With reporting by Shaunna Murphy
Last week TV director Michelle MacLaren, who's best known for her work on "Game of Thrones" and "Breaking Bad," would be stepping down as the director of "Wonder Woman" due to "creative differences" between her and Warner Brothers.
The studio quickly found a new director in Patty Jenkins -- who, ironically, left Marvel's "Thor 2: The Dark World" for a similarly described reason -- but not before the Internet exploded with theories about why Maclaren left, concerns that she'd be replaced with a male director, and even whether or not she deserved the position in the first place and had only been hired because of her gender. Which, frankly, makes us feel kinda like:
To get a better sense of how gender issues factor into the complicated world of Hollywood, we spoke to several directors at various stages in their film careers -- Lexi Alexander (“Punisher: War Zone,” “Green Street Hooligans,”), Brenda Chapman (“The Prince of Egypt,” “Brave”) and Yulin Kuang (“I Ship It”), about what they thought of MacLaren’s departure and how they think it speaks to the bigger problem in the industry – namely, the lack of opportunities women have in film compared to their male peers. Here’s what they had to say:
The Challenges Facing a “Wonder Woman” Director Are Daunting
Lexi Alexander has been vocal in the past about the pressure facing any female talent involved in the making of "Wonder Woman," so she wasn't surprised that MacLaren chose to walk away -- in fact, she even saw it as a good thing for the director.
"I think we all know that there’s no room for failure granted for women," she told MTV News over email. "Walking away now because she knows that she can’t make a good movie is 100 times less damaging than making a bad movie or walking into a production that is conflict ridden."
"Creative Differences" Don’t Mean The Same Thing For Everyone
Women might come at filmmaking from a different place than men do, Brenda Chapman told MTV News over the phone, but “we’re still capable of telling a story just as well as any guy is... And for all I know, [MacLaren leaving Warner Bros.] could just be pedantic creative differences; that they just didn’t see eye to eye on how to tell the story, and it had nothing to do with being a woman. But what I find is that there are probably more men in the room that the woman director, so you’re also getting a different point of view. If the guys can’t relate to the woman’s point of view, then that can turn into creative differences. It’s coming from a different place.”
"In the rare case that a woman gets to direct, you’re going to get a different point of view, so therefore it’s different, so therefore it’s risky, so they don’t know how to deal with it," she said. "I think that’s part of the issue, because most of the men in the room both in the making of the movie and the marketing of the movie are just not getting it."
We Don't Really Know What Happened When a Director Leaves
We often hear the details about a director's departure secondhand from anonymous “insiders” and gossip blogs – and while it’s true that word often gets around in such an insular community like Hollywood, we shouldn’t necessarily trust everything we hear from outside sources.
While some bloggers definitely exaggerate their “close relationship” with film executives, Lexi Alexander told us, “Most of us inside the industry…we know exactly what’s going on. There are no secrets within the gates of the club. We all have agents who know each other, all the agents have assistants who are on every phone call, etc., etc.”
"But, even within that circle there’s a lot of gas-lighting going on and oftentimes those in power will put a certain story out about a director or an actor that works in their favor." she added. “So it breaks down like this: Official word on the street: Director will not return for sequel due to scheduling conflicts. Story Executives are planting: We tried to make it work but she was so difficult. What actually happened: They made the director’s life a living hell to make her quit.”
Much Of The Film Industry's Problems Aren't About Film
While there are more women on the marketing side of the film industry, Chapman told us, they're also less likely to be in executive positions -- and more than that, they're not interested in taking risks. "When marketing came in and saw 'Brave' for the first time, they said ‘We don’t know how to market a movie about two women arguing.’ That was a bunch of men who didn’t get what the story was about," Chapman said. "They’re not even looking at the creative end of things. They’re just looking at what they think will make the best amount."
"That makes me really sad. They’ll say, ‘We don’t know how to market that.’ If I said I didn’t know how to direct a movie, I would get fired and they’d hire someone else. But they don’t fire the marketing guy who says ‘I don’t know how to market that.’ They make you change the content so that they feel like they’re comfortable and how they can market it."
The world of television is a little better for female writers and show runners, Alexander noted, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
“The feature film industry is as uncomfortable, unwelcome and scary as a football locker room for women,” Alexander said. “Compared to TV which is more like a beach volleyball tournament -- in which the guys still get more sponsors and a larger crowd, but the women aren’t that far behind.”
