Breaking Bad

Female Directors: Film’s Loss, TV’s Gain


When it comes to the best of the small screen, women are killing it behind the cameras. Will Hollywood’s moviemakers take notice?



[Breaking Bad spoiler alert]

To’hajiilee,” Sunday’s epic episode of Breaking Bad, set the Internet ablaze with a name familiar only to serious TV aficionados: Michelle MacLaren.

MacLaren, also an executive producer of the series, directed the heart-stopping episode. The final scene, an intense shoot-out between the neo-Nazis and Hank and Gomez, exhibits amazing directorial control, featuring poignant close-ups before slow-motion bullets begin to fly.

Though it was the last episode of the series that she’ll direct, it certainly wasn’t the first—she’s been nominated for three primetime Emmys for her work on Breaking Bad, two of those for directing. On Monday, critics called for Hollywood to hire MacLaren to helm blockbuster action-adventure flicks. Grantland’s Andy Greenwald wrote: “Director Michelle MacLaren is the John Cage of this malevolent silence, able to wield it as precisely as a pointillist with a paintbrush. And with ‘To’hajiilee,’ the final episode of Breaking Bad she’ll ever direct, she has painted her masterpiece.” He added: “If Alan Taylor can parlay a few episodes of Game of Thrones into a new career as Hollywood’s go-to guy for big-budget spectacle, then MacLaren should be turning down those scripts before he even sees them.”

Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall seconded that notion: “Tell me she’s directing a big-budget action movie, and my ticket is purchased within seconds.”

In film, the successful female director seems almost like a unicorn—a rare, elusive species (and female action directors are rarer, still). As the Director’s Guild noted, of the top 250 movies in 2012 only nine percent were directed by women.

Lena DunhamBut television is swiftly becoming a different story. For female directors, TV is a wonderland. The list of women working behind the camera is long and varied. In addition to MacLaren, you’ve got Girls’ new comedy auteur Lena Dunham (who’s also the creator, writer, and star, pictured right). Emmy-nominated Lesli Linka Glatter has helmed an episode of nearly every hot TV show on the air, including Mad Men, Homeland, The Good Wife, True Blood, Nashville, The Walking Dead, The Newsroom, and Ray Donovan. Patty Jenkins has directed episodes of shows as varied as The Killing, Entourage, and Arrested Development. Agnieszka Holland directed key episodes of The Wire—regarded by many as the greatest TV series of all time—as well as more recent hits like Treme, and The Killing. And Gwyneth Horder-Payton gets to film shoot-’em-ups and street fights, as is her wont. You’ve even got the rare female film directors stepping up to the TV plate, like Jodie Foster directing an episode of Orange Is the New Black.

When asked by Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur when she would be making the jump to film, MacLaren said that while she’d welcome a feature-directing gig, TV is where it’s at: “Television is a great medium; I’m fortunate enough to direct amazing television. Would I like to do a feature? Absolutely. I will never leave television.”

Michelle MaclarenWhat’s refreshing about MacLaren, is that the discourse hasn’t centered on her ovaries. (As Greenwald noted, “She’s the most kinetic, expressionistic director of action I’ve seen since Kathryn Bigelow—that they both are women may be a coincidence, but it’s an awesome one.”) Usually, in both TV and film, ladies have to prove they can direct movies or shows that aren’t about women’s issues. Even then, their work is often discussed in patronizing terms, sometimes despite good intentions. During a recent Television Critics Association panel, Directors Guild of America President Paris Barclay discussed the work of Horder-Payton (The Shield, The Walking Dead, Justified): “Because I’ve known Gwyneth for so long now, I know Gwyneth is tight and performance-oriented and the action is always chilling and done in a way that you would never expect a female director to do.”

Insert “she doesn’t shoot action like a girl” jokes here.

Still, it’s progress, ladies. Perhaps one reason for the generous amount of female directors in television is that there are so many more television shows to direct. While the major studios only released 568 movies last year, 3,100 TV episodes needed a director. Simply put, there is more opportunity and less risk in television. A single episode of Breaking Bad costs $3 million to make, but a mainstream action film like Looper, helmed by another Breaking Bad director, Rian Johnson, cost $30 million.

Although television far outshines film when it comes to opportunities for female directors, there is still a lot of progress to be made. Of those 3,100 episodes, women directed 15 percent of them. As Glatter told the L.A. Times: “It’s still a relatively small pool of women who are getting hired, and that pool has to get bigger.” But this statistic’s incremental increases bode well for a slow and steady takeover that movie producers can’t possibly ignore. And here’s the great news: Women make up half of this year’s directing Emmy nominees. Only a handful of women have ever taken the statue, but for the first time ever, the odds look good.

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