Indeed, there are plenty of filmmakers who are worlds away from the stereotype. Female directors are making their mark in Hollywood, with films as diverse as their backgrounds. "There are a lot of us that don't fit that pattern, and we do manage to work," Lemmons says. "Hopefully, our work speaks for itself. I think if you look at my work, you see three interesting, different films—yet they're all very me."
Lemmons' path to the director's chair was, she says, "very organic." She began her career as an actor, guest-starring on series such as Spenser: For Hire and appearing Off-Broadway in Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead. World events inspired her to study filmmaking at New York's New School for Social Research in the late 1980s. "The war in Nicaragua was going on, and I was a very passionate and politicized person," she recalls. "I thought, 'I'm going to make documentaries, so I've got to go to film school and learn to use a camera.' "
She made a successful documentary short, Fall From Grace, and was hired to write a screenplay for Bill Cosby (though the project didn't make it to production). As she was gaining traction as a writer, she also began to land more acting gigs: plum roles in such high-profile projects as The Silence of the Lambs, Candyman, and Hard Target. Around this time she penned Eve's Bayou, a script focusing on a Louisiana-dwelling African-American family in the 1960s. "I wrote it to have a part for myself to act when I got a little older," she says. "I thought, 'Okay, when I no longer fit in the little black dress, I'm going to play Mozelle or Roz in Eve's Bayou.' "
Lemmons' life, however, took a different turn. Her theatrical agent at the time, Ken Kaplan, passed the script to literary agent Frank Wuliger of the Gersh Agency. Wuliger took Lemmons on and has repped her ever since. "He and I tried to find a director to do [Eve's Bayou], but everybody said no," she says. "So I woke up one day with the epiphany that I should direct it myself."
To convince people that she was capable of helming the film, she made a short, Dr. Hugo, that served as a "pilot" for her feature and helped secure the participation of star Samuel L. Jackson. Eve's Bayou won the 1998 Independent Spirit Award for best first feature and earned kudos from the National Board of Review, which named it outstanding directorial debut.
Lemmons has continued to build on her reputation as a director with a distinctively poetic vision and a fondness for flawed, dynamic characters. Her latest film, Talk to Me, is a vibrant biopic of famed 1960s deejay Petey Greene (Don Cheadle). "[All of my movies] have a lot of similarities to me, but they're very different in feeling and in execution," she says. "I do what feels appropriate to the film I want to make. And I want to make what I want to make. That's the hardest part with me, I think. I have to be in love with a movie in order to do it."
The filmmaker believes that actors are particularly well-suited to becoming directors, but she has no current plans to return to performing. "I have a much greater appreciation for actors as a director," she says. "And in some ways I feel I can give more to the art of acting as a director—[by having] beautiful parts, [casting] wonderful actors, and really [helping] them to be as good as they possibly can be in a performance."
Being female in a male-dominated profession is certainly a challenge—but one Lemmons tries not to overthink. "[Directing] came very naturally to me; I never thought about my femaleness playing into it," she says. "I can be very female; Eve's Bayou is very feminine in some ways, but [Talk to Me] isn't. I feel versatile, like I can direct whatever I want to direct if I love it."
Jessica Bendinger, who made her feature directorial debut last year with the tart comedy Stick It, says the field is still very male-dominated, but "Hollywood is blind," she says. "They don't care whether you are white, black, male, female. They just want to make money. That's great news for anybody who is commercially minded."
Like Lemmons, Bendinger got her start in a different line of work. She fell in love with film at a young age, thanks to such classics as The Bad News Bears and Diner. After graduating from New York's Columbia University, she worked in music journalism, writing for Spin magazine and penning scripts for MTV News. "We used to get these electronic press kits at MTV, and we'd have to go through and decide what we were going to cover on the news," she recalls. "There was an EPK for Say Anything that came in, and I read that Cameron Crowe had written for Rolling Stone before he became a filmmaker. I suddenly went, 'Oh my God, somebody made that leap from music journalism to movies.' Suddenly it was possible."
