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Breaking Barriers: Laura Terruso and the Rise of Female Directors in Hollywood

Girl power behind the camera (or the lack thereof) remains a hot topic. So many talented female directors are out there, but they aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. In this article, we delve into the inspiring journey of one trailblazer who is telling a traditionally "male" story and taking up space in Hollywood: Laura Terruso.


Laura Terruso made history as the youngest woman ever to direct Robert De Niro in the newly released Lionsgate comedy, About My Father. She joins the ranks of only a handful of female directors who have achieved this feat. However, for Laura, About My Father is more than just a milestone; it's a deeply personal project inspired by her own background.


In this exclusive Q&A, we sit down with Laura Terruso to discuss her journey into film directing, the challenges she faced as a young woman in Hollywood, her creative process behind About My Father and the importance of diversity and representation in the entertainment industry.


Courtesy of Heather Shapiro

What inspired you to pursue a career in film directing, and how did you get started in the industry?


I’ve always been drawn to storytelling, and I love making people laugh. I started making short films in my early 20s and screening them on the LGBT film festival circuit. While at those festivals, I noticed that the filmmakers who broke through and made careers out of their passion for filmmaking were the ones who went to film school, so a few years later, I applied to the Graduate Film program at NYU. While in film school, I really threw myself into the craft of filmmaking and worked in the New York independent film community in a variety of roles. I produced two feature films that screened at the Sundance Film Festival. I also worked as a director of photography on two notable web series, “High Maintenance” and “The Slope,” among various other gigs – recording sound, working as an AD, etc. I wanted to understand every single aspect of the craft because I knew it would make me a better director.


In my first year of film school, Michael Showalter, who was teaching at NYU at the time, saw a short film that I made called “Doris & the Intern.” He was so impressed with the film that he suggested we write something together. A year later, we had written the screenplay for “Hello, My Name is Doris.” A year after that, I was in LