By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Sundance13 Preview: Women of U.S. Dramatic

At Sundance 2013, films by eight female director-screenwriters are among the sixteen movies up for the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic. Here’s a look who they are, how you may know them, and what they’ve done so far.


Background: Born in Chicago, Soloway is a veteran television writer-producer who recently shifted toward feature filmmaking. She lives in Los Angeles where she organizes the reading series Sit ‘n Spin.

Notable accolades: Soloway is a three-time Emmy nominee for her involvement on HBO phenom Six Feet Under, which was nominated as Outstanding Drama Series in 2002, 2003 and 2005. In 2006, the Writer’s Guild of America nominated Soloway and her Six Feet Under colleagues for excellence in a dramatic series.

Film she’s bringing to Sundance: Afternoon Delight, a drama written and directed by Soloway. Sundance describes the film as a “sexy, dark comedy” in which “a lost L.A. housewife puts her idyllic life in jeopardy when she tries to rescue a stripper by taking her in as a live-in nanny.” Principal cast: Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jane Lynch, Kathryn Hahn, Annie Mumolo.

Where you may know her from: Coming from a strong background in television, Soloway has producer credits on Dirty Sexy Money, The United States of Tara, Nikki, How to Make It in America, Grey’s Anatomy and Six Feet Under. Fans of Six Feet Under will recognize Soloway as a returning writer.

Previous Sundance appearances: Afternoon Delight will be Soloway’s second Sundance appearance. In January 2012, she brought Una Hora Por Favora to the festival’s short film program, a comedy starring Michaela Watkins and Wilmer Valderrama, which you can see here.

Twitter: @jillwaysolo


Background: A resident of Salt Lake City and a film school graduate of Brigham Young University, Hess wrote three cult films that met with varying success: “quirky” comedy Napoleon Dynamite, Jack Black romp Nacho Libre, and the little-seen Gentlemen Broncos. Austenland is Jerusha’s debut directing credit.

Notable accolades: Jerusha’s work has yet to be singled out and lauded by a large-scale organization. That said, Napoleon Dynamite did win a number of teen-themed awards, including winning Best Movie, Best Musical Performance (Jon Heder) and Breakthrough Male (Heder) at the 2005 MTV Movie Awards. The film also won Best Comedy at the Teen Choice Awards in the same year.

Film she’s bringing to Sundance: Austenland, an adaptation of the novel by Shannon Hale. Both Hale and Hess have screenwriting credits. Also worth noting is the Church of Latter-day Saints representation on this film: both Hess, Hale, and producer Stephenie Meyer (of Twilight fame) are Mormon. The official Sundance blurb: “Thirtysomething, single Jane is obsessed with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice. On a trip to an English resort, her fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman become more real than she ever imagined.” Principal cast: Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge, James Callis, Georgia King, JJ Feild, Keri Russell.

Interesting fact: Hess has now worked with both members of Flight of the Conchords. Having written for Jemaine Clement in Gentlemen Broncos, Austenland features Bret McKenzie, the other half of the popular New Zealand comedy duo.

Where you may know her from: Hess is best known for her work on Napoleon Dynamite (film and the animated series), Nacho Libre, and Gentlemen Broncos. Given the eccentric popularity of Napoleon Dynamite (and monkeywrench effect it has on things like Netflix recommendations), it’s safe to say you’ve heard of something Hess has worked on before.

Previous Sundance appearances: In 2004, Hess and director husband Jared Hess sparked a bidding war for Napoleon Dynamite, then a sleeper hit.


Background: Relatively new to the scene, Passon is an alumni of the Independent Filmmaker Project’s (IFP) Narrative lab, where she developed and wrote Concussion.

Notable accolades: For a first-time filmmaker, Passon is on a spree of successes: in November of 2012, she won the Adrienne Shelly Foundation Director’s Grant (in association with IFP) and the “Live the Dream” grant at the Gotham Awards. The $25,000 grant seeks to shed a spotlight on women filmmakers (as does the Shelly Foundation), so her inclusion at Sundance this year is rather fitting.

Film she’s bringing to Sundance: Concussion, which Passon describes as a film about “a woman who becomes a hooker.” In Sundance’s words: “After a blow to the head, Abby decides she can’t do it anymore. Her life just can’t be only about the house, the kids and the wife. She needs more: she needs to be Eleanor.” Principal cast: Emily Kinney, Maggie Siff, Julie Fain Lawrence, Laila Robins, Robin Weigert, Johnathan Tchaikovsky.

