10 Directors Discuss "Making It" In Hollywood When They Thought They Couldn't

by Rachel Simon
Collage of Jill Soloway, Constance Zimmer, Tasha Smith, Krista Vernoff, Lisa France, and Gloria Cald...

On the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 21, Aline Brosh McKenna wrote a tweet that went viral. This wasn't necessarily unusual; with over 22,000 followers, the acclaimed screenwriter and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend showrunner has written a number of witty posts that've amassed plenty of shares. But this tweet was different. For one thing, the numbers were huge — not just viral, but really viral, with 15,000 retweets and nearly 80,000 favorites. And for another, the post wasn't a sneak peek at Crazy Ex, or a hilarious observation about pop culture. It was about a subject matter that's decidedly less sexy: age.

"Nora Ephron was 51 when she directed her 1st movie. Nancy Meyers was 49. Their kids were grown," McKenna wrote. "If you're a women who writes, acts, edits, ADs, etc and you're ready to direct, you're not too old. I was 47. Tell the people you work with your dream. Put your hand up. Men ask. Ask."

Almost immediately, people started responding with praise for McKenna's comments (she made her own directing debut back in 2016, helming an episode of Crazy Ex), and tales of their own later-in-life forays into new fields. And it wasn't just fans; several of the showrunner's filmmaker peers, like The Fourth Estate director Liz Garbus and One Day At A Time co-showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett, also commented on the message and shared their stories. McKenna's tweet, it seemed, had hit a nerve, and for good reason; the current landscape of filmmaking is hugely male-dominated, with men directing 92 percent of 2017's top-grossing films and 86 percent of 2016-2017's network TV episodes, according to Women and Hollywood. In other words: It's been bleak out there for women with a camera.

That is, until you consider the number of encouraging responses McKenna's tweet provoked, and the inspiring message of the post itself. Thanks to the showrunner's candidness, and that of her counterparts, women are being reminded that it's never too late to step into the ring. In fact, as the tweet noted, sometimes the best work is made by directors who got into the field later than many would expect.

And it's not just known vets Ephron and Meyers; Bustle spoke to McKenna and nine women and non-binary individuals who started directing later in their careers, whether because they were busy succeeding in other fields, were told by men they wouldn't be good enough, or — perhaps most commonly — simply didn't realize they were allowed.

Aline Brosh McKenna, 51

Co-creator, showrunner, producer, and writer of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; screenwriter of films including The Devil Wears Prada and 27 Dresses. Directed her first episode of Crazy Ex in 2016.

Kit Karzen

Why She Waited To Direct: "I think that men feel that when they’re ready to direct, they just start asking and make it clear that that’s what they want as a fact, mentioning it to the people that they work with and they just put it out in the world. And I’ve noticed that women are much more cautious about giving themselves that title."

Why She Wishes She Started Earlier: "I should’ve stuck my hand up earlier. There are movies that I wrote that I could’ve directed. And it didn’t even occur to me ... and now, when there are things I’m not happy with how they came out, there’s nothing I could’ve done about it because I wasn’t in charge, and I really wish that I had maybe seen that in myself."

Why She Wrote That Tweet: "If you don’t see a lot of images of yourself doing it, if you don’t have a lot of female friends who are doing it, it just doesn’t occur to you, or you feel it would be presumptuous. And it’s not to demonize men or say that they’re presumptuous, but men tend to have a feeling when they’re in the field of, 'I could do this! And I’m just gonna let people know that I can do this.' And they have the great advantage of looking like what we imagine directors look like."

How She Pays It Forward: "I recently went to a fantastic line producer and I said, 'What is your ultimate goal?' And she said, 'I want to direct.' And she had devoted 10 years of her life to becoming a craft line producer before she would even consider asking anyone to let her direct ... So what I do with women with great competence in any area of filmmaking, I now make it a practice to ask, 'Do you want to direct?' And to encourage them to put their names forward."

