“It makes perfect sense for this to happen during this question,” Marielle Heller said by phone as her baby son, Wylie (with her husband, actor, writer, and director Jorma Taccone), began wailing in the background. “This is part of being a mama director.”
Before Wylie chimed in, Heller and I were in the midst of discussing her recent nomination from the DGA for best first-time feature film director. It’s not the least bit surprising that Heller has been recognized for her debut, an adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl (for those who missed it in theaters last summer, it’s being released on DVD and VOD this week), which garnered major media attention and rapturous reviews. It is slightly more shocking that, of the 10 directors nominated in the DGA’s two film-directing categories, Heller is the only woman.
But only slightly. “I’m not surprised. It’s a serious problem,” she said about the paucity of opportunity and recognition for women directors in Hollywood, currently the subject of an ACLU inquiry. “It’s a problem I’m seeing everywhere I go. I’m getting more and more used to the fact that being a director and being a woman are two things that everyone wants to talk about, because it’s so rare.”
And it’s a conversation, she agrees, that must be had. We asked Heller about her post-Diary directorial options, her experience of motherhood in Hollywood, and whether we’re really at a tipping point for women in film. Her thoughts, below.
You just got nominated for a DGA award for Diary of a Teenage Girl. How does it feel?
It means so much to me; I just joined the DGA. It’s a nomination from my peers. I came to directing late. I was an actor and a writer, and I discovered directing in making this movie. I realized that I didn’t really want anyone else to direct my movie. So I had to learn to direct. It’s an incredibly difficult job, one that I have so much respect for. I know I have so much more to learn. It really means a lot that this new passion that I’ve now dedicated the past couple of years to—that my peers think I’m on the right path. It was pretty crazy to be the only woman on that list as well.
I want to talk to you about that. Were you surprised?
No. I feel proud, and a responsibility as a woman to hold down that position as the only one on that list. I hope that next year there are a lot more women. It’s an interesting time; everybody’s talking about women directors right now. It’s in the zeitgeist. Which is great, but hopefully that leads to actual shifts, action changes on the part of studios and everybody who is doing the hiring.
What do you think is the first step?
The first step is what’s happening: public outcry and shaming of the studios, and of Hollywood in general. So we’ve got that down! Then I think it’s going to be the conscious efforts of a lot of the gatekeepers to decide they’re going to seek out and hire more women directors. The more women directors that get hired, the more practices will shift, top down.
I get disappointed when I hear directors who have been around longer than me, saying that this conversation happens every couple of years, and this is just another version of it. I really hope that’s not true. I hope this is the moment when things are shifting. I hope it’s the tipping point.
I did notice when the DGA nominations for television came out that there were a number of women on that list, compared to the film list. You directed an episode of Transparent, right? Do you feel like opportunities in TV are more abundant?
I did, I did. And Jill [Soloway] is one of those wonderful people who has made it her mission to make sure she’s hiring women, trans directors, people of color. I do think there’s probably a little more opportunity to direct in television, because there are just so many TV shows. In movies, it still feels harder to break in. I do hope that’s shifting. The difference between TV and miniseries and movies is also diminishing.
Tell me a little about the process of making Diary of a Teenage Girl. Did you run into stumbling blocks? I spoke to Olivia Wilde recently about producing Meadowland, and she was really candid about the way she felt that it was so much harder to secure financing as a woman.
I think it’s true. I was making a smaller movie, where I didn’t need a huge amount of money, but I needed the support of brave people. I ended up finding really brave financiers who loved the project and loved supporting women specifically. I went to Sundance Labs, and I definitely watched my male peers from there have very different meetings than I was having, very different outcomes. You could tell there was a feeling that a young male director had this exciting potential and a young female director was risky. That different perception of someone being risky versus someone being: Oh! The future!
I’ve seen over and over, women who make incredible first features. You look at what they did and you think, Oh, my God, they could do anything. And then you hear the word on the street, which is: Well, I want to see what she does next, and then maybe I’ll give her an opportunity. It’s like: She just made the most incredible movie! There’s this feeding frenzy when a man makes a good first feature. Like, let’s scoop him up! We have to give him some giant franchise. And there’s this sense with women that you have to prove yourself so many times over before that same feeling happens.
What’s been your experience since the release of Diary? Do you feel like the playing field has opened up for you?
