Go Ahead, Call Joyce Chopra a ‘Lady Director’ – Interview and Excerpt

The ‘Smooth Talk’ filmmaker shares her life and career in a cheeky new memoir. Talking to IndieWire, she gets even more freewheel.

As filmmaker Joyce Chopra grew up in post-war New York, she encountered a serious problem: she had never seen a film directed by a woman. Even the books on film history she read made no mention of what Chopra herself would become: a “director.”

After more than 50 years in the business, Chopra reclaims that eye-rolling moniker for her first memoir, Lady Director, Adventures in Hollywood, Television and Beyond, an insightful, emotional, and often rather seedy roller-coaster ride through her life and career. At 86, Chopra is as curious, smart, and fun as damn to talk to as ever, which is reflected in her insightful memoir.

Lady Director, out November 22 from City Lights Publishers, follows Chopra through her early, insightful documentary film career, the making of her Sundance-winning film, Smooth Talk, the incredible disappointments that followed (like nearly getting kicked out of ” The Lemon Sisters,” starring Diane Keaton) and her later move to television, making films about everything from an American Girl doll to Marilyn Monroe (long before Joyce Carol Oate’s Blonde was adapted on Netflix). ).

Ahead, Chopra talks to IndieWire about the making of the book, how the world has changed (or not) for directors who happen to be women, some of her more disturbing professional experiences, her favorite film, and what she really thinks about the new “Blonde.” “. Plus: an exclusive excerpt from Lady Director, in which Chopra chronicles what happened after she was fired from directing Bright Lights, Big City.

The following interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

IndieWire: When you first started writing the book, what kind of tone did you want to set?

Joyce Chopra: I never thought about it because I didn’t think I was writing a book. I didn’t intend to write a book, let’s put it that way. I just wanted to write to keep myself busy during the pandemic. I wasn’t making films and I was just like, ‘What should I do?’ And my daughter said, ‘Well, why don’t you write a memoir?’ So I was just kidding and adding stuff.

There was a lot more to the book, and my editor quite wisely took a few things out because I could just keep going. You start talking about so-and-so and then you start telling how they got to where they are now and then before you know it it’s twice as long. I’m used to working on screenplays and I love dialogue, so here and there I couldn’t resist saying what I remembered.

The title of the memoir is obviously a bit cheeky. Do people seem to get it?

I mean so far, yes. Yes, that’s me! What would you say, a director? A director? I don’t know, but I was definitely in a category.

SMOOTH TALK, Laura Dern, Treat Williams, 1985, (c) International Spectrafilm/courtesy Everett Collection

“Smooth talking”

©International Spectrafilm/Courtesy Everett Collection

What do you think of when you hear the term “director” these days?

“Oh god, when are you going to stop?” That’s my attitude. yeah just stop it stop, enough already.

At the beginning of the book you write about how much of your actual education and early career aspirations were influenced by a lack of information about other women directors. Do you think that has changed in the last few decades?

Oh sure it has changed. It’s only changed in the last three or four years though, it’s that new. When I was hired to direct my first episodic television in 2002, there were hardly any women directing episodic television. If you just look at the last few years the percentage is like 40 percent, that’s amazing. It’s definitely since the #MeToo movement.

I know how features work [because] I get the Directors Guild bulletins. This week, 13 films will be screened at the Directors Guild building in New York and LA, and of the 13, four are by women. That’s a huge improvement.

There’s been a lot more talk lately about who can or should directing a certain type of project, for example only women should direct “women’s stories”. What do you make of it?

I don’t even know what a woman’s story is, does that mean the woman is the lead? I would put it more like it’s a woman’s point of view, and that goes to the heart of it: How do you prepare a shot? I mean whose scene is this? Everything in “Smooth Talk” is from Connie’s [Laura Dern] Position. There are men who can make equally wonderful films about women and have made dozens of them. And I know how to film action sequences, I had to do them in a lot of these TV movies.

My husband [Tom Cole] and I wrote Smooth Talk, and in his obituary Laura Dern wrote something [about working with him] like, “I couldn’t believe I was sitting with this 50-year-old MIT professor and explaining to myself how a young teenage girl feels — and he was right.”

