Columbia University Film Fest Presents Panel on Women Filmmakers

Last night, the Film Society of Lincoln Center in Manhattan presented a panel entitled “What Glass Ceiling: The Remarkable Success of Columbia’s Women Filmmakers,” as part of the Columbia University Film Festival‘s 25th anniversary this week. Introduced by Columbia’s Film Department Chair Ira Deutchman, the panel was moderated by film director and Columbia Film faculty member Bette Gordon, and featured acclaimed filmmakers Shari Springer Berman, Cherien Dabis, Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener.

Gordon began the panel by proudly proclaiming the fact that Columbia has “produced more women directors than any other film school today,” but lamented that in spite of this, “the film world is predominantly white and male.” She then turned things over to the four filmmakers to discuss the challenges they faced in getting their own first features made. Berman joked that “only half my answers are valid [because] I actually work with a partner who’s male,” her husband and co-director Robert Pulcini, whom she met while they were both attending Columbia. Dabis spoke about the extra difficulties of finding financing for her first feature, Amreeka, which “was not just about women, it was about Middle Eastern women.” Cholodenko’s advice for aspiring first-time filmmakers was to “have your intention in place, articulate it and stick to it,” while Holofcener told an unhappy tale of how she and her first agent parted ways. “After a while,” she said, “he sent me a Xerox bill, and I knew that was the end of my agent.”

When asked about how they went from their initial success to their second features, Dabis, who is currently in this particular process, said, “It’s never going to be easy, and when you accept that, it is what it is, and you just sort of keep going.” Cholodenko echoed this sentiment by adding, “If you have the stomach for that, then you’ll make it, and if it turns you off, then you should maybe find another profession.” The conversation then turned to the work of creating believable characters and situations with which an audience can relate. Cholodenko offered this secondhand advice: “Someone said to me once, ‘Just write it until it breaks your own heart.’” Holofcener responded the question of how much description she uses in her scripts, as opposed to dialogue, by saying, “I hate reading scripts that tell me about the character in the description of the character,” as opposed to dramatizing it through action.

As the discussion moved on to casting and working with actors, Holofcener spoke about her close working relationship with Catherine Keener, who has appeared in all of her features. “Just looking at me,” Holofcener said, “helps her access what I need from her … It’s a very intuitive connection. If she’s crying in a scene, I’m crying.” Berman spoke about the importance of casting the right actor for any given part: “I really believe that if you cast the wrong person, there’s little you can do to save the film.” Holofcener added to this by addressing the pressure felt from studios to cast a star: “One time, I did buckle and … offered this actor the part, and I had this sinking feeling … and she passed,” she said with a sigh of relief.

The panel wrapped up by addressing the topic of its title: the idea of “women filmmakers,” a moniker that Cholodenko said she doesn’t feel is “particularly modern.” “If it has to be modified, it’s like a handicap,” she expounded, while Dabis said that “because it is that much more difficult … I’m proud to be doing it.” “The statistics [of women in the industry vs. men] are horrible,” Cholodenko continued, “but I don’t think it’s going to go backwards, to where there’s this invisible other gender with no representation.” As to why Columbia seems to be a breeding ground for female filmmakers, Cholodenko said, “The energy there is really … what’s the word?” “Feminine?” Holofcener offered. “No, it’s not,” Cholodenko responded, “it’s androgynous. You go there and you don’t feel like it’s a boy’s club.” With a new semester of Columbia’s Film program beginning in the fall, we’re sure to see many distinguished filmmakers, both male and female, ascending from its ranks in the coming years. The panel can be viewed in its entirety here.

  

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Directors Guild and Visual Effects Society Nominations

Historically, the Directors Guild nominations, and even the actual awards, have tended to correlate with the Oscars both for Best Picture and Best Director to some degree. Now that the Oscars have ten nominations, that might dilute things a bit. Even so, I think it’s fair to say that the this year’s five nominees have excellent shots at getting a Best Director nomination and are close to a lock for Best Picture nominations.

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The nominees are: Darren Aronofsky for “Black Swan,” David Fincher for “The Social Network,” Tom Hooper for “The King’s Speech,” Christopher Nolan for “Inception,” and David O. Russell for “The Fighter.” Among the directors excluded who made films a lot of people are pulling for are two women: Lisa Cholodenko of “The Kids Are All Right” and Debra Ganik of “Winter’s Bone.” As Anne Thompson points out, the Guild has been slightly more open to nominating women than the Academy in the past. On the other hand, after last year’s big win for Kathryn Bigelow, it’s possible some of the pressure is off, or not.

Though it’s not as earth shaking, we movie fans like our movie special effects and the Visual Effects Society has made their nominations. No big surprises here either as the nominees for the movie with best effects are “Inception,” “Iron Man 2 ,” “Tron: Legacy,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1.” I think it’s fair to say that visually stunning “Inception” should have the lead here, but we’ll see. In animation the nominees are: “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Toy Story 3,” “Tangled,” “Shrek Forever After,” and “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.”

The complete lists of award nominations, including a huge list from the VSA, are after the jump.

