The Women of Action

An in-depth look at an exciting mixture of Hollywood filmmakers, on the eve of what appears to be a golden age for female action directors…

by: Christian Niedan

When the first trailer for Charlie’s Angels was released in June 2019, action fans were put on notice.

“I think women can do anything,” a smiling Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart) says to the camera. The man she’s actually speaking to, an international aid thief, replies, “Just because they can, doesn’t mean they should.”

Stewart laughs, then whispers in his ear, “We have so many talents…” and begins choking him out with a nearby curtain, while her associate Jane Kano (Ella Balinska) beats up the man’s two bodyguards.

That bit of banter set the tone for the film, a semi-reboot for the franchise, which opened in November. But it was also a not-so-subtle message to action genre connoisseurs, courtesy of the woman in the director’s seat, Elizabeth Banks, who also appears onscreen as this installment’s Bosley.  

Despite her film’s swagger, Banks’ first action foray as a director underperformed in the U.S. — taking in only $17.7 million against a $48 million budget. A larger $41.4 million international box office tally brought the film’s total worldwide gross to $59 million. However, those underwhelming numbers were dwarfed by the profits of Captain Marvel, co-directed by Anna Boden, which took in $1.1 billion globally. Indeed, Marvel & DC characters are powering a slew of big-budget action-packed woman-directed films rolling out in 2020. In fact, women will helm all four of this year’s big superhero films. Specifically, February’s Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan), May’s Black Widow (Cate Shortland), June’s Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins), and November’s Eternals (Chloe Zhao). Add to that March’s live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan (Niki Caro), and the first year of the 2020s looks to be a golden age for female action filmmakers.

Let’s take a closer look at those four Marvel/DC adaptors, plus Caro, who boast a variety of experience making screen stories out of novels, non-fiction, newspaper reports, and yes, comic books:

Cathy Yan1: The film that won the China-born America-raised Yan Birds of Prey, was her 2018 debut feature, Dead Pigs — a comedy that follows the colorful denizens of modern Shanghai. The deceased hogs floating in the city’s nearby river were drawn from a real news story that Yan read. She came across it while in film school, after stints as a reporter for The Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal. Now, she is the first Asian-American woman to direct a wide-release comic book film — which will have a smaller budget than Harley Quinn’s last outing in 2016’s Suicide Squad — but will also brandish an R-rating which that previous film did not.

Cate Shortland: After a decade of directing short films and television episodes in Australia, Shortland made a critically lauded feature debut, with 2004’s Somersault. The romantic drama swept Australia’s Oscar-like AACTA’s, launching the career of Abbie Cornish. Shortland followed that with 2012’s historical drama, Lore. The adaptation of Rachel Seiffert’s 2001 novel follows a German girl trekking through her post-WWII homeland, coming to grips with atrocities committed by Nazis…including her own father. Five years later, Shortland clashed Australian with German in adapting Melanie Joosten’s 2012 novel, Berlin Syndrome into a 2017 cinematic psychological thriller. Her dramatic resume (specifically, Lore) got Shortland the nod for Birds of Prey, beating out fellow finalists for the director’s seat, Amma Asante (2013’s Belle) and Maggie Betts (2017’s Novitiate).

Patty Jenkins: Boasting a worldwide box office total of more than $800 million, the action-packed 2017 cinematic version of comic book superhero, Wonder Woman is the highest-grossing film by a female director — surpassing Phyllida Lloyd’s Mama Mia. For its 2020 sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, Jenkins’ salary is expected to be a record for a female director. Jenkins also has critical acclaim on her directing resume, with 2003 Aileen Wuornos biopic, Monster, earning Charlize Theron a Best Actress Oscar. That film placed #55 on the BBC’s “100 Greatest Films Directed by Women.”

Chloe Zhao: Having written and directed her 2015 feature debut (the Native American Reservation-set drama, Songs My Brother Taught Me) with a development assist from the Sundance Institute, Zhao secured a premiere at that year’s Sundance Film Festival and was later nominated for the “Golden Camera” for best first theatrical feature at the Cannes Film Festival. The Beijing-born U.K./U.S.-educated Zhao revisited the Western Native American setting for her 2017 naturalistic drama follow-up, The Rider, about the return to action of a real-life rodeo cowboy after a serious injury. The film took the top prize at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, and was picked up for distribution by Sony. Zhao then impressed Marvel into hiring her for the big budget film version of Jack Kirby’s comic, Eternals, about the millennia-spanning story of heroic and villainous creations competing for superiority.

