While a major spotlight has been cast, and deservedly so, on the showing of female feature directors--Chloe Zhao for Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures) and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman (Focus Features)--in both Oscar and DGA Award nominations this season, hovering a bit under the radar are the accomplishments of women helmers in the commercialmaking arena. They too have made Guild history.
Nisha Ganatra of Chelsea Pictures and Melina Matsoukas of PRETTYBIRD, two women of color, are among the nominees for the DGA Award recognizing Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials for 2020. This marks the first time that two solo female directors broke through with nominations in the spotmaking category in the same year.
The rest of this year’s field of DGA commercial nominees consists of directors Steve Ayson of MJZ; Niclas Larsson, also of MJZ; and Taika Waititi of Hungry Man.
Ganatra earned her first career DGA nomination on the strength of Bodyform/Libresse’s “#wombstories” for AMV BBDO. She successfully diversified into the ad arena via Chelsea after directing Late Night, a feature which scored with critics and commercially at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Late Night was bought by Amazon for $13 million, the highest price paid at the fest for a film by a female director. Ganatra is also an Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy nominee as a producer on Transparent.
Matsoukas’ Guild nod came for Beats by Dr. Dre’s “You Love Me” from agency Translation. This is the third career DGA Award nomination for Matsoukas but first for a commercial. Last year she was nominated for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in First-Time Feature Film for Queen & Slim. Back in 2018, Matsoukas garnered her very first Guild nom, for the “Thanksgiving” episode of the TV comedy series Master of None.
Matsoukas and Ganatra join a select field of women directors to gain Guild recognition in the commercials category--the first being Amy Hill as half of the directorial duo Reiss/Hill in 1999; followed by Katrina Mercadante as half of the team known as The Mercadantes in 2015. That same year, Lauren Greenfield also received a nomination, making her the first individual female helmer to earn that distinction in the commercials competition. Greenfield, however, was no stranger to the nominees’ circle, having broken through for the feature documentary The Queen of Versailles back in 2013.
In 2018, Alma Har’el became the second solo woman director to be nominated for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials since this category was established in 1980. Fast forward to today, and two more solo women directors have made the spotmaking cut.
Har’el of course made a major breakthrough last year when she won the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in First-Time Feature Film for Honey Boy.
Food for thought
Fittingly, the entries garnering DGA nominations for Matsoukas and Ganatra break through barriers, and serve as catalysts for thought--one delving into Black culture and the hypocrisy as to how it’s viewed by many in White America. The other bringing out into the open the taboos that hold women back.
The latter, “#wombstories” helmed by Ganatra, confronts a damaging etiquette that women live with every day, one which dictates what they should--and shouldn’t--feel about their bodies. With #wombstories, the brands Bodyform and Libresse push back against the single, simplistic narrative girls are taught from a young age: start your period in adolescence, repeat with “a bit” of pain, want a baby, get pregnant, have more periods, stop periods, fade into the menopausal background.
The reality is, of course, much messier, but society doesn’t encourage women to talk openly about the highs and lows of their intimate health, especially. A research study of women and men by Bodyform and Libresse found that two-thirds of women who experienced miscarriage, endometriosis, fertility issues and menopause said that being open with family and friends helped them cope.
With “#wombstories,” Bodyform and Libresse want to encourage an open culture where everyone can express what they go through without fearing they won’t be properly heard or believed and without feeling shame that they are somehow less than what they were taught to be. The pleasure, the pain, the love, the hate. It’s never simple but it all needs to be heard. Because keeping it in or leaving it unheard comes at an emotional and physical cost both at an individual and collective level.
For “#wombstories” Bodyform and Libresse worked with Golden Globe-winning and Emmy-nominated director, writer and producer Ganatra, a predominantly female crew and an all-women team of animators and illustrators who have imagined the life of wombs. Framestore provided animation and live-action visual effects.
