino as her cinematic touchstones) certainly warrant it. Based on her own graphic novel, the dreamy, black-and-white film has been tagged “the first Iranian vampire Western”, and is set in the Iranian ghost town of Bad City (the film was actually shot in southern California, but unspools entirely in Persian), which is the unlikely home to a skateboard-riding, hijab-wearing vampire anti-hero (Sheila Vand) who fang-bangs a succession of morally unsound men against a stunningly surreal visual backdrop. “[Vice Media co-creative director] Danny Gabai saw the film at The Sundance Film Festival and just loved it,” A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night co-producer, Sina Sayyah, told FilmInk this year. “He said, ‘Please, this is the one film that I want to get on top of out of Sundance!’ It has helped tremendously in getting the film out there, and getting eyes and audiences in front of it.” The film already has Ana Lily Amirpour marked as the next too-cool-for-school female filmmaker to watch, and she has excitingly described her next project, The Bad Batch, as “a cannibal love story set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in Texas. It’s Road Warrior meets Pretty In Pink with a dope soundtrack.” Stand back…
“Usually the most relatable female character with the wittiest sense of humour and the most interesting face in movies is relegated to the best friend role, and I often wish those movies were actually about them,” writer/director, Gillian Robespierre, told Filmmaker Magazine. The 37-year-old helmer – who began her career as a production assistant on big budget features like American Gangster – made that switch happen with her 2009 short film, Obvious Child, which she eventually expanded into her 2014 feature debut of the same name. Robespierre savvily and ingeniously subverts the romantic comedy genre with her winning, highly contemporary tale of Brooklyn stand-up comic, Donna Stern (Parks And Recreation’s Jenny Slate), who slaves in a failing bookstore by day and hilariously overshares on stage at night. Down in the dumps, Donna hooks up with handsome, homespun Max (Jake Lacy) for a one night stand, only to end up pregnant and contemplating an abortion. Despite the tough subject matter, the laughs come thick and inventively fast, with Robespierre instantly shaping as a big time comic talent. “Comedy can be found in difficult situations,” she replied when asked by Filmmaker Magazine about crafting a lighter take on the hot-button topic of abortion. “There are romantic and comedic elements throughout the story, not specifically the abortion. I know that it’s a serious issue, an emotional issue, and a decisive issue, and I’m not trying to make light of it at all. I always preface all my conversations with stating that this is just one woman’s story. But it’s a story that we rarely see in mainstream media or in our culture more generally.”
JEN & SYLVIA SOSKA
“The horror movies that I enjoy always have some sort of subtext,” 32-year-old writer/director, Sylvia Soska, told FilmInk in 2012. “With American Mary, I wanted to have all those messages and themes, but I also wanted to have a beautiful actress who doesn’t wear much in the film! I didn’t want to make a film that you had to be super-smart to get. If you want to see a hot girl go completely insane and get splattered in blood, this is for you. It’s for everyone!” Revealing their wickedly subversive take on the horror genre with their crackling 2009 low budget debut, Dead Hooker In A Trunk, filmmaking sisters – and identical twins – Jen and Sylvia Soska, really made their mark with 2012’s American Mary, a surreal, blood-soaked rape revenge flick with a body modification, feminist twist. Strange, kinky, and unsettling, the pair’s breakout feature marked them as a major new voice in the world of horror filmmaking, which so often rattles soullessly with uninspired ideas and derivative storytelling. Under their Twisted Twins production banner, they’ve since lent their warped brand of bloodlust to the horror portmanteau sequel, ABCs Of Death 2; directed wrestling star, Kane, in See No Evil 2; and moved sideways into the action genre with 2013’s Vendetta, starring Dean Cain and Kane’s wrestling tag-team buddy, The Big Show. “Jen and I are big fans of stories that tell a story without telling a story,” Sylvia Soska told FilmInk of their diverse oeuvre. “I would hate to make something where you sit down and the movie just tells you what you are supposed to think the whole time.”
