From ‘ER’ To ‘The Leftovers,’ Mimi Leder Is Breaking Barriers For Women In TV: 52 Weeks Of Directors

by Lauren C. Byrd

A principal director on ER, Mimi Leder was surprised when producer Steven Spielberg pulled her aside in 1997 and asked her to direct a $50 million film, The Peacemaker. It would star George Clooney and Nicole Kidman and Spielberg described it as an “action thriller,” the type of film women rarely get offered.

Although Leder was comfortable behind the camera on ER, directing the show’s famous long shots, she was hesitant to accept the offer. Leder says Spielberg convinced her by pointing out that she directed action on ER every day.

Leder grew up with a father, Paul Leder, who changed careers from real estate to making B horror/slasher films. “He taught me to have respect for the people you work with. I’m not a yeller or screamer. I don’t believe that’s the way to get the best work out of people. He taught me fearlessness and to keep moving forward — if something doesn’t work, try it another way,” Leder said.

Growing up, Leder says she remembers their house always being filled with costumes and props for her father’s films, her mother would cook for his film crews and sometimes they would even sleep at the house.

Leder was the first woman to be accepted into AFI’s cinematography course and while enrolled at AFI, she discovered a passion for directing and decided to make the leap. After graduating, Leder worked as a script supervisor in television for over a decade.

mimi leder 1 copyMimi Leder

In 1985, she made a short film that she showed to her bosses at Hill Street Blues, Steven Bochco and Greg Hoblit. They offered her a shot at directing an episode, but both men left the show before it happened. Once they were on board at L.A. Law, they were able to bring Leder on to direct an episode in 1987. The timing couldn’t have been more inconvenient for Leder, who has just given birth to her daughter, but she stepped up to the plate.

From there, she moved on to China Beach and then ER. Leder has received praise for developing the directing style used on ER. The director on the pilot used Steadicam for about 25% of the shots and Leder said she increased that to about 75% when she started directing on the show regularly. The scripts were regularly 75 to 85 pages, so the slight but natural movement of the Steadicam was perfect to keep up with the quick dialogue, patients being wheeled in and out, and doctors racing to save lives. In 1994, Leder won an Emmy for directing an episode of ER, “Love’s Labour Lost,” and the show won outstanding drama series.

The Peacemaker has all the elements of an action thriller. It starts off with a train full of Russian soldiers being assassinated and a cadre of nuclear weapons carried on the same train then being detonated, the Russians trying to stage it to look like a train crash.

Nicole Kidman plays nuclear weapons expert, Dr. Julia Kelly, who is an advisor in the State Department. When the train in Russia explodes, the President assigns her as the point person for the incident. Meanwhile, we meet Army Lieutenant Colonel Tom Devoe (George Clooney), who is undergoing questioning about a situation he was involved in with a Russian diplomat and preventing nerve gas from being shipped into Iraq.

In typical action movie romance fashion, Lt. Col. Devoe is assigned to be the Army liaison for Julia, who hates the sight of his smug face. (Damnit, Clooney.) The two travel to Vienna to meet with one of Devoe’s contacts who gets them a meeting with a government official that they confront about the incident in Russia. Kelly expects to negotiate with people, but Devoe prefers to use violence and any force necessary to rid the world of threats to America.

Over the most Hans Zimmer ’90s-esque score, Julia Kelly and Devoe piece together that not all of the nuclear weapons on the train were detonated and they are likely being exported to another country. They suspect Pakistan at first but ultimately discover the weapons are traveling to New York to a UN summit.

After a frantic pursuit through the streets, they track down the culprit and barely avoid being blown up. Once the adrenaline high wears off, Devoe shows up at Kelly’s office to ask her out on a real date. (As much as I personally love political thrillers, I find many don’t stand the test of time and quickly look dated in either their style or the technology used in the films. This was the case when I recently watched Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor and it was the same with The Peacemaker.)

regieMimi Leder

While maybe not the most clever thriller, The Peacemaker made $110 million worldwide and before the film was even released, Spielberg hired Leder to direct another big-budget film, Deep Impact. Impact was also a success at the box office, raking in $350 million, even when a film with a similar plot, Armageddon, was released the same summer.

After Deep Impact, Leder directed Pay It Forward, which had the force of late ’90s stars Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, and Kevin Spacey behind it, but unfortunately, was not a critical or box office success. Leder said after Forward’s ill fortune, scripts were simply not offered to her. “I was in movie jail,” she said. “It was painful coming back from that.”

Leder’s story is a prime example of how women face a tougher standard in Hollywood. Plenty of men have directed box office flops and continued to work and be successful. Studio executives seem to be waiting for women to make mistakes, at which point they can deem them as ill fit for the job.

While it’s wonderful to imagine a world where women are helping women — and that should be happening, no matter the industry — if women face a particularly tough standard like they do in Hollywood, sometimes the key seems to be pairing up with a male mentor, who might have better leverage with studio execs. In Leder’s case, it seems her Hill Street Blues bosses, Bochco and Hoblit, were key in her career as well as Spielberg. This is not to take away from women by giving men credit for their success, simply it’s worth noting that many women have male mentors and that should not be found as a fault or a strike against them. As mentioned in this IndieWire article on Leder, “Talent sustains a career, but you need breaks and opportunities to get there.”

screen shot 2015 04 01 at 6 26 54 pmThe Leftovers

Leder has continued to work in television, directing shows like Luck and Smash. Most recently, Leder has directed episodes of The Leftovers and Shameless. She’s also an executive producer on The Leftovers.

After Deep Impact‘s success, Leder said, “Not very many men make $350 million pictures, so it’s not about being a good woman director. I want to be recognized as a good director, period.”

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted here with permission.

Top photo: The Leftovers

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