Interview With Donna Deitch

 
 

AE: Why did you go into TV after Desert Hearts?
DD:
Oprah Winfrey saw Desert Hearts, and through my agent I got an offer to direct a four-hour miniseries called The Women of Brewster Place, and that was a huge, huge job. It was right in the heart of the network. It was like entering another world, and I read the screenplay and I thought, well, this is a fantastic job. … It’s about these two African-American lesbians who move into a ghettoized black community, and so it was sort of right up my alley at the same time as being very, very mainstream. And it was Oprah Winfrey, and I was actually gonna get paid. [Laughs.]

All that was very appealing, and then … that miniseries had a huge amount of visibility for the obvious reasons, and suddenly I had a lot of offers to direct, from NYPD Blue to ER — all the really good one-hour dramas. I did a bunch of pilots, I did HBO and Showtime movies, and it was just irresistible, I guess I have to say. They were very good projects that came my way. At the same time, it’s very hard to get a film off the ground. And so from time to time I would try, but you can’t get a film off the ground while working a 14-hour day.

AE: I don’t know why not. [Laughs.]
DD:
[Laughs.] Unless you have a really terrific producing partner, which I don’t. So I guess I would say I got caught up in that world, and I guess [I was] fortunate to have been a part of it and learned a lot doing it and have had some really, really great projects with wonderful actors. But as I said to you earlier, it’s that yearning to do my own films, because I have been writing screenplays and I really want to make these movies. I’ve now come to I guess a crossroads where I’ve decided to really cut back on the other [jobs] and really focus on getting my films written and made.

AE: I was recently at the Queer Media and Entertainment Conference in L.A., and I was at a panel there on lesbian filmmaking. Someone in the audience said that they felt that for women who are directors, it’s much easier to direct when you’re a woman in television as opposed to film. For some reason it’s still very hard to get a film off the ground if you’re a woman director. Do you think that is still true?
DD:
Absolutely true. Oh yeah, the numbers are only going down. Part of the reason that it’s easier to work in television is: It simply has to do with quantity.

I mean, when you think about how much product on a weekly basis comes out of television, there are so many more jobs in television, so that’s the obvious reason that women are able to direct more in television. The other reason has to do with that stigma, the simple fact that women are still second-class citizens. … so this job of director and cinematographer is somehow still relegated to men. It’s thought of as that power job, and that power job, like all of the power jobs in our society, are still the domain of men.

AE: I wanted to ask you a little more about your TV work. You directed a couple of episodes of South of Nowhere, right?
DD:
I did the pilot.

AE: Are you still doing anything with them?
DD:
No.

AE: Have you watched the series?
DD:
No, not really. You know, I don’t watch television recreationally. I’ll watch something if I’m going to direct it, but I don’t watch series television recreationally because I just can’t stay focused; I just can’t stand it. But I did the pilot for South of Nowhere, so that’s something I’m really, really proud of, because I think that show has a look, a style to it that really helps.

I don’t know where it’s at now; I don’t know if they’ve maintained that style that I set. That’s what we do in a pilot: You set a style if you can. It’s probably the hardest job that exists in television, directing a pilot, because what you’re trying to do there is you’re trying to launch it. But at the same time you’re trying to set a style that — you might have 13 days to shoot because it’s a pilot, maybe 15 days — that every director after that is going to have eight days to shoot. And then the other thing is that it’s very hard to come up with a style that’s specific to the content.

I mean when you look at ER … most of it is shot on steadycam, or you look at NYPD Blue, and there’s a certain style to it. When you look at it you think, yes, of course, that really serves the material. But imagine if you were just doing it yourself from the beginning; to come up with that conceptually is no small thing. So … I felt that the style we got going on South of Nowhere really works for that material, and also it’s quite a low-budget little series, so you have to be fairly inventive.

AE: You’ve done all this work in TV as a TV director; do you have any insight as to why there are no lesbians on network television right now?
DD:
I don’t know, I guess it just reflects that kind of right-wing conservative approach to the network. If you look at network news, for instance, it’s just a pack of lies, right? Well … it’s not reflecting the truth and reality of society, anyway, and that’s I think why that is. If they thought they could sell it and have those sponsors in the form of commercials, there would be [lesbians on network TV], but I think that there’s a fear of that, and so most unconventional programming starts on cable.

AE: You’ve never directed any episodes of The L Word, right?
DD:
No.

AE: Have you ever wanted to?
DD:
Well, I don’t know. I did see it in the beginning, but again it kind of falls in that category of, if I’m not working there, it’s series television, and I don’t [laughs] — I’m not gonna switch it on and look at it.

AE: You don’t like to watch TV. [Laughs.]
DD: Right. Yeah, my partner never watches TV, so that’s probably part of it too.

AE: Actually, we interviewed your partner, Terri Jentz, last year for AfterEllen.com. She mentioned that she’s adapting her book, Strange Piece of Paradise, into a film screenplay and that you would be directing it.
DD:
That’s right.

AE: How’s that going?
DD:
Well, she’s currently on the paperback tour … so she’s in the middle of writing that screenplay, and she’ll have it done by the end of the summer. But anyway, yeah, I’m gonna be making that movie, and that’s also going to be a quite an extraordinary story … a true-crime memoir. … And she’s going to veer off from the book a bit too, or at least she’s going to include things in her screenplay that are not in the book — tossed or unexplored.

AE: You’ve done a lot of directing of police procedurals, actually.
DD:
A lot. Hers is not going to be a procedural, but I really like procedurals.

AE: What’s your favorite part of directing them?
DD:
Well, you know, I tend to like down-and-dirty stuff. Like on my director’s reel, I have a lot of down-and-dirty action — you know, people [laughs] beating each other up and slamming each other around and all sorts of people are being thrown around, everybody from Oprah Winfrey to Kim Delaney on NYPD Blue. I like gritty material, so I like that.

Like NYPD Blue was the one — of all the shows I ever did — that really was my soul mate, the show. It was like inside of me or something. I loved that material. Brilliant writing. The perverse and criminal minds at work. People who are struggling … with their motivations and their own personal crises and weaknesses and drawbacks and their own morality and ethics, and I really like that stuff.

AE: So is the Desert Hearts sequel going to be gritty?
DD:
Yeah, it’s going to be gritty. … I mean it’s going to be gritty in a way that’s appropriate to the place and time in which it takes place.

AE: Are you going to be doing any more TV work over the summer or are you focusing on getting your own projects out?
DD: I’m really cutting back … and really focusing on what I really want to do here. And just kind of trying to disappear a little bit and get the writing done.

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