Bendinger experienced a fair amount of struggle while trying to make it in the industry. She was rejected from the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and wrote a TV spec for Mad About You that garnered her some attention but no job. Finally, a friend called her with an opportunity to write for a new French series, Sous Le Soleil. "They wanted American writers to come and give it a real American flavor, and then they would translate the scripts," she recalls. "So I had to leave the country to get my first writing job."
Upon returning to the States, Bendinger wrote a spec screenplay that landed her a few meetings. When someone told her she should go into these meetings with an idea to pitch, she came up with the concept of a smart, snarky cheerleading movie called Bring It On. She pitched it 28 times and got one yes—from the production company Beacon Communications. The finished film, directed by Peyton Reed and starring Kirsten Dunst, was a surprise hit.
The success of Bring It On allowed Bendinger to move into directing, which she'd always hoped to do. "When I was working at MTV, as writers we produced packages and stuff, so I had some experience in editing bays," she recalls. "And I had directed music videos for a couple of years. I always hoped that someday I would get to merge the visual with the page again. I was kind of biding my time, knowing if I could write the right script at the right time, given my track record with Bring It On and with the demographic, I could probably get a shot to direct it."
She penned Stick It, a fresh, funny look at the world of competitive gymnastics, with directing in mind. Because three studios were interested in the script, she was able to sell it with herself attached to direct.
One of the hardest things about filmmaking, Bendinger notes, is that the rest of your life tends to take a back seat to the directing process. "[Directing] really overtakes your world for 18 months to two years—or longer," she says. "Society really supports that kind of myopic pursuit of greatness in men. Because it's not the most nurturing environment to be in—it demands a lot of you—it's more challenging for a woman to naturally step into that role. That said, I think I took a very nurturing attitude [on Stick It]. I realized I wasn't going to lead this process from the front—like, 'Charge!' on a horse with a big knife—but that, actually, one of my greatest assets would be to be behind these very experienced craftspeople and really support them to do their best work and that there's something about being supportive and empowering your team that's very feminine and very much a woman's strength."
Jess Manafort also knows a thing or two about empowering one's team. The filmmaker remembers the moment she got her crew on her side while shooting her first feature, The Beautiful Ordinary. "It took a few days [to win them over]," she says. "But I don't necessarily know if that was because [I'm] a girl or just didn't have any experience." Manafort, who graduated from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 2005, was shooting a key scene in The Beautiful Ordinary that features five characters in a car. A light broke on the car rig and the sun was going down. The film, which takes a refreshingly honest look at a day in the life of a wide-ranging group of teenagers, had a packed 30-day shooting schedule. Time was tight, and there was no room for mistakes. "I realized as I was assessing the situation that we were wasting time by trying to get the light to work," Manafort remembers.
The filmmaker rewrote the scene on the spot so that it could be done in two takes. "I had my [director of photography] at the front of the car, and I'm hanging on his back, and I've memorized all the lines of dialogue, so instead of doing close-up coverage of every single one of [the actors], I have him zoomed in for the first take, and he's moving the camera so that all of their lines are covered in close-ups, as though we did all this different coverage," she says. "For the second take, I did a wide shot and a master of the whole thing." Manafort was rewarded with a hefty round of applause once the scene was wrapped. "The next day I came in, and [the crew is] like, 'All right, boss!' " she recalls, chuckling. "It felt good."
Manafort, who has always known she wanted to be a filmmaker, was accepted into Tisch after getting a recommendation from Martin Scorsese. Though she sent her Vincent van Gogh–themed short, Vincent, to a variety of people, she is not sure how it found its way into Scorsese's hands. "I got a letter in the mail saying that he had seen my short and that he loved it and thought it was promising," she remembers. "I couldn't believe it. I ended up meeting him later and going up to him and being like, 'Thank you so much.' I thought he wouldn't even remember the film, but he did. He said he had played Vincent as an actor in a short film when he was younger and I directed my actor better than he had played van Gogh."
