Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2009 December 17 • Thursday

There were several baffling statements in Manohla Dargis's article "Women in the Seats but Not Behind the Camera" in last Sunday's New York Times. For instance, on the subject of female directors who released films in 2009, she wrote that "Some are foreign directors, like Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum) and Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman); others are documentary filmmakers, including Agnès Varda (The Beaches of Agnès) and Aviva Kempner (Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg)."

Agnès Varda is as "foreign" as Claire Denis. And referring to her in passing as only a documentary filmmaker is like mentioning John Updike the poet, or Martin Scorsese the concert filmmaker.

The part that bugged me the most, though, was this:

The usual line on Hollywood is that it cares only about box office, which is at once true and something of a convenient excuse. Money makes the movie world go round, sure. But there are exceptions to this perceived rule, as some of my favorite male directors, including Michael Mann, have routinely proved with various box office disappointments. Released in 2001, Mr. Mann’s “Ali,” a well-regarded if not universally beloved biography of Muhammad Ali with Will Smith, brought in nearly $88 million in global receipts. (The production budget, partly paid for by Sony, was an estimated $107 million.) The next year Ms. Bigelow’s independently financed “K-19: The Widowmaker,” a submarine adventure movie with Harrison Ford, was released to solid reviews, raking in just under $66 million globally (with a $100 million production budget).

What did a $22 million difference in box office mean for the directors of “Ali” and “K-19”? Well, Ms. Bigelow didn’t direct another feature until 2007, when she began “The Hurt Locker,” a thriller about a bomb squad in Iraq that was bankrolled by a French company and is said to cost under $20 million. For his part Mr. Mann directed “Collateral,” a thriller with Tom Cruise, for Paramount and DreamWorks (with a budget of $65 million and global box office of more than $217 million), and “Miami Vice,” a reimagining, with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, of Mr. Mann’s popular 1980s television series. Paid for by Universal, that movie cost $135 million and is considered a disappointment with about a $164 million worldwide take.

I imagine there are a host of reasons why Mr. Mann has been able to persuade executives to keep writing such large checks. He’s a dazzling innovator, and big stars keep flocking to his side, despite his reputation for difficulty. But Ms. Bigelow is one of the greatest action directors working today, and it’s hard not to wonder why failure at the box office doesn’t translate the same for the two sexes.

I don't know what Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow are supposed to have in common. The big difference in their professional lives, though, I would bet, is that Bigelow's movies are, as Dargis mentions in the first paragraph above, independently financed. Not just K-19, but all of them. I don't care who you are—that's likely to slow you down.

But what's really annoying about this is that Dargis could have just asked Kathryn Bigelow why it took her longer to make her next movie. The Onion, for crying out loud, did just that last June.

The A.V. Club: There was a seven-year gap between K-19 and this new movie. Were you attempting to get other film projects off the ground during that time? What finally brought you to The Hurt Locker?

Kathryn Bigelow: Well, actually, I became familiar with [screenwriter Mark Boal’s] journalism and turned one of his articles into a television series [Fox’s The Inside]. That took a fair amount of time. And then it was a short-lived series, so it’s not one to dwell on. But then at that time—it was 2004, so two years after K-19—I realized he was going off to do an embed in Baghdad with a bomb squad. And not unlike the general public, I felt fairly unaware of what was going on in Baghdad. I think it’s a war that has been underreported in many respects, so I was extremely curious, and I kind of suspected that, providing he survived, he might come back with some really rich material that would be worthy of a cinematic translation, and that’s what happened. So then he came back and we started working on the script in 2005, raised the money in 2006, shot in 2007, cut it, and here we are. These things take time, is all I’m trying to say. I think what people don’t realize is how long these things can take in development. I’ve always developed all my own pieces, and they’re time-consumers.

Well, there you have it. She was busy creating a TV series—for Fox, not some cable channel you never heard of before. Then she spent time raising money, because she's an independent filmmaker.

AVC: Was it always a certainty that the film would have to be made outside the studio system?

KB: We never approached any other financing avenue. I wanted to keep it as independent as humanly possible, and I wanted to shoot in the Middle East. That alone probably would have been a non-starter. And then I anticipated that and didn’t pursue. And also, to be honest, I’ve never made a non-independent movie. No matter what scale it’s been, it’s always been independent. So I wanted to retain complete creative control, I wanted final cut, I wanted the opportunity to cast breakout, emerging talent, and as I said, shoot in the Middle East.

These are all reasons why The Hurt Locker is much, much better than Collateral—better than any Michael Mann movie that I've seen.

It's disappointing that Dargis takes up a lot of space in the Sunday Times to say practically nothing about women in the film business. She writes, for example, "If you have ever wondered what ever happened to Susan Seidelman, Penny Marshall, Martha Coolidge, Amy Heckerling, Nancy Savoca, none of whom had the career they should have had, you're not alone."

And that's it. Why doesn't she tell us what happened to them? It can't be too hard to find out—especially if you're a chief film critic for The New York Times.

And I'm not sure what she means by "none of whom had the career they should have had". What careers should they have had? A career like, say, Orson Welles's? Samuel Fuller's? Elaine May's? I'm curious. But it seems that Manohla Dargis is not—not enough to send an email or make a phone call, anyway.