Where you may know her from: You likely don’t, yet. Passon’s inclusion in the US Dramatic Competition is one of the reasons Sundance as a festival is so exciting–the filmmakers are as fresh as morning powder.

Previous Sundance appearances: Passon has yet to grace Park City, making 2013 an important year for the newcomer.

Twitter: @StaciePasson


Background: Italian-born Francesca Gregorini has only in the last few years become a dedicated filmmaker, moving from singing and songwriting into directing and screenwriting with 2009’s Tanner Hall. Before focusing entirely on movies, Gregorini toured with Los Angeles alt-rock band Mazzy Star.

Notable accolades: Tanner Hall, Gregorini’s feature film debut, won the Acura Grand Jury Award for Best Feature at the 2010 GenArt Film Festival. The nod came with a cash prize of $10,000.

Film she’s bringing to Sundance: Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes, a drama-thriller that Gregorini describes as “autobiographical.” According to Gregorini, the character of Emanuel is based from the director’s own issues with fertility and the sense of loss from being unable to have children. Sundance’s summary follows: “Emanuel, a troubled girl, becomes preoccupied with her mysterious, new neighbor, who bears a striking resemblance to her dead mother. In offering to babysit her newborn, Emanuel unwittingly enters a fragile, fictional world, of which she becomes the gatekeeper.”  Principal cast: Alfred Molina, Jimmi Simpson, Kaya Scodelario, Jessica Biel, Frances O’Connor, Aneurin Barnard.

Where you may know her from: Gregorini has been singing and writing music for years. Otherwise, readers may know the director from her stage career, or her Rooney Mara drama Tanner Hall. That film was co-directed by Tatiana von Furstenberg, Gregorini’s creative partner who also co-produced Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes. It remains to be seen if giving Gregorini full control will improve results (Tanner Hall holds at a steady 12% on Rotten Tomatoes).

Previous Sundance appearances: None. Tanner Hall debuted at Toronto International in 2009.

Twitter: @francescagreg


Background: Born in New York City 1979, Lake Bell is an actor, model and writer who recently begun a directing career with 2010 short Worst Enemy.

Notable accolades: Bell shared the National Board of Review’s Best Acting by an Ensemble award for 2009’s It’s Complicated. Furthermore, Bell’s role in 2008’s Under Still Waters landed her an Outstanding Performance in Acting award from the Newport Beach Film Festival.

Film she’s bringing to Sundance: In a World…, a comedy written, directed, and acted by Bell. Sundance’s summary follows: “An underachieving vocal coach is motivated by her father, the king of movie-trailer voice-overs, to pursue her aspirations of becoming a voiceover star. Amidst pride, sexism and family dysfunction, she sets out to chance the voice of a generation.” Principal cast: Bell, Demetri Martin, Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, Fred Melamed, Ken Marino.

Interesting fact: The film reunites Bell with fellow Childrens Hospital stars Rob Corddry, Nick Offerman, and Ken Marino.

Where you may know her from: Aside from sitting as #44 on Maxim’s “Hot 100 of 2012” list (a magazine whose cover she has graced in the past), Bell is perhaps best known for her television roles on How to Make It in America, Boston Legal, and Surface. Her film roles also include (amongst others) 2012 horror Black Rock, with 2011 comedies A Good Old Fashioned Orgy and No Strings Attached. You may also know Bell from the Hollywood Reporter, where she writes the automotive column Test Drive.

Previous Sundance appearances: In 2012, Bell came to Park City representing Katie Aselton’s Black Rock (written by Mark Duplass, a Sundance perennial). In 2011, Bell’s short (and directing debut) Worst Enemy premiered at Sundance.

Twitter: @lakebell

Lake Bell’s second short ¡El Tonto! is here.


Background: Born 1977, Liz W. Garcia (sometimes credited as simply Liz Garcia), is a notable television writer and producer. She is married to actor (and fellow TV veteran) Joshua Harto. Garcia, a film graduate from Wesleyan University, lives with Harto in Los Angeles.

Notable accolades: As 2013 sees Garcia’s directing debut, a filmography has yet to be lauded.

Film she’s bringing to Sundance: The Lifeguard, a drama written and directed by Garcia. Sundance’s summary follows: “A former valedictorian quits her reporter job in New York and returns to the place she last felt happy: her childhood home in Connecticut. She gets work as a lifeguard and starts a dangerous relationship with a troubled teenager.” Principal cast: Garcia’s husband Joshua Harto, Kristen Bell, Martin Starr, Mamie Gummer, Alex Shaffer, Amy Madigan.

