Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Mimi Leder.
For New York City native Mimi Leder, filmmaking is something of a family business. Her father directed a number of micro-budget films, and from a young age, Leder became involved on set, playing roles ranging from assistant director to focus puller to camera loader. She attended the AFI Conservatory, where she studied cinematography and became one of the first women to graduate from the school. After several years working as a script supervisor to pay the bills, Leder directed her first episode of television in 1987: the “Fifty Ways to Floss Your Lover” episode of L.A. Law.
Since then, Leder has maintained an impressive presence on the TV scene as both a director and producer. She has served as a guest director on shows including The West Wing, Nashville, and Almost Human, and a recurring director on shows ranging from China Beach to ER and The Leftovers, on all three of which she is also credited as a producer.
On the big screen, after two commercial successes with the 1997 political action-thriller The Peacemaker and the 1998 disaster sci-fi film Deep Impact, the romantic drama Pay It Forward flopped, landing Leder in “movie jail.” Never one to play the victim, Leder has spent the past two decades building a reputation as one of the best directors working in television and now has finally made a return to the big screen with Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic On The Basis of Sex.
Leder has learned plenty on her journey, including the six tips featured below.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Mimi Leder
1. The Fundamentals of Good Film and Television are the Same
While working in both film and television as a director is growing ever more commonplace with the increased scale and budgets of prestige TV and streaming platforms like Netflix further blurring distinctions between the two forms, Leder has arguably been bridging the gap since before it was cool. More than one interviewer has asked her about her thoughts on returning to film after 18 years and specifically how film compares to television. However, as far as Leder is concerned, where it counts the two are basically the same, as she told Deadlinein a December 2018 interview:
“I believe it’s all about the storytelling and great scripts. Whether it’s on the big screen or the small screen, my approach is always the same, and I’ve had a lot of great opportunities in television to really tell great stories.”
2. Trust Your Instincts
In a Gold Derby interview live-streamed May 24, 2017, editor Rob Licuria asked Leder what she considered to be the most important lesson she learned in the early days of her film career. In her response, she explained how she had to learn how to utilize fear—”the great motivator”—and not let it control her in counterproductive ways, namely:
“What I learned as a young director was to let things go—things happen on set. To be spontaneous, to be open, to be collaborative, and, you know, nothing fits into a box. You have to be open to the unexpected for great things to happen. And so, as a young director you have to learn how to trust your instincts.”
You can watch the full interview below; the quote above begins at 19:43:
3. Emotion Before Effects
Several of Leder’s best-known works, including Deep Impact and The Leftovers, are known for their use of visual effects. However, as Leder told The Orange County Register in an interview published in May 1998, in her eyes effects and action rank a distant second to capturing human emotion, a strategy that has continued to serve her well:
“To me, there’s nothing stronger than human emotion. I don’t care how great your effect is, how great the action is, there’s nothing greater than one ounce of human emotion. So the object was how to make the effects as good as the human emotion, and that was my approach.”
4. Know What You’re Trying to Say
On the subject of emotions and effects, Leder further elaborated on how one uses the former to influence the latter in order to tell a compelling story on screen in an article published in The Hollywood Reporter back in December 2003:
“You just have to understand what you’re trying to say and what effect you’re trying to have on the audience. And that determines everything, from where you put the camera to whose face you’re on to how big the explosion is.”
5. Keep Rehearsing to a Minimum
While Leder likes her actors to be well prepared, she does not have her actors do full-blown rehearsals, for reasons she elaborated in an interview published in the Spring 2018 installment of DGA Quarterly:
“I don’t like to rehearse a lot. I like to go through the scenes with the actors and talk with them about what they’re about. Then stop. I don’t like to find it in the room. I want to find it on the set. I want to find the magic and I don’t want to catch it in a rehearsal hall or my apartment or my house and then never be able to find it again.”
6. Keep Fighting the Fight
In contrast to the multitudes of male directors who have had box office disappointments and quickly gone on to secure major projects, Leder is one of many female directors who has faced one of Hollywood’s many ugly double standards in the form of “movie jail”—bascially, the inability to secure feature film directing gigs following a box office disappointment, even if that disappointment, as in Leder’s case, followed a string of successes.
However, instead of dwelling on film, Leder focused her efforts on excelling in television, which she very much has, and ultimately did return to the big screen with On The Basis of Sex. While efforts are being made, biases still very much exist within the industry. As such, Leder explained in a January 2019 interview with Women in Hollywood, perseverance is a necessary quality, particularly for female directors:
“Women just have to keep making films, keep telling their stories, and keep standing up and fighting the fight. Don’t let other people tell your story, or don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t tell your story. We have to tell our own stories.”
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
Over the course of three decades, Mimi Leder has become a powerhouse in the film and television industry. While she can speak to the gender discrimination rampant in Hollywood from personal experience, through consistent work and incredible perseverance she has managed to establish and maintain a presence on screens big and small, and there’s definitely a lesson to be learned in that.