Can we talk about how you're the best director working in American independent film right now? Because if for some reason that was still up for debate, once Certain Women came out last year, that should've been the final word on the matter. One of that film's stars -- and your frequent collaborator -- Michelle Williams called your work "38 things buried under the semblance of nothing", and who am I to argue with Michelle Williams? Whether it's coming from the eco-terrorists in Night Moves or the band of settlers in your feminist western Meek's Cutoff, nobody does silence better than you. Your movies are all gestures and subtlety. They're small movies about universal subjects -- friendship, class, love, poverty, isolation, loneliness, and a subject I find the most universal of all: being a female ranch hand pining for Kristen Stewart. And between the corgi in Certain Women and your own beloved Lucy in both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, you are one of the all time greatest directors of dogs. Also, is there a way to comment on your appearance without coming off as sexist? Because if there is, I’d like to mention that your sweater game is basically unparalleled. So like I said: the best.
I ♥ Female Directors
Every year there are studies and lists and think pieces about the lack of female directors working in television and film. And hey, we love studies and lists and think pieces as much as the next gal, but the numbers are soooo depressing and the problem is soooo entrenched and unchanging that reading about it starts to feel a lot like eating your vegetables if vegetables tasted like futility which they do.
We started iheartfemaledirectors.com because we think the biggest thing missing from the conversation about female directors is some good old-fashioned gushy fandom. We will not have achieved true equality until every film school student who ever jizzed himself talking about the exploration of violence and masculinity in Fight Club has also needed a change of pants after discussing the exploration of violence and masculinity in Beau Travail.
Yes, there are historically fewer female directors than male, but there have still been hundreds (thousands?) of great ones. And new female directors are being born and dismissed every minute! So while the major studios’ scientists toil away in their under-the-lot labs, manufacturing the single perfect, hireable female director*, we’ll be swooning over the ones who have already put amazing, love letter-worthy things into the world.
So here’s our plan: every week we’ll put up a new love letter to a female director we’re obsessed with. And look, maybe that won't solve all of sexism in Hollywood. But it might get you to watch an Agnes Varda movie, and isn't that a close second?
• Experienced (but also fresh!)
• Works Constantly (but is always available)
• Commanding (but not emasculating)
• Will represent the wokeness and feminism of the studio (but won’t complain about institutionalized sexism)
• Has a unique voice (but wants to direct mediocre tentpoles)
• A visionary (but takes all notes)
I love thee for making Big, an endearing, inspiring movie for every woman who has ever tried to form an adult relationship with a man who is literally a child. And for the racquetball scene, a brilliant portrayal of white male fragility.
But I mostly and forever love thee for A League of Their Own, a movie that gave me all the feels the first time I saw it-- a baby gay 15 years from coming out, in my softball jersey, at the movie theater, opening weekend. I felt like Marla when she first walks into Harvey Field. I love the cast you brought together and the performances you brought out of them. I love Helen Haley innocently asking, "Has anyone seen my new red hat?” I love Doris, a pre-out Rosie O’Donnell, pretending to love male attention. I love Madonna teaching Alice to read with sexually explicit romance novels and Dottie’s smolder as she strides to the plate for the last at-bat in the World Series. And I really love the cameos from the real-life athletes finally celebrating their place in the history books, decades overdue. And I really, really love that this movie made you the first female director ever to gross over $100 million at the box office twice.
A League of Their Own showed me an unfair world where women had to trade kisses for fouls and be beautiful and “act properly” to even be given a chance, a world where black women weren't even allowed in the stadium, much less the dugouts. But also an inspiring and achievable world where women, together, can create something empowering and all their own.
So thank you, Penny. I hope you know how special it was, how much it all meant.
PS: Just between us, did Dottie drop the ball on purpose? Never mind, I know she did ... right?!
I don’t remember being floored by a movie like I was by your film Away From Her. Your exploration of lifelong, unconditional love and devotion moved me in a way that I still reference when thinking about love/regret/ forgiving/forgetting (c'mon do we ever really forget?) and what grief and loss can look like and how uncomfortable it can be to sit in the mess of things not being black and white. So you can imagine how I thought we could only go downhill from there, but then you go and make Take This Waltz, a movie about the complexities of marriage, and Stories We Tell, a doc about your own family secrets that you shared with world, and I thought you were trying to kill me. And you did. So now I'm a fucking ghost writing this. Thanks.