What She Wants Other Women To Know: "There really is still this bias that if women haven’t directed by the time they’re 30, they’re not really directors. But becoming a director, there’s no set path for that ... Anyone who doesn’t look like what the business thinks directors look like, and that’s really any women, people of color, old people — there’s a struggle there just to be seen as a contender. And in the absence of anyone seeing you that way, you have to see yourself that way."

Krista Vernoff, 44

Showrunner, writer, and producer of Grey's Anatomy; previously worked on shows including Shameless and Charmed. Directed a short film, Stars, in 2015, and directed her first episode of Grey's in 2018.

Brooke Blanchard

Why She Decided To Direct: "About two and a half years ago now, the ACLU report came out on women directors in Hollywood, and I found it unsettling and disturbing. And the month that report came out, I wrote and directed a short film, because I felt a responsibility to do something immediate and begin to change those numbers. And I thought, I am qualified, I have been at this for nearly 20 years, and I keep writing my stories and handing them off to other people, oftentimes men, to realize. I stand there on the set the whole time as a showrunner and as a creator and whisper my notes to the director, often a male director. What do I have in me that is hiding from taking that leap myself to actualizing my own story?"

What Her First Directing Experience Was Like: "I directed a short film in my living room. I financed it myself, so there was nothing hanging over my head, no producers … I just did it myself. And Abigail Spencer came and did it with me, Josh Kelly, Wes Brown — I had this amazing cast. And I loved the experience. And yet, I was still afraid to do it for other people. And I don’t know why. I am powerful and I am brave and I am very good at what I do. I don’t know why I was so scared.

What McKenna's Tweet Meant To Her: "[With Grey's], I had to fly solo, and I did, and it felt amazing. I feel so proud of this episode [Season 15, Episode 7] and I feel so powerfully grateful to be in this bubble of Shondaland and the matriarchy, where women support other women. [McKenna's] tweet came right at a moment for me where I said, 'Yes, you gotta put your hand up.'"

Why She's Glad She Waited: "I don’t wish I had decided to direct sooner ... when I was in my 20s, I was far too reactive and emotional to run a set. Too many things happen in a day that you can’t take personally, that you can’t respond to emotionally, you have to make a billion decisions on the fly, and everybody’s looking to you for answers. And you are dealing with big personalities and you are dealing with volatile personalities and emotional personalities. And you have to steer that ship. And I will tell you that all of my years of being a human being on this planet, of being a mother, of being a worker among workers, of being a boss, all of that made me a far more powerful director than I ever could’ve been in my 20s, or even in my 30s."

What She Wants Other Women To Know: "Recently, I overheard that a woman on our crew hopes to direct. And I said to Debbie [Allen], 'I heard this, should we reach out to her?' And she said, 'No, she has to come to us.' When you’re ready, when you have the drive, when you put it out there that you’re ready, we will rise up to meet you, but you can’t be a whisper campaign. If you want to direct, you gotta have the drive to put your hand up."

Lisa France, 51

Director, writer, producer, of films including Love & Suicide. Directed her first short film, Love In Tow, in 1999, and her first documentary, Roll With Me, is in theaters now.

Courtesy of ARRAY

Why She Wanted To Direct: "I remember Billy Bob Thornton had just released Sling Blade, and I was kind of obsessed with his process, that he just did everything himself. And similarly, I was obsessed with Spike Lee, who also is like, 'I did everything myself, I put it on my credit cards, I went bankrupt.' I was like, 'These guys are crazy, but I’m crazy, so why not?'"

What She Was Told: "My own father said, 'You’re not a filmmaker,' because I hadn’t made a movie yet. And I think at the end of the day I said, 'OK, I got it, I see why you think that.' Because I hadn’t proven myself yet."

What Her First Directing Experience Was Like: "I had no idea what I was doing ... I assembled this little, tiny movie, 10 minutes long, called Love in Tow. And it went on to win a bunch of festivals! And then really quickly after that, I got Anne B. Real … I didn’t know anything and I think when you don’t know anything, and you can kind of keep your blinders on, you don’t get distracted by the negativity and the rejection that is so prevalent."

