Of the top 250 films released in 2021, only 17 percent were directed by women, according to the Celluloid Ceiling Report. The film industry is extremely male-dominated, with the job of director being one of the most exclusive. Marielle Heller, a female director from the Bay Area, doesn’t let this deter her from working to increase female representation in the industry.
Heller was born in Marin County, California and raised in Alameda. She attended Saint Joseph’s Notre Dame High School and began to explore acting at the Alameda Children’s Musical Theater. She went on to study theater at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in England. Heller also did early acting at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Recently, she played the role of Alma Wheatley in the highly acclaimed Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit.
Heller’s writing and directing debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, came out in 2015. The movie is based on a graphic novel about a teenage girl growing up in the Bay Area, a story that was a relatable for Heller. After The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Heller went on to direct A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and other shorter projects.
When Heller first proposed a film adaptation of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Phoebe Gloeckner, the author of the book, objected to the idea. However, the story meant a lot to Heller, as it made her feel represented in a way she hadn’t been before. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is what boys must have felt when they read The Catcher in the Rye,’” she said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “It just really exploded my world.” Heller continued to pitch her idea; eventually, Gloeckner was convinced.
Heller is a pioneer in the film industry, creating transparency about what it is like to be a working mother. On its own, being a working mother of young children is certainly not easy.
At the time of filming A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Heller had a four-year-old son who she wanted to be able to see at night. The team would shoot from seven or eight in the morning to five or six in the evening, without breaking for lunch, so that Heller and other workers could be home with their kids in the evenings.
Heller believes that film productions need to adhere to more sustainable work hours to allow people with families to continue their work. “Why do so many women drop out of the workforce at this age, in our late thirties, early forties?” Heller asked in an interview with Variety. “Well, often it’s because we’re raising kids, so let’s be honest about that.”
Although the film industry is ingrained with sexism, people like Heller are changing that by demanding respect for the basic needs — like going home to see one’s kids — of working parents.