I love your curiosity about human behavior-- what motivates us to make the choices we make, what makes long term relationships work, and how we change within them. You capture so well the stillness, the quiet, the time in between… and you let your actors have the space and freedom to explore this. That snowshoeing scene in Away From Her when Fiona falls (surrenders) into the snow, and the freedom she feels in that, is an image I will never forget. You touch on something similar in Take This Waltz, how sometimes getting derailed or lost actually gets us where we are going in a more beautiful way than we could’ve ever imagined. Wait, I want to come back to the word devotion. Your country. Your political activism and your devotion to Canadian authors, actors, locations, musicians, etc, is truly inspiring. And so I am devoted to you until the end of time and waiting with bated breath to see what swoon-worthy thing you do next.
As you read this, please imagine us in one of your kitchens, each holding a warm mug of something, ready to bare the souls that lay beneath our cozy September sweaters. Because that’s how you make me feel. At home. No matter where I am.
I adored your words before I knew they were yours, before I knew that words would put food on my own table one day. Your words always ushered in a sigh of relief, much like the words that would come to define you in my mind: cozy, comfy, home
So of course I’m obsessed with THE HOLIDAY, your film about two women who swap homes – ultimately just trying to feel at home within themselves. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do. When I moved to LA, everything felt foreign. I was so far from every home I’d ever known. Would this town ever feel familiar?
Cue The Santa Anas.
Who knew gale force winds could make me so happy? Turns out, your love letter to Hollywood – old and new – was the meet cute that LA and I needed.
Today, I’m proud to say that my Jasper is long gone. And that my favorite lipstick is MAC’s version of “Berry Kiss.” I chose my apartment because it felt like Iris’ cottage – the space and the fact that I could see myself sleeping with Jude Law there. But mostly the space.
The pieces of myself that I see in Iris are no longer the sad ones. There’s a comfort that comes from that, a new cozy layer to add to the pile of handmade blankets you’ve already covered me with over the years.
Thank you for showing me how to be at home. How to nurture my own space. And to only share it with those who are worthy. Both my cozy Jude Law love nest… and the home within.
With Love and Gumption,
When I first saw your documentary Hooligan Sparrow, about Chinese activist Ye Haiyan's fight for six little girls who were sexually abused by their principal, I was terrified for you. At the beginning of the film you seemed as nervous as anyone would be about going up against a famously oppressive government. Then, as the filming goes on and the government targets and threatens you, you become increasingly fearless. You start ignoring the odds stacked against you. When cameras are impossible to use, you shoot with secret recording devices. You smuggle footage out of the country so that this story can be told. It's an amazing transformation to watch and one that makes me hopeful that such transformation, from concerned person to bold activist, lies within all of us - even within me.
Also, the film is so masterfully filmed and edited, it's as exciting as any big screen thriller. And if anyone doesn’t believe me, Hooligan Sparrow’s Peabody Award, George Polk award, IDA award, and place on the Oscar documentary shortlist should be convincing.
As determined as you were to make the film, I’m most inspired by your determination to make a lasting impact. And undoubtedly you did since earlier this year Ye Haiyan's daughter received a full scholarship to a high school in the US. She is here now, free of the constant threat her family faces in China and thanks, in part, to you. It's the kind of impact I aspire to help create and an incredible testament to the power of your filmmaking. You not only garnered support for Ye Haiyan’s family, you emboldened other political activists and human rights lawyers in China.
There's a ton of injustice in the world - more than it feels like we can fix. But I have hope because there are filmmakers like you who aren't going to sit by and let this shit fly.
Now that we've been at this letter writing thing for a little while, one of the joys of this whole venture has been getting even a few people to watch some movies they hadn't come across before. With that in mind, if there's one thing we write about here that I hope people seek out above all others, it's your film Girlfriends. As far as I'm concerned, any conversation about the history of independent film in America that doesn't include Girlfriends is irrelevant (see also: conversations about New York movies, movies about best friends, movies where Christopher Guest is hot). You've said the movie was inspired by a line in the book Advancing Paul Newman -- "This is a story of two girls, each of whom suspected the other of a more passionate connection with life" -- which might be my favorite logline ever. It's about the feeling of losing your best friend to the ultimate friendship killer: growing up. Basically, if someone is reading this who loves any movie or TV show about female friendship from the past thirty years, I promise Girlfriends did the thing they love first. This would include Girls, which -- because Lena Dunham was such a fan of yours -- you directed an episode of. It might also include My So-Called Life, which, yep, you directed as well. It probably wouldn't include the six episodes of Once and Again you directed, but I feel pretty strongly that Once and Again is consistently underrated, so if I can use this opportunity to bring it up, I'm certainly going to take it. Now that I think about it, if there's one thing we can get people to watch here, maybe it should be Once and Again. But right after that, everyone definitely check out Girlfriends.
I was already crushing hard when Neo realized “there is no spoon” (The Matrix) but I knew my love for you was forever when Amanita flung her postcoital, glistening strap-on to the floor of her San Francisco loft (Sense 8). In that moment, as Amanita and Nomi moved on to after-thrust cuddles, my childhood quest was finally over. I mean, I’m no strap-on flinging lesbian but ever since I was a wee gaybe, I have longed to identify with someone like me on TV. Unfortunately the television gays of my formative years (side eye to you, Stanford Blatch) weren’t designed to express the full range of their sexuality or emotions and had little in common with the everyday gay man I was becoming. They were stereotypes wrapped in glitter, faggotry, and dialogue which felt more like what the real gay men writing them thought straight people wanted from their TV homos.
With Sense8, you brought together a family of fans whose mind holes were yearning for a sopping wet dildo of bold awkwardness and relatable failure on a whole new Kinsey scale of longing. And while likely few of your “fanily” are Chicago cops, billionaire Korean warriors, Icelandic DJs, Kenyan bus drivers, Indian chemical engineers, closeted Mexican superstars, German mafia heirs, beautiful trans hackers, or the fucking amazing DARYL HANNAH, you make us feel like we could be any of the above. Because even when Lito and Hernando are literally wrapped in glitter (and rainbows and not much else -- S2 E6), the relatability of what they fear and how they love saves them from stereotype and elevates them to human. My wish for you, Lana, is that your voice and vision are supported creatively, financially and never limited by anything but your imagination for the whole of your lifetime. And when my grandchildren ask how they got to live in a world where inclusion and love are the norm, I’ll teach them about bold visionary women like you.
If we lived in a fair and just world, your name would be more than just the answer to "who invented the boom mic?" at bar trivia. You would be mentioned alongside DeMille and Fleming and Lubitsch and any of the other -- ahem -- men who, like you, successfully made the transition from silent film to talkies. You'd be lauded for directing one of the best (and bawdiest) Pre-Code movies with The Wild Party. You'd get more credit for launching the career of Lucille Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance and creating the proto-Katharine Hepburn role in Christopher Strong. You'd certainly be recognized more for being the first woman to join the DGA. Oh, and for having directed more movies within the studio system than any woman ever.
And at the very least, you'd be given some sort of respectful high five for fucking Joan Crawford.
At some point in my youth, She-Devil played on a loop on Lifetime. It was one of my first exposures to dark comedy, the trickiest-but-most-satisfying-when-done-right genre. I loved the tufted pink satin world of Meryl Streep’s romance novelist as much I related to Roseanne Barr’s dark and dorky housewife. Later I saw Desperately Seeking Susan, a movie so dangerously cool I watched in on low volume while my parents slept. It’s a movie that defines the 80s, not just because it’s chock full of amnesia, rare Egyptian artifacts, and Madonna, but because it epitomizes what the decade (and Madonna) was all about: the thrill and pangs of reinvention.
And if anyone feels like Desperately Seeking Susan was too glossy a version of 1980s New York, they can just trot on over to your first film Smithereens, which captures the city in all its trash-filled-vacant-lots glory. It’s so good that it was the first American film ever to compete at Cannes but more importantly it features one of my top ten favorite comedy dialogue scenes ever. You know the one I’m talking about, right? It involves a man, a van, a hooker, and the tuna sandwich her mother made her. It’s the stuff of Apatow wet dreams, a comedy scene so grounded it gets funnier with every line.