“I quickly realised that I didn’t want to direct it myself,” actor and occasional director (As I Lay Dying, Child Of God), James Franco, told FilmInk in 2013 of the movie adaptation of his semi-autobiographical book of short stories, Palo Alto. “If it was going to be a movie, I wanted someone else’s sensibility to work on it.” Enter Gia Coppola. The granddaughter of movie legend, Francis Ford Coppola, the 29-year-old began her interest in the visual arts by studying photography at LA’s Bard College, something that piqued Franco’s curiosity when they first bumped into each other in a neighbourhood delicatessen. “I was telling him about my photos, and he told me about his book, and it just spiralled,” Coppola told FilmInk. Despite her lack of directing experience, Franco thought that she was an ideal choice. “She literally grew up on film sets,” he says. “When she was a baby, her grandfather had her there next to the monitor. And I probably thought in the back of my mind that if she ever needed any help or support, her family would be there to help her.” Indeed, Coppola not only helped costume Somewhere – directed by her aunt, Sofia Coppola – but was also credited as creative consultant on her grandfather’s 2011 film, Twixt. The daughter of Gian-Carlo Coppola (who was tragically killed in a boat crash before she was born), Gia received solid reviews for her dreamy, restrained, highly fluid take on Franco’s often lurid coming-of-age tale, drawing instant comparisons with her highly talented aunt. Drawing fine performances from her young Palo Alto cast, Coppola has since directed two inventive shorts.
A gifted actress with impeccable comic timing (she can be seen stealing scenes in Man Up, It’s Complicated, and No Strings Attached, and TV’s The Practice and Boston Legal), the imposingly tall and striking Lake Bell (who is also a high profile fashion model) furthered her multitasker status with the 2010 short, Worst Entry, which got a berth at The Sundance Film Festival. She then returned to the famous career-launching Utah fest in 2013 with her feature writing and directorial debut, In A World…, and indicated an even deeper well of talent. The 36-year-old Bell plays vocal coach, Carol, who is trying to get out from under the shadow of her father, Sam (Fred Melamed), a legendary voice artist for movie trailers. “The industry does not crave a female sound,” he reminds her when Carol raises the desire to do what he does. Firmly believing that only the male voice holds authority, Sam ultimately proves a blighting obstacle to his very own daughter. Fresh and funny, In A World… also has a lot to say. “I wanted to playfully investigate feminism in a comedic form, and I did have aspirations to be one of the great voiceover artists,” Bell told The Dissolve. “It wasn’t necessarily my woman-ness that held me from that, but more the clique that was deeply instilled; there was this clearly paved out hierarchy. The feminist conversation surrounds the idea of the ‘omniscient’ voice always being male, which often comes into play in the voiceover industry. And of course, movie trailers are the most fun version of it, so that’s where the story sets the scene.”
“When I worked as a hired screenwriter on a TV series, the people involved repeatedly told me to be careful that what I write shouldn’t be too much this or that,” Talya Lavie told FilmInk in 2014. “I remember the words, ‘We should be careful not to’ being repeated too many times. So when I wrote the script for my own film, I put a note on my computer saying, ‘Do not be careful!’ I wanted to keep the writing free-spirited, and I wanted to give my characters full liberty.” The result of the 37-year-old Israeli writer/director’s creative mantra was the short film, The Substitute, which she eventually expanded upon to create 2014’s Zero Motivation, the funny, wise tale of two insubordinate soldiers in the Israeli Army secretarial pool (splendidly played by Dana Ivgy and Nelly Tagar) and their flustered commanding officer (Shani Klein). Developed through The Sundance Screenwriters And Directors Lab in the US, the film has been a big success at international festivals, most notably at New York’s Tribeca, and has marked Lavie as a major talent to watch. With military service something that all young people have to officially go through in Israel (though there are many exemptions), Lavie has not surprisingly found that her film has touched a chord with viewers. “We had pre-screenings at Tribeca, and I was touched by girls in the audience who recognised their service time in the film,” the director says. “They finally got to see a representation of themselves on screen, which was rewarding. Who’s going to make a film about the secretaries? Well, I figured that I would.”
“The character of Gregoire is very masculine and virile,” 34-year-old French writer/director, Mia Hansen-Love, told FilmInk of the lead character in her 2009 drama, Father Of My Children. “But the fact that a woman – me – is telling this story is not a handicap. The best films made about women are often made by men, and the gender of the director doesn’t make a huge difference. What is essential is the desire, the passion, and the love in this character. That is what got me across the line to tell this story.” Like many of her fellow female directors, Mia Hansen-Love refuses to focus solely on the female experience, instead opting for stories about the relationship between a drug addicted father and his damaged daughter (2007’s All Is Forgiven); a powerhouse, workaholic Parisian film producer (2009’s aforementioned Father Of My Children); and a nightlife-loving DJ (2014’s Eden). Only her 2011 effort, Goodbye First Love, has had a distinctly feminine point of view. Originally starting out as an actress with small roles in prolific French filmmaker (and her now-considerably-older husband) Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September and Sentimental Destinies, Hansen-Love found her true calling when she stepped behind the camera, and now stands as one of France’s most impressive directors. “One of the things that makes me want to make a film is when I feel like something is not being paid enough attention,” Hansen-Love told FilmInk in 2011. “It’s when something would fall into a void if no one makes it real. It may sound naive, but to me, art is about capturing the beauty of something before it disappears.”
