Film: Santa Barbara International Film Festival: 2009: Follow the Prophet

Woman Behind the Camera: Director Drew Rosenberg

By Madelyn Ritrosky
Entertainment Magazine

Women and the media.  You’ve undoubtedly heard those words, and perhaps some of the issues or concerns often raised. 
 
Drew Ann Rosenberg
(Photo left) Drew Rosenberg

Here, our topic is women directors and, more specifically, an interview with Drew Ann Rosenberg as one woman making her way as a film director.  Drew’s feature directing credits include Follow the Prophet (2009), the just completed ParFection (2009), and Sex and a Girl (2001).  Drew also co-directed 65 episodes of one-hour drama for the telenovella series Saints & Sinners (2005).  She has several short films and numerous assistant directing and second unit directing credits to her name, including L.A. Confidential and Philadelphia
 
But first, let’s put Drew’s directing career into the larger context of women as directors in Hollywood.  A few relevant – actually glaring – statistics and historical tidbits will illuminate the context for thinking about women directly behind the camera. 
 
In 2000, at the dawn of the brand new 21st century, women comprised 11% of film directors for the top 250 domestic grossing films.  That’s a lousy percentage considering the mass production, circulation, and influence of movies in our culture for 100 years. The Great Train Robbery, where exciting storytelling came to life on screen, stunned audiences way back in 1903. 
 
But wait.  There are more recent statistics that even more seriously deflate the myth of modern/postmodern progress.  In 2007, an appalling 6% of the directors were women.  So it’s nice to spotlight a woman director, who describes herself as “a socially conscious person, especially sensitive to intolerance.”   
 
When you couple those cold, hard numbers with 1) the kinds of films that generally get financed and distributed and 2) the numbers and types of on-screen roles typically available to women, we have to surmise that Hollywood is no more conducive to women than it was, say, 70 years ago. 
 
=Drew Rosenberg
(Photo left) Drew Rosenberg, as First Assistant Director, with Armand Assante on the set of The Hunley.

Well, that’s not exactly accurate.  Hollywood was actually rather solicitous toward women 70 years ago – at least as audiences and thus with actresses – which meant women like Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and others could shine onscreen in great roles.  Behind the scenes, though, women directors were virtually nonexistent. 
 
Under the so-called studio system that built the foundations of today’s Hollywood, from roughly the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s, there were – count them – all of two women who directed studio feature films.  Those legendary women were Dorothy Arzner (directing 1927-1943) and actress-turned-director Ida Lupino (directing in film and television 1949-1968).

What was nonexistent under the studio system was a female studio head.  In the 1960s, trail-blazer Lucille Ball headed Desilu, a major TV production company.  But today, several women are at the upper echelons of studio management – yet the picture remains dismal.  Drew put it this way:  “They don’t see hiring more women directors as an issue.  They don’t have widespread imaginations to bring in newcomers on big budgets.  And the bottom line is money.” 
                                                    
Yet the women and men making those decisions remain blind to the money that certain audiences could generate.  This lack of vision and lack of women behind the camera affects what we see on the screen.  I notice gender imbalances and disparities in the media all the time, and it’s exasperating.  It’s a turn-off.  I would love to see so much that is so rarely seen.  I know I’m not alone.   
 
(Photo left) Drew Rosenberg with Tom Noonan (left) and David Conrad on the set of Follow the Prophet.

There are numerous talented women directing films in and around Hollywood today.  The independent film scene provides unique and creative opportunities on- and off-screen, but financing, budgets, distribution and publicity are continuing challenges.  With bigger-budget and studio features, as Drew noted, women directors are regularly passed over for their male colleagues. 
 
The Directors Guild of America (DGA), which represents directors in the industry, was founded in 1936.  The DGA Women’s Steering Committee, founded in 1979 by six women members and dedicated to promoting directing opportunities for women, marks its 30th anniversary this year.  Their efforts are, unfortunately, still very much needed.
 
Drew Rosenberg is a member of the DGA and is involved in Women’s Steering Committee events.  Last year, she co-chaired a special panel that celebrated women directors, co-directing the affiliated short documentary, A Celebration of Women Directors.  As the tagline reads, it “commemorates the range of work of some of the DGA’s most talented women directors in the history of our industry.” 
 
This month, Drew is again in the co-chair seat for another Women’s Steering Committee event:  “It’s a director/producer mixer, where women directors get one-on-one time with producers in a position to hire them.”  But just who is Drew Ann Rosenberg, director?  It’s time to get to know her better. 

Photo right: With Dean Cameron (left) and Christopher Showerman on the set of ParFection.

Drew hails from Princeton, New Jersey – a stone’s throw from Broadway – and grew up amidst dramatic performances.  “My family has always loved the theatre and movies.  When I was little, we often went into New York City to see shows.  My mother dabbled heavily in acting as well, performing regularly in community theater.  And I was a classically trained singer from the time I was ten into my college years.”
 
At Brown, she majored in international relations but, she said, “I felt lost when I graduated.”  So for the experience, she got an internship “working in an off-Broadway theatre, Playwrights Horizons.  And I got hooked.” 
 
From there, she segued into film, with the potential for bigger and better opportunities.  As a production assistant, her first big film was Radio Days (1987), directed by Woody Allen, soon followed by The Glass Menagerie (1987), directed by Paul Newman. 
                                                               
Over the next five years, Drew worked as a second assistant director in New York, including her first movie with director Abel Ferrara, King of New York (1990).  Two years later, “Abel moved me up to first assistant director on Bad Lieutenant,” she explained.  Since then, the majority of her work has been as first assistant director on films and made-for-TV movies. 
 