What She Wants Other Women To Know: "Women who are getting in this game later, which it seems like there are lots of us now, keep your head up, keep going. There’s a place for you ... I think one of the things that happens with women is that we get a little ahead, and we’re terrified of losing that lead that we might have, or the wave that we’re on. And so we’re like, 'Oh, I better not help any more women, because there’s only room for me.' And I think it’s really important to know that is just baloney, just baloney. We can continue to help more women, we can continue to help more people of color, we can continue to help anybody, really. So we don’t have to be afraid of that."

And What She Wants Men To Know: "It's our time. This is not to say that I want male filmmakers or male stories or white men to be tossed to the wayside. We just want to be included, whether we’re women of color, whether we’re women of a different socioeconomic background, whatever our stories are."

Tasha Smith, 47

Actor, producer, director and acting coach currently starring on Empire. Directed her first short film, Boxed In, in 2014 followed by her first feature, When Love Kills, in 2017.

Marcus Ingram/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Why She Wanted To Direct: "I’ve been teaching acting for so many years, blocking scenes, directing actors, giving character development, all of that. And from teaching, I just had this passion to be able to take that creative energy to another level in a narrative of directing ... to be able to do what I do in my school but to do it in a different way and to take a piece of material, to create material, to literally make these characters and story come alive, it’s addictive. I’m obsessed."

What Her First Directing Experience Was Like: "I spent my own money, so I was the boss. I was like, 'This is my money, so if I f*ck it up, it’s on me' ... but where I was nervous was when I did my first feature for TV One. I think the budget was like, $800,000 and I was like, 'Oh my God, I hope I don’t mess it up!' The first day, I literally had to go into the bathroom and do some breathing exercises, look at myself in the mirror and say, 'You’ve got this Tasha, just get your ass out there and say action!'"

Why She's Glad She Waited: "I’m happy because I learned more. I’m more mature and more focused and more clear and more confident. I just believe there’s a process that we have to allow ourselves to go through, and I feel like the timing was perfect. It happened in the time that I was prepared. I don’t know that I would’ve been able to do it in the capacity that I’m able to do it now had I done it sooner."

What She Wants Other Women To Know: "Create a mood board, create a tone board, just do your own homework. Go through the process of [asking yourself], 'How would I develop this if I had the money?' ... figure it out and see if it feeds you."

Julie Plec, 46

Co-creator and showrunner of The Vampire Diaries, creator and showrunner of Legacies, among other shows and movies. Directed her first episode of TV in 2015.

Ricky Middlesworth

Why She Waited To Direct: "I have been asked over the years by people I’ve worked with, actors and crew, when I would direct. And if I would direct. And I always said, 'No, I didn’t want to take something on when I wasn’t confident that I knew as much as there was possibly to know about it. That I didn’t just want to step into something that I wasn’t as proficient at as I wanted to be. And that was my response for a lot of years. Until finally, one of my best friends said, 'Do you think men are sitting around wondering if they’re good enough in certain areas before they declare their intentions about what they want their careers to be?' And I looked at her and was like, 'Gee, I don’t imagine that they do' ... the fear, a lot of the fear, was me being insecure, and I think that is a decidedly feminine response to the world."

What Her First Directing Experience Was Like: "I was thinking I was going to walk in and be a disaster in my own head, if nothing else. And I got there and I got into my first take and I felt great. I had no nerves ... I instantly felt like I belonged, and I knew exactly what I needed to do. And it was this incredible feeling, given how long I had prevented myself from taking that leap."

What She Wants Other Women To Know: "I think that the more women that take the plunge, the more women that become the kind of seasoned filmmakers that we all think we have to be before we do this for the first time ... I urge all women to embrace what they know and embrace what they don’t know, and really declare that intention loud and proud."

Iwona Sapienza, 47

Script supervisor on Modern Family. Directed her first episode of the show in 2018.

