The Director of 'Tank Girl' Talks 'Wonder Woman' and Misogyny in Hollywood
Cult filmmaker Rachel Talalay had plenty to say about superheroes and how far women filmmakers have come in the past two decades.
After two weeks in theaters, Wonder Woman is still a rich source of news and hot takes. Superhero fans have waited a long time for this—especially women who have had to put up with film after film refusing to represent them, except in supporting roles and almost never in the director's seat.
We first got a glimpse of Gal Gadot's version of the iconic DC hero in last year's Batman v. Superman, introducing the three pillars of the upcoming Justice League film. But this month's release of Wonder Woman allowed her to shine in her own starring role directed by Patty Jenkins, the first woman to direct a feature film for either DC or Marvel's current, ongoing superhero universes. Fans have loved the film overall, and it really is one of the better superhero films of the past few years—by a long shot. Not for nothing, the sight of women kicking this much ass in front of and behind the camera is literally moving audiences to tears.
One obvious question remains, though: Why the hell did it take so long? We know women go to superhero movies and buy superhero comics. And for what it's worth, a lot of us guys were completely onboard to watch the Amazon princess do her thing. Wonder Woman isn't exactly a new character, and neither are countless other female comic-book characters who have yet to appear on the screen. And yet Hollywood is painfully slow and cautious with this part of the industry.
In 1995, Tank Girl seemed like just the movie to get the ball rolling. The female-driven film was a dystopic sci-fi action-comedy, based on the comics of the same name by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin. It had a 90s riot grrrl attitude, with Lori Petty as the titular Tank Girl, who fights an evil corporate government with the kind of in-your-face irreverence that makes Comedy Central's Broad City feel so fresh—the film's anarchic sense of defiance still feels subversive today.
Unfortunately, it didn't quite land, bringing in a pittance at the box office, only $6 million domestically in the US. But that's likely less because it was too ahead of its time, and more because of the way it was handled by its producers.
I recently spoke with Tank Girl's director, Rachel Talalay, who has experienced firsthand how the industry treats women filmmakers. I thought Talalay could help me understand why it took 22 years to get from Tank Girl to Wonder Woman.
Talalay had worked as a producer for John Waters and on some of the Nightmare on Elm Street films before Tank Girl, along with directing Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1991. She's stayed in the directing game since, mostly with TV work. Her career has had something of a second life since taking on directing duties on Doctor Who in 2014. Since then, she's worked on BBC's Sherlock, while dipping her toes back into superheroes, with episodes of the WB's DC series Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, and Supergirl.
"When I made Tank Girl, I truly believed that I would break the glass ceiling. I just thought, I believe in this comic. It's so out there, it's so outrageous, it's so punk, it's so me," says Talalay. "I said this is my shot, and I'm going to go all out there, and you're either going to love it, or you're going to hate it. I didn't care if it averaged out as a five because I wanted it to be a one or a ten."
"Everyone wanted to be in it. And everyone wanted to do music for it. There was such excitement about the originality of it," she said. And the final product reflects this. Iggy Pop makes an appearance, Ice-T, and Malcolm McDowell stars alongside Petty and a then-unknown Naomi Watts. And the soundtrack was put together by Courtney Love, who included songs by Portishead, Björk, Veruca Salt, Hole (her own band), and a duet from punk icons Joan Jett and Paul Westerberg.
Of course, none of this kept Talalay from meeting resistance from day one, including producers unwilling to let the film be as in your face as it could have been. Talalay told me about one deleted scene in which Tank Girl's bedroom is chock-full of dildos. They're not part of the scene, narratively; they're just set-dressing. "If I had made the film even five years later when the South Park movie was made and broke those barriers, they wouldn't have said to me, 'This movie is shocking and outrageous, and we have to cut everything shocking and outrageous out of it.'"
Even with the raunchy content cut out, it was an uphill battle. With a $25 million budget, Tank Girl wasn't exactly given a fighting chance as an effects-heavy action film. Other films released in 1995 were more than doubling (sometimes quadrupling) that number. That year's James Bond outing GoldenEye cost $60 million, while Die Hard with a Vengeance hit the $90 million mark. Fellow comic-book hero movie Batman Forever, arguably Tank Girl's closest proxy, was made for a whopping $100 million. Maybe it goes without saying that those films all had male directors and stars.
"The idea that Wonder Woman got made on a really healthy budget—and finally a woman-led project was allowed the budget to not be the bastard child—that was part of the huge step," says Talalay.
Wonder Woman's budget is so important to the discussion of gender in Hollywood. The film was made for just under $150 million. That's way shy of Man of Steel's $225 million budget, but still ahead of something like Marvel's Ant-Man, made for $130 million. The point is, Patty Jenkins got to be in the superhero ballpark, financially, which is sadly unprecedented for a woman. Superhero films with women in lead roles aren't usually given that kind of chance, nor are women-directed blockbusters of any kind.