And in case you ever doubt your place as the iconic New York director, Susan, I’ll remind you that you directed the pilot and two more episodes of Sex and the City’s first season. Here at iheartfemaledirectors.com Laura and I hold the humble and controversial opinion that season one of Sex and the City is its absolute best and frankly more interesting than what the show later became. But what do we know, we’re both Mirandas!
Of all the movies coming out this year, there isn't one I'm more excited about than Mudbound. And this is a year with no shortage of great movies. But none of the directors of these other films made Pariah, a movie I love so much you've earned an evergreen "take all my money" from me for every subsequent movie you make. When I first saw Pariah as a short film, I was floored. And when you turned it into a feature, I was... what's a word that means floored but times ten? If there's one thing I'm confident in, it's that I've watched every movie ever made about teenage lesbians, and Pariah is quite possibly the best of all of them. It's so spot on about both the highs and the lows of coming out that I'm pretty sure you somehow gained access to the diary of every baby gay who's ever baby gayed as you were writing it. And you directed your lead actress Adepero Oyude to a performance so good that Meryl Streep shouted her out at the Oscars just cause. Yeah, that Meryl Streep.
Then with Bessie, your HBO biopic about Bessie Smith, you showed that a movie that should've been made years ago was worth the wait. And you won a DGA award in the process. If all this wasn't enough to make me a lifetime fan of yours, your next movie post-Mudbound is a horror movie about the domestic lives of black lesbians in rural America. So again, take my money. All of it.
Jennifer, my Australian wildflower, you may be the first director to have given grown men the true postpartum experience when they peed themselves watching The Babadook. Your first(!) film is a marvel of production design, performance, and flawless horror cinematography, sure, but it comes with the added layer of some real dark women-only shit that’s been living in the shadows for too long. Nothing is more true to both grief and postpartum feelings (both of which I’ve experienced hard and simultaneously) than that they are monsters who take your sleep, dull your judgment, and make you ignore your beloved dog. Honestly, I wasn’t really okay with what happened to the dog but I forgive you. But only because of how boldly you broke one of cinema’s most longstanding rules, the old chestnut decreeing that mothers-on-film may never express a full range of emotions towards their children…unless they are the villain. You gave us a heroine who is sometimes embarrassed by, tired of, and furious with her kid but who will also summon all the forces of love and hell to protect him. It’s radical in its realness and so scary that the director of The Exorcist, William Friedkin, called it the most terrifying film he’s ever seen. Jennifer, I like my directors with a little darkness and a lot of feelings and so I like you very much. I mean I would never let you near my dog but maybe we go out for drinks sometime instead. Let me know.
Let me begin, as women do, with an apology. Until recently, I didn’t know your name. I didn’t know you were the first female director ever. I didn’t know you invented the close up, shooting on location, and saying “be natural” to actors. I didn’t know you were the first working mom director or one of the first women to run her own studio. I didn’t know that for a brief time on this earth, when you and Georges Méliès were the only two people making narrative films (historians argue over who finished first), that the gender split among directors was - for the first and last time in history - 50/50. In 1896.
But now I know. I know Léon Gaumont, your former boss, literally edited you out of the history books when he published the history of the first film studio, even after promising he’d pencil you in. I know you died believing your legacy had been lost.
I also know you made, among your 750+ films, one of the first great gender bending comedies. In Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) men ironed, sewed, and fended off rapey advances while women drank in bars and got in fist fights. While dumdums in the Youtube comments section are still mistaking the message of the film as feminism-will-make-men-gay (if only!) the rest of us get it. Under the cover of laughter and over the heads of idiots, you were able to literally put men in women’s shoes and comment on how limiting and perilous it was to be a woman in an inequitable world. In 1906.
Alice, do you want to know the real consequences of feminism? 120 years after you made your first film, thousands of men and women are fighting right now to make sure more female directors make it into the history books. But don’t worry, we’ll put you first.
