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Brenda Chapman and the See-Through Ceiling
When early press started coming out about Brave, Disney/Pixar’s summer 2012 release, a lot of it centered on the fact that it was the studio’s first feature film to be directed by a woman. A few short months later that publicity angle flew away like an arrow, when Brenda Chapman was removed from the film due to the proverbial “creative differences.” That, however, does nothing to detract from Chapman’s accomplishments in the animation industry. She served as head of story for The Lion King (1994) at a time when it was uncommon for women to be in such supervisory positions, and went on to become the first American woman to direct on an animated feature, The Prince of Egypt (1998).
In 2000 I spoke with Brenda about her rising, and pioneering, career. “That’s sort of been my lot in life as my career goes, to be the first woman, or the only woman, for a while,” she told me. “I find it almost a little embarrassing because it’s taken so long to get a woman in there to direct.” Surprisingly, she added that her move to direction from story work was made as the result of being flat on her back—and not in any metaphorical way:
“After Lion King, Disney offered me a small project to direct for one of the theme parks. I was really sort of exhausted so I turned them down. Then Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney and started up DreamWorks, and he asked me to come over. I was just going to help set up the story department there, but he asked me to direct their first film, Prince of Egypt. Initially I said no, because I thought I’d be more useful to him if I stuck with what I knew. I remember going into a meeting with the two producers and a couple other people, really early on, and he asked around the table: ‘Have you found anyone to direct yet?’ Each person said no. So Jeffrey looked at me and said, ‘Brenda, you’re directing until I find somebody else.’ Then I went out with a back injury. I had to have back surgery when I first started at DreamWorks, and I was laying around for about a month. That’s what it took for me to decide I’d go ahead and direct. That’s how I ended up doing it—being flat on my back, bored out of my mind.”
Somewhat prophetically, Brenda went on to say that she would like to direct again, with one condition:
“I want to work on a project that I have love for at the beginning and not just someone’s idea that I get assigned to. To do one of these you have to become emotionally attached to it, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to make a good movie.”
Like Brave, which she conceived, developed and co-wrote, perhaps?
Ultimately, Brenda Chapman will still be credited as co-director for the film, though it would appear that Hollywood’s artistic ceiling has once again been reinforced with safety glass.