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, Michael J. Fox, 1988. ©United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Bright Lights, Big City”

©United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

The chapter about your experience with Bright Lights, Big City was very upsetting to read because you are so emotionally honest and open about how it made you feel at the time.

I’m glad I could convey that. [I was] gutted, it was devastating, it was. After that I couldn’t talk about it for two years without my hands literally shaking. What made it worse was that my husband was also fired for the same thing, so we were cold comfort to each other. It was awful.

How did you feel writing this section of the book?

Ah, it was difficult. Yes, it was difficult. Also, it was difficult to convey what it was was. So I stuck to my version of the facts, and it’s always whoever writes the story. Sydney Pollack who fired me is dead but if he were alive I would really like to know what he would say or if he would question my writing. Probably would.

There are other people in the book that you write about, not always sunny terms that are still alive. Did you speak to any of them before deciding to publish?

Diana Keaton? I haven’t, I was thinking of writing to her. I don’t know, I really don’t know. The person I really feel terrible about is Michael J. Fox. Meanwhile, we were very friendly [“Bright Lights, Big City”]it wasn’t just a month of shooting, it was preparation [time too]. He’s a very nice person and I felt so bad I couldn’t tell him what was going on. I’m considering sending him the book, and then I thought, ‘Well, why would you want to do that? Because you want to write his opinion of you?” And I was like, “I should just leave it alone.”

I wonder if Diane…well, what could she say? That’s what happened [on “The Lemon Sisters”].

Can you believe this guy [co-producer Joe Kelly] calls me into his office and says Diane wouldn’t do it herself? We were so kind, and all of a sudden this guy says, “Diane wants you to stop,” because then they wouldn’t have to pay me. If you fired me that they owed me my entire salary. They couldn’t afford that.

THE LEMON SISTERS, Diane Keaton, Carol Kane, Kathryn Grody, 1990, (c) Miramax Films/courtesy Everett Collection

“The Lemon Sisters”

© Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

But as you wrote in the book, you still had to show up to meetings to prove you were doing as much as you could.

I was so desperate to have my name removed from this film that it overcame my hesitation, to say the least. And then there is [producer] Harvey Weinstein [in the meetings] literally saying, “Go away, no one wants you here.” Who ever said that to you? As I write, “How did I get to this point in life where someone would say that to me?”

After The Lemon Sisters, you had some success making TV movies. People are always debating between film and TV, but do you still see a divide between them? Did you have that back when you were making TV movies?

The TV movies I did weren’t Movie Movies as far as I’m concerned. I tried as best I could but they are not the same. At least not for network television. But I’ll tell you my favorite movie: Molly: An American Girl on the Homefront.

I had no idea what my agent was talking about [when it was offered], but they wanted a live-action version of the American Girl stories, and I loved being with teenage girls again. It was the last TV movie I did and we had enough money to make time for it. Not much time, but more time than the usual TV movie. But I just had so much fun doing it, I think it was because I was in my childhood, in my 40’s.

BLONDE, Poppy Montgomery, in the role of Marilyn Monroe, aired May 13-14, 2001. Photo Credit: Joe Pugliese/TV Guide/courtesy Everett Collection


Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Recently, your 2001 miniseries Blonde was back in the news because of Andrew Dominik’s Netflix version, which also adapted the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. How do you rate your version?

I was so happy about it because when it first came out it got some good reviews but let’s say the big papers like the New York Times dumped it.

I have my theory on that, which I’ll pass along to you: I don’t think anyone should be making films about Marilyn Monroe because she’s personal to everyone. No matter how good mine was, we still had people say, “Oh, that’s not the real Marilyn.” But it’s not meant to be real Marilyn.

What do you think of Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde”?

I found it boring because she keeps crying from one scene to another over and over again. Anyway, enough of that.

On the next page, read an exclusive excerpt from Joyce Chopra’s Lady Director: Adventures in Hollywood, Television and Beyond.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/11/joyce-chopra-lady-director-interview-excerpt-1234782390/ Go Ahead, Call Joyce Chopra a ‘Lady Director’ – Interview and Excerpt

Lindsay Lowe

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