And those numbers are bullshit no matter how you look at them. Some critics have pointed to Patty Jenkins as a risky choice to direct. After all, she's only ever directed one feature, with a budget of only $8 million. How is she supposed to handle something this big? But even if you ignore the fact that Jenkins's one film was the critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning Monster, and that it earned a phenomenal amount of money against its budget, the fact remains that men in the same boat are constantly being hired onto projects of a similar scale. It's reached the point where that's just the industry norm.
"There are plenty of problems with the fact that young men filmmakers are given opportunities where young women aren't," says Talalay. "I mean, there's so much proof of that."
If anything, superhero films are probably the best place to take risks on young filmmakers. As it stands, young men are getting those opportunities for no discernible reason. "Some of these younger filmmakers are being massively supported by a factory. If you have the right support team, you can give opportunities to younger filmmakers," says Talalay. "Therefore, we should be opening the doors even wider and giving more opportunities." It does seem unlikely that inexperienced filmmakers are showing up on set to direct massive action-set pieces on the fly. There are enormous teams in place to pre-plan so much of what ends up on the screen.
If your response to that is that you don't care if the director is a woman, but rather that the best person is hired for the job, you're missing the point. "You see that comment under any kind of feminist talk about anything," says Talalay. "It's not a meritocracy. It's a business, and it's an art form. If you aren't talking about it, and you aren't pushing to give women opportunities, how are they ever going to show that they can do it? It's just not realistic. What does that mean? There's no test."
Instead of a test, there's an old boys club that props itself up. Last year, the ACLU scored a major victory in prompting a federal investigation into sexist practices in Hollywood, specifically targeting the hiring of directors. Wonder Woman shows that something has changed.
"What I've seen is more open dialogue," says Talalay. "Even if it's just these high-profile pictures, it's a dialogue that you can bring up, finally." She also sees a shift in the treatment of female audiences. "The world caught up with the fact that, as a woman, as a girl, you could love these things as well. You were allowed to embrace your versions of them. That's the brilliant thing about nerds ruling the world now. I'm so encouraged by that."
Talalay isn't ready to rest after the success of one film though. "The question will be how many female-driven superhero movies, and how many female-driven projects will be developed now?" she says. "Will people see [ Wonder Woman] as an anomaly? I think they will. I think our battle is only 1 percent won by the fact that it was successful."
And that battle is already getting some pushback. Not everyone is celebrating Wonder Woman, and you can guess who the worst detractors are. When one American theater planned a women-only screening of Wonder Woman, the backlash was so strong that the theater was actually moved to respond publicly—thankfully by blowing off the would-be victims and scheduling similar screenings at their other locations. Nonetheless, some of these guys have gone so far as to seek a legal remedy to their manufactured controversy. (Nothing says you're a man worthy of being taken seriously like lawyering up when you're not invited to ladies night).
It's clear Talalay has no time for these types of fans. "Politics is so polarized right now, because of America. Ludicrously polarized. Frighteningly polarized," she says. So she celebrates the positive sides of online fan dialogues.
"Fandoms are capable of being the most embracing, positive influences in people's lives. People find friendships and common ground through fandoms, and that's where the internet is so positive," she says. "I want to open the world up to more inclusivity, and part of that is letting women tell stories. I'm stupidly optimistic, even in this weird political time, that there are a lot of unbelievably amazing people in the world who embrace this."
The success of Wonder Woman may change things. We're already seeing studios responding to demands for diversity, even if it's extremely slow. Marvel's upcoming Black Panther has a predominantly black cast and is directed by a black filmmaker, a first in the woefully white Marvel cinematic universe. If you haven't already seen the teaser trailer, do yourself a favor and check it out. It does so much in under two minutes—there's little for me to add to Noel Ransome's powerful take on the film's importance.
And Captain Marvel, Marvel's own first female-driven hero outing, will have a man and woman directing duo. It's a bit grating that after 20 films directed by men, we'll have a woman sharing her directing credit, but it's better than nothing.
Talalay was briefly rumored to be on the short list for Captain Marvel. She says she was never in talks, though support for the rumors was certainly flattering. I asked her if she'd like to tackle a superhero movie at Marvel, and she's definitely game.
"I have such a strong vision of what She-Hulk should be," she says. "The difference between She-Hulk and Hulk is that she loved being She-Hulk. She was the Tank Girl of earlier days in terms of being able to say what she wanted, and when she became She-Hulk, it was like an opening of the door to freedom, to be the person that you wish you could be. That you're stopped from being as a woman. And that's the version of She-Hulk that I would love to embrace."
If there's any justice in the world, and if anyone at Marvel is listening, Rachel Talalay's She-Hulk is something I'd love to watch.
Follow Frederick Blichert on Twitter.
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