MAR-in AH-day. MAR-in AH-day. I recently looked up how to pronounce your name correctly because I plan on saying it a lot for the rest of my life. Maren Ade, I love you. Your Oscar-nominated film Toni Erdmann may be remembered for naked brunch and the best rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” since Whitney, but I’ll remember it for doing what your films do best: making melancholy funny. Your films are about people trying to connect and failing (The Forest for the Trees), or trying and wondering if they should quit (Everyone Else), or trying and somehow, against all generational gaps, succeeding (Toni Erdmann). And they’re all infused with just the right amount of magic – not dopey CGI movie magic, but moments so surprising and beautiful they can only be defined by the beat my heart skipped when they happened: a hug in Toni Erdmann, a sudden leap in Everyone Else, and the goosebumps-worthy last scene of The Forest for the Trees that I swear to God, Maren, I have dreamed a hundred times. And then there’s jizz on petits fours which is maybe less magical, but unforgettable all the same. Maren, My love for you burns so hot that I literally co-founded a website so more people would know about your work. And so I swear this oath to you-- if every film nerd who has ever swooned over a single minute of Cassavetes doesn’t go see or pre-order Toni Erdmann right this minute, I’ll kill myself for the publicity and it’ll be worth it just so more people learn your name. Maren Ade (MAR-in AH-day), thank you for making movies.
The Village Voice said you were “arguably the most important European filmmaker” of your generation because the Village Voice never read that Stephen King book about how adverbs make you a pussy. So let’s take out the “arguably” and speak in declarative sentences: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a motherfucking masterpiece. What you show onscreen is the stuff every other movie leaves out. The coffee making. The potato peeling. The soup eating. The blouse buttoning after paid sex with gentlemen callers. You know, boring mom stuff. But if anyone knows how to make boring work, Chantal, it’s you. Because when Jeanne’s routine starts to falter in microscopic increments, it’s one of the best tension building sequences in cinematic history. Bonus props for the calmest murder-by-a-domestic-object since that Alfred Hitchcock Presents lady killed her husband with a leg of lamb then fed it to the cops. Also-- it’s insanely inspiring that you made this movie when you were only 24 years old. And your origin story as a film school dropout who funded her first film Saute Ma Ville by trading diamond shares on the Antwerp stock exchange is the most badass of all time. Blessed were the years before Kickstarter, eh, Chantal?
And look, I’d end this letter here but it seems important to tell you (I assume you receive love letters in the afterlife) that a casual dropped reference to Jeanne Dielman on the second day of a new job instantly united two co-workers like hanky code but for feminist film nerd friendships. Within a month they turned their office into a ball pit and within a year they founded this site together. So thank you, Chantal, for being the queen of both the long take and of our hearts.
During a meeting last week I visualized flipping over a desk, smashing a Perrier bottle on the window sill, and holding its glinting, jagged points millimeters from the throat of man who said he “didn’t love” Margaret Atwood and had “less than no interest in watching The Handmaid’s Tale.” Reed, I tell you this not just to illustrate how a verdant imagination can help one survive Hollywood meetings, but also to say how much I’m enjoying The Handmaid’s Tale.
I had heard the show would be “pretty” and that a director-née-cinematographer would be doing the first three episodes and I thought, “okay fine just mainline Margaret Atwood into my veins I don’t care how it looks.” But then I watched and WOW. It’s beautiful, but not always. It’s funny, which I didn’t expect. And it’s brilliant at conveying the whole point of The Handmaid’s Tale – that oppression isn’t just our past and maybe future, it’s very much our present. Props to the writers OF COURSE but you created a world that’s the perfect mix of naturalism and formalism— beautiful airy memories contrasted with lenses so wide and oppressive Elisabeth Moss must have hit her head on them four times a day.
When I looked you up I realized I already knew you from the “You Are Not Safe” episode of Halt and Catch Fire which is very, very good. Aside from writing gushy letters to female directors, my other life’s work is to get people to skip season 1 and dive into seasons 2 and 3 of Halt and Catch Fire with their whole hearts. I haven’t yet seen your feature Meadowland because I can’t handle bad-things-happening-to-kids movies anymore but co-founder Laura says it’s excellent and she’s the one who told me about Halt and Catch Fire. Reed, have you ever fallen so hard for someone you can’t wait to see what they’ll be like in 5, 10, or 20 years? Because that’s how I feel about you.
