Game Changers: How 'Marry Me' and 'She-Hulk' director Kat Coiro is challenging Hollywood's 'inherent sexism'
Game Changers is a Yahoo Entertainment video interview series highlighting the diverse creators disrupting Hollywood — and the pioneers who paved the way.
Kat Coiro is having a bit of a multiversal movie moment. The New York-born filmmaker kicks off 2022 with Jennifer Lopez's latest rom-com Marry Me, another installment in what Coiro jokingly calls the "the J.Lo-verse." And later this year, she'll be making her Marvel Cinematic Universe debut with the Disney+ series She-Hulk, featuring Emmy-winning Orphan Black star, Tatiana Maslany, as Marvel's other green-skinned hulkster, Jennifer Walters . It's a game changing directorial double-bill, and Coiro is well aware of the great power — and great responsibility. — that comes with venturing into both of these big-screen worlds.
"One of the unique things I can say about working for Marvel is you feel a real connection to the fans in the same way [you do] working with J.Lo," Coiro tells Yahoo Entertainment in our latest episode of our Game Changers video series. "You do not want to disappoint the people who love these projects." (Watch the interview above.)
Coiro's journey towards Marry Me started, funnily enough, with Mary Poppins. Growing up in a TV-free household as a child, she later came into possession of a VHS tape of the 1964 Disney classic that she watched "over and over" until the tape practically wore out. "It's not a romantic comedy, but that relationship between Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke was wonderful," she says of that formative film experience. "I fell in love with their dynamic, because it was so loving and yet they lived their own lives. And by the way, if Dick Van Dyke is watching this, I'm still in love with you! Age is not an issue."
Coiro's affection for Van Dyke's chimney sweep — and Mary Poppins as a whole — originally led her to believe that acting would be her chosen profession. Middle school theater classes led to scholarship-funded placements at the prestigious performing arts high school, Interlochen, followed by Carnegie Mellon University's theater program. After graduating, Coiro pursued the traditional young actor path of auditions and small appearances on hit TV shows like Charmed and Law & Order, but she couldn't escape the feeling that something was missing.
"The more I worked as an actress, the less satisfied I was," she says of that uncertain period. "I remember going to a screening of some indie film I'd done, and I really didn't like it and I had no control over it. I thought, 'There's another side to this that I never even considered: the storytelling side."
That realization began her career pivot from acting to directing. After helming several short films — including a viral Funny or Die short starring Kate Bosworth and Zoe Saldana — Coiro enrolled at the American Film Institute, while also raising money to make a feature film with her friend and co-writer, Krysten Ritter. That film was the 2011 comedy Life Happens, which Coiro says was directly inspired by her own experience as a young mom in Hollywood. (She has three children with her husband, actor Rhys Coiro.)
"We wrote Life Happens together as two friends, one who was this kind of super-driven successful actress, and one who had just had a baby and was trying to figure it all out," Coiro says now. "The idea was that Krysten was going to play a supporting role, and I was going to shadow whatever director we got. I remember us coming to this point where she was like, 'I'll play the lead,' and I was like, 'Yup, and I'll direct!''
"We just leapt in and we made it in our backyard," Coiro continues. "We broke all the rules of a first-time film: We had dogs, we had babies, we had old people, we filmed it all in our friends' houses and on the street. I look back now and there are definitely things that don't work and things that I would change, but at the same time, it was so such a fearless leap into a world that just months before we had considered way out of our league."
Coiro wasted little time leaping into her next two films after the release of Life Happens, directing And While We Were Here in 2012 and A Case of You in 2013. But the intense schedules and low budgets of indie filmmaking was taking a personal toll. "It's tough working in the indie film world. There are people who do it and do it amazingly, but that always feels like a real miracle, because it's an uphill battle and you do not have the resources and things always go wrong."
As a filmmaking woman at the beginning of her career, Coiro also faced issues that don't typically impact her male counterparts, including on-set sexism. "On Life Happens, there was someone involved in the production who called me the 'c' word [in an e-mail], and then accidentally forwarded it to me," she remembers. "So I printed it on a maternity shirt and wore it to a meeting with a little arrow [pointing] to me! I tried to have fun with it. There's going to be people who have issues, and you can't let that define you. I've had a pretty good experience in terms of that, but I also think it has to do with tuning it all out."
Of course, it wasn't as easy to tune out the challenges associated with being a working parent in a demanding industry. As her family grew and her career was on the rise, Coiro says she struggled with how to balance those two competing parts of her life. "I would hide that I was pregnant," she admits now. "Or I would kind of minimize the fact that I had a family. I was afraid. As a director, you have to be 100 percent immersed in your job, and that part of it is very challenging. The guilt, I think, is something that's very real with women and that's a difference between men and women. With men, it's expected that you go do your job. It's a tough one, and I don't have the answer."