I do, actually. I feel sort of bad even saying all of that. I’ve seen that happen to many, many female filmmakers, where they feel they’re not being given the opportunities they should after making a great first feature. But my personal experience has not been that. It’s been opportunities opening up left and right for me. It’s night and day from trying to make Diary, where I felt I was pounding down doors, begging for money. Now I feel I sort of have the world as my oyster and can do whatever I want.
What do you want?
That’s the question! It’s been fun exploring directing TV. I directed that episode of Transparent, and I’m going to direct two episodes of the Hulu show Casual. And I’m considering a bunch of other films, being sent really, really great scripts. Diary was such a passion project, something I was working on for eight years. There’s a lot of pressure on the second project, figuring out what will come after.
Are the projects coming your way indie or studio movies?
Studio movie opportunities. In some ways now is a good time to be a female filmmaker, because there’s such a discussion about what is happening. There are a lot of people feeling they want to make a change, seeking out female filmmakers. I’ve even talked to a couple people who read that Maureen Dowd piece, pulled up that list of female filmmakers, and were like: Okay, what projects do we have for these women? I don’t think he would mind me saying so, but I actually had a conversation with Tom Hanks at a party where he said he read that article and said, “Okay, let’s watch all these movies and see what we have that could be right for these women.” This is a problem that needs solving.
That makes Tom Hanks look good!
Okay, all right. Then I can say it.
Speaking of Jill Soloway, I was struck by something she said to the New Yorker when it profiled her—that directing is a little like playing with dolls, and so nobody should be surprised that women make great directors. Do you agree?
I do agree with that. In a lot of ways the qualities you need to possess are so inherently female. I remember thinking when I set out to direct my movie that it was all about lenses and the shots you were going to get. Really, directing is about tapping into what makes us the most human, telling stories, emotions, and managing a group of empathetic people. I do think women are just innately great at it. I know for myself, it calls on a lot of the same qualities that motherhood does.
You’ve said in the past that the questions you get asked are so different from the questions male directors get asked—for example, are you planning to have kids? Do you think studios shouldn’t be asking those questions at all? Or should everyone get asked those questions?
I definitely don’t think the answer is not asking those questions, pretending somehow that we’re not trying to juggle motherhood and directing. That’s been the position women directors have been in for the last 30 years. Having to compartmentalize and pretend that they’re not juggling in order to be taken more seriously. It’s time for us to be more honest that we are in a more difficult position. The majority of parenting responsibility tends to fall onto women, whether or not we’re in wonderful equal partnerships. I think we can be more honest about what that looks like and how to juggle it. Hopefully we can find solutions that make it a more sustainable industry.
I think there tends to be this feeling that if you want to compete in this business, you have to pretend you’re not trying to balance all of these things. I, for one, was at Sundance with my son when he was 5 weeks old, introducing my movie to the world. I was breastfeeding at my movie party, being like: Look! This is it! This is what it looks like! I’m trying to juggle this! I think I can do it, but I’m not going to hide it. I hope that’s at the forefront of the conversation, the new version of it.
Were you pregnant while shooting the movie?
I got pregnant right after I wrapped, so I was pregnant throughout the whole editing and post-production process. I had actually consulted with a number of female directors. I said, “I know I can’t plan these things, but if I could, when would be the best time?” They all said during edit, because you can be on the couch with your pants undone, throwing up into a can, and still say, “I want two frames off of that shot.” I got lucky that it worked.
You’ve identified as part of the solution to this problem that women need to pay it forward to one another. After the success of Diary, do you feel like you’re in a position to do that?
I maybe don’t think of myself as being there quite yet. But I have hopes that I will be in that position, and that it will be something I’m really conscious of. I definitely talk to young writers and filmmakers and am as encouraging as I can be. I’m not in a hiring position yet; I’m not running a show or staffing people. I’ve found there to be a wonderful sisterhood. We connect with each other really easily. It’s pretty cool. I don’t know if people assume there is competition, but there really isn’t. It’s a really supportive community.
On that note, are there movies by women directors that you saw this year that you want to call out?
Yeah, my friend Chloe Zhao made a movie called Songs My Brothers Taught Me that was also at Sundance and went to Cannes. It’s just a beautiful movie about the Native American reservation in South Dakota. I loved it so much and felt that it didn’t get enough attention.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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