I'm not a huge fan of committing to favorites for fear of changing my mind in the future, but since I've had 23 years with it at this point, I feel confident in calling your adaptation of Little Women my absolute favorite movie. I've watched it no fewer than twenty times and have no doubt that I'll watch it at least twenty more. It's perfectly cast -- you somehow caught many of my favorite actresses at my favorite point in their careers, all at the same time. It's also one of the best representations of both family and what it means to be a woman (and a daughter and a sister and a mother...) I can think of. It's basically a perfect period film -- feeling old fashioned in all the right ways and modern in all the most feminist-y ways -- and as someone who grew up with a major Louisa May Alcott obsession, I have no qualms about mentioning it in the same breath with The Wizard of Oz and To Kill A Mockingbird as one of the few film adaptations that's actually as good as the source material. And look, Little Women alone would be enough to make me want to write you this letter, but you've also done some pretty incredible work outside of it. My Brilliant Career features one of my favorite Judy Davis performances, which -- considering the fact that Judy Davis has one of the highest batting averages of any actress basically ever -- is significant. And not for nothing, in 1979, it was the the first Australian feature to be directed by a woman in 48 years. Then in both Oscar and Lucinda and Charlotte Gray, you combined love of my life Cate Blanchett with the other love of my life, Movies Featuring Authentic Female Protagonists. And not to come on too strong here, but I'll go ahead and say you might be the third love of my life because of it.
Not to start this on a bitter note, but the fact that your directing career has been so unfairly truncated is one of the bullshittiest pieces of bullshit to have ever occurred in the American film industry. Despite having directed four genuine masterpieces, you haven't made a feature in 29 years -- since Ishtar -- and that is frankly unacceptable. In the year of our lord 2017, can't we finally rewrite history on the quality of Ishtar as a film? Have we now reached enough of a critical mass on acknowledging its position as, sure, a big old flop, but a genuinely terrific big old flop? It's basically the funniest and -- as you intended -- a more than worthy successor to all the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope "Road" movies from the 1940s. One could argue that the only reason it received negative reviews in the first place was due to some critics being unable to separate behind the scenes drama from the film itself. And yes, if a man had made Ishtar, etc. etc. etc. Okay, so, with that out of the way: the good. If I could come up with my ideal movie, it would probably be one in which you direct yourself as a rich botanist involved in a romance with Walter Matthau. Luckily for me that's a movie that actually exists: your first film, A New Leaf. Then there are Mikey and Nicky -- a buddy film that subverts the sexism of buddy films -- and The Heartbreak Kid -- a romantic comedy that subverts the sexism of romantic comedies (that also happens to be ranked as one of the greatest comedies of all time on basically any list that would rank such things). And I'm not in the habit of talking about women as they relate to the men in their lives, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention your relationship with Mike Nichols. Your comedy team Nichols and May produced sketches that, as far as I'm concerned, still haven't been topped in sketch comedy. Your screenplays for Nichols's movies The Birdcage and Primary Colors are some of your best writing. And if I can't watch a new feature by you, the American Masters you directed on Nichols after his death is a pretty amazing consolation prize. So this letter doesn't pass the Bechdel Test. Sorry.
Before you become all next level famous with your new Marvel gig directing Silver & Black, please allow me to thank you for being one of the best in the game. With Love & Basketball, you made one of the all time greatest movies about basketball (sorry, Hoosiers) and an even better one about love (ya burnt, Casablanca). And frankly the best movie featuring an Omar Epps/Tyra Banks pairing ever (suck it, Higher Learning). Then with The Secret Life of Bees... well, to be honest I haven't seen it, but I hope you made a boatload of cash from it. And if it allowed you to make Beyond the Lights, even better, because with Beyond the Lights you went and became a great musical director, making this beautiful movie about stardom and authenticity and also maybe Rihanna, all while getting a next level performance out of Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Oh and you reinvented the mile high club while you were at it. Thank you for showing us that can't should never be in our vocabulary. Play you for screeners of the full season of Shots Fired -- double or nothing.