During press for Carol, Cate Blanchett was posed a question that began with, “They say this is the year of the woman…” Blanchett interrupted and said, “Oh, for fuck’s sake! Every year is the year of the woman.” Needless to say, the interviewer never got to pose the question.
Blanchett’s performance in Carol is making many end of the year lists for 2015, as is the film. In a way, though, the interviewer wasn’t wrong. There’s a lot to celebrate in terms of females in film and television this year from Selma to Suffragette to Amy Schumer. But so often female performances and creators are ghettoized because of their sex and many actors, like Blanchett, get tired of hearing questions framed in the context of “being a woman.”
Since this blog has been concentrating on directors for the past year, I’ve compiled a Best of 2015 list drawing from both film and television.
BEST OF 2015 – FILM & TV
Nahnatchka Khan – Showrunner, Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)
A child of Iranian immigrants, Khan’s upbringing shaped her sense of humor and comic timing to be a perfect fit for ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, the first viable depiction of an Asian American immigrant family on television in over two decades. The show is based off celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoirs, but Khan and Melvin Mar produced the show.
Prior to FoB, Khan attended USC where she studied film and television. After graduation, she got a development job at Disney TV. Paired with animator Sue Rose, they adapted a comic strip about a feisty pre-teen girl, Pepper Ann. Afterwards, she wrote for Malcolm in the Middle, Good Morning Miami, and American Dad before pitching a quirky oddball comedy Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 to ABC. Although the show only lasted two seasons, it received critical acclaim and a cult following. (And starred Krysten Ritter who went on to play Jessica Jones, a series which discussed below.)
It led to Khan being one of the most in demand showrunners in the biz and to the Huangs. “For immigrant families, television is what connects you to American culture, but it’s also what makes you feel like an outsider,” Khan told NPR. “We didn’t know if audiences were ready for it,” she said, referring to herself and executive producer Mar, “But as individuals who grew up in immigrant families–we knew we were.”
Fresh Off the Boat has received an Emmy nomination for Constance Wu, who portrays matriarch Jessica and the Huangs have earned a solid spot in the ratings war.
Amy Schumer – Writer, Trainwreck; Creator & Showrunner, Inside Amy Schumer
Although Schumer created and launched her own show, Inside Amy Schumer, three years ago, in many ways, 2015 was when she reached mainstream. In the premiere of her show’s third season, Schumer’s sketch, “Last Unfuckable Day” took on Hollywood’s double standards for women, particularly aging women. (You can watch the full sketch here.)
“People get really turned off by feminism,” she said in an interview with The Guardian. “Nobody wants to feel they’re learning anything and we’re on an 18 to 34, male-dominated network, so we kind of had to trick people into watching. Someone said that our show is the equivalent of putting shaved carrots into brownies and I really like that.”
Schumer took her comedy and her feminism to the big screen this summer. She penned and starred in Trainwreck, a film about a party girl who finds herself stuck in the rut of her promiscuous lifestyle. The movie received critical acclaim and brought about the tired discussion of whether funny women can make money at the box office. While Schumer was proud of the film, she confided she found the press circuit exhausting.
“This is my first time doing it, but it’s just so ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t want to dress like a dickhead and talk about myself. A lot of it feels like I’m being punished for doing something that I’m proud of. Imagine all day having to talk about your writing. Wouldn’t you just run a warm bath and open your wrists?”
In September, Schumer’s series won an Emmy for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series.
Moira Demos & Laura Ricciardi – Creators, Making a Murder
In 2005, Demos and Ricciardi were both film students at Columbia University. In the middle of planning their individual thesis work, they read an article about Steven Avery’s case in The New York Times and thought it might be a good opportunity to shoot a documentary.
That December, the two traveled to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. “We rented a car and borrowed a friend’s camera,” Demos told the Times. “It was really to test the waters and see if there was a story.”
Ricciardi, who was a lawyer before she attended film school, said her legal background drew her to the story. “Because trials are inherently dramatic, we knew we could come out and shoot it vérité-style,” Ms. Ricciardi said. “What we hadn’t anticipated was the depth and breadth of what we would uncover along the way.”
