July 9, 2008

Interview with Donna Deitch, Director of Desert Hearts

Donna Deitch will be presented with a career achievement award tonight in LA at Outfest which has nurtured and featured gay, lesbian and transgendered images and films for 25 years. Deitch has had an illustrious career as a director but is best known for adapting and directing the seminal lesbian film Desert Hearts.

She answered some questions for Women & Hollywood about her career and issues related to women directors in Hollywood.

Women & Hollywood: What does this award mean to you?

Donna Deitch: I have a huge regard for Outfest and their Legacy Project. The Legacy Project preserves and archives gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual film and they also preserve and restore films that are in disrepair. This year they restored Word is Out and last year they restored Parting Glances. These films have not been able to be viewed in their original and glorious presentation. Each year they choose another film and restore it as well as reaching out to filmmakers all over the world to archive their films for posterity and for research.
W&H: Let's talk about Desert Hearts. Many people feel it is a seminal film that defines lesbian films that came after.
DD: I don't think it defines anything but itself. I don't think that one film can define anything. I think that one of the boundaries that Desert Hearts pushed was the crossover into the mainstream audiences. I wanted it to cross over. I didn't want it just to be viewed by gay and lesbian audiences. Part of the reason that I chose a very archetypal approach to a love story is that I wanted people to have a knee jerk reaction into rooting for these two to get together which is what you want in a love story. You want an emotional investment in the love story and to root for the two characters to get together.
W&H: Your film was unique in its time because you raised the million dollars to make it through parties and events.
DD: I structured my fundraising like a Broadway backers party. When I began I didn't know anyone who had any money to invest. So I reached out to all of my friends and contacts all over the country and wrote letters. This was a networking process that went on month after month and then year after year. It took 2 and half years. It began in NY. The first thing I did was talk to Gloria Steinem and she asked me if I made any other films and I had a made a documentary Women to Women about hookers, housewives and other mothers, and I showed it to the women at Ms. Magazine. At the end Gloria asked how she could help and I said she could put her name on an invitation that will be sent all across the country.
W&H: Did you approach Jane Rule (author of the book that Desert Hearts is based on)?
DD: A friend has given me the book and I wrote to Jane.

Here are some excerpts from Deitch's letter to Rule and Rule's response (the letters are from 1977):

"My interest in making films about women is not for the consumption of the women's community exclusively, but rather for all women and ferless men too...My objective in making a film about lesbians is not that we are the best of all possible women, but that we are real, sympathetic, beautiful, intelligent human beings capable of good and bad and acheiving a balance between the two."

Response from Jane Rule: "I have been leery of what a film maker might do with such a book, and finally a couple of years ago I told my agent not to encourage offers because I simply didn't want to deal with the commercial pressure of people wanting to cash in on the women's movement in blue movie style. Your letter seems to me an unexpected reward for my stubbornness.

My concern would never be a 'faithful' presentation of the book, which is, as a book, complete in and as itself. The only point of a film would be a new imagining forth of the central energies of the book, that is a new work which is yours, not mine. My refusal to share those energies with people in the past has been my conviction that none of them were either capable or interested, you are obviously both."
W&H: When you first read Desert Hearts did you know you wanted to make it into a film?
DD: I knew instantly but then I read it seven times in a row. I was in Mexico at the time and read it and read it and read it. I wanted to make a lesbian love story to begin with. It wasn't as though I was searching for a book from which I could then adapt. It was coincidental that my friend had given me this book.
W&H: You wanted to make a lesbian love story because?
DD: It was missing for me. I wanted to make a film that was a love story between two women that did not end with a suicide, a murder or a bisexual triangle. And that hadn't happened.
W&H: Then you segued into TV directing for a number of years.
DD: That was after Oprah Winfrey hired my to do the miniseries The Women of Brewster Place. That launched me into TV directing world which was a big surprise to me. I didn't even know it was out there.
W&H: Can you talk about the differences between directing features and directing TV.
DD: There is a difference between directing for hire and directing as an independent filmmaker. There is an artistic and power difference between directing for hire and directing your own work. Directing episodic TV is a form of directing that doesn't exist in any other form of film or tv. That's because in one hour dramas every 8 days there is a new director. You have 7 days of prep and 8 days of shooting and while you are prepping the other person is shooting. It's a machine, and that machine is owned, operated and driven by the executive producer and that person is 99% of the time is the writer and creator of the show. It is their vision, and you are there to execute their vision and the stronger and better the show is, the stronger and better is the vision.
W&H: Why are there still so few women directors working in Hollywood and why does it seem to be getting worse and not better?
DD: It's not that people are unwilling to talk about it. They are constantly having these meetings. We need to get to the bottom of this and understand it because if we can't understand it entirely then we can't get past it Understanding it is the first step. Is it just a simple as that women are still second class citizens and that as second class citizens we don't get to be directors and presidents?
W&H: Why can women be successful as producers?
DD: Because producers don't really run the show. Producers are not executors of a vision.
W&H: You are also working on a film called Blonde Ghost.
DD: It is is screenplay that I wrote and it is the story of the most infamous catcher (a Jew who goes out and finds other Jews living underground and turns them over to the Gestapo) in Berlin during World War 2. This young, beautiful woman Stella was hiding underground and she was caught and tortured. She then escaped and was caught again and they made her an offer she could not refuse. This is a story of choice and addresses one of the huge questions -- what would you do to survive?
W&H: You've also been working on the Desert Hearts sequel.
DD: I don't want to say too much because I am writing it. It's unconventional as a sequel. It is not the follow-up to the two characters and their next steps. Its about the world of "Desert Hearts" and it's going to take on many more characters. It will be set in NYC in the late 60s. The two characters will be in it. The screenplay will hopefully be done by the end of the summer.

My other project is coming from my partner Terri Jentz' book Strange Piece of Paradise. Terri is working on the screenplay right now. It's a true crime memoir and it will also be finished at the end of the summer.
W&H: You just got back from a trip to Zambia. What were you doing there?

DD: I was there with Equality Now and Gloria Steinem and we attended a female sex trafficking conference. Equality Now works to help pass laws that protect women and girls with the idea that if you have laws you can enforce them. It was one of the most extraordinary and illuminating experiences of my life.

One From the Heart: Outfest Achievement Award Winner Donna Deitch LA Weekly