Newest Members of a Very Small Club
By Pamela McClintock
Photographed by Peggy Sirota
Hollywood’s biggest actress-turned-director talks shop with the highest-grossing female director of all time: “I don’t think about the gender thing very much.”
It’s been months since Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Yuh Nelson — who directed Jolie in Kung Fu Panda 2 — have seen each other. The last time they were together was for the May 22 Los Angeles premiere of the celebrated toon, which became the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, earning $663 million worldwide. Now, meeting up at a small Hollywood studio just after Thanksgiving, they share even more in common: Like Nelson, Jolie is now a first-time director herself and in the final stages of preparing for the Dec. 23 limited release of her Bosnian war film In the Land of Blood and Honey. She can’t wait to compare notes with Nelson on the mundane details that evaded her as an actress. “Isn’t it exciting when the first poster comes out?” Jolie says to Nelson before conceding that as an actress, she could always blame the director, but not this time. Although neither would label herself an activist for female causes per se, the duo are mystified as to why there aren’t more women directors — only 13.4 percent of the DGA’s director members are female. To boot, Kung Fu Panda 2 is only the second animated studio pic solely directed by a woman, after The Tigger Movie. “Isn’t that crazy? Animated films are so family-oriented, you’d think that there would be women,” Jolie, 36, says. Like so many other female directors with less-commercial films — Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Lisa Cholodenko — Jolie was forced to go the indie route, since no studio wanted to back a bleak war movie with local actors set against a love story between a Muslim and a Serb. Jolie herself put up a large chunk of the $15 million budget, while Graham King’s GK Films put up the rest. Jolie considers Nelson, 39, a mentor, and was so comfortable on the set of Kung Fu Panda 2 that she often brought one or more of her six kids to the studio. Both women are among a cadre of female directors gearing up for this year’s awards season — Vera Farmiga, Phyllida Lloyd and Dee Rees among them — and the prospect is daunting. In the Land of Blood and Honey is angling for a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film (Jolie shot the film in both English and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian; in the U.S., it will be released in BCS at her request), while Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation is pushing hard for Kung Fu Panda 2 across multiple Oscar and Globe categories. THR senior film writer Pamela McClintock sat down with them both.
Angelina Jolie: When Jen came on, there was an extra level of elegance and humanity, which you see in the film. It is a truly great movie, and I love when my children watch it because I know it’s teaching them great things. It’s especially relevant to my family because of adoption [in the film, Po the panda, who has been raised by his goose father, goes in search of his birth parents].
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: It’s something we were very aware of and when we showed the story to Angie, we thought, “I hope she likes it.”
THR: Jen, you’ve worked at DreamWorks Animation for 14 years. Jeffrey Katzenberg calls you a superstar, and says the reason you can handle yourself in such a macho profession is that you “walk softly, but carry a big stick.”
Nelson: I always take my ego out of it. When people feel safe, they can come up with ideas. It’s important to listen to the actor who is there on the stage and living it. If the actor doesn’t feel it’s right, that’s when you say, “OK, let’s find something else.” It’s then that you get the natural moment.
Jolie: She’s got this magical power and I was so fortunate to learn from Jen. She’s just so calm about the way she asks for something. There’s no possible way to deny her. On the first Kung Fu Panda, I would fight a line. With Jen, she would politely say, “Can we just try it?” And you kind of melt and say, “OK.” She is a genuine artist who can see the bigger picture. And, fortunately, I’ve scored some points at home because of Kung Fu Panda. They love Tigress, who is my alternate personality. Otherwise, they think Brad [Pitt] and I are just so not cool.
THR: Were there other directors you both turned to?
Jolie: I’ve had the fortunate experience of working with so many interesting directors, from Michael Winterbottom to Clint Eastwood. I tried to remember the experiences that were my best as an actor, and what a director did to give me comfort and confidence. And I tried to keep a happy crew, which I learned a lot about from Clint and Jen.
Nelson: I remember being in the middle of Kung Fu Panda, which took three years, and everyone was upset and tired and wondering if we were ever going to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and Guillermo del Toro stopped by and gave me the “man” speech. He said, “You’ve gotta man up and take this, and don’t be scared of making bold choices.” He was such a great supporter.
THR: Angie, how did you convince Graham King to take on this project, considering that war films are, as you put it, “famously unsuccessful.” The film tackles tough subjects, including the war’s infamous rape camps.
Jolie: I worked with him on The Tourist, and one day I asked him if he’d read my script. I didn’t know how he’d react, since on many levels, this was a big risk. I wasn’t going to star in it, and I wanted to cast all local actors. It wasn’t a pile of good news for him. But he was great, and he took the chance.
THR: How did you ever find time to write the script?
Jolie: I wrote whenever I could, when the kids were asleep or in their classes. Halfway through some of the most horrific scenes, I’d hear, “Mommy, I need another story, I can’t go to sleep,” and so I’d pause what I was doing and go tell happy stories about bunny villages. I studied a lot about the war, and watched a lot of documentaries.
Nelson: And you filmed every scene twice, in two different languages?