Eager to find directing opportunities outside of the indie film world, Coiro turned her attention back to episodic television, this time on the other side of the camera. "I had done these three features with no resources, and also did a bunch of commercials ... so I thought I would be a shoo-in to do an episode of a long-running TV show," she explains. But finding a foothold in that world proved an even bigger challenge that making a feature film. After applying to a diversity program overseen by NBC Universal, Coiro wound up paying her own way to Canada to shadow a director on the set of the Bravo series, Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce, for three months.
"There was a part of me that was upset about that," Coiro says. "I remember being like, 'Really? I have to pay my own way, leave my children and shadow another director?' I'd worked in television, so I knew for a fact that there were directors that had way less experience than me who had done this before. Yet at the same time, it ended up being one of the most valuable periods of time in my growth and development. When I did get to direct an episode of Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce, I was so ready because I had gotten to sit there and watch other directors go through their process and understood how a TV set worked on a fundamental level."
With one show on her resume, Coiro sought out additional TV gigs, which led her to the set of The Mick, starring It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Kaitlin Olson. "That show really changed my life," she says about the Fox comedy, which she directed multiple episodes of across its two-season run. "Dave and John Chernin, who were the showrunners of The Mick, are some of my favorite people I've ever worked with. I learned from them the power of adhering to your vision, because they were always so firm in what they wanted, yet also so collaborative." That's a lesson that Coiro took to the sets of other high-profile shows, including Modern Family, Dead to Me and the recent Peacock hit, Girls5Eva.
Even as she explored different genres on television, Coiro never lost sight of her Mary Poppins-gifted affection for rom-coms. So when Jennifer Lopez's producing partner, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, first met with her about Marry Me, the director was ready to re-embrace the often maligned genre on a studio scale.
"One of the things that I find really frustrating is this idea that the rom-com is a lesser-than genre, that it's a chick flick," she notes. "I think there's an inherent sexism baked into that. And that's why I really approached this movie with the idea that I'm not going to be afraid of the cliches and the tropes of the rom-com. I trusted that our story has enough layers, and the characters are deep enough and the ideas are bold enough that we can do all the things that romcoms do and get away with it."
In Marry Me — which notably happens to be Lopez's first rom-com directed by a female filmmaker — the Hustlers star plays global singing sensation, Kat Valdez, whose plans to marry fellow pop superstar, Bastian (played by Colombian singer, Maluma) go awry when his cheating is exposed in the gossip pages. Instead, she impulsively weds a high school math teacher Charlie (Owen Wilson), and an "opposites attract" love story is set in motion.
"One of my favorite rom-coms is Notting Hill," Coiro says, referring to the 1999 blockbuster that starred Julia Roberts as a movie star who starts dating Hugh Grant's book store owner. "It's obviously something that intersects with Marry Me. That said being said, that movie is from Hugh Grant's point of view — Julia Roberts delivers a brilliant performance, but she also exists as the ideal of the perfect woman. One thing I went into with this film was wanting both characters to be fully balanced."
At her star's own urging, Coiro also leaned into blurring the lines between J.Lo and K.Val. "When I signed onto the film, I was hesitant to bring up those similarities," she reveals. "But Jennifer was so open, and I think that's part of what makes her endearing — she lives her life out loud and in public. She's suffered the consequences of that, but she doesn't let it stop her. Something else I was struck by is that she works so hard. She's dancing for three hours, then greeting fans for two hours and then dealing with all these brands that she's juggling. It's fascinating to watch, and I wanted to capture that in the film."
Here's another way that Coiro's time in the J.Lo-verse connects to her upcoming stint in the MCU: Marvel's She-Hulk series is also about a woman in the workplace. Created by Stan Lee and John Buscema in 1980, Jennifer Walters is an ace attorney before a blood infusion from her cousin, Bruce Banner aka the Incredible Hulk, leaves her with a super-strong and super-green alter ego.
Without giving too much away, Coiro says that Jennifer's legal career will play a role in the series, as will her outside-the-courtroom battles against villains like Titania, played by Jameela Jamil. "You can't deal with a character who is a giant hulking presence and not deal with how that affects your work and your love life," Coiro teases. "This is really an exploration of the more day-to-day life of a superhero."
Directing She-Hulk fulfills another one of Coiro's childhood passions besides Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews. "I had a couple lonely years in my adolescence where I was really into She-Hulk," she remembers of the character's fourth wall-breaking comic book run, overseen by John Byrne. "She was one of the only characters who took control of her narrative literally, and walked across the pages and told the writers what to do."
"In the comics, there was always this fantasy of, 'What if you are a woman walking in an alley, and some guy comes after you and you can grow and kick their ass?'" Coiro continues. "And you never have to put up with some jerk in a bar hitting on you, because you can squash them! When I read the She-Hulk script, it didn't disappoint. It hit on all the themes I appreciated about the comics. Part of the genius of Marvel is adapting the material to fit what's going on in the world, and bringing in new voices and new perspectives to keep that universe fluid. This series does that."
Marry Me premieres Feb. 11 in theaters and on Peacock