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A Chat with Lisa Cholodenko, director of “The Kids Are All Right”

Lisa Cholodenko isn’t a household name as writer/directors go, but that may change somewhat after her latest film, “The Kids Are All Right,” which was released smack in the middle of the summer, and came out on DVD and Blu-ray last week. The movie features three of our greatest actors – Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo – doing some of the most astute work of their careers. Expect the movie to snag some Oscar nominations for one or more of the trio, and if there’s any justice, Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg will be nominated for Best Original Screenplay as well.

The movie is blisteringly funny while at the same time painfully honest. It tells the story of a lesbian couple (Bening and Moore) who’ve been together for 20 years and raised two children (played Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) who are now at an age when they’re interested in meeting their sperm donor (Ruffalo). Human comedy ensues with unexpected results. “The Kids Are All Right” is one of the best movies of the year, and Cholodenko, whose previous films include “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon,” is a huge factor in its success. Now you might be thinking that a movie about two lesbians and their kids isn’t exactly what you’re looking for. If so, you’re exactly the person who should see this film, because it’ll change your ideas of what makes a family in this day and age. And it will make you laugh – loud and hard.

Cholodenko took some time out to talk to Bullz-Eye on the occasion of the film’s home video release and after some introductory chit-chat we discussed the lesbian right, gay porn, and new meanings for the word “tribe.”

Bullz-Eye: “The Kids are All Right” was like this oasis of reason in an ocean of CGI and fart jokes this past summer. Do you get frustrated when you look around see the types of movies that rake in the big bucks these days?

Lisa Cholodenko: I wish we would kind of go back to the time where there were more interesting, idiosyncratic human kinds of comedies and dramas, and not such the kind of broad and farcical, box office driven fare, but that’s where we are right now, so, I just accept it, and I’m glad that there’s space for films like this.

BE: Well, so am I. There was some fairly vocal criticism of the film from the most unlikely of places – the lesbian community. Where do you think that kind of outrage comes from and, outside of raising awareness for the film itself, does that kind of anger serve any worthwhile purpose for a thoughtful movie like this?

LC: I keep referring to them as the lesbian right (chuckling), and I think that in any kind of group there’s going to be a contingent of people that are more extreme in their views of things, and more politicized and so, I think there’s room for everybody, and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s gets a little tedious speaking to it – not to you – but when I’ve heard it in Q & A’s and stuff, but I’m sympathetic. There’ve obviously been no great representations of lesbians in cinema, or certainly there hasn’t been in a long time, and it’s kind of an old school doctrinaire, “Oh of course the lesbian goes off with a man.” But if you look at the film with any kind of care, it’s really not about that at all.

BE: No, no, it isn’t.

LC: She really goes off with her partner. So it gets a little knee-jerky and tedious for me, but I’m sympathetic that there’s no representation, and with starvation sometimes you get a lot of mixed feelings.

BE: Well, here’s a weird question, and you gotta help me out here, because it was the one thing in the whole movie that baffled me. Lesbian couples watching gay male porn to get in the mood. Is this common? Is this something that I’m just totally unaware of?

LC: You know, I don’t know because I’m not a social scientist. I just thought, you know, different strokes for different folks, and it’s always fascinating to find out what people do to turn it on. Stuart [Blumberg, co-writer of the movie] and I stumbled on that idea, and wrote a scene, and laughed and I said, “No, it’s too risqué,” and he said, “No it’s not. It’s funny. It’s great.”

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Weekend box office: The “Inception” brain caper goes according to plan; “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” gets a swat in the tuchas

Those of us speculating on the possibility of a surprise in either the high or low direction for “Inception” early on Friday (okay, that would mainly be me), have now been silenced by the weekend estimates. They appear to have come down on the highish side of what the professional prognosticators expected, even if some of them were confessing to uncertainty. (Where did I read that? It’s gone now from where I thought I read it but maybe my dreams are being manipulated by a crack team hired by a Japanese billionaire who hates Nikki Finke.)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in So, no, Christopher Nolan’s highly praised but also controversial science-fiction thriller film for Warner Brothers is officially not “too smart” or too not-franchise-associated to be a hit, if an estimated $60.4 million is enough to constitute a hit these days for a $200 million film. It’s also worth noting that it managed this without an artificial boost from inflated 3-D ticket prices. I wonder if some math whizzes out there can compare this to the “disappointing” $77 million opening for “Avatar.” Anthony D’Alessandro points out this is the strongest North American opening ever for a Leonardo DiCaprio-headlined movie, which includes “Titanic.”(That box office stinker only made about $28 million domestically it’s first weekend.)

Still, as always, the question remains “legs” and how the word-of-tweet-facebook update-txt-mouth goes. The L.A. Times reported that the film scored a B+ on Cinemascore, reportedly dividing the audience by age with under 25-ers giving it an A and us oldsters giving it a B-. So are middle-aged filmgoers more discerning or younger ones more open to real genius? (Hey, politically, I tend to agree more with under-25 years olds more than people my own age who mostly loved Ronald Reagan, who I believe peaked in “Storm Warning” with Ginger Rogers.)

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