Mimi Leder on the Struggles of Being a Female Director


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Mimi Leder, with Justin Theroux, on the set of HBO’s “The Leftovers.”

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Van Redin/HBO

In the late ’90s, after years behind the camera on TV dramas like “ER” and “China Beach,” Mimi Leder directed the movies “The Peacemaker” and “Deep Impact.” The first performed tepidly at the box office and the second was a genuine hit. But after her third effort, “Pay It Forward,” flopped, her opportunities as a feature filmmaker abruptly dried up.

Since then, Ms. Leder has continued a successful run in television, where she first cut her teeth on “L.A. Law.” In recent years, this two-time Emmy winner has been behind the camera on several acclaimed cable series, including HBO’s “The Leftovers,” which started its second season on Oct. 4.

Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel — and created by Mr. Perrotta and Damon Lindelof, a former show runner of “Lost” — “The Leftovers” concerns the fallout from a mysterious event in which 2 percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishes. Ms. Leder directed a pivotal episode in the middle of the first season and has since been a major creative force on the series. She directed the Season 1 finale and the first two episodes of Season 2, which shifts the action from Mapleton, N.Y., to Jarden, Tex., nicknamed Miracle for being the only city to lose none of its residents to the Sudden Departure.

On lunch break from shooting the finale in Austin, Tex., Ms. Leder talked about her role in creating the look and feel of “The Leftovers,” the differences between film and television and the barriers for women in both mediums. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: How did you first get involved with the show? What interested you about it?

A: I was asked to come in and direct the episode called “Gladys,” where Gladys gets stoned to death. I came in as a guest director, but after I was done directing it, I was asked to come on as one of the executive producers. So I came in and executive-produced Episodes 7 through 10 and directed two more that season.

Q: How would you describe the look of the show?

A: We shoot everything hand-held and we shoot everything tight because we want to be in on the faces and the emotions. We don’t want to miss a beat. But I think I’ve changed the look of the show in its second season by doing these very big crane and drone shots, to show the world of Jarden — the bigness and specialness of this place. At the core of it, though, “The Leftovers” is about these characters. It’s a character drama, it’s about family, and you want to stay on their faces. You don’t want to miss one single blink of an eye.

Q: What are some of the key differences for you between directing for television and directing for film?

A: I don’t think there’s that much difference between film and television. I watched our premiere episode on a very big screen and it looked like a feature up there on the big screen. Would I have shot it differently if it were just playing in theaters? I don’t think so. I think I would have done it exactly the same way.

Q: You were really known for pioneering the Steadicam shots on “ER” and trying to expand the visual language of television. Do you feel as if television is catching up to you at this point?

A: [laughs] I don’t know if television is catching up to me, but I think every story speaks to you in a very personal way and it dictates things, how it should look and how it should feel and what the color palette is. When we decided to come to a new place, I had scouts in a lot of different cities in several states and the color palette of Texas felt right. The sky felt right. The sun felt right. All roads led us here. But to your larger question, I think the visual language of TV has completely changed. As you’ll see on premium cable, each and every one of those shows is a little feature. They’re really done beautifully. There’s a bigger scope and they’re more sophisticated. The lines have blurred quite a bit between television and film.

Q: There’s been a lot of talk in the critical community about dramatic changes made to the show between Season 1 and Season 2. What conversations did you have about where you wanted to take the show that would be a little different than in the previous season?

A: Visually, we wanted to open up the show and allow it to breathe a little. If the show is exploring hope in the second season, then you want to expand the look accordingly. The first season was definitely about loss. That’s not to say the second season isn’t also about loss, but it’s more about mystery and hope, people believing in miracles. Then, of course, things clearly change. [laughs]

Q: When “Pay It Forward” did not succeed at the box office, it seemed like your career as a director of big-budget Hollywood features came to an abrupt stop. What was behind that?

A: “Pay It Forward” was not a box-office success and I went to movie jail for quite a long time. [laughs] I excel in television. I’ve directed nine pilots and six of them went to air, so my television career was flourishing, but I couldn’t get arrested in features. Saying this sounds like sour grapes, but it isn’t: It’s very different for women filmmakers than it is for male filmmakers. And the film business itself changed dramatically. They just wanted to make tent poles. Dramas were out. A lot of circumstances happened, and it’s still very hard to make features.

Even though “Pay It Forward” was loved by many, it was a mark against me by the industry. I know you’ve done your research and I know you’ll see that this is true: Most women who don’t have a commercial success are not asked back to the party. It did not hurt me in television, but it did in features. But things change. I believe I’ll be making another feature soon. And I’ve turned down a lot of features, too — a lot of bad ones. Things I would never want to direct.

Q: Do you feel the barriers for women to direct features are higher than the barriers to direct television?

A: I think budgets are higher [in features]. And it’s mostly males hiring. And they mostly hire males. That may sound controversial, but I can’t figure it out. Why aren’t there more talented women directing features? Why are women clawing to be directors when there are male directors who have made two or three $200 million failures and get to make another one? That doesn’t happen with women. Never.

Q: You had one movie that was not a success. That would not kill a man’s career.

A: No. They give a man three more movies and that’s the truth. I’m sure the statistics would bear that out. Look at the percentages of women directing in television and women directing in features. I believe only 2 percent of the features are made by women and in television it’s 14 percent. I don’t mean to sound negative. I’m not negative. I’m very blessed and lucky to be working on such great material.



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