Strong women in film are sadly a rarity these days, but these five screenwriters, directors and producers are doing what they can to present dynamic female characters to the silver screen. Unlike Appatow-style comedy writers — for whom breasts will always be the only funny thing about a woman — or the scores of directors pushing out macho action flicks, these filmmakers understand the complexities and importance of women and translate it into their work.
All hail the queen of strong women characters. Between her autobiographical drama Heartburn documenting her divorce from Carl Bernstein and her last picture, Julie and Julia, Ephron knew how to write women characters that were both relatable and idolized. One of the best examples of her characters is in Silkwood, her breakthrough film starring Meryl Streep as plutonium plant worker struggling to shed light on the unsafe practices putting her fellow employees in danger. Ephron is famous for saying “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” Her rom-com characters, from Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally to, well, Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail exemplified this idea by being people first and romantic partners to Billy Crystal and Tom Hanks second. Women everywhere will sorely miss Ephron, who is no doubt an inspiration to female screenwriters and directors working to give women accurate representation in the industry.
Versatile filmmakers like Nora Ephron: Niki Caro (North Country), Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey)
The Chicago exotic-dancer-turned-Oscar-winning-screenwriter made her name in Hollywood by penning the script for Juno, a comedy with a sharp-talking teen who finds herself pregnant after a brief fling with a friend. The dialogue is over-stylized but entertaining, lending 2007’s teenage audience phrases such as “That ain’t no Etch-A-Sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be un-did, Homeskillet.” Juno is wracked with the emotions expected from a 16-year-old mother-to-be, using humor to mask it — until solitary scenes show her coming undone when she finds out the perfect adoptive couple isn’t all ecru paint and Pilates machines. After her award-season success, Cody went on to write Jennifer’s Body and Young Adult, two films that also had dynamic women at the helm who fight for what they want and find themselves despite the male pressures around them. Cody’s next project finds her behind the camera lens, directing and writing Paradise, a comedy starring Julianne Hough as an innocent, church-going girl who bolts to Vegas to experience the not-so-divine after surviving a plane crash.
Dramedy filmmakers like Diablo Cody: Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise), Sophia Copola (Lost in Translation, The Bling Ring)
Freaks and Geeks creator Feig already has a track record of bringing female-centered comedy to American audiences. When his 1980-set dramedy series about being the goodie-two-Keds of a bunch of misfits was heinously cancelled after one season, he went on to direct Bridesmaids and this year’s femme-frat comedy The Heat. “[I want] men to come away from [The Heat] going, like, ‘I’m not afraid of two women being funny,” he says. By taking on projects like the Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumulo-penned Bridesmaids, he proved that women could be just as funny as the sausage-fest Hangover cast, even when dealing with poop humor and disastrous pre-wedding events. Both Bridesmaids and The Heat, made a splash at the box office (Bridesmaids was nominated for two Oscars), and his next project, Susan Cooper, focuses on the misadventures of a female secret agent played by Rose Byrne.
Comedy filmmakers like Paul Feig: Tina Fey (Mean Girls), Sharon Maguire (Bridget Jones’ Diary)
When Callie Kouhri’s script for Thelma and Louise landed on the Blade Runner director’s desk, he tried to get fellow directors to take on the project under the agreement that he would produce. In a Vanity Fair article from 2011, he says that when one of them said, “So, this movie is about two bitches on a road trip,” he replied, “No, this movie as about two women on a road trip.” Eventually, he succumbed to the adage “if you want it done right, just do it yourself” and directed it himself, turning out an Oscar-nominated film that empowered women and examined issues such as rape and sexual harassment. But Thelma and Louise’s strong female characters weren’t Scott’s first — in 1979’s Alien he put Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) at the head of the mission, saying “The stronger the woman, the better for me.” This theory translates to his most recent project, Prometheus, which featured Charlize Theron and Noomi Rapace as the top dogs of a mission to find the origins of Earth.
Sci-fi filmmakers like Ridley Scott: Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, The Avengers), JJ Abrams (Star Trek, CBS’ Person of Interest)
Miyazaki has been in the animation business since the 1960s, but his most famous projects came later in his career. His fanciful and vivid drawings tell stories of tough little girls facing evil forces, mysterious spirits and their own magical powers. When talking about using young female characters in most of his movies, such as Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, he says: “At first, I thought ‘This is no longer the era of men’…But after ten years, I guess I grew tired of saying that. I just say ‘cause I like women.’ That has more reality.” His projects continue to top Disney and Pixar for most female leads, and his work has featured the talents of Lauren Bacall, Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal, Tina Fey and Betty White.
Fantasy filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki: Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labrynth), Brenda Chapman (Brave)
Kate Everson is a Chicago journalist and University of Missouri alumna. By day she is an associate editor for four HR industry magazines. By night, she reviews films, outlines fiction novels with tough female leads and dreams of being the first person to win two Oscars in the same night for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay. When her fingers aren’t getting exercise bouncing across her keyboard, she’s reading Palahniuk and Vonnegut, practicing her Batgirl skills in the dojo or waiting by the mailbox for her Hogwarts letter. As Katharine Hepburn said: “Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting.”