Where you may know her from: Fans of TNT series Memphis Beat will recognize Garcia as the show’s co-creator and co-writer. Additionally, Garcia has writing credits on Cold Case, Wonderfalls, and Dawson’s Creek.

Previous Sundance appearances: The Lifeguard is Garcia’s first appearance in Park City.

If you’re interested, you can: read Garcia’s blog posts on the Forbes.com website, where she posits perspectives on Hollywood, popular culture, and women’s issues. Regarding The Lifeguard, Garcia has written a piece about the troubles facing female directors in Hollywood, titled: “Women Can’t Gain Influence in Hollywood Because Women Don’t Look like Men.” Her posts are linked here.

Twitter: @lizwgarcia


Background: A Palestinian-American born in 1976, Cherien Dabis is a writer, director, and producer. In 2004, she received her MFA in film at Columbia University. Her filmography includes two features and several shorts.

Notable accolades: Amreeka, Dabis’ feature film debut, earned her a FIPRESCI prize at the 2009 Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. The same film received a Humanitas Prize as well. Her work has gained recognition with both critics and international film festivals spanning from Chicago to Cairo. In 2009, Variety slotted Dabis as one of “Ten Directors to Watch.”

Film she’s bringing to Sundance: May in the Summer, a comedy-drama written and directed by Dabis. Sundance’s summary: “May has it all—a celebrated book, a sophisticated New York life, and a terrific fiancé to match. But when she heads to Amman, Jordan, to arrange her wedding, she lands in a bedlam of family chaos she thought she’d transcended long before. Her headstrong, born-again Christian mother so disapproves of her marrying a Muslim that she threatens to boycott the wedding. Her younger sisters lean on her like children, and her estranged father suddenly comes out of the woodwork. Meanwhile, doubts about her marriage surface, and May’s carefully structured life spins out of control.” Principal cast: Hiam Abbass, Bill Pullman, Alia Shawkat, Ritu Singh Pande, Nadine Malouf, Dabis herself, Alexander Siddig.

Where you may know her from: Fans of Showtime series The L Word will recognize Dabis as a writer and co-producer on that show. In 2009, Dabis made major splashes at international film festivals with Amreeka.

Previous Sundance appearances: In 2007, Dabis premiered her short film Make a Wish at the festival. Similarly, in 2009, Amreeka made its world premiere in Park City. Both films went on to success in the festival circuit abroad. May in the Summer is one of four films opening the 2013 festival.

Twitter: @cheriendabis


Background: Born in Seattle 1967, Lynn Shelton is a queen of independent film: the Sundance veteran has made a successful career of writing, directing, and acting in small-scale or low-budget American movies for ten years and going strong. Before moving to more creative control in the filmmaking process, Shelton worked as a film editor.

Notable accolades: In 2009, Shelton’s awkward sex comedy Humpday proved  Sundance gold, winning a Special Jury Prize as a result. Humpday also landed Shelton the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards. In 2006, Shelton won Slamdance’s Grand Jury Prize for We Go Way Back. Park City has been good to Lynn Shelton.

Film she’s bringing to Sundance: Touchy Feely, a drama written and directed by Shelton. Sundance’s summary: “A massage therapist is unable to do her job when stricken with a mysterious and sudden aversion to bodily contact. Meanwhile, her uptight brother’s foundering dental practice receives new life when clients seek out his “healing touch.” Principal cast: Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page, Allison Janney, and Josh Pais.

Where you may know her from: Shelton is best known for her films Your Sister’s Sister and Humpday, but Shelton remains an actress as well as a filmmaker (last seen in 2012 Sundance comedy Safety Not Guaranteed). Her role in Young American Bodies, the mumblecore web series by Joe Swanberg, is also worth a look.

Previous Sundance appearances: In 2009, Shelton unveiled Humpday, her second feature film, at the festival. Additionally, indie comedy Your Sister’s Sister premiered at Sundance in 2012. Touchy Feely will be Shelton’s third trip to Park City; fourth if you include 2004 Slamdance winner We Go Way Back.

2 Responses to “Sundance13 Preview: Women of U.S. Dramatic”

  1. diannarae says:

    great write-up! thank you! i hope to run into you at sundance to thank you personally. i love getting this level of research on the filmmakers earlier. adds an additional layer to the film before we hear the Q&A. :-)

  2. Marian says:

    YAY! Love this! Thank you! Straight on to PInterest etc.

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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
~ Joe Dante

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