Director Sarah Adina Smith sounded gleeful last month as she spoke about working with the star of Amazon Prime Video’s new series Hanna to shape a different kind of action hero, one who would be both vulnerable and “going for the jugular” as a young woman trained to survive a world that might just want to kill her.
She and Esmé Creed-Miles, who plays Hanna, had "talked a lot about not wanting to do sort of an action hero movie where you take a girl and then you teach her to fight like a man, and then she kills a lot of people, and then we go, ‘Yay! She’s a strong female lead,’ ” Smith, a co-executive producer who directed the first two episodes, told reporters during the Television Critics Association’s winter meetings.
“We wanted to specifically look at, like, first of all, how can girls be strong in girls’ bodies, rather than trying to take the girl’s body and make it fight like a man’s,” she said. “Which means, like, being ruthless!”
Or as Creed-Miles put it, “kicking guys in the [groin] and biting their ears off.”
Created by David Farr, who cowrote the screenplay for the 2011 film on which the series is based and who also adapted John le Carré's The Night Manager for television, Hanna’s eight-episode first season premieres on the subscription streaming service March 29. It’s a fast-paced, sometimes bloody binge that features a strong (and, yes, vulnerable) performance by Creed-Miles as well as the reunion of The Killing stars Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman.
Female directors were more in the spotlight than usual at the critics’ meetings, with Lifetime, for instance, touting the fact that 78 percent of the directors for its projects in the first half of this year are women, and Patricia Arquette making a pitch for The Mustang, a new film by French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who directed three episodes of Arquette’s new true-crime series The Act, which premiered on Hulu on March 20.
“I got to see her film before we did this, and that was as much a big reason that I wanted to work on this as the story itself," Arquette said.
But should it matter to viewers that Clermonte-Tonnere and two of Hanna’s four directors are women, other than as a sign of progress in a medium where, according to a study by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, as recently as the 2017-18 season, only 17 percent of directors were female?
Clermonte-Tonnere, who began her career as an actress, thinks so. Women, she said, don’t necessarily tell stories the same way as men, “and especially when you have female characters, it’s such another angle of describing a sensibility.”
Smith isn’t so sure.
“I think it’s about time women got these jobs. It’s really hard to say if there’s a difference or not because … we’re just starting to get these jobs,” said Smith, whose directing credits include episodes of FX’s Legion, TBS’s Wrecked, and HBO’s Room 104, as well as the films Buster’s Mal Heart (which starred Rami Malek) and The Midnight Swim.
“We just went for the director who we felt would best tell the story in a way that was new for us,” Farr said. Smith “just had, as you can probably tell, this energy and this drive to tell it in her way. … The key thing is to make sure your eyes are really open and to make sure that those people are coming through."
The Night Manager, he noted, was directed by Susanne Bier. “I would get asked the question a lot, ‘Do you consciously choose women?’ as if somehow I’ve chosen a very small section of the population in some mad way.”
Consciously choosing a woman made sense to George Clooney.
Clooney, who produced and costarred in the six-part adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 that premieres May 17 on Hulu, initially planned to split directing duties with producing partner Grant Heslov, he told a group of reporters last month after a news conference. But "we looked around and we thought, well, this takes place in 1944 and it’s all men. … We should do everything we can to involve women,” he said.
"So we called up Ellen [Kuras], and Ellen said she’d love to come on board and direct. So I gave her two episodes of ours … and she did an amazing job. We felt like we wanted to get more of a woman’s perspective in everything. Our editors were women. We wanted there to be a feeling that it isn’t just from some, you know, 57-year-old guy’s perspective,” Clooney said.
When I asked what kind of difference having a woman in that role made, Clooney said Kuras, who directed the second and third episodes, brought “a different kind of logic,” adding: "Ellen’s just a good director. It has nothing to do with gender. But it also feels important to make sure we’re all participating in this, that we’re all part of the solution and not part of the issue.”
“I really think it’s probably just that I’m a different director. … When I think about this story, for me, it’s a very universal story,” Kuras said of Catch-22, a satire set during World War II.
“I was influenced by the fact that I’m a cinematographer, and also very much about listening to the words and getting the meaning in the subtext rather than the text. And so I think I was bringing that perspective as a director much more than bringing kind of a female emotional [element]. I think it’s good to have balance … because there were a lot of guys on set. But I’m used to that."
Monika Mitchell, one of the directors on Lifetime’s panel, said, "The first time I stepped on a set was in 1999, and on that set, I was the writer, the director, and the producer. And I had never seen a woman director. … There were so few women directors in January of 2000 that I remember sitting at the screening of my movie and there was a studio executive behind me. And when my name came up on the screen, he went, ‘Monika’s a funny name for a guy.’ ”
Like some other directors I spoke to, Mitchell prefers the job to the label. "Personally, where I hope to go next is to be seen as an individual,” she said.
Janice Cooke, another of Lifetime’s directors, has been directing episodic TV for nearly 20 years, with credits that range from Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill to MacGyver and Grimm.
"I put a lot of work into it. I’ve been very fortunate that I’m not pigeonholed,” Cooke told me, describing how, before directing an episode of Grimm, she’d spent a month catching up on previous seasons.
“Here’s the great thing about directing — every day there’s a magical moment," she said. "Either the performance is grand, or either the tear drops one teardrop down that face, or the light is great, or the tempo is fabulous, or that car crashed well, and you killed someone well. There’s always a moment. Every day, there’s a piece of magic.”
Emma Frost and Matthew Graham, showrunners for The Spanish Princess, set out to hire only women to direct the latest installment of Starz’s Philippa Gregory adaptations, which is set to premiere on May 5, although one of the four had to drop out at the last minute because of a family tragedy, Frost said, and was replaced by a man. (Director Ava DuVernay has also focused on hiring women to direct her OWN series Queen Sugar.)
“Is there such a thing as a female gaze?” Frost said. “I think there probably is. I’ve written enough shows with brilliant male directors, but male directors don’t understand the female experience, particularly” when it comes to sex.
“I wrote a film for the BBC once where the entire thing was from the female point of view. And when it came to the sex scene, the director fetishized the female body … because he just could not get out of the head-set of being a man in that moment," Frost said.
Yet for Caitriona Balfe, star of Starz’s time-traveling drama Outlander, which is often praised for the woman-friendly love scenes between Balfe’s character, Claire Fraser, and her 18th-century husband, Jamie (Sam Heughan), maintaining the female gaze doesn’t require the eyes behind the camera to belong to a woman.
“I think there’s this idea that only women can tell women’s stories; only men can tell men’s stories. That’s complete rubbish,” Balfe said. "We’ve had some male directors who have been far more sensitive and far more in tune with their emotional sensitivity than some female directors. … I think that it’s about respect and it’s about sensitivity. And I think that all people have the capacity for that.”