Putting more women in the director's chair

Carrie Coon as Nora Durst and Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey in the third and final season of HBO series The Leftovers.
Carrie Coon as Nora Durst and Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey in the third and final season of HBO series The Leftovers.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Mimi Leder is a bit of a unicorn in Hollywood: a female director who has helmed not one, but two, hit blockbuster films, The Peacemaker (1997) and Deep Impact (1998).

But her follow-up movie, the drama, Pay it Forward (2000), was a flop. And because of that, she was sent to "movie jail" and never hired to direct another feature except for a small one in 2009 (Thick As Thieves, starring Morgan Freeman and Antonio Banderas as crooks).

Meanwhile, male film-makers who tank at the box office often get three or more chances, she observes.

The Straits Times spoke to Leder at a press event for the television drama, The Leftovers, which she executive-produces and directs.

Women make a movie, they fail, they go to 'jail'. A man makes a movie, it fails, he gets three more.

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER AND DIRECTOR OF THE LEFTOVERS MIMI LEDER on gender bias in the film industry

"Women make a movie, they fail, they go to 'jail'. A man makes a movie, it fails, he gets three more.

"I'm not saying that whining or complaining or with anger. It's just that women have to keep doing good work. There's always more to prove," says Leder, 65, who won two Emmys for her work on medical drama ER (1994 to 2009), in which she pioneered the trademark steadicam long take that would be widely copied by other shows.

She musters a wry smile when asked why there are still so few women behind the camera - they make up just 7 per cent of all directors on the 250 top-grossing films in the United States last year, down from 9 per cent in 2015, according to a report this year by San Diego State University's Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

Leder believes it is because those who make the decisions often feel they have done their part for diversity when they hire the occasional woman or ethnic minority.

The attitude is "Oh, we hired one, so now we don't have to do it again", she says. To rectify this, there needs to be a concerted effort and programmes put in place to encourage diversity in hiring.

Leder, who is married to actor and producer Gary Werntz, 68, and has a 30-year-old daughter, tries to find work for other women whenever she can.

Those she has mentored include Michelle MacLaren of Breaking Bad (2008 to 2013) and Lesli Linka Glatter from Mad Men (2007 to 2015), to whom she gave some of their first big breaks.

"In television, I try to hire as many female directors as I can. I hired Glatter on ER and I started a lot of women," says Leder, who was handpicked by Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg to direct The Peacemaker after he worked with her on ER.

It irks her that "there so few of us doing superhero movies".

"Why? Well, they don't hire us," she says, contradicting the claim by Jurassic World (2015) director Colin Trevorrow that top women directors are simply not interested in doing big studio movies about "superheroes, spaceships or dinosaurs" or more would be hired.

But she adds: "They did hire Patti Jenkins for the upcoming Wonder Woman, thank goodness. And there will be more."

Ideally, "we're just hiring the best people for the job. When I'm chosen and asked to do something, hopefully it's for that reason".

She says: "No woman wants to be called a woman director. You never say, 'Well, that male director is good.' That just never happens."

Alison de Souza

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2017, with the headline 'Putting more women in the director's chair'. Print Edition | Subscribe