Shortly after graduating from Tisch, Manafort received the Richard Vague Grant, which she used to partially fund The Beautiful Ordinary. The film recently debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival and is seeking a distributor.
Manafort admires other female writer-directors, such as Lisa Cholodenko and Sofia Coppola, who have paved the way. She is also greatly inspired by the women she worked with on The Beautiful Ordinary, including music supervisor Karyn Rachtman and casting director Mary Vernieu. "[They're] women excelling in their careers, working with all these male directors," she says. "Mary Vernieu does David O. Russell's films; she does Robert Rodriguez's films. And Karyn Rachtman's worked with Quentin Tarantino. They're amazing, and they're really well-respected and doing great in their careers, so they inspire me a lot."
One challenge specific to being a female filmmaker, Lemmons says, is trying to balance the heavy responsibilities of career and motherhood. "Being a mother is hard," she says. "That is something I decided I was going to deal with. I was pregnant when I got my green light for Eve's Bayou, and I had just had the baby when I directed it. So that's challenging, but it's a decision I've made, and now it's a decision I can actually talk to my children about. They're proud of me, you know?"
Danish director Susanne Bier, who received an Oscar nomination for her 2006 film After the Wedding, says you must firmly structure your life in order to make it work. "I spent the first years of my career using all my money on having help in the house, and I never got to save up money or buy anything, because I really purposefully used my money to work, and I also knew I wanted to have a happy life for my kids," she says. "I made a very firm decision on making those two things work."
She believes her region of the world is a bit more encouraging to female directors than Hollywood is. "In our part of the world, we have public child-care facilities," she says. "So there is a general sort of notion that women [have] professional lives and that women who [have] professional lives obviously have families and kids. I think that notion, on a deeper level, is part of determining women's futures. I think a lot of talented women in the States avoid becoming filmmakers because it would be so hard to have both [family and career]."
Bier, who has made a number of successful Scandinavian films, transitioned into directing after studying architecture. "I realized after a while that I wasn't going to sit in an architect's office and design," she says. "I became more interested in the human beings that were going to be within the walls. I got interested in set design; I slowly moved towards filmmaking while still doing architecture. At some point, I thought, 'Maybe I'll be a set designer,' but then I started reading scripts, and I realized that actually I [wanted] to become a director."
Bier recently made her first American film, Things We Lost in the Fire, which is scheduled to premiere this fall. The intricately crafted drama focuses on a widow (Halle Berry) who forms a bond with her late husband's troubled best friend (Benicio Del Toro). "When you are European, you have all these prejudices about American movies: that they are [made by] evil studios that are going to come and prevent you from doing what you think is right to do," she says. "In practice, it was the opposite. It's been a very exciting, very inspiring process throughout the entire film. And [DreamWorks] has not fulfilled my prejudices at all. In the script meetings, they would have comments like, 'We want it to be really honest, we want it to be edgy, we want it to be really interesting.' "
These four filmmakers vary greatly when it comes to background and subject matter, but they have a few things in common. For example, they're all very passionate about the casting process. Lemmons notes that, with few exceptions, she auditions all her actors. And Bier believes it's crucial to find the perfect actor for every role, down to the smallest. "There's a lot of texture in parts which are not necessarily just the main characters," she says. "I'm extremely involved in all of that."
Manafort is so particular about casting that two of her leads in The Beautiful Ordinary, Lyndsy Fonseca and Shahine Ezell, weren't cast until the day before principal photography began. "I was on location watching tapes and tapes and tapes," she remembers. "And I was just refusing to cast the roles, because I hadn't found the right person. Literally, the day before [principal photography], these two tapes came in. I was really holding out for the right people, and fate took care of me. I don't know what would have happened if it didn't."
Additionally, all of these women have achieved a measure of success by staying true to themselves and their visions. "I think women are very well suited to the [directing] process if they can really balance their yin and yang and don't try to be [guys]," Bendinger says. "Be who you are. Be you."