Courtesy Of: Iwona Sapienza

Why She Wanted To Direct: "Sitting next to different directors [on Modern Family] and seeing what they were doing, I became more and more interested in the creative aspect of putting TV shows together and orchestrating on the spot ... five or six years in, I started to put the bug in one of my producer's ears, saying, 'You know what, I think I want to direct.' It's such a family environment, so supportive, that I was like, 'If there's any chance I could try my hand at this, these are the people that I'd want surrounding me doing it.' So after a couple more years of kind of pushing the envelope and saying I wanted to take the steps, I then put the bug in one of my executive producer's ears and said, 'This is something I really want to do.' And knowing that the show may be winding down, it's kind of like a now or never thing.' And he said, 'Sure, I support you one hundred percent, have at it.'"

What Her First Directing Experience Was Like: "I was anxious going in because each day was dealing with a different family of Modern Family, so it was kind of like, how is this family going to react to me after seeing me as the script supervisor for so many years? ... I had a 'butterflies in my stomach' sort of feeling until the day got going. But the things that I worried about ended up being nothing to worry about, things just kind of flowed and took their natural course. It was all just really exciting and fun and then as I got a little more comfortable each day, it was just trying to kind of stay in the moment and really enjoy and appreciate the opportunity that I was being given ... [and now], I really feel like it's the career path, the next jump, that I'm supposed to take."

What It's Been Like Since: "Right after I was done, I started getting emails and text messages like, 'How did you do this?' And, 'What do you think I should do for this?' [So I'm now] just reaching out, knowing that they're going into their first time and wanting to hear more of my experience and how I prepped and how I did it."

Constance Zimmer, 48

Emmy-nominated actor of House of Cards and UnREAL, among other films and shows. Directed her first episode of UnREAL in 2018.

Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Why She Wanted To Direct: "What inspired me was being given the opportunity. I had never been given the opportunity ... When Lifetime and the producers of UnREAL came to me and said, 'Do you want to direct an episode?' I didn’t even falter; I said, 'Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.'"

What Her First Directing Experience Was Like: "I had no idea how hard it was going to be working as a lead and direct. That was a whole new exciting challenge that I love, but I can’t wait to actually direct and not be on the show."

What She Wants To Do Next: "I’m developing a couple of shows for myself and for other strong females. I’m excited; I want to be part of that creative process from the ground up on getting a show made. I just want to put out really good stories and great characters."

Salli Richardson Whitfeld, 51

Actor and director known for projects including I Am Legend and I Will Follow. Directed her first episode of Eureka in 2011.

Courtesy of: Salli Richardson

Who Inspired Her To Direct: "I was doing this film with Ava DuVernay, her first feature, and I was the lead in it … and we’d get into situations where maybe I was talking too much, where I’d be like, 'Well, we’re in a time crunch and I’d put my two cents in, maybe you can do this, or you could do this,' and she said, 'You might want to consider directing' ... through all my years of acting I haven’t had that many female directors, it just wasn’t something that had crossed my mind — like if you’d asked me maybe 10 years ago, I probably would’ve just said no ... but she really inspired me and all of a sudden I went, 'Maybe I do think this way.'"

What Her First Directing Experience Was Like: "It’s much more work than I think than most people know ... It’s not that pretty. When you’re there, there’s no time to go to your trailer, there’s no breaks, you really are in charge of every decision ... learning how to navigate that is what can be a bit intimidating. But the more shows I do, the more confident I feel in myself, and now, I can sort of fall into place pretty much anywhere, quickly."

Why She's Glad She Waited: "There’s a wealth of knowledge that I can give to actors that I’m working with that [I wouldn't have had] as a younger person ... so I think the age helps me. But because it’s new, I still have this youthful energy that a new director would have, so it’s kind of like having both worlds mixed into one right now … and with 30 years of acting, it’s like once I started directing, I didn’t realize how much I actually knew. Because I’ve been on a set so long, I just know what every department needs to do and go through."

How She's Paying It Forward: "On numerous shows that I do, I have people who shadow me ... I love having someone there, especially if they’re people who I think can really do it, I want to help them. I really want them to watch. I do think I’m really good at what I do, and I do think I have a lot to offer someone who wants to learn."