After winning awards, receiving rave reviews, and gathering a huge Facebook following, Leah Meyerhoff’s semi-autobiographical debut feature, I Believe In Unicorns, has marked her as a potential new queen of the indie scene. The premise of the 35-year-old’s movie is familiar: a pretty, innocent sixteen-year-old California girl, Davina (Natalia Dyer), who lives with her invalid mother and dreams of escape and fantasises about unicorns, meets and runs off with an older “bad boy”, Sterling (Peter Vack). But little else in Meyerhoff’s impressionistic road movie is conventional, as the writer/director shuttles Davina back and forth between reality and fantasy, and in the process creates an emotionally gutting but stylistically fascinating work. “It’s a coming-of-age story, but it’s also an intense love story about these two characters who fall madly in love and want to be with each other, but then realise that they’re wrong for each other in a variety of ways,” Meyerhoff tells FilmInk. “This film is about a young girl so infatuated with someone that she’ll go to any lengths for him. The film has connected strongly with the younger female audience who can identify with Davina falling so much in love. We have hundreds of thousands of fans on Facebook, and we get messages from girls who say, ‘Thank you for making this movie!’ It’s very rewarding. We’ve travelled with the film for a while now, and we’ve seen that older people who have children of their own are very protective of Davina, and they want to make sure that she’s okay. Younger viewers are often so in the moment that they don’t see it with that remove.”
With the huge success of comic writer/actresses like Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and Amy Schumer, the ability of women to be funny – a once ridiculously debated position – is now beyond question. Also bringing evidence to this metaphorical pop cultural trial is 38-year-old writer/director, Maggie Carey (who is, incidentally, married to Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck co-star, Bill Hader), who stoked the laughs big time with her semi-autobiographical 2013 comedy, The To Do List, a nineties-set sex farce about a high school graduate (gifted comedienne, Aubrey Plaza) who wants to get a little more experience between the sheets before she heads off to college. Rude, raunchy, and in-your-face, The To Do List hints at a voluble comedic talent in Maggie Carey, a one-time member of New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade improv troupe and a regular on the Funny Or Die website. “I love the whole genre of Superbad-type comedy – that’s why I like this movie,” the writer/director replied when quizzed by Refinery 29 about the annoyingly incessant debate on whether or not women are funny. “If it’s funny, it’s funny. I come from the theatre, where it didn’t matter if you were a guy or a girl. That prejudice exists, but I never thought about it or took it seriously. I wrote the movie, and I directed it. It would have felt false to write a male lead for me, personally. You write what you know. But I do have male characters, and I hope that they come across as whole and three-dimensional. The whole thing is ridiculous. We got the right to vote so long ago, and things are still backwards.
“When I was growing up, my mum was focused on court TV and kidnapping cases,” writer/director, Nikole Beckwith, said at the after-screening Q&A for her debut film, Stockholm, Pennsylvania, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “I was affected by them through the vulnerability of being a child. Later, I thought about how as a culture, we love happy endings: ‘And then she goes home to her parents – The End.’ We are also super interested in torture, and the way that someone is victimised. I personally think that it’s none of our business. I started thinking about that struggle of the abducted person – how it was like a survival space and really private, and then when they come home, they’re trying to reintegrate back into the world.” Born of these disparate influences, Beckwith’s striking debut tells of a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) coming to terms with her release from seventeen years in captivity, during which she was held in a basement by a man (Jason Isaacs) who snatched her from her parents when she was four-years-old. It’s a powerful and singular work from Beckwith, a thirtysomething actor, musician, and playwright who won The Academy Nicholl Fellowship In Screenwriting in 2012, and made it into Sundance’s Directors Lab in June 2013. “Nikole arrived fully formed as a director, channelling John Huston or something,” Jason Isaacs told FilmInk in 2014. “She knew what she wanted for every frame, and her certainty was a remarkable thing to see in a first time director. Nikole writes stories about what attracts us to other people. She’s a brilliant writer, and it’s a truly atypical film.”