The Tollbooth is the only feature film currently playing on The Jewish Channel whose director (Debra Kirschner) is a woman. The film is a comedy — a broad genre tackled by plenty of female filmmakers — but what about darker genres? How many women are directing wide-release action, sci-fi and horror? Well, as it turns out, not that many. But those that are, have produced some hard-hitting and innovative cinematic works.
The American grande dame of action is Kathryn Bigelow. Back in 1978, while still at Colombia University’s film school, she directed The Set-Up — a deconstruction of film violence in which we hear two professors analyze a fistfight. In 1987, Bigelow earned critical notice for Near Dark, a genre-bending vampire western. Next came films like 1991’s Point Break, about thrill-seeking bank robbers; 1995’s Strange Days, about a near-future murder mystery; and 2002’s K19: The Widowmaker, about the doomed crew of Russia’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Her latest film, The Hurt Locker, tracks an under-fire U.S. Army bomb squad in Iraq.
German filmmaker Lexi Alexander used her experience in professional martial arts to get work as a Hollywood stunt woman — then decided to move behind the camera. In 2002, she directed Johnny Flynton — about a boxer with a violent temper — which was Oscar-nominated for best short film. Her first feature was 2005’s Green Street Hooligans, about a gang of English football fans, while last year’s Punisher: War Zone follows the titular vigilante’s blood feud with a disfigured mob boss.
Karyn Kusama also made a name for herself with a boxing picture. In 2000, she debuted with the critically-acclaimed independent feature Girlfight, launching the career of Michelle Rodriguez. Off that success, Kusama scored a $62 million budget for 2005’s Aeon Flux, about a female assassin (Charlize Theron) in a dystopian future. But that film, an adaptation of animator Peter Chung’s MTV cartoon series, proved a critical and financial disappointment, taking in only $52 million worldwide. Next, Kusama will team with Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody for the horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body, about a possessed cheerleader who targets her male classmates for death.
Some female directors, like Mimi Leder, have used television as their gateway to action films. The first woman to graduate Hollywood’s renowned AFI Conservatory, Leder spent 10 years directing both TV movies and episodes of shows like L.A. Law and China Beach (which she also produced), before being tapped to helm her first feature, 1997’s The Peacemaker. It was the first release by DreamWorks Studios — which banked $50 million on the project and brought in George Clooney & Nicole Kidman to star — and resulted in a $110 million worldwide take. That success earned Leder enough clout to take on 1998’s disaster epic Deep Impact, which earned $350 million worldwide. Currently, she is working on an adaptation of the comic book Mandrake, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
English director Antonia Bird’s first feature is still her most controversial — at least for Catholics. 1994’s Priest created an international uproar with its tale of one clergyman’s crisis of faith over his homosexuality. But for our purposes, it also marked her first feature collaboration with Scottish actor Robert Carlyle. Having already played a self-mutilating alcoholic in Bird’s 1993 TV film Safe, Carlyle starred in 1997’s Face, about a group of bank robbers who turn on one another. In 1999, Bird tapped Carlyle again to co-star in Ravenous, a horror-thriller pitting the occupants of a lonely military outpost against their own hunger — with macabre results. Their next collaboration appears to be The Meat Trade, with Carlyle and Colin Firth playing a pair of modern-day body snatchers.
Other female directors have only sampled action genres. Betty Thomas, who started as a stage and television actress, had financial success with comedies like 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie and 1998’s Doctor Dolittle, before helming the $70 million action-comedy I Spy, starring Eddie Murphy, which earned $50 million worldwide.
Catherine Hardwicke, meanwhile, scored big with 2008’s Twilight, about a high school girl who falls for a vegitarian vampire classmate. The film has earned more than $370 million worldwide, but Hardwicke — who made her reputation with dramas like 2000’s Thirteen and 2005’s Lords of Dogtown — has bowed out of doing any sequels.
Mary Harron also passed on doing a follow-up to her most famous work — 2000’s American Psycho. That film, starring Christian Bale as a 1980’s yuppie with a taste for both Huey Lewis and murder, was bookended by two biopics of infamous women: 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol and 2005’s The Notorious Bettie Page. Yet, neither approached the full-on insanity of this blood-soaked Bret Easton Ellis adaptation.