Industry Allies Are Important To Making Change Happen
Recently Lionsgate, the professional organization Women in Film, and the social media platform Tongal put together a project called, “Storytellers -- New Voices of the Twilight Saga,” through which upcoming female filmmakers were invited to create and pitch short films based on characters from Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” series.
While some critics claimed it to be a gimmick, Yulin Kuang, who's one of the winning directors of the contest, is optimistic about her relationship with the movie studio.
“They really do seem committed to bringing in more females at the start of their careers,” she told MTV News over the phone, telling us that she herself likes to seek out other women to work with on her sets as well. “So that five, ten, fifteen years down the line when studios are putting together their list of directors, there will be more women hopefully on this list.”
But in an industry where studios might not be necessarily willing to buck trends or take perceived risks, often it’s the individual, committed allies who are able to make the most difference. Lexi Alexander experienced just such a breakthrough recently when she was hired to direct an episode of CW’s “Arrow” in the fall.
“My representatives called me one day to say that I need to meet with the ‘Arrow’ people. I had just had a development meeting at the CW, so I thought this meeting came through them,” she told us. “But once in the room it turned out that Executive Producer Andrew Kreisberg specifically tracked me down because he is a fan of ‘Punisher: War Zone’ and it is important to their producer team to hire diverse directors.”
“This is incredibly important, not because the fact that this happened to me, but because Andrew did what we have urged show runners and TV execs to do for the past few years: bypass agents and the mysterious DGA list and go after all the women and minority directors out there by making your own lists and doing some research.”
“In a system in which women are rarely represented by the big agents, you’re not going to find us via the traditional ways,” Alexander noted. “but we’re here and it just takes that one phone call.”
The Culture Is (Hopefully) Improving
“I’ve seen a lot of people that are coming up through fandom,” Kuang told us, noting that the majority of fanfiction writers are female. “And if you look in film schools, a lot of people coming through those programs are also female. So, when I go to film festivals, I’ll go see a lot of female filmmakers, so it’s only really when you get to the higher levels that you see, like, ‘Oh, where did we lose, like, 98 percent of us?’”
“I think Shonda Rhimes gave an excellent speech a while ago about how breaking through the glass ceiling wasn’t just searching through herself but going through all of the cracks of other women before or ahead me,” she added. “So, I think it’s kind of like that in film school. We’re getting more and more women in there because there is just more visibility, I think, in the current film industry of at least the women who are working in this field, then there were for those women probably when they were coming up.“
For Kuang, the Internet in particular is important as a tool for both activism and creation. “I think YouTube and new media in general is this wonderfully populist place where anybody can upload something and that can gain traction,” she said. “I think that all of these platforms allow us to support young, up-and-coming female voices in ways that we haven’t been able to in the past.”
How To Handle Being a Female Director
“To be honest… on many occasions I just say, ‘turn around and run,’” Lexi Alexander admitted. “Yes, I am very aware that this could make our numbers worse. But it’s heartbreaking to get treated so differently and to have your skills and talents constantly questioned and disregarded.”
“There is no advice I can give because you can’t fight bias with hard work, determination, etc. because bias is not a factual based reaction,” she concluded. “It’s irrational, therefore there’s no simple remedy. All I can say is: If you want to do it anyway, brace yourself.”
But what if directing is your calling and you can’t picture doing anything else?
"I think the only thing you can do is be true to your creative spirit, and be true to the story you’re trying to tell, be true to the material you’re putting forward,” Brenda Chapman told us. “I wouldn’t have done anything different on ‘Brave.’ I feel like I was being true to what I felt the story should be, and in the end, so much of that came back into the story. But I wouldn’t say compromising, trying to make it a little more guy-friendly… I wouldn’t do that, because then you’re not being honest with yourself or as a filmmaker."
But Yulin Kuang has a different approach to dealing with the pressure of being marginalized, both as a female director and as a person of color. “You run into so many statistics that are just working against you that they don’t really mean anything to you anymore," she said. "And you just have to tell yourself that these statistics don’t need to apply to you.”
“As long as I do everything I can that’s within my power to make it happen, then I feel good about where I am," she added.