On TV, Women Take Charge

by Elisabeth Sereda May 19, 2020
Olivia Newman, Monica Raymund, Lesli Linka, Frankie Shaw

(L-R Top) Olivia Newman, Monica Raymund, (L-R Bottom) Lesli Linka, Frankie Shaw

The (tiny) percentage of female directors in film has been a persistent Hollywood sore spot. Meanwhile, it is TV that has been making the biggest strides in equality. Even now during this worldwide health crisis, female directors (as well as writers, showrunners and producers) are getting jobs for future productions.

Take Olivia Newman, who made the very personal First Match in 2018. In order for her to keep doing projects that are close to her heart, while at the same time paying her mortgage, she decided to look for work in episodic television. When NBC started a new directing program called ‘Female Forward’, Newman applied and found herself working for legendary show creator Dick Wolf (Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and the multiple Law & Order series and their spin-offs). She definitely broke into what was otherwise a strongly male-dominated world. Other programs aimed at improving gender equality are Ryan Murphy’s ‘Half Initiative’ and the Sony Pictures Television ‘Diverse Directors Program.’

Lee Friedlander is another example of a fruitful career change. Tired of doing Lifetime and Hallmark-movies, she has now successfully moved on to Good Girls and New Amsterdam. In fact, it seems especially action- and crime-oriented shows like FBI, Blindspot, Dare Me, Manifest, The Blacklist and Law & Order: SVU now boast more female directors than ever before. Add sitcoms and comedy series like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and you get a good cross-section of genres in which women have been able to advance behind the camera.

According to a DGA report, 31% of episodes in the 2018-2019 tv-season were directed by women. The goal is clearly to make this a full 50% as fast as possible. And it looks like it is getting there. Their names may not yet sound familiar – Heather Jack, Rebecca Adelman, Kim Nguyen, Ramaa Mosley, Katie Locke O’Brien, Lisa Robinson, Monica Raymund, Daniela de Carlo and more – but they all are well on their way to follow in the footsteps of predecessors like Lesli Linka Glatter (Homeland, Mad Men), who warns against the old practice of giving women a chance to “shadow” an accomplished male director in order to gain practical inside into the job: “It’s incredibly helpful because you get to observe the process and it helps you grow as a director. But without the guarantee of a job, it’s not meaningful in the same way, in terms of moving the needle. There has to be traction. And shadowing doesn’t create change. Credits create change.”

Lisa Joy, writer, and creator of Westworld knows something about that: she has been writing TV episodes since Pushing Daisies in 2007 and Burn Notice in 2011. She had to become an executive producer on Westworld for four years before she got her first directing assignment. And it is a feature, Reminiscence, scheduled for release in 2021. What Joy’s trajectory proves is that there are many ways to become a director but creating and executive producing a successful TV show is certainly at the top of the list. Just ask Frankie Shaw who turned her Sundance Festival award-winning short into a series – SMILF – gave herself the showrunner job and started directing. I started out as an actress but found my love for directing by creating my own work,” she says. Now she is in pre-production to helm the film adaptation of Kira Madden’s Long Live The Fatherless Girls novel and the limited series Wifey, based on the book by Judy Blume, as well as a project produced by Steven Soderbergh. At present, and even during a pandemic, she is running not one but two writers’ rooms on Zoom for the two new TV-shows that she will direct and produce.

“What was amazing from going from directing shorts to executive producing and directing TV shows, I was able to develop my voice as a director”, she says. She prefers creating her own material. Even though that is a lot harder to do: “It’s being able to direct a show I created as opposed to adapting to another person’s idea. What directing my own show did for me was to develop my own taste as a director. It is an ever-evolving process, and as much as I learn from doing, I also learn from watching.” But having done it both ways, she acknowledges that she learned a lot from being a hired hand, too: “You have to figure out how to execute someone else’s vision which is a very useful skill. But doing my own series also opened the doors for more directing projects.”

In other words: there is no wrong way of going about it. Whether you join a directing workshop, shadow someone else, or write your own material and insist on taking the helm.