After their visit in December, the pair decided to move to Manitowoc in January of 2006. Originally, they thought they might create a 90-minute or two hour documentary, but as their time in Manitowoc grew longer, they continued to gain more footage and Demos and Ricciardi knew they could not cull the nearly 700 hours of footage into a two hour film. They spoke to HBO, PBS, and other networks about the project, but at the time, none expressed interest for such a longform story. In 2013, they submitted three rough cut episodes to Netflix and secured distribution with the online service.
“With the amazing success of The Jinx and ‘Serial,’” Ms. Demos said, “thank God it took us 10 years to pull this together.”
Jill Soloway – Creator, Transparent
Soloway credits her leap from writing to directing to Lena Dunham. After watching the much younger Dunham go from indie movie success to develop her HBO series, Girls, Soloway decided to go for it. She directed a short film, Una Hora Por Favora and took it to Sundance in 2012. A year later, she was back at Sundance, this time with her feature debut, Afternoon Delight, about a married mom (Kathryn Hahn) who befriends a young stripper (Juno Temple).
While Soloway was climbing the Hollywood ladder, her father came out as transgender in 2011. Soloway said she had the instinct to turn family happenings into art about three seconds after she found out, but said she couldn’t really deal with it emotionally or creatively for the first year.
Three years later, Soloway put her family’s story on screen. The series, which premiered on Amazon last year, received critical acclaim and many accolades. In December, Transparent and the Pfeffermans returned for a second season. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if my parent hadn’t come out,” she told Marie Claire. “I think I would’ve continued to be a filmmaker, but my work would have had blind spots in it. And big ideas don’t really have room for blind spots.”
It may sound grandiose, but Soloway actually has a bigger mission than bringing good entertainment to the screen. “We are part of a revolution,” she says. “The movement is one of freedom and gender equality and feminism. And so when we show up on the set, we’re not actually trying to deliver a product to the network; we’re not actually focusing on, ‘That’ll be good, because I want an award.'” She co-runs wifey.tv, a website that showcases film and video projects for women. She speaks about the state of emergency in Hollywood, particularly for female filmmakers, and goes to meetings with friends to talk about smashing the patriarchy.
“It’s not funny anymore what’s going on with us,” Soloway said. “It’s immoral, the way that we are kept from our voices. It’s not just a matter of our numbers. There is a real all-out attack on us having subjectivity.”
In addition to all this, she is working to create a new production company, Topple, in partnership with Amazon, which will develop pilots with female protagonists. “We’re focusing on changing the world.”
Ava DuVernay – Director, Selma & Creator, Array
DuVernay worked as a publicist in Hollywood for many years before deciding to take a swing at directing. Her third feature film, Selma, premiered in Los Angeles and New York in December of 2014 and opened wide across the U.S. in January.
While DuVernay didn’t receive a Best Director nomination from the Academy, Selma earned a Best Picture nomination, making her the first female African-American director to have a film nominated.
On the heels of Selma’s success, DuVernay was courting studio film offers, such as Marvel’s Black Panther. Instead, she shot the pilot for Queen Sugar, a TV series, which she will direct and produce for OWN. She’s finishing post-production on a documentary for Netflix about the American prison system and she’s prepping a Participant-financed Hurricane Katrina project.
“You get to a place where everyone you talk to is talking about the next right move, and you forget to talk about, ‘What do you really want to do?’ The window is going to close at some point. The question is, ‘What did you do during that time?’ I don’t want my answer to be, ‘I played the angles. I played the game,’ she told The Hollywood Reporter in November.
Mattel created an Ava Barbie that was released this month and sold out in 18 minutes. When asked what her biggest frustration about Hollywood is, DuVernay says, “That only 4 percent of studio directors are women. It defies culture in so many ways. For there only to be one dominant voice determining what’s said and saying it is something that all like-minded people who believe in dignity of everyone should be concerned about. That comes into play for women and for people of color. It’s not a problem that can be fixed by the word “diversity,” whatever that means. It’s a problem that’s going to take a multi-pronged solution and allies all over the place who say, ‘We want to make a change.’
DuVernay’s words translate into action. Her company, AFFRM (African American Film Releasing Movement) that she started in 2010 to distribute films made or focusing on black people now has been rebranded as ARRAY, promising a focus on women filmmakers as well.
