Female, Driven: Producer Denise Di Novi makes directing bow with woman-vs.-woman thriller 'Unforgettable'

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It’s been a long road to the director’s chair for Denise Di Novi. A veteran producer, she helped get her first modern classic to the screen with 1988’s Heathers, still (in my mind at least) one of the most quotable movies ever made. From there, the hits kept coming: Little Women; Crazy, Stupid, Love; and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, just to name a few, with five Nicholas Sparks adaptations and five Tim Burton movies—including Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and the Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas—sprinkled throughout.

It was as a producer only that Di Novi began developing the thriller Unforgettable, out April 21, which would eventually become her feature directorial debut. Di Novi, along with director Amma Asante (Belle), up-and-coming screenwriter Christina Hodson, co-producers Alison Greenspan and Ravi Mehta and executive producer Lynn Harris—a then-executive at Warner Bros., where Di Novi has a longtime production deal—began developing a thriller about “how many [women] have dealt with divorce and blended families.”

Then Asante left to do A United Kingdom, and Di Novi, still trying to keep the project together, “submitted a list of female directors to Greg Silverman, the head of [Warner Bros.] at the time. And he said, ‘You know, we think you should direct this. You’ve done a great job developing the material. You’ve been producing for so many years. We think you have the qualities of a director, particularly on this piece.’ And without any hesitation, I said, ‘Yes, I will take that opportunity.’”

The result is a thriller that’s female-centric both behind and in front of the camera. Rosario Dawson stars as Julia, a journalist who moves out to sunny California to live with new beau David (Geoff Stults) and his young daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). Still in the mix is David’s ex Tessa (Katherine Heigl), all buttoned-up glamour and impeccable clothes, who doesn’t take kindly to Julia taking what she perceives as rightfully hers.

Though Tessa is, per one character’s assessment, a “psycho Barbie,” Di Novi was adamant that she not be a “one-dimensional, crazy female character” of the sort that has laid down roots in horror since the beginning of the genre. “I wanted you to feel sympathy for her character and have compassion for her, while still being scared of her and thinking ‘Oh my God, she’s crazy.’” To that end, it was Di Novi’s idea to add to the script a domineering, abusive mother for Tessa, played to chilly perfection by Cheryl Ladd.

Add to that the familiar anxiety felt by Julia—that she’ll never be as good a wife and mother as the (seemingly) always put-together Tessa—and you have a thriller that benefits from its intentionally female perspective. Women “buy a lot into our cultural conditioning,” Di Novi argues. “It’s a cycle of grandmother teaching mother, mother teaching daughter, daughter teaching granddaughter… If I had to say it in one sentence, [Unforgettable] is a cautionary tale for women who allow their entire identity and self-worth to be based on being desired by a man. When you do, the problem is there’s no guarantee. It’s often a temporary situation. Both [Tessa and Julia] have that. They are really attached to the concept of having a man want them and being that man’s perfect wife.”

That Di Novi’s first film as a director would be rooted in a female perspective is no surprise. Throughout her career as a producer, she’s made a point of shepherding movies into existence that “illuminate the female experience.” Films with a sole female protagonist are, she cautions, “very hard to get made,” though things are getting better in a one-step-forward, two-steps-back sort of way. But even in movies where the female characters are supporting, an effort should be made to make them “as authentic and complex and interesting as possible. [In other movies] they’re often one-dimensional: They’re the girlfriend, the long-suffering wife, the saintly wife, the sexy mistress. They’re often just sketched in… I do feel grateful that I was able to make a movie where the two main characters are both female, and the male is the supporting character. And it’s about a domestic situation that [many women] deal with: an ex-wife, a blended family, a stepdaughter. These are difficult parts of our daily lives, and taking them to the extreme is fun and cathartic and what movies are meant to do.”

Once Di Novi added directing duties to her plate, in addition to producing, what struck her most was the “level of laser focus you need” to direct. “You really cannot stop thinking about the movie for one minute… As a producer, you have periods where you can be doing other things. You have to be available, because crises pop up when you least expect them. But as a director, you are focused on the movie every single second.”

Peak “laser focus,” for Di Novi, is represented by Burton, who “is in a category by himself. To me, he is a visual artist on the level of the greatest of all time, including painters or sculptors or anyone. He’s very unique in that way.” On the other hand, you have directors who “[do] not have that almost insane, OCD attention to detail and character and storytelling”—and they’re the ones, Di Novi has noticed throughout her career as a producer, who “usually [do] not do a very good job.”

Di Novi’s advice to directors, then, is to know your material inside-out. But what about advice for aspiring producers, especially aspiring female producers, who are coming up in a profession still overwhelmingly thought of as male? On that front, Di Novi thinks “most of the barriers don’t exist anymore in terms of being a female producer versus a male producer. There are more successful female producers [now]. It’s not unusual anymore, like it was when I started.” Di Novi attributes that progress in part to sheer numbers: More women have gone into producing since Di Novi kicked off her career, so “people got more used to it… [Men] are getting more enlightened and seeing that it’s better for everybody to have gender equality.”

Also in play is “a groundswell of the feminist movement in the last five years,” argues Di Novi. “I remember when young actresses and young female public figures were saying, ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist.’ That was really hard for me to hear, as a feminist for many years. An outspoken one. Now I credit Lena Dunham and so many other young women writers and creative women for standing up and speaking out and saying, ‘We need the feminist movement. We owe the feminist movement. We’re feminists.’”

Still, if there’s one hurdle still to clear for female producers, it’s that “the stereotypes remain that female producers only produce, or should only produce, female-driven stuff or softer, more character-driven material, rather than big action movies or superhero movies. I think, as a producer, if you’re interested in those kinds of movies, [you should be] assertive about the fact that you are equally interested in them and equally capable.”

Now that Di Novi has one film as a director under her belt, she’s working on another for DreamWorks: Highway One, a female-led action thriller based on a spec script from The Shallows writer Tony Jaswinski. All the same, she has no plans to quit producing, especially now that being a director has given her a deeper understanding of “what directors need. Producing, to me, is really about facilitating the director’s vision. So having now directed, I feel like I’m an even better producer.”