How Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jane Campion and other female directors meet Hollywood expectations

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Nicole Holofcener knows she’s not the first person that comes to mind for a medieval action movie. For more than 20 years, the icon of independent cinema (Lovely and amazing, enough said) felt perfectly satisfied directing her own scripts, biting slices of life where the richness of the dialogue was the main attraction. Then Ben Affleck came knocking. “He emailed me a strange request: would I like to write a sword fight movie with him and Matt Damon,” says Holofcener. More precisely, it was an adaptation of the documentary book by Eric Jager from 2004, The last duel, a 14th century revenge tale about a knight named John; Jean’s best friend, Jacques; and Jean’s wife, Marguerite, who claims that Jacques raped her. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” says Holofcener. Her film is part of an encouraging wave, as a group of women with decades-popular film careers apply their gaze to innovative subjects in their works. A decade ago The last duel, directed by Ridley Scott and in theaters on October 15, could have been very different: bloodier, uglier, more manly. Affleck and Damon had long envisioned the script to present the perspectives of the three main characters. “Maybe they tried to start writing Marguerite themselves and thought, we don’t know what we’re doing,” Holofcener says of his co-authors. They wanted to do it right. So they asked Holofcener to write Marguerite’s version of events.

Even with Holofcener on board, the announcement of the project sparked a quick backlash over its blunt subject matter. Holofcener understood the reaction – “It’s such a difficult time,” she concedes – but remained focused on creating a three-dimensional heroine, exploring historical research outside of the book’s scope and “completely. out of my wheelhouse ”. She was spurred on by the challenge and found surprising parallels with her previous work. She wishes to give Marguerite “a voice and a personality” and imagines unique hobbies for her. During meetings with star Jodie Comer, she wondered who this woman really was: “What would she say? How would she say it? And what were the repercussions of what she said? It took imagination and speculation. “The story is much more male-centric,” says Holofcener, “although she was the one who spoke courageously and honestly, and risked her life to do so.”

With The lost girl, Maggie Gyllenhaal (shown here between scenes) wrote and directed the first English adaptation of Elena Ferrante.Courtesy of NETFLIX.

This kind of disparity has long motivated another filmmaker, Jane Campion. The Oscar winner, known for his literary adaptations of both canonical documents (The portrait of a lady) and obscure (An angel at my table), has followed a clear line: her work is always focused on women. She says Vanity Fair it was “a mission” because she saw half of the world’s population being underserved in the movies.

In the post- # MeToo era, Campion saw more women find opportunities in filmmaking. “I have never seen such an important thing in my life,” she says. “I see it as permanent.” She wanted to broaden her own vision and decided to imagine a new kind of hero for herself. Having taken a long hiatus from the movies (his only recent directing credit was the television series Top of the lake), she discovers the nuanced western of the novelist Thomas Savage The power of the dog. A thorny and eerie saga of longing and loss, it centers on Phil Burbank, a macho rancher from Montana in the 1920s whose cruel streak takes a tragic turn when his brother, George, brings his new wife and teenage son to life. with them. Campion was not only centering a man for the first time, but a difficult man as well. “There is a tendency when you have a character who causes others a lot of pain to want to sit on the sidelines and call them bad,” she says. “But the director must be by his side… and cherish his humanity even if it is imperfect. It was a bit of an adventure for me.

The 1967 novel is an atypical western, deconstructing the myths of the genre’s masculinity with an emphasis on emotion and trauma, which Campion emphasizes in its erotic and tender twist. She performs the prose with “a woman’s mind, a woman’s heart”, including the subversively shocking ending. (The movie hits Netflix on December 1.) “Bringing your feminine knowledge into these spaces is actually exciting,” she says. “I was ready to give it my all. “

After decades of sporadic breakthroughs in the fight for gender parity, such as the 1993 Palme d’Or from Campion to Cannes for The piano and the 2010 Oscar of Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker– more lasting gains are becoming evident. This year’s Oscars featured for the first time two women nominated for achievement, Chloe Zhao and Emerald Fennell, the former becoming the category’s second winner; in July, TitaniumJulia Ducournau became the second woman to win the Palme, after Campion. This fall’s slate not only keeps the momentum going, but gives industry veterans the space to do something new. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who directed her feature debut this year with The lost girl (on Netflix Dec. 31), couldn’t even consider herself a director until now, because of the Hollywood she grew up in. woman, you might aspire to be a nurse, “she said,” to me, without really thinking about it, I was like, Oh, I’m an actress. “