Niki Caro: First seizing filmgoer attention with 2002’s New Zealand Maori coming-of-age drama Whale Rider, the Kiwi-born Caro has directed five more features since. Three were adaptations of books, including 2005’s North Country (based on Clara Bingham and Laura Lee Gansler’s 2002 chronicle, Class Action) and 2009’s A Heavenly Vintage (based on Elizabeth Knox’s 1998 novel, The Vintner’s Luck). However, none of those films will be bigger in scale than Caro’s live-action Mulan remake for Disney. When she was hired for the project in 2017 (amid the release of her adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s 2007 non-fiction book, The Zookeeper’s Wife), Caro became just the second woman (after DuVernay) to direct a $100 million film for Disney — a budget that has since swelled to twice that number. 

It’s been a long road to get to such heady directorial heights. A decade ago, things were different for women in the action genre.

In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first (and to date only) female filmmaker to win a Best Director Oscar for her work on the 2009 action film-slash-character study The Hurt Locker. Before that, Punisher: War Zone, directed by Lexi Alexander, was released in 2008. Still, at the dawn of the 2010s, a woman helming a major American action film — or even just writing one — was rare, never mind a release that’s part of a lucrative, long-running franchise. 

Ten years later, things finally seem to be changing. James Bond is arguably the most recognizable action figure in western cinema. His 25th (official) adventure, No Time to Die, opens in April, and is written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creative force behind Fleabag and Killing Eve. She’ll be the second female screenwriter credited with a Bond script; Dr. No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963) were co-written by Johanna Harwood. In April 2019, the New York Times profiled executive producer Bernadette Caulfield under the headline, “Meet the Woman Who Is the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Game of Thrones.” That show also featured the work of numerous female screenwriters, such as Vanessa Taylor and Jane Espenson.

As important as the gains in the writing room and producer credits are, it’s still the role of director that carries the ultimate degree of screen industry prestige. Recently, Deborah Chow and Bryce Dallas Howard broke ground in the Star Wars universe by directing episodes of The Mandalorian. In the larger action genre, several women have made their marks — even if the gains come slowly.

Looking back, 2009 was an important year for women action directors, thanks to Bigelow’s success with The Hurt Locker. It has taken a decade for Hollywood to make good on the promise of that milestone. But with 2020’s slate of high-profile releases, this could be the cultural moment when the action film boys club is broken up for good. So let’s take another listed look at how things stood a decade back for five female filmmakers:

Kathryn Bigelow: The Hurt Locker gripped critics and general audiences alike with its look at an under-fire American army bomb disposal team during the Iraq War. However, Bigelow had already spent 30 years exploring different approaches to action films. In 1978, while still at Columbia University’s film school, she directed The Set-Up as a deconstruction of film violence, in which we hear two professors analyze a fistfight. In 1991, came her most famous pre-Hurt Locker film, Point Break, a sun-drenched heist movie about an FBI agent infiltrating a gang of thrill-seeking bank robbers. In 2002, she helmed her most claustrophobic film, about men trained to fight the world’s final war suddenly faced with their own radioactive deaths in K19: The Widowmaker (chronicling the doomed crew of Russia’s first nuclear-powered submarine). In November 2019, five of Bigelow’s films made the BBC’s list, “The 100 Greatest Films Directed by Women,” with The Hurt Locker coming in at #7.

Lexi Alexander: In 2009, Alexander had just directed the previous year’s Punisher: War Zone, wherein Marvel’s murderous gun-loving antihero wages a blood feud with a disfigured mob boss. Years earlier, Alexander’s professional martial arts training earned her work as a Hollywood stuntwoman, which she then parlayed into directing. She snagged an Oscar nomination for her 2002 short film, Johnny Flynton, about a boxer with a violent temper. Then she helmed her first feature in 2005 entitled Green Street Hooligans, about a gang of street-fighting English football fans.

Karyn Kusama: Fisticuffs also made a name for Kusama when, in 2000, she debuted with the critically acclaimed independent feature, Girlfight — launching the career of Michelle Rodriguez. She then shifted to science fiction with 2005’s Aeon Flux, based on the 1990s MTV animated series about a female assassin in a dystopian future. In 2009, Kusama switched genres, working with Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody on the horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body, about a possessed cheerleader who targets her male classmates for death.

