Female Directors Patricia Riggen and Jessie Nelson on Getting a Foothold in Hollywood: ‘It Hasn’t Been Fun at All’

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Getty

Last week Vulture published a list of 100 female directors that Hollywood can reference the next time an executive or studio tries to make the excuse that there aren’t enough talented women available for their upcoming tentpole. Of course, there are far more than 100 women directing prominent movies in Hollywood, and two that weren’t on our list, Patricia Riggen and Jessie Nelson, both have their latest films The 33 and Love the Coopers, respectively, opening today. (By the Sea, which was directed by and stars Angelina Jolie, also just arrived in theaters.)

To mark the occasion of three female-helmed movies coming out on the same day, we brought Riggen and Nelson together to interview each other about their careers as directors, why the challenges they face don’t end when they get a job, and what it’ll take for more women to land directing roles in the future.

Patricia Riggen: Our movies are opening on the same weekend, right, Jessie?

Jessie Nelson: Yes, which I’m so glad about! There’s three of us: you and me and Angelina.

PR: We are caught between James Bond and Hunger Games. You know that, right?

JN: I know, I know.

PR: I was just looking at your IMDb, and you have so many credits — you’re so experienced as a writer and a producer and a director.

JN: It’s funny that you say that, because I was looking at yours. But I remember when I read that you were going to do the mining project, I was so excited — most of all that a woman was doing that story. I thought that was remarkable.

PR: I think I got away with it because of the Latin aspect. I don’t think, if I wasn’t Mexican and Latina, I would’ve had that opportunity. But that opened a door for me to get a masculine movie that would’ve otherwise gone to men.

JN: I read that one of the miners actually felt that you could bring more to the story as a woman, a deeper sensitivity.

PR: At the beginning, the skepticism of everyone was very obvious. Later on it turned from skepticism to surprise that the movie was made by a woman. And then eventually it turned to an acceptance, or even an acknowledgement that probably because it’s a woman’s sensibility, I was able to make a movie that really shows the heart and the emotional side of a catastrophe. During the first meeting we had about this movie, they thought we were going to make a disaster movie more about the technical challenges of getting these men out. I turned it into a movie about the emotional journey of these guys being down there, and the family being above ground fighting for them. So you turn around and now everyone thinks the movie works because a woman directed it.

JN: Exactly, now they take credit for it!

PR: Now you tell me about you.

JN: I actually started as an actress in an experimental theater company in New York. In that company, we all developed the pieces together. When I went to Los Angeles and suddenly realized an actor’s life in Los Angeles was more about driving to auditions all day long, I didn’t feel creatively fulfilled, just kind of waiting to be hired to be creative. I got drawn to writing because it felt like you could be creative all day long, whether someone was hiring you or paying for it or not, you could still build a creative life. Then I quickly realized in Hollywood how little control a writer has over her own material, so I saved up and directed a short film.

That was kind of my film school — it taught me the beginnings of how to direct. That short film led to the first film I got to direct, which was sort of the second level of film school for me, getting a chance to direct my first feature. But for me as a woman, I believe I developed most of my own projects because I quickly learned that I wasn’t necessarily getting sent the best scripts or the plum directing jobs. I felt like, well, I’ll create my own opportunities. I can identify with what you’re saying because after I made this film Karina, Karina, I had a huge amount of meetings on it. I walked into one meeting and the head of the studio said, “You’re Jessie Nelson?” I said yes, and he said, “I thought you were a black man! Because you’re name is Jessie.” For a moment I was kind of riding on the moments where they were hiring black male directors. Of course, they’re struggling as much as women are now, but it was an interesting thing, how you were saying being Hispanic helped in this case — well, there was the one moment where someone mistaking me for a black man helped me get in the door on that one. But it’s always interesting what gets you through the door.

PR: I have a handicap in that English is not my first language. So even though I’m a writer, I don’t write anymore, because it’s just harder in English. That’s why I’ve always concentrated on directing. But lately I’m having this horrible feeling, or maybe just coming to the realization, that if I want some independence and some control, I should start writing again, and producing. Because it’s really hard to be just a director. It hasn’t been fun at all, Jessie. It’s been a very hard and painful road to travel. I am tired of having to prove myself constantly, even after being hired. Every single day, every single idea, I need to prove myself. I am tired of it!