Gyllenhaal has produced films before, starting with those from 2018 The kindergarten teacher. But it wasn’t until she started reading the beloved Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, whose work had not yet been adapted into English, that she felt drawn to the director’s chair. by Ferrante The lost girl follows a professor haunted by the decisions she made as a deeply upset young mother. Gyllenhaal wrote the screenplay herself, she says, because she wanted to capture how viscerally the novel spoke to her: “I think a lot of women make movies differently from men, write books differently from men, and compose. music differently. And why not? ”She avoided a straightforward page-to-page transition, cutting off Ferrante’s first-person narration and moving the location to the Greek island of Spetses, a huge undertaking for a beginning director: “There was a moment I went: hold on. Is this crazy? Can I really drive this group of people to Greece?” “Says Gyllenhaal.” We couldn’t be stopped. “

Up-and-coming screenwriter Alice Birch, who previously adapted Normal people with author Sally Rooney, says she is “fairly loyal” to the books she translates to screen. She beautifully drew a common thread from Graham Swift’s novel Mothers Day who spoke to her while working on director Eva Husson’s new buzzy adaptation (in theaters November 19): the candid, sensual, character-driven exploration of female desire. “The book gave me a feeling and I wanted to honor that, ”she says. She adds that Mothers Day and Normal people-as well as Rooney’s novel Conversations with friends, which she’s adapting next – “strikes me as honest, truthful portrayals of sexuality that we maybe haven’t seen onscreen as much as I would like.”

When London-born actress Rebecca Hall met Nella Larsen’s classic 1929 novel, Who passed, back in her mid-twenties, it hit her with a “punch of truth.” The book examines the reunion of two African-American childhood friends in Harlem, one of whom lives – “passes” – as a white woman in her everyday life. Hall’s own family of African-American descent has a complex history of death, as his American grandfather grew up struggling to know how to present himself to the world. “My family didn’t really have the language for what my grandfather had done,” Hall says. Who passed “Was instant context for me… an understanding of this as something that happened and was understood in the black community. “

Read the novel by Nella Larsen Who passed, director Rebecca Hall (bottom right) felt a ‘punch of truth’ attached to her own family story.Courtesy of NETFLIX.

After reading Larsen’s novel, Hall immediately wrote a screenplay, to put it in a drawer for about fifteen years. It was “all for me, not for anyone else,” Hall said, and she knew she wanted to make it for herself someday. She recently picked up the draft, ready to fully engage in its subtle black-and-white design – and at a time when the opportunities for women to direct have increased dramatically. The resulting play, Hall’s first writing and directing credits, is a demanding work that feels in conversation with Larsen’s novel and the larger and more delicate questions the author poses about it. identity and authenticity. (Who passed arrives on Netflix on November 10.) “I was in awe of this book, and I still am,” says Hall. “He has this ambiguity, this duality. I tried to find a cinematic language for that kind of enigmatic quality. “

None of these filmmakers are new to the medium – in fact, each has consistently created award-winning works for them – but it is no coincidence that they all take new risks and reexamine their relationship to art. “Over the past two years, I’ve been offered projects that I never thought I would have the opportunity to do,” says Holofcener, having recently worked on Marvel and animation projects. She adds sarcastically: “I find that I can do a lot of things. Bring it on.”

More great stories from Vanity Fair

– The power of Who passed: An exclusive trailer for Rebecca Hall’s debut film
– Ann Dowd does it from the heart and could soon earn her first Oscar name
– Golden Globe membership review after diversity storm
– Riz Ahmed on the new film Mughal Mowgli and fearing his own name
– The “emotional scuba diving” behind that of Maggie Gyllenhaal The lost girl
– Sign up for the “Awards Insider” newsletter for must-see industry coverage and awards.


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