From the burning down apartment of a peri-menopausal woman, a monster ripping at an endometriosis sufferer’s uterus, a woman’s “flood gate” moment during her period and an unexpected sneeze, to the woman who has chosen not to have children and the often-turbulent journey of trying to conceive--these select womb stories chronicle the sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal human side of the biology and physiology experienced every day. And while only a handful of experiences are shown, they represent the billions of complex experiences out there--from hysterectomies to postpartum trauma, artificial menopause, being a trans-man, and so on.
Meanwhile Matsoukas powerful short for Apple’s Beats by Dre honors Black culture, includes Black stars in sports and entertainment, and shows us how while mainstream society embraces Black culture and celebs, it fails to embrace Black individuals. The short opens with the familiar “You love me, you love me not” refrain, underscoring the mixed message that is a part of systemic racism.
“You love Black culture. But do you love me?” musical artist Tobe Nwigwe narrates. “You love how I sound: My voice, these beats, this flow. Not me though, right?”
He continues, “You love how I look: My hair, this skin. But me? Nah. We don’t get to exist. We’re forced to survive. We still fight. We still play while the world burns, on fields that ain’t even level.”
Matsoukas’ piece ultimately asks us to look inside ourselves so that this perennial injustice can finally be addressed and changed.
Feature marquee brightens
As for the feature filmmaking realm, Zhao last month received four Oscar nominations for Nomadland--Best Picture as a producer, Best Director, Editor and for Adapted Screenplay. That’s an all-time record high for a woman in a record year for women. Seventy women received 76 Academy Award nominations this year, led by Zhao whose four nods tops Sofia Coppola and Fran Walsh who each got three in 2003. Zhao, who is also the first woman of color to be nominated for Best Director, is joined by Promising Young Woman director Fennell in the category, making it the first time two women have been nominated for that marquee honor. Furthermore Fennell tied Coppola and Walsh by scoring three Academy Award nominations for Promising Young Woman--the others as a producer for Best Motion Picture, and for Best Original Screenplay.
Akin to the Oscars, the DGA Awards this year saw two women--Zhao and Fennell--nominated for the Guild’s top honor in the same year. Fennell and Zhao become the ninth and tenth women ever to be nominated in the prestigious DGA feature category. Zhao is the first woman of color to become a feature nominee.
Additionally, two women earned DGA Award nominations for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First-Time Feature Film Director--Radha Blank for The Forty-Year-Old Version, and Regina King for One Night in Miami.... Blank and King bring the total number of women directors nominated in this category to seven since this first-timer recognition was launched by the Guild in 2016 (for work done in 2015).
In a prior installment of its The Road To Oscar Series, SHOOT connected with both Zhao and Fennell. Zhao reflected on Nomadland which is based on Jessica Bruder’s book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century.” The film introduces us to Fern (portrayed by two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand), an independent spirit who after the economic collapse of a small company town in Nevada packs her van and sets off on the road as a modern-day nomad, encountering unique places in rural America and even more unique varied characters including many played by real people (a staple of Zhao’s filmmaking up to this point), the key exception being actor David Strathairn who emerges as a friend and a subdued potential love interest.
We meet older transient Americans living on the road in vans and recreational vehicles, taking on seasonal work when and where they can find it such as an Amazon processing plant where Fern has a regular Xmas-time gig. We experience both a sense of community and loneliness on the road, a dichotomy that is even present in Fern’s van which carries feelings of isolation yet at the same time reflects an appreciation of a place to call home. There’s a beauty and simplicity to the nomad existence, in some respects showing that there’s a shared humanity when you strip life down to surviving with limited resources while trying to connect with and help others--no matter how momentary or transitory those relationships may turn out to be. Some folks carry the weight of grief and loss yet there’s a resilience that unites them all. There are many quiet, understated moments yet cumulatively they become substantive, underscoring Zhao’s feeling that while politics and media portray us as divided, the reality is that people naturally have and can embrace “a spirit of co-existence.” Getting the chance to delve into this helped satiate Zhao’s longstanding desire to as she says, “make a road movie,” an opportunity made richer by getting to work with McDormand “to create a character like Fern” who in turn was able to mesh, relate to and be at one with real-life nomads, bringing their lives to the fore, making for a remarkable performance.