“When I started working as a first assistant director, I worked for director Lesli Linka Glatter on a bunch of projects, including the film Now and Then,” Drew noted.  “She was a huge mentor for me.”  She added, “Lots of assistant directors are women nowadays, though it wasn’t that way when I first started.”   
 
Of course, Drew was shooting for the director’s chair.  She said, “I was always taking directing classes on the side.”  She was watching movies.  “I always loved the films of Niki Caro, like Whale Rider, and I wanted to be like her.  One of my favorite films is Harold and Maude.  It’s a wonderful affirmation of life.  A more recent film I absolutely love is a small movie called Saved.  It has humor and intelligence, with a wonderful message of tolerance and compassion.  This is the film I’d like to make.”  She also admires Rebel Without a Cause and The Piano, films that “send messages of social consciousness without being preachy or heavy-handed.” 
 
In 1998, she made the transition, adding writer and director to her credits with her short film, The Dog People.  According to Drew, “it’s a satire about war and persecution.”  In 2001, she tackled her first feature as writer and as director, Alex in Wonder (which premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, prior to its Sex and a Girl title change). 
 
(Photo right) Drew Rosenberg with Sex and a Girl cast members Angela Gots (left), Soleil Moon Frye, Alison Lohman, and Lisa Brenner.

With Sex and a Girl, the writer-director wanted to deal with a young woman’s coming of age.  Films about boys coming of age are far more common, she noted.  She drew on her own experiences for it, although she clarified that “it’s not actually autobiographical.”  The movie is non-sugar-coated and humorous, daring to depict Alex’s journey with realism and feminist wit.  For example, when four teenage girlfriends ponder how ‘wife swapping’ might be termed ‘husband swapping,’ the traditional mother of one of the girls looks utterly horrified at their questioning curiosity.  And, as Drew noted, “Alex’s first experience with sex is not the idealized ‘love’ version.  Instead, it’s highly embarrassing and awkward, more like the reality of many women’s first time.”
                                                                                       
Then there was the co-directing job on Saints & Sinners in 2005.  “It was five months, shooting in San Diego, with fourteen directors to coordinate 65 one-hour episodes.  There were six crews shooting at a time.”
 
Next came the offer to direct Follow the Prophet, an unflinching dramatic look at one young woman’s escape from a polygamist sect.  “Right before I was approached to direct this film, I was at a point in my career where I really wanted to make a film I could feel a passion for and make a statement for the greater good,” Drew explained.  “I became very excited to be involved, and the more I delved into the subject, the more passionate I became.  Quite simply, this film deals with the persecution of women and children through religious brainwashing.”

At the film’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival premiere in January, Drew, writer-actor Robert Chimento, producer-actress Joan Sweeney, and actress Annie Burgstede emphasized that polygamy exists in America in religious enclaves built on male power, authority, and greed, where women are isolated and their rights trampled. 

“As a woman, these issues are particularly provocative, because we are fighting for our rights as it were.  I feel that as a woman director and a mother, I have a great sensitivity toward young women and children in my work,” Drew elaborated.

The film on which she just wrapped post-production is ParFection: The Golf Movie.  She calls it “a raunchy comedy with heart.”  It’s about college kids who are golfers, with romantic comedy mixed in.  Another Follow the Prophet it is not.  Drew is happy not to get pigeonholed.
 
Her next project – also as director – is Blissfully Yours.  Drew calls this “a wacky romantic comedy, like Something Wild by Jonathan Demme.  We have part of the financing for it.”
 
Happily, yet another directing job is in the pipeline, Seduction School.  This romantic comedy features a young man “who’s madly in love with a gorgeous girl, but he has no social skills.”  He ends up falling for the ‘ordinary’ girl who helps him.

(Photo right) Drew with her son Sam and their dog Puma.

Based on her experiences, Drew feels that the situation for women as directors “has improved somewhat, but not enough over the past twenty years.  Too many people don’t consider it an issue, but it should be.  With the Women’s Steering Committee, we think it’s more effective to highlight to producers what women can do rather than complaining.”  Yet she went on to say, “But not that many women have actually broken through.  There are only a few in the top ranks of directors.” 
 
The television networks are generally more conducive to women, and Drew pointed out that ABC offers incentives to hire women directors.  Of course, major prestige comes with film directing, not television directing.  What a familiar chord in our culture... 
 
Let’s end on a couple more eye-opening statistics.  Like the previous figures, these are from the 2007 Celluloid Ceiling Report (Martha Lauzen, Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film). 
 
When you add up all the directors, writers, executive producers, producers, cinematographers, and editors for the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2007, 15% of those creative leaders were women.  And 21% of those films had absolutely no woman in any of those decision-making positions. 
 
Will things ever change?  Women like Drew Rosenberg are making dents, and I’ll be cheering her on.  What else might I do?  Oh yes, I’m working on a screenplay... that will need a woman behind the camera.


Follow the Prophet opens theatrically on April 30, 2010 at Angelika Houston Film Center with a special benefit for the Texas Center for the Missing. In May 2010, the film debuts in North America on Video on Demand and for download via Gravitas Ventures, through  Warner Brothers Digital  Distribution.

All photos courtesy of Drew Rosenberg

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