In 1998, Mimi Leder, a two-time Emmy winning director who had made her name through her work on the wildly successful hospital series ER, released Deep Impact. This ensemble drama, starring Tea Leoni and Morgan Freeman, was coolly received by the critics but became one of the highest grossing films of the year, offering a more empathetic and tightly controlled take on the impending disaster genre alongside another film of 1998, Michael Bay’s Armageddon. With a $349m gross, it became the highest-grossing film directed by a woman, a record it would hold for an entire decade until Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight. Two years later, Leder released Pay It Forward. The family drama received mixed reviews, although the slams were detailed in their negativity, and grossed $55.7m on a $40m budget: An underperforming film, yes, but no flop. Despite this, Leder, who had made studios a lot of money and defined the aesthetic of one of TV’s most influential dramas, didn’t direct another film for 9 years. She had found herself in movie jail, an experience she called “deafening and painful”. While Leder has crafted an incredible second act for herself by returning to TV, particularly with her impeccable work on HBO’s The Leftovers, it’s hard to ignore the stark hypocrisies at play in an industry where one mild disappointment is enough to kill a promising and profitable career.
This week, Colin Trevorrow, the director of Jurassic World and the upcoming 9th installment of the Star Wars series, saw the premiere of The Book of Henry, 9 months after its initial release date. Reviews have ranged from confused to brutal, with our own Kristy Puchko calling the film “ungodly long, astoundingly senseless, and emotionally stunted, but also weirdly sexist.” The critical consensus so far is the kind of fear-inducing bafflement that once upon a time could kill a career stone dead and create midnight movie madness. Box office projections aren’t good either, with most predicting the film will quickly disappear from cinemas. Trevorrow himself seems to know the film won’t be well received, joking on Twitter to a fan who liked the movie that it would be great if he could quickly become a critic. Ultimately, The Book of Henry will be a minor blip on Trevorrow’s radar as he suits up to direct one of the most anticipated films of the decade. That’s the problem. Mimi Leder goes to movie jail: Colin Trevorrow carries on.
Let me get this out of the way before I continue: I am not advocating for the end of Trevorrow’s career, nor am I personally attacking him. This is not really about Trevorrow so much as it is about the industry, mindset and gender biases in place that allow mediocrity to flourish as long as it’s created by a white male.
The rise of Colin Trevorrow has been extensively documented. After making his feature debut with the Sundance hit, Safety Not Guaranteed, he was put forward by director Brad Bird as a potential choice to lead the latest film in the Jurassic Park franchise, telling Kathleen Kennedy and Stephen Spielberg, “there is this guy that reminds me of me.” With his sophomore effort, a $150m sequel to one of the most popular franchises of all time, Trevorrow admits that Spielberg “was extremely supportive and encouraging, [and wanted me to] make a movie that was personal for me”. Admitting to have previously only “been on a set a total of six weeks in my life,” he compared the job to earning “a master’s degree in making blockbuster movies”, as he “learned that over and over the course [of production]”. It’s true that film-making is a constantly evolving field, and the best directors are always learning, but when think-pieces are written daily on the “riskiness” of hiring women like Patty Jenkins to direct blockbusters while Trevorrow comparing his gig to grad school, the difference is glaring. Trevorrow, along with contemporaries like Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Jon Watts can treat 9-figure franchises like training wheels: Qualified women directors struggle to find work and are forced to apply for work shadowing other directors.
Jurassic World made a lot of money, as it was expected to. Perhaps estimations didn’t foresee it becoming one of the highest grossing films ever, but it was certainly a guaranteed success from the moment it went into production. The film has its fans, but the growing distaste towards it has only grown since leaving theatres. For me, I find the film increasingly detestable the more I see it (my parents enjoy the film a lot). It’s a perfunctorily shot affair, filmed as expected and seldom deviating from the now rigid mould of post-Spielberg expanded universe franchise directing. Everything happens as you expect it to, and there’s a momentary thrill to be had in watching Chris Pratt motorcycle alongside a herd of raptors. It’s in the details that Jurassic World stumbles, and in its steadfast dedication to the derivative.