Mimi Leder: Directing dramatic television was Leder’s gateway to action films. The first woman to graduate the AFI Conservatory, Leder spent 10 years directing both TV movies and shows, before helming her first feature with 1997’s The Peacemaker. This was more than an opportunity to direct an action film — it was the crucial first release by DreamWorks Studios. The new studio’s confidence in Leder paid off, with the film taking in $110 million worldwide against a $50 million budget. That success earned Leder enough clout to take on 1998’s disaster epic, Deep Impact, which earned $350 million worldwide. In 2009, she helmed the action heist film, Thick as Thieves.

Betty Thomas: Starting her career as a stage and television actress, Thomas began directing television shows in 1989, and films in 1992, with a career that would revolve around comedy. She won an Emmy for Outstanding Directing on a Comedy Series for her work on ’90s HBO show, Dream On. In cinema, she strung together profitable hits like 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie, 1997’s Private Parts, and 1998’s Doctor Dolittle, starring Eddie Murphy. However, when she worked with Murphy again on 2002’s I Spy (a remake of the 1960s Bill Cosby series, long before that connection could hurt the project), the film’s mix of action and comedy resulted in Thomas’ only unprofitable wide-release film.

How does that compare to the women directing non-comics action at the dawn of the 2020s? Here’s an update five (including one duo):

Kathryn Bigelow: The 2010 Academy Awards ceremony concluded with The Hurt Locker being named Best Picture of 2009 — the first such honor for a female director. In the 10 years since that film’s U.S. release, Bigelow has directed only two more films. 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty was her second collaboration with screenwriter Mark Boal (who won an Oscar for his Hurt Locker screenplay), this time for a thriller recreating the U.S. hunt for Osama Bin Laden, which concludes with a nighttime SEAL Team 6 raid on the al Qaeda leader’s Pakistan hideout. Five years later, Bigelow teamed with Boal again for 2017’s Detroit, which delves into murderous misconduct by the Michigan city’s police force during and after 1967’s “12th street riot.” In 2019, Bigelow produced (but did not direct) the J.C. Chandor-helmed action thriller, Triple Frontier (co-written by Boal), about a reunited Delta Force team who rob $250 million from a secluded Colombian drug lord.

Ava DuVernay: Four groundbreaking creative women were crucial to the construction of 2018 fantasy adventure, A Wrinkle in Time. First, the 1962 source novel’s author, the late Madeleine L’Engle, whose “Time Quintet” of books garnered literary acclaim. Second, there’s the film’s screenwriter, Jennifer Lee, who wrote and directed 2013 animated film, Frozen — the first female-directed feature to earn over $1 billion in worldwide box office. Third, Oprah Winfrey, who plays the ancient and powerful Mrs. Which, and is herself a massively influential media tycoon. Fourth, DuVernay, who had created and directed 2016’s Queen Sugar for Oprah’s television network, after helming 2014’s Oscar-nominated Selma. In 2019, Duvernay directed the miniseries, When They See Us, about the notorious “Central Park Five” caseHer next two projects, though, will be action-oriented comic book adaptations: the pilot episode of DMZ (for HBO Max) about a near-future second American Civil War, and a film adaptation of Jack Kirby’s seminal, bind-bending The New Gods.

Lynne Ramsay: No stranger to dark psychological explorations of violence and death within her previous films (from 1999’s Ratcatcher, to 2002’s Morvern Callar, to 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin), Ramsay’s 2017 thriller You Were Never Really Here harnesses physical action via the brutal hammer strikes of Joaquin Phoenix’s torture-heavy hitman.

Karyn Kusama: 2009’s Jennifer’s Body earned $31.5 million at the worldwide box office against its $16 million budget. Yet, it would be six years before Kusama directed another feature — the limited-release horror film, The Invitation. In 2018, she directed Destroyer, which takes places 16 years after a bank heist gone wrong – with Nicole Kidman’s former undercover FBI agent out for violent revenge against the gang leader who killed her partner. 

The Wachowskis: 20 years ago, The Matrix reshaped action films for the digital era. The next two decades would see the siblings who wrote and directed that landmark movie make big changes as well. By 2012, co-writer/director Lana Wachowski had transitioned to female — followed by sister Lilly in 2016. The two collaborated as co-writers/directors of 2015 sci-fi epic Jupiter Ascending, but only Lana will be handling those roles on a planned fourth Matrix series installment. The BBC ranked The Matrix #35 amongst “The 100 Greatest Films Directed by Women.”

  1. Photo by Claudette Barius. []

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