Gloria Calderon Kellett, 43

Writer, actor, and producer who's worked on shows including How I Met Your Mother and Jane the Virgin, and co-showrunner of One Day at a Time. Directed her first episode of One Day in 2018.

Courtesy of: Michael Underwood

Why She Decided To Direct: "I was trying to get women, Latina directors — Cuban if possible — for the show in Season 1. And [director/producer Pamela Fryman] said, 'Oh my god, I know someone who’s perfect. She directed a ton of theater, she’s great with actors, she is an actor herself, and she’s Cuban! You’re gonna love her, she’s amazing.' And I was like, 'Who?' And she said, 'You!' She was like, 'You can do this.' That was the turning point for me."

What Her First Directing Experience Was Like: "Maybe because it was my set and they’d been working for me for a few years already when I directed my first episode, but everyone was really, really gracious and lovely."

What She's Doing Next: "I’m directing Mr. Iglesias, and today’s Day 1 for me. And I’m not running that show. So this is where it feels like a real triumph. It’s one thing to be directing in my own house, on One Day at a Time, but now being asked to go elsewhere and be welcome as a guest by another show, that’s the dream."

How She's Paying It Forward: "On One Day at a Time, every year we have new female directors. That’s part of our brand, of who we are as humans and as a show. We are Latina-led, we are people of color-focused. This year we had one 'diversity spot' for a white guy ... every other episode was directed by a woman or a person of color ... You give people opportunity, it works. Then they go out and they’re able to do other amazing things."

Jill Soloway, 53

Creator, showrunner, producer, writer, and director of Transparent, among other acclaimed shows and movies. Directed their first short film, Tight, in 2010, and first feature, Afternoon Delight, in 2013.

Courtesy of: Jesse Chamberlin Marble

Why They Wanted To Direct: "I was working at Six Feet Under as a writer and as a writer, you produce your episodes. So I was always on this set, and there would always be a director hired and I think I was always feeling, 'Ugh, I want to get in there and I want to adjust the performance,' or, 'I want to craft and shape and see how I imagined it when I was writing it' ... And so I think I was just like kind of frustrated that I didn't have more control over the performances of the stuff I'd written ... And when I was working on United States of Tara as a showrunner, both Diablo Cody as well as a director named Jamie Babbit were telling me, 'You have to direct, you're a director.' They said it in response to me going, 'I want to change this, I want to change that, I want to fix this.'"

What They Were Told: "I remember I had a really good friend who was getting his show made and he said, 'I have an order for six episodes, will you run the writers' room?' And I said, 'Yes, I will run the writers' room if you let me direct one episode.' He said, 'OK, great.' And we went to make the deal and the network said, 'No, she doesn't have enough experience, not going to happen.'

There were a good like two or three years there where every deal I would be on, I was able to get hired as a showrunner ... but they did not let me direct an episode ... I think people's way of connecting around a woman's talent, whoever she might be, is creating a mythology around her of incompetence."

What Their First Directing Experience Was Like: "When United States of Tara ended, Diablo wrote a script for me and gave me that and taught me how to do a shot list and we went to Funny or Die and asked them to pay for it. And that's how I made my first short ... it was so fun. I was so happy and it felt very natural. I had been directing theater before and I think I believed that I could do it but I really wasn't able to convince anybody to let me do it."

Why They Wish They Hadn't Waited: "I wish I had done it so much earlier. I mean I just can't believe how many years I waited and what I waited for. I'm really upset. I mean, I kept asking people, I kept saying I want to direct, and they would say no ... actually, one of the EP's from those days actually apologized to me [recently] ... it put a tear in my eye."

What They Want Women To Know: "A lot of people will focus on knowing a lot about lenses, a lot about equipment ... but the truth is the script supervisor makes sure you don't cross the line, the cinematographer knows a lot about lenses, the keeper knows a lot about equipment ... and honestly, I never learned those things. I won the directing award at Sundance and a DGA award and two Emmys for directing. And I don't still know anything about lenses."

Additional Reporting by Mallory Carra