Editors note: Rachel Feldman is a Los Angeles-based film and television director whose credits include over 75 hours of longform movies and recent series including ABC’s The Rookie, CBS’ Blue Bloods and Criminal Minds, and MGM’s The Baxters. A former chair of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee, she is working on a political thriller based on the life of equal-pay icon Lily Ledbetter.
A Real Doctor. A Real Director.
When you’re an accomplished woman, it’s common practice for your title to be questioned as fraudulent, as Dr. Jill Biden sadly experienced last week, the focus of a condescending piece written in the Wall Street Journal. In response, Michelle Obama tweeted, “We’re all seeing what happens to so many professional women, whether their titles are Dr., Ms., Mrs., or even First Lady: All too often, our accomplishments are met with skepticism, even derision. We’re doubted by those who choose the weakness of ridicule over the strength of respect. And yet somehow, their words can stick—after decades of work, we’re forced to prove ourselves all over again.”
Women directors in the film industry experience the same kind of infuriating disparagement and it’s high time to call it out. Well-known feature film directors smoothly toggle between directing movies and directing television without question, but it is definitely not an equal playing field for television directors who want to move into features, and this impacts women in particular because television is historically where the few opportunities have been. There is a deeply rooted belief that directors who work in television are somehow uncreative hacks who only know how to work inside the constraints of a pre-established template, created by “the genius” who directed the pilot. But the truth is that directing television today is a highly challenging job that sharpens directors with exceptional skills, tremendous assets for when that filmmaker finally has the opportunity to define her own vision. Though the statistics for women directing in television has climbed to nearly 50% in the past several years, the woeful statistics for women directing studio features remain at under 5%.
I joined the Directors Guild of America in 1992 when Steven Bochco hired me to direct an episode of Doogie Howser, MD, after he had seen a short drama of mine that had won best short at the Chicago and New York film festivals. At that point in my life, I had been a successful child actor, a storyboard artist for A-list directors on studio movies, made dozens of short films on prestigious grants from the National Endowment and the American Film Institute which I sold to HBO and PBS, and had an MFA in film directing. Though I clearly had solid training as a storyteller, Mr. Bochco took a chance on me, for which I will be forever grateful. I delivered an excellent episode, under budget, and was on my way to the kind of career my male counterparts were enjoying. Or so I thought.
For the next 25 years, in fits and starts, I directed many Emmy Award-winning dramas in broadcast and cable television, and wrote and directed several highly rated broadcast and cable movies. Yet each job was as tough to nab as the first, a continuum of proving my value over and over, with my talents constantly questioned by gatekeepers who were uncomfortable and unfamiliar with hiring women. As recently as only a handful of years ago, showrunners/producers would pass on women directors because they’d “already had a woman that season,” or that their star “didn’t like working with women directors.” By that time, most of the women with whom I had gone to film school had turned to other careers, and the vast majority of professional women directors I knew were not working at all. Never a snob about work, in lean times, I wrote and directed anything I could. I directed an X-rated horror film, wrote a syndicated safari series, and made more shorts. With every job, I learned something that deepened my craft.
When Harvey Weinstein was arrested a few years ago, and the ugly reality of gender discrimination in all its forms rose to the surface of consciousness, a transformation took place in Hollywood. Suddenly, all those years of talking about diversity and inclusion became action, and women directors, particularly experienced ones, were highly sought after for gigs in series television. I enjoyed a steady stream of high-level employment, and felt the winds of progress, working in environments that respected my leadership and valued my production savvy. I directed a pilot and 10 great episodes one right after the other with brilliant actors, production teams and crew. In the prime of my creative bloom, I felt ready to take the next step in my career, writing and directing feature films.
You may be familiar with the name of Lilly Ledbetter, the woman about whom President Obama named the Fair Pay Act, his first piece of legislation. Lilly was a Goodyear Tire factory supervisor who was cheated and taken advantage of for one reason alone – her sex. It’s a story of resilience, tenacity, and how one woman, beaten down by one repressive patriarchy after another, has the psychological fortitude to conquer injustice at tremendous personal cost. It’s about a woman who knows her worth, and yet, like Dr. Biden, needed to prove it over and over again.
I was enthralled by Lilly’s story, not simply because her narrative hit every highpoint of storytelling perfection, but because my own experiences, working as a director in Hollywood, were eerily similar to hers at the factory. I knew her story would make a great movie and I knew that I was the filmmaker to make it. I optioned the rights to Lilly’s story and her beautiful memoir, Grace and Grit, and wrote a multi-award-winning political thriller based on her remarkable life.
For the past several years, while directing a flurry of gigs as a “director for hire,” this single project has been my raison d’être. I’ve built an exceptional team and we’ve raised independent funds, with powerful philanthropies, corporations, and individuals, not to mention Meryl Streep, and other creative department heads committed to seeing this film come to life. And yet, here on the precipice of our dreams, just as we embark on making offers to magnificent actors for the bravura role of Lilly, tired tropes of director doubt attempt to revive. After decades of climbing the Sisyphean lady-director-ladder rung by rung, it’s appalling to be called a “first-time director.”
Oh man, really?
Why do women need to prove ourselves over and over. When will this poisonous prejudice end? How many hoops, and how high do we need to jump? Because until it does, the statistics for women directors in feature films will never improve. I’ve been a professional director for more than 30 years, with over 75 credits in television and film. I recently directed an $8 million episode filled with stars, stunts, fights, planes and drones in eight days, and while that doesn’t prove artistry of vision, it certainly conveys a scope of professionalism and experience that compares with many feature films. I know my craft, how to tell a story, how to work with actors, and I know this movie, that I optioned, that I wrote, that I have brought this far, like the back of my hand. Why do we love the stories of anointed young men who leap from shorts to action films, and festival darlings with a single credit who catapult into major careers, yet disparage a journeywoman who figured out how to make a living in an industry that was not friendly to women when she was coming up? This is unconscious bias gone amok and it must end.
As we breathe life into 2021, welcoming in a women Vice President and an incoming First Lady who well-earned her degree and her title, we will make the terms “inclusion and diversity” ring true, so that the many, many women directors, who toiled for decades, honing their craft, developing their skills, and formulating their artistic voices in whatever medium that was open to them, will spread their wings. We are doctors, we are directors, we will change the world.
Feldman is repped by Rory Koslow at Well Told Entertainment. Follow her on Twitter at @WomenCallAction.