“Bulletproof vests don’t fit very well over pregnant bellies,” explains filmmaker Jessica Dimmock, who embedded with a municipal police force for 18 months while making the documentary “Flint Town,” which premiered earlier this month on Netflix. Toward the end, when her pregnancy started showing, her dynamic with her subjects shifted. “Suddenly the [officers] don’t want me to get out of the car, they don’t want me to go on raids — not because they’re condescending, but because they don’t want me to get hurt.”
As directing moves (slowly) toward gender equality, it is inevitable to find pregnant women calling the shots. In interviews with eight filmmakers who worked prenatally or postpartum, The Washington Post identified four themes that encompass the challenges, the sacrifices and the unexpected artistic benefits of directing for two.
Kristen Schaal, a star of Fox’s “The Last Man on Earth,” was excited to learn, in the spring of 2015, that the show would finally have a female director, Claire Scanlon. “And then I heard, ‘Get this, she’s pregnant!’ That was inspirational to see.”
Scanlon (“Blackish,” “Speechless”), was seven months along. This year, while expecting her second child, she helmed her first feature, the Netflix original “Set It Up.” “If anything, it stopped people from complaining around me,” she says wryly. “How could they? I was eight months pregnant.”
Tamra Davis — whose 1998 film “Half Baked” was the last raunchy, R-rated, studio comedy directed by a woman until Lucia Aniello’s “Rough Night” last year — agrees. “A pregnant woman is pretty intimidating,” Davis explains. “People don’t want to make a pregnant woman mad. You lead with this big gut. It’s actually a power move.”
Reed Morano, who won a directing Emmy last year for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” started her career as a cinematographer. Photos of her wearing a 50-pound camera at eight months pregnant, for the 2011 Sundance darling “Little Birds,” quickly spread around the Internet. She had signed onto the film long before production began, and by the time the producers finally secured funding to move forward, she recalls, “I wasn’t about to give it up because I was pregnant.”
“A lot of male cinematographers stick a pillow to their stomachs, so they have somewhere to rest their elbows while shooting,” Morano says. During a membership interview with the American Society of Cinematographers, a predominately male organization, Morano recalls, “I told them my handheld had never been better because I was resting my elbows on my unborn son’s head. They got a kick out of that.”
“Little Birds” was a smallbudget film, though. “There was nobody official to say, no you can’t do that,” she explains. Because Morano now makes movies with budgets big enough to involve third-party insurers, she wonders, “Who knows what they would say or allow me to do.” An annual study released in December by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that over the past 11 years, 27.5 percent of narrative indie films had female directors, but only 4 percent of the 100 top-grossing films each year did.
Morano says she lost opportunities because of her pregnancy. Further, after she garnered industry buzz for her cinematography work on “Frozen River,” which won the grand jury prize at Sundance in 2008, she had meetings with agents while pregnant. “I never heard from any of them,” she recalls. “They were looking at my stomach, thinking, This person is a waste, she won’t actually pursue this career.” According to the Inclusion Initiative report’s analysis of the 100 top-grossing films each year, 55.3 percent of male directors made only one film in the last 11 years, but for women, that number is 83.7 percent.
When Karyn Kusama (“Aeon Flux,” “Jennifer’s Body”) was six months pregnant, in 2006, she picked up work directing an episode of “The L Word” and credits the show’s female-heavy team for considering her. “For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that if you’re pregnant, don’t tell anyone. It helps to have women in decision-making roles,” she says.
With few women in positions of power in entertainment in the 1980s, Amy Heckerling (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Clueless”) pulled a Hollywood Trojan horse. She had just made “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” but it didn’t get her anywhere. “The movies I was getting offered were horrifying. So I was like, now I have to stay home and write.” She had been pregnant during post production and recently given birth to a daughter. “Writing and having a baby. I’ll do things my way.”
The script, based on her experience with pregnancy and motherhood, became 1989’s surprise hit “Look Who’s Talking,” about an infant’s inner monologue. “I didn’t think people cared about women and their problems,” she recalls. “I knew they didn’t in Hollywood. So I was determined to figure out how to make them want to see something like that. This was the era of Bill Murray wisenheimer characters. I wasn’t going to get a shot at the Bill Murrays, but I figured I could get one of them for a day or two of voice-over work. You have to figure how to trick people.”
The $8 million film, with Bruce Willis voicing the baby, ultimately made $140 million and led to two sequels and a TV series.
Schaal says: “The schedule of everything always weighed on my mind. Like, ‘If I get pregnant now, then I will never get a job.’ Or, ‘If I get a job, then I can’t get pregnant.’ I have always felt like I had to calculate it. And, of course, you can’t.”
When she was asked to jump from acting to the director’s chair for an episode of “Last Man,” after a couple of years of lobbying for it, she was in her second trimester. “I didn’t feel tired at all,” she recalls. “It was so engaging. Your mind is solving puzzles the whole time. It was a real surprise how much energy I got from directing.”
Writers created a pregnancy plot for Schaal’s on-screen character. But even from behind the camera, pregnancies leave fingerprints on stories.
In 2016 and 2017, Dimmock shot photos and video of a high school prom in Flint, Mich., for the New York Times. The second shoot, she recalls, had “a more feminine quality” to it.
“The pictures were ethereal and softer, I think because I was feeling my pregnancy. I waited for things to unfold, rather than chasing them,” she says. “I think it’s because I wasn’t being as much of a wolf — as much of a guy. If anything, I like the pictures more.”
Kasi Lemmons experienced lucid dreams during both of her pregnancies. In one of them, she recalls, “I dreamt I was flying and drowning at the same time.” The dream became a monologue in her 1997 film “Eve’s Bayou,” her directorial debut, which Roger Ebert named the best film of the year.
Dimmock and Kusama both believe the pressures of pregnancy forced them to delegate. “It’s been great to learn to say, ‘I can’t do this on my own,’ or ‘This isn’t my area of expertise, can I get support?’ It makes more possible, and it helps define what you’re looking for creatively,” Kusama says.
Because of the subject matter of “Look Who’s Talking,” Heckerling could keep her daughter with her on set. “The whole place was babies,” she recalls.
Lemmons, who gave birth to her first child during preproduction on “Eve’s Bayou,” remembers having to kill otherwise good tape on account of crying.
“If I could make the rules, then my kids were going to be on set,” she says. “And I could make the rules.” But she also remembers sacrifices: “The first 13-hour day I worked, my milk dried up.” Lemmons had her second child during preproduction on her second film, “The Caveman’s Valentine.”
The subject matter of the horror film “Jennifer’s Body,” which Kusama directed when her son was 11 months old, kept her from bringing him to set. Long days and opposing schedules separated them. “It was confusing for him and emotionally wrenching for me,” she says. “But afterward, it was magical to lie in bed with him and have him see a picture book about a male director with a cigar in his mouth and point and say, ‘Look, it’s Mommy.’ That made me feel like this is worth it. My son sees me in a leadership position, and that’s the reality he learns to be true.”
All eight directors said that working under duress made them feel like superwomen. Scanlon adds, “Once I’m done pumping, I will feel like regular work is a piece of cake.”