Jolie: We would do a few takes in one language, and then we’d switch and do a few takes in the other. Sometimes, we’d have to return to the English take, because they discovered something when filming in their own language. The producers had said we’d have to cancel shooting in two languages if I went over schedule. We actually gained a day in our first week, so they left us alone. It was always my hope that the film would be released in the native language, but some countries, like England, bought the English version. France bought the BCS version. It also will be released in Bosnia.
THR: What will you tell your kids about In the Land of Blood and Honey?
Jolie: They won’t see this movie. They know that mommy, on occasion, goes off to Libya or other places. I make them very conscious of the fact that there are a lot of people struggling through different things, and I don’t protect them from the fact that war isn’t a video game, it’s a very, very horrible thing.
THR: How did you go about casting local actors in Bosnia?
Jolie: I hid my name from the script when it went out because it was important to get a genuine reaction. By the time the actors found out, they’d already been introduced to the subject matter. I consider them the closest friends I’ve got right now. These are people who lived through the war. I’m nervous because I’m responsible as the director to the crew and cast. I want so much for them to be recognized for the work that they’ve done and the bravery of the choice to participate. We have 16 people coming to New York for the premiere on Dec. 5, and I’m so excited.
Nelson: Your movie is very powerful.
THR: Before reading the script, the Bosnian government temporarily suspended your filming permit after the Association of Women Victims of War in Bosnia objected to a Muslim woman falling in love with her Serb captor. But that wasn’t the case — the two fall in love before the war starts — so the permit was reissued.
Jolie: There was one woman who hadn’t read the script, and who didn’t want to meet with me. This is a very sensitive subject for someone who lived through these things. It’s only been 15 years since the war and it’s a painful memory. In my heart, the film was done on behalf of all people who suffered through this. A lot of women’s groups have seen it, and the New York premiere of the movie was co-sponsored by Women for Women International, another group founded after the war in Bosnia. They felt it was the right thing to support it.
Nelson: It’s definitely not a passive movie and it makes you think.
THR: Why did you decide to build the story around a love affair?
Jolie: I’m sure people will read different things into it, but the overall theme for me was intervention and what happens to people when war breaks out and how, over the years, they are tested — whether a couple, or a father and son or friends — and pulled apart, how they keep trying to hold on to their humanity but it keeps getting strained. The longer it takes to intervene and the more they witness, the more they are pushed to the edge. That’s why it’s so important to prevent conflict and when it happens, to educate ourselves as quickly as possible. It’s not just buildings that are blown up, it’s the souls of people that are affected and broken over the years.
THR: The shoot for In the Land of Blood and Honey wrapped after 41 days, while it took three years to make Kung Fu Panda 2. Jen, how did you manage?
Nelson: It’s a long process, and you have to know exactly what’s going to happen next. You can’t do coverage. Everything has to be planned ahead of time. And you have to make sure that people are still motivated and happy and creatively challenged so that it can all be stitched together. The voice acting starts after a lot of the storyboards are done. With Angie, things would change when we got into the booth and played with her lines. We would discover things in the moment and rewrite the script on the spot. She really knows the character, so when she would say, “A tiger wouldn’t say that,” she was absolutely right. She gives Tigress that extra level, and that’s why people like the character so much. Sometimes, Angie’s kids would be in the booth with me. Maddox would say, “That take was good,” and I’d think, OK, he likes it, let’s take that one.
THR: Is it hard to believe that you’re the first woman to direct an animated studio film?
Nelson: I don’t think about the gender thing very much. But when I speak at schools, I’ve had female students say to me afterwards, “I never envisioned myself being a director, since I’ve never seen women do it.” But after seeing me, they can picture themselves directing, so maybe we’ll see more female directors. And half of these kids in art and animation schools are girls.
Jolie: You should be very proud to have led the way.
THR: Are you nervous about awards season? Jen, Kung Fu Panda 2 leads all Annie nominations with 12 mentions. And Land of Blood and Honey seems like a shoo-in for a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film.
Nelson: It’s a totally different side of things. When you make a movie, it’s just so personal and then you put it out in front of people and it becomes something else.
Jolie: I honestly can’t even think about that. I’m just hoping the movie isn’t a complete disaster.
THR: Angie, what’s your next role? I know you recently signed a deal to star in Ridley Scott’s movie about Gertrude Bell, who played an instrumental role in the formation of the modern Middle East.
Jolie: It’s been a very hard one to get financing for, because it isn’t a small movie. I also want to do Maleficent at Disney, but we need a director.
THR: Do you both want to direct again?
Jolie: I don’t know how confident I am yet that I can direct.
Nelson: You should do it again.
Jolie: No, you do it next. I’ll jump into anything you direct.
Nelson: I’m working on something, but I can’t talk about it.
THR: Is there a Kung Fu Panda 3 in the works?
Nelson: There’s plenty left to tell.
Jolie: We can say we are in discussions. Tigress is my alternate personality, especially with children. I love animation because you get to do things you don’t normally get to. For one, I could bring my kids and wear my pajamas, and hang out with Jen. And my character is just so badass.
Nelson: And the stunts are safe.
Jolie: Yes, eating pizza is the hardest stunt we did.