This weekend, veteran producer Denise Di Novi saw her directorial debut, Warner Bros.’ “Unforgettable,” make an underwhelming box-office debut with an estimated $4.8 million for the weekend. For most women, that would be the kiss of death: Very few women get the chance to direct studio films, and underperformance means there won’t be an encore. That won’t be the case for Di Novi.
Di Novi is like very few women in Hollywood. She’s an unapologetic product of the studios: After 20 years, she still has a rare overall deal at Warner Bros, where she was Tim Burton’s longtime producer (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Nightmare Before Christmas,” his “Batman” films) as well as the shepherd to romantic hits like “Nights of Rodanthe” and Nicholas Sparks’ “A Night to Remember.” And, every one of the directors on her more than 40 films has been a man.
For “Unforgettable,” however, she was ready to insist on a change. She had convinced Warners to hire British director Amma Asante, but Asante opted to shoot “United Kingdom” with David Oyelowo instead. Di Novi drew up a list of alternate women directors, but studio chief Kevin Tsuijihara came back to her with a surprise pick: Di Novi. To the studio’s mind, picking another woman director would be riskier than hiring the woman producer whom they’d known for nearly two decades.
“I was an easier choice for Warner Bros.,” she said. “I had helped them on many movies. I had been around. They knew I wouldn’t go over-schedule or over-budget or crazy. I knew the requirements of making a movie.”
And that’s why, even though “Unforgettable” may only earn a modest profit on its $12 million budget, Di Novi is the woman director who almost assuredly has another shot. She may have been an untried female director, but she also had a billion-dollar studio track record. If that doesn’t ameliorate risk, nothing will — and Di Novi said risk is what it’s all about.
Di Novi subscribes to the idea that studios aren’t sexist so much as scared. “Hollywood is risk averse,” she said. “When you are trying to create change, it’s risky. Amma had never directed a thriller. She had directed elegant, lovely ‘Belle.’ Could she direct a thriller? She’s talented, and I wanted a woman director. It would have been less risky to find a male director who had directed several thrillers, or a thriller-toned TV show. We could have found that. It would have been easier for Warners to say, ‘We have to have somebody completely proven.’ Risk is involved. As we have more women directing, it becomes less risky as the pool becomes more experienced.”
While Di Novi has spent her career producing the visions of male directors, some have included indelible portraits of women such as “Heathers,” “Little Women,” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” franchise. However, she acknowledges that 2004’s “Catwoman” starring Halle Berry may have been ahead of its time.
“It had an African-American female superhero,” said Di Novi, “a French director [Pitof], and was very stylized. It was supposed to be a cool, small movie like ‘Blade’ that morphed into big movie — without enough preparation. It was misguided from the beginning. I was trying so hard to keep it together and make it better. There was a lot of sexism involved.”
Thirteen years later, Di Novi said things are different: Brie Larson will star as “Captain Marvel” for directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, and Patti Jenkins has directed DC’s “Wonder Woman.”
“That’s a big risk to give that gigantic movie to Patti,” said Di Novi. “They are often less apt to take a risk with females than males. I do think it’s changing. Somebody takes a risk — that’s where greatness comes.”
“Unforgettable” is Di Novi’s take on the crazed-female-rivalry genre that informed Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” or Adrian Lyne’s “Fatal Attraction.” Julia (Rosario Dawson) and David (Geoff Stults) are newlyweds; he shares custody of his daughter with angry, jilted ex-wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl). Looniness ensues.
“I wanted to give a modern spin on the dark side of female social conditioning,” said Di Novi. “What was happening to these women, though extreme and pushed to the limits, are relatable situations. It’s about domestic secrets. In ‘Rebecca,’ a young woman is not feeling good enough, comparing herself to the dead female character — who turns out to be horrible, not perfect. It’s the most important theme of this film, the tyranny of perfectionism. Both of the female characters feel that they have to be perfect and have a perfect life. Nobody’s perfect. Nobody has a perfect life. ”
Di Novi wanted audiences to feel compassion for both Julia, who is hiding a past abusive relationship from her ex-husband, and Tessa, who is clearly going crazy. “I didn’t want her to be like ‘Fatal Attraction,'” Di Novi said. “She was a monster. I don’t think a man would have approached it the same way. I wanted people to have compassion for Tessa.”
Up next for DiNovi is directing another female thriller, the action-based spec script “Highway One” written by Tony Jaswinski (“The Shallows”). Producers are Lynn Harris and Matti Leshem; Harris spent years as Di Novi’s production executive at Warner Bros. Once again, it’s all about relationships — but Di Novi is encouraged that Hollywood executives are becoming more receptive to women directors.
“What has changed the most is the conversation is happening,” she said. “We’re in phase one. Thank god for journalists — there are so many stories being written about women in Hollywood. There’s a basic social conscience in our business, a sense of social responsibility. Networks and studios are trying to have more commitments for women directors. It’s moving slowly, not fast enough. But women are not afraid to talk about it, from Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, Lena Dunham and Brie Larson to Jessica Chastain.”