The horrid treatment of the female characters drew the sharpest ire, from the condescending treatment Pratt subjects Bryce Dallas Howard’s character to, to the constant crying they all did, to Howard being chastised by her sister for possibly not wanting children, to the damn high heels situation. Yet in all of that, what ended up being the most egregious moment of misogyny in a film steeped in casual sexism was the fate of Katie McGrath’s character, a distracted personal assistant who has no personal development beyond being on her phone and then dying brutally. McGrath’s character is mostly seen on the margins of the frame, her phone glued to her ear and her mind elsewhere as the two damn weiner kids she’s supposed to be in charge of wander elsewhere. This is positioned as a major fault on her behalf, and apparently it’s so unforgivable that she is the character to suffer the most agonizing death, as she is toyed with by a dinosaur, flown through the air and violently gnawed on (or as violently as the PG-13 rating will allow). It’s a shocking moment that feels all the more upsetting as McGrath is one of four women in the film with a tangible role in the story (the other three don’t suffer like this but they all cry a lot) and it doesn’t feel deserved. The nasty lawyer in Jurassic Park gets his comeuppance, but McGrath’s character? Why is she disposed of with such callousness? As an explanation, Trevorrow, who talked frequently of making sure the script was just right, said this:
“But we definitely struggled over how much to allow her to earn her death, and ultimately it wasn’t because she was British, it was because she was a bridezilla. She has one line about the bachelor party: ‘Oh, all his friends are animals.’ In the end, the earned death in these movies has become a bit standard and another thing I wanted to subvert. ‘How can we surprise people? Let’s have someone die who just doesn’t deserve to die at all.”
This bizarre contradiction is Trevorrow’s mediocrity in a nutshell: Subvert an expectation by playing right into it with no self-awareness. McGrath’s “obsession” with her wedding, which is not once conveyed to the audience or even hinted at, is justification enough to give her the worst death in the film, but it’s also meant to be a surprise that doesn’t mean anything. Trevorrow’s ethos as a film-maker with Jurassic World is steeped in this willful ignorance of how such narratives play out to audiences. From the high heels to the negging to the brutal death to all the crying over children, Jurassic World goes out of its way to assert the “true place” of women in film by deriding them at every turn and expecting us to be thankful for the insulting results. The director cites Romancing the Stone as a key influence, overlooking that over 30 years had passed and we expect more than retrograde sexism concealed with the veil of romance.
Truly, Trevorrow seems at least aware of his status as a symbol for Hollywood’s double standards, but he clearly has no way of parsing it without further playing into it. When asked about the way the industry blatantly shuts out women directors, his response was, to say the least, clumsy:
“Obviously it’s very lopsided, and hopefully it’s going to change as time goes on, but it hurts my feelings when I’m used as an example of white, male privilege. I know many of the female filmmakers who are being referred to in these articles. These women are being offered these kinds of movies, but they’re choosing not to make them. I think it makes them seem like victims to suggest that they’re not getting the opportunities and not artists who know very clearly what kind of stories they want to tell and what films they want to make. To me, that’s the reality.”
In Trevorrow’s world, women simply don’t want these opportunities because they’re too invested in their indie artistic credibility to sink as low as someone like him. I imagine he thought this was a compliment, and he did eventually apologise and elaborate, but when we are aware of the cold hard facts of the situation, and how the number of women directors in major properties is decreasing, it’s tough to swallow this party line. When Trevorrow then goes on to talk of the importance to young girls of characters like Rey in Star Wars, someone he will soon have creative power over, you get the earnestness, but it rings hollow when you remember the brutalized Bridezilla and the clacking of high heels.
Most major studios haven’t released their full slates up until 2020, but the numbers we have so far reveal 13 films that will be directed by women. Warner Bros. has zero planned for now, although Patty Jenkins will probably direct the Wonder Woman sequel; Disney will see Ava DuVernay become only the 3rd woman in history - and first woman of colour - to receive a $100m+ budget for a live-action feature with A Wrinkle in Time, and Anna Boden will co-direct Captain Marvel, finally giving the Marvel Cinematic Universe its first female director. And Mimi Leder? The Leftovers is over, and she is rumoured to be in talks to direct Natalie Portman’s upcoming Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic. She hasn’t directed a film in 8 years, so I hope she returns to the big screen soon and shows the world what they were missing. In that period of time, Colin Trevorrow went from zero to Star Wars.
All of this may seem unnecessary, and I know I’ll get a few comments questioning the point of this all, but I think it’s crucial to understand that feeling of being constantly surrounded by the same few faces being awarded every opportunity while more qualified talents who don’t fit that narrow aesthetic are barely considered. Colin Trevorrow is not the problem, but he is the most visible symptom of it, and one that will remain dominant as long as the old guard are in power and see misty reflections of themselves as the future. We hope that the ninth Star Wars is good, but it almost doesn’t matter if it isn’t. Colin Trevorrow will be fine.