LOS ANGELES, April 20, (Agencies): Men pick the movies. Women only go to movies that their husbands choose. And men definitely don’t see movies about women.
That was the prevailing line of thought at Hollywood studios not too long ago. Denise Di Novi, a prolific producer behind everything from “Batman Returns” to “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” heard it for years when she was starting out. Back then, she mostly felt lucky to be one of the few female producers around. Directing didn’t seem like a possibility. In fact, Di Novi said, it felt “insurmountable.”
Now, nearly 30 years after she made a name for herself as the producer of “Heathers,” Di Novi is making her directorial debut with the thriller “Unforgettable.” Out Friday, the film is about a woman driven to madness when her ex-husband brings a new fiancée home.
Starring Katherine Heigl as the Hitchcockian blonde unwilling to let her ex, Geoff Stults, move on, and Rosario Dawson as the girlfriend with a traumatic past, Di Novi had been developing the script to produce when Warner Bros. suggested that she direct.
“I’d been championing women directors for years and speaking about the need for more and thought, ‘I should put my money where my mouth is and direct a movie,” Di Novi said.
She also loved the genre. In the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Adrian Lyne, Di Novi liked that the women were always especially interesting and layered.
“I love to see female characters put in really complex situations and overcome them. They make mistakes and they’re flawed and they’re crazy. I like the full spectrum, the messiness of the female experience,” Di Novi said. “I found it inspiring when I was young and I wanted to make a movie like that.”
Di Novi knew she didn’t want to mimic other directors, though. One thing she’s learned from producing is that bringing your authentic point of view to a project is always going to be better than homage.
“She was a natural,” said producer Ravi Mehta. “It felt as if she’d been directing her entire life.”
Di Novi found her way into producing almost by accident. She started out as a journalist in Toronto, but would get in trouble for personalizing every story, often ending up in tears. She laughs that she got fired from every job she’d ever had until she started working on movies. She tried out publicity and screenwriting but it was producing that stuck.
Her work on the still shockingly dark high school comedy “Heathers” put her on the map and led to a fruitful meeting with Tim Burton. The bonded over feeling like outsiders in Hollywood, and went on to make films like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman Returns,” “Ed Wood” and “Nightmare Before Christmas.”
In her over 40 credits, Di Novi has dabbled in all genres from superhero pics, to classic literary adaptations like Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women,” modern rom-coms like “Crazy, Stupid Love,” and everything in between.
“I’m not snobby. I just love movies. I love every kind of movie. I respect every kind of movie. I don’t think one kind of movie is better than another and I love to produce every kind of movie,” Di Novi said. “I’m a ‘why not’ kind of person.”
Di Novi doesn’t bristle at the “female filmmaker” conversation either. She embraces the distinction and believes her chance to direct this film is the result of the heightened talk around the glaring disparity in the business.
“I wish I could have worked with more women directors. There was an assumption that women can only direct movies about women and if it’s not about women, they’re usually not on the list,” Di Novi said. “I want women coming up to see that there are female directors and it is possible and there is a path.”
She’s already got another directing project lined up, “Highway One,” for Amblin Entertainment, which will go into production in September. It’s about an Afghanistan veteran who goes into “warrior soldier mode” when her daughter is kidnapped.
Di Novi is optimistic that things are changing. Studios and producers, she said, do seem committed to hiring more women for directing jobs in movies and television.
There is work to be done, however, and until 50 percent of movies are directed by women, Di Novi thinks it’s important to keep talking about it.
“There is still a stereotype that women will only go to women’s movies,” Di Novi said. Most expected “Unforgettable” to be in that category, but Di Novi happily reports that it’s tracking at 50/50.
“Some of that is the genre. It’s scary and thrilling. But I think that there’s a fascination with the female characters,” she said. “And men are just as fascinated as women.”
“Unforgettable” does not follow the garden-variety “crazy ex-girlfriend” film trope. That sentiment — and several derivatives of it — echoed through the famously lofty outdoor foyer of Hollywood Boulevard’s TCL Chinese Theater on Tuesday night, as the female-fronted cast and crew of Warner Bros Pictures’ twisted psychological thriller celebrated the film’s world premiere.
This movie marks a directorial debut and a preliminary foray into dramatic thrillers for Di Novi, who is known for dark comedies.
Di Novi, who identifies herself as a thriller aficionado and fan of the classic “Hitchcock blonde” slasher genre, was committed to the complexities of the narrative in “Unforgettable.”
“I really related to the themes of the movie,” Di Novi said. “And the opportunity to make a female psychological thriller with two female leads was just too tantalizing to me.”
Equipped with an understanding of the niche film category’s tendency to portray relatively shallow, maniacal female villains (a character trope that has often perpetuated a misogynistic, whittled down stereotype of the female psyche), Di Novi crafted this film with a more authentic narrative in mind.
“I think having compassion and understanding the female villain is what makes this movie different for me,” Di Novi continued. “It’s amazing how much women actually relate to the Katherine Heigl character.”
Heigl carries the film as Tessa, a distraught single mother who rapidly begins to unravel when she discovers that her ex-husband is getting re-married. As Tessa spirals further into heartache and bitterness, she falls deeper into a series of convoluted ploys to punish her ex’s new fiancee.
“She’s not a monster, but she’s terrifying,” says Di Novi. “I think in other films, almost always directed by men, the ‘vengeful ex’ is this one-dimensional monster.”
Still, when confronted with the question, “Who’s the most frightening ex on film?” she firmly responds: Katherine Heigl.
Rosario Dawson, who stars alongside Heigl as the subject of Tessa’s wiling, almost turned down the opportunity to work on the film because of the heaviness of its content — which, in addition to revenge ploys, grapples with domestic violence, mental illness, and PTSD. But, she says, the impressive rolodex of high-powered female voices behind the project finally managed to persuade her.