All this, continued Zhao, was done to be true to Bruder’s book. “Jessica did an incredible job documenting and chronicling these lives,” assessed Zhao who too wanted to convey the ups and downs of a nomad existence that still, despite its share of melancholy, has its own life-affirming roots, with added inspiration coming from the desolate, beautiful plains, mountains and rivers of the Western U.S. Nomadland takes us to different worlds--these natural backdrops as well as inside people’s heads and hearts, most notably Fern’s inner self.
Filmed over four months on location in Arizona, Nevada, California, Nebraska and South Dakota, Nomadland takes us into communities where Fern’s encounters at times show how we can make brief friendships that last within us for a lifetime, like her bond with Swankie who has terminal cancer yet feels fulfillment in life through nature. A touching memorial service that Swankie requested reflects that resonance.
Zhao said that among the prime challenges Nomadland posed to her as a filmmaker was creating the character of Fern, enabling McDormand to settle into “this real world with real people” in such a way that “we can naturally incorporate these interesting characters we run across without feeling forced.”
Another major challenge came in Zhao’s capacity as editor of Nomadland. She shared, “As an editor you have to figure out how to stay true to the sort of feeling of aimlessness that exists on the road, and at the same time not putting the audience to sleep. You need to capture transcience, the real feeling of what it’s like for people of that age existing on the road--how to be true to that and still have a story arc that will captivate an audience.”
Zhao said the experience of making Nomadland gave her a deeper appreciation of what people on the road go through on a daily basis. “We were filming for just four months but we find ourselves going to a place where you connect with people, then pack up and leave, and probably are never going to see them again. I was emotionally exhausted. The natural process of making the film helped us to heal as well. You may feel rootlessness but you also feel you’re part of something that never ends.”
Nomadland earned a total of six Oscar nominations, the other two being for Leading Actress (McDormand) and Cinematography (Joshua James Richards).
In our Road To Oscar Series, Fennell reflected on Promising Young Woman, her feature directorial debut. In the film, Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a medical school dropout whose once promising prospects have fallen off a cliff. She’s working at a coffee house and spends her free time either moping about or pretending to be blind drunk at nightclubs where she ultimately shames guys who try to take advantage of her seemingly impaired state. It’s an inexplicably strange double-life until we become privy to what made her quit med school, a despicable trauma suffered by her dear friend and fellow student, Nina, years ago. This genre-busting film plays at times like a dark comedy, a comic tragedy, a thriller, a psychological tale that perfectly dovetails with the #MeToo era, all the above and more.
Fennell--who first established herself as an actress spanning TV and features, and a writer (on such TV series as The Drifters and writer/producer on Killing Eve) before moving into the directorial ranks--explained simply, “I wanted to write a revenge movie, a classic revenge movie with a real person at the center of it.” She added that the vibe she wanted for it was to be as “strange and unlikely as that journey would feel if you were actually in it.”
Promising Young Woman made a big impact at last year’s Sundance fest. And while its release was also delayed during the pandemic, Promising Young Woman eventually found an audience. The stellar cast also includes Bo Burnham as Ryan, Cassie’s love interest, Alison Brie as a former school friend, Connie Britton as a med school dean, Laverne Cox as Cassie’s coffee house boss, and Alfred Molina as a deeply remorseful attorney.
At first, becoming a director seemed what Fennell described as “an enigmatic thing” but over time she began to develop an appetite for it. “I’ve written forever,” she said, noting that she wanted the chance to “really make something the way you want to make it, to direct your own material.”
Fennell said she was fortunate to be able to work with “incredible directors” in film and TV. She cited her experience acting on a BBC series, Call the Midwife, as providing an invaluable education, being able to observe different directors and DPs coming in for episodes and being able to do “a side-by-side comparison of what works, what doesn’t, what is time-saving, what isn’t, what corners you can cut and the ones you really can’t.”
This education served Fennell in good stead as she became “kind of obsessive about the details while also knowing you’ve got to make your days.”
She also knew first-hand the importance of selecting the right collaborators, among the prime examples on Promising Young Woman being cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, editor Frederic Thoraval and production designer Michael Perry. Fennell had worked, for instance, with Kracun about a year earlier on a commercial project, liked him and was drawn in particular to his work on Beat, for which he won a British Independent Film Award in 2019 for Best Cinematography. “He made that movie look spectacular,” assessed Fennell, who added, “I was a first-time film director in Los Angeles shooting my baby. I knew my DP was important, someone I could have an easy shorthand with. If your relationship with a DP isn’t easy, it slows everything down. Ben is a combination of being talented and great fun to be around. He could help me get the kind of performances I wanted and he could make the set itself a fun place to work, which is needed.”
Kracun was essential in making Promising Young Woman work within the confines of 23 shoot days. Also integral in that regard was producer Fiona Walsh Heinz who did an “amazing” job according to Fennell, noting, “We had no fat. We were up against it but she helped that still feel like a fun place to be in.” While the preparation had to be buttoned down, Fennell said they didn’t lose the rush of feeling “like you’re slightly flying by the seat of your pants.”
As for her biggest takeaway from Promising Young Woman, Fennell shared, “It sounds so cheesy but I just loved directing in a way that really surprised me. Locking my car in the parking lot to go film on the first day, I just loved it. I loved being part of a team. I’m proud and grateful of how everyone worked so hard. I immediately want to do it all over again.”
When that opportunity comes, though, Fennell would like “to loosen things up, have a little more time to play, a bit more space to work in.”
Promising Young Woman is not Fennell’s first project to score recognition at Sundance. Back in 2019, she directed Careful How You Go which was in the running for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize.
Fennell also has two primetime Emmy nominations to her credit, one for drama series writing, the other for Outstanding Drama Series--both for Killing Eve in 2019.
Promising Young Woman received a total of five Academy Award nominations. Besides the three earned by Fennell, the others were for Leading Actress (Mulligan) and Film Editing (Frederic Thoraval).
Another women filmmaker is also in contention to make history. Garrett Bradley--on the strength of Time (Amazon Studios)--could become the first Black woman to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Last year at the Sundance Film Festival, Bradley broke new ground by winning the Directing Award in the U.S. documentary competition for Time, becoming the first Black woman to earn that distinction.
Time tells the story of Sibil “Fox Rich” Richardson whose husband Rob was imprisoned for what turned out to be 21 years. Time shows us the impact of Rob’s incarceration on her and their six children.
Time does more than chronicle the injustice of a far too harsh prison sentence on Rob and its profound effect on loved ones. The film serves as an almost lyrical ode blending intimate original footage captured by Bradley with archival family video taken by Fox of her kids at various stages of their lives. We see in this blend of home movies and Bradley’s footage a mom struggling to raise a family, turning her life around to become a successful professional. Yet all the while audiences feel both her enduring love for Rob and the ongoing ache she and the kids feel due to his imprisonment. He is an absent husband and father but paradoxically for Fox he is seemingly always present--in her heart and mind as she strives to have him set free one day.
Rob and Fox were high school sweethearts who married and had dreams. They planned to start a hip hop clothing store but the business fell through. Desperate, they attempted to hold up a credit union office, a caper that went south. Though no money was stolen and no one was hurt, Fox, the getaway driver, and Rob got prison sentences. At the time, Fox was three months pregnant with twins. Rob was sentenced to 60 years.
Time weaves its way through their story, showing the kids at various ages, not always advancing chronologically but rather taking us in and out of their lives at different junctures, going back and forth to create a tapestry that weaves us intimately into a family that unites and achieves yet feels the pain of a dad and spouse who’s away.
Like directors Ganatra and Matsoukas, Bradley is a filmmaker looking to extend her reach into the ad discipline. Bradley is on the roster of production house m ss ng p eces for commercials and branded content.