JN: I so understand. Man, I completely understand.

PR: But it’s a good moment. I’ve been reading a little bit about women directors in Hollywood getting together and organizing themselves and starting to talk about their experiences, and I just find it very positive.

JN: I agree. The more dialogue around it, the better.

PR: I have a magazine in the drawer of my bedside table. I got it last month from the DGA, and it features a pie chart with the statistics of how many male directors there are versus female directors. And then it has another section that’s minority directors. That’s me, that 1 or 2 percent, and women is something like 7 percent. But what I found very disturbing is that the excuse is always that women don’t have enough experience, so therefore of course men are going to get the jobs. Yet there was a graphic about hiring first-time directors, and the percentage is exactly the same. That’s when I realized, this is wrong, this is completely wrong, because the schools are pushing out 50 percent men and 50 percent women, sometimes even more women than men. That just made me think what I’ve been feeling is true. And I’m one of the lucky ones who is working, Jessie, like you.

JN: Yeah, I know. You touch on so many points, because it’s not just the getting hired, it’s the challenge of getting the trust of the studio and your executives once you are hired. I remember once I did an interview, and the interviewer, when he wrote the piece about me, he said, “Jessie Nelson, who looks more like a member of the PTA than a director,” and I thought, oh my god, where to begin with that statement! One is, what does a director look like? Two, that these women who work at our schools and in the PTA, who to me are our heroes, are somehow demeaned and looked at as less than. Three, because I’m a mother, I’m looked at as someone who isn’t fit for directing. I thought that was such an interesting statement of the subtle things you’re up against that you’re not even aware of, just the assumption of what a director looks like.

PR: A few months ago, I was watching TV with my daughter — she’s an 8-year old, probably 7 when we were watching. I think it was the opening ceremony of the World Cup. I noticed that there was the Brazilian president, female, and the Argentinian president, female, and the German president, female. There were three female presidents there. I said, look, Francesca, those are three female presidents! I just pointed at that, because that is the way presidents look nowadays in some parts of the world. Just to your point, it’s about changing the perceptions from the beginning. For her, of course women are presidents! No doubt about that.

JN: Even when I was coming up as a director, there were so many women that I admired: Nora Ephron, the career she had, and she was a huge mentor for me as I was coming up. But even with women as successful as she, doing so many successful movies in a row, it still didn’t crack through. I think part of it is what’s going on in the culture right now: There’s a few kinds of movies getting made, but so many of them are the action movies or the comic-book movies. To me it’s not just needing to hear more women’s voices, but it’s needing to continue to make all different kinds of movies that represent minority voices and women voices and men’s voices that aren’t necessarily just action movies.

PR: It’s only going to change when all the parts involved reach some sort of gender equality. It has to do with the studio heads and the studio executives, it’s just that whole male sensibility versus the female sensibility. The movie I just made, by the way, has this very, very big collapse sequence, which is very masculine, to put it in those words. So that’s the other thing. We can all do everything.

JN: Exactly! That’s what drives me crazy. When you look at Kathryn Bigelow or some of these female directors who have made other kinds of movies — women don’t only make one kind of movie. You’re proof of that right here.

PR: By the way, there are a lot of female directors in documentary, very talented. But it’s always lower budget. But it’s about starting to get the bigger movies, starting to get the trust. And it’s not just in Hollywood or the film industry, it’s a world thing. It all needs to change.

JN: One thing I’ve always found so interesting is that the people who have been most encouraging and supportive are other women directors. I love how we all root for each other. Again, it’s breaking any kind of stereotype about women’s relationships and competition with each other, and I always feel that when anybody directs a movie, it’s a victory for all of us, it’s a wonderful thing. I love that camaraderie.

PR: The idea that women compete or don’t like each other or undermine each other or sabotage each other, that’s a big miss. That is not true at all. At all. My women connect with each other instantly, and help each other.

JN: None of us got into this to be a woman director. We got into this to direct. It’s interesting, you don’t say, “a man director.” Or call it a “male-driven movie” the way they call it a chick-flick. There’s so many levels to this whole discussion.

PR: Hopefully soon, we’ll get to the point where there will be no difference. I wish you good luck, and I look forward to seeing your movie — and I look forward to continuing to watch your movies!

JN: And I will be seeing your movie opening weekend! I can’t wait.