Honoring female filmmakers who helped shaped the film industry behind the scenes

The film industry, like many others, is male dominated. That is not to say that women haven’t played an important role in it throughout its history. There have been, and continues to be, incredible women who play a major part in making great films.  

Many of these women find success behind the scenes in critical filmmaking roles. There are many amazing female writers, costumers, and editors in film. While they aren’t necessarily common household names, they work alongside male directors that you would likely recognize.  Even the iconic director Martin Scorsese has had the same female editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, since early in his career and he often credits her as an important part of the success of his films. 

Also working behind the camera are many great female directors. While some of the titles of their movies may be easily recognizable, you may not have known they were directed by women. Before Women’s History month draws to a close, I’d like to highlight just a few of these women and some of my favorite movies they have made. 

Penelope Spheeris 

‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ (1981) 

This film is the first of what would become a trilogy of documentaries examining music subcultures. In this first installment, Spheeris focuses on the punk music scene in Los Angeles. While you don’t have to be a fan of the genre to enjoy the film, those who are will appreciate seeing show footage from bands like Circle Jerks and Black Flag. The documentary is a fascinating look at this period of music history and was even inducted into the National Film Registry in 2016 for its cultural significance. 

‘Wayne’s World’ (1992) 

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II, which shifted its focus to metal music, led Spheeris to landing the directing role for Wayne’s World. Although these earlier projects were far from comedy movies, she had earlier produced shorts for Saturday Night Live. Because of her history with the show, she was sought after to head this new project. The film was a hit and is one of the most successful films to have been adapted from a Saturday Night Live sketch. Personally, it is one of my favorite comedies and is an undeniable pop culture staple. 

Elaine May 

‘A New Leaf’ (1971) 

Not only did she direct this film, Elaine May also wrote and starred in this dark comedy. After having a successful working relationship with director Mike Nichols, May made her directorial debut with this film. While the film didn’t perform very well in the box office, I think it’s a great example of her fantastic talent for comedic writing. This film was also inducted into the National Film Registry in 2019 solidifying its place in American film history. 

‘Mikey and Nicky’ (1976) 

Although she is known for her comedy films, May also made one of my favorite dramatic films. Unlike the movie previously mentioned, this one is a crime drama that follows two gangsters hiding out over the course of a night. The film is notorious for having had a tremendous amount of footage that was shot but unfortunately due to this and other production issues she lost the ability to control the final cut of the film. That being said, it is still a great movie, but I do wonder what footage could have been added had she had more creative control. 

Mary Harron 

‘American Psycho’ (2000) 

This film is certainly Harron’s most well-known work to date. The cast alone is reason enough to watch it, but Christian Bale’s performance is the standout. The movie revolves around Patrick Bateman, played by Bale, who is a wealthy, narcissistic man who slowly descends into madness as his dark fantasies get the better of him. One of my favorite elements of Harron’s work is seen in this film which is the ability to make a scene violent while not actually being overly gratuitous. While it may not be for the faint of heart, it is fun to watch this movie and think about how Bale shaped his performance after famed actor Tom Cruise. 

‘Charlie Says’ (2018) 

This is a film I don’t hear discussed often but that I find to be incredibly interesting. The story follows the Manson family crimes in a way that I have never seen portrayed before. While others seem to focus on the crimes themselves, this movie focuses on three of the women who were imprisoned for their part in the infamous murders. The film is a study into the mind of these women and how they have come to reflect and come to terms with their past. Based on the true story, it is a movie that should be checked out by anyone interested in cults and true crime. 

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