Sarah Gavron – Director, Suffragette
Gavron grew up in London and was educated at the University of York, where she earned a BA in English, and then earned a MA in film studies from Edinburgh College of Art. When Gavron discovered the films of female directors, she saw a place for herself in the film industry and dedicated herself to telling tales of women, whom she feels have been long ignored as protagonists in history and art.
“I didn’t think I could be a director. I just literally didn’t think it was a possibility. Then I started to suddenly see films of women. I saw some early Jane Campion films. I saw Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. I saw Kathryn Bigelow a bit later on, and Claire Denis, and Sally Potter. And I thought, “Wow! You can be a woman and still do this,” Gavron said in an interview with IndieWire.
In 2007, she directed her feature debut, Brick Lane, based on the novel by Monica Ali. Working with Brick Lane screenwriter Abi Morgan, Gavron dived into the history of British suffragette movement to make this year’s Suffragette.
“I had a mother who got involved in grassroot politics when I was growing up. I watched her have agency and become political in a very male-dominated world. I think I connected with a lot of the story.
Also I thought it really connects to the world we live in now. In the 21st century, we’re still battling inequalities. There are still so many issues that are pertinent. We need to remember how far we’ve come, and how hard fought for the vote was and how we must use it. I think here, in the build up to an election in England certainly there’s a kind of complacency and reticence about using the vote, particularly amongst young people. And this was a reminder of how important the vote is,” Gavron said of the importance and urgency she felt to make Suffragette.
Melissa Rosenberg – Creator & Showrunner, Jessica Jones
After earning a master’s degree in Film and Television Producing from USC, Rosenberg began writing for television, working on various shows from 1993 to 2006, when she became part of the writers’ room for Dexter. In 2007, she was approached by Summit Entertainment to adapt Twilight for the screen. After the film’s release, Rosenberg adapted the sequels, New Moon and Eclipse.
For years, Rosenberg sought out the chance to write a female superhero television series or film. ABC Studios put her in touch with the head of Marvel TV, who brought her Jessica Jones. “I was completely unfamiliar with it but the moment I laid eyes on the comic book by Brian Michael Bendis, I was all in,” Rosenberg told the Los Angeles Times. Despite being introduced to the concept by ABC, the series Rosenberg created with Marvel ended up landing at Netflix.
Jones (Krysten Ritter) opens her own detective agency after retiring as a superhero. When a man from her past, Dr. Kilgrave (David Tennant) shows up, it brings back deep emotional and physical scars for Jones. Jessica Jones handles adult themes such as consent, abuse, rape, and PTSD with a deft hand. “The tone [of the show] is meant to be very grounded and real, so you have to be very grounded and real with whatever subjects you’re dealing with. So there was no glossing this over. It was really an exploration of a survivor and her healing, to the degree that she does, in facing those demons quite literally,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg said she had no desire to depict rape on the show, however. Instead, she wanted to explore the emotional effect it has on Jones. “We’ve seen plenty of it on television and I didn’t have any need to see it, but I wanted to experience the damage that it does,” Rosenberg said. “I wanted the audience to really viscerally feel the scars that it leaves. It was not important to me, on any level, to actually see it. TV has plenty of that, way too often, used as titillation, which is horrifying.”
“What I love about this character is she’s so unapologetically who she is. She’s unapologetic about her sexuality, about her powers, about her drinking, about just about anything. She’s just kind of who she is.”
Rosenberg, too, is who she is, unapologetic about her career and her beliefs. She’s active in the WGA Diversity Committee supporting female screenwriters and the League of Hollywood Women Writers, which aims to fight the “boys’ club” mentality in television writing rooms.
Tina Fey – Creator & Showrunner, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; Producer, Sisters
Once again, Fey’s humor made us delight in a set of quirky characters that populate Kimmy Schmidt’s world. Schmidt is a survivor, having weathered being locked underground in the basement of a religious cult leader’s home.
Mindy Kaling – Creator & Showrunner, The Mindy Project
Kaling handled the cancellation of Mindy by Fox with calm confidence, simply announcing a few weeks later that the show was moving to Hulu. Mindy Lahiri (Kaling) is one of the few characters on television in an interracial relationship. This season, Dr. Lahiri had a baby with boyfriend Danny (Chris Messina), started her own fertility clinic, and was a single working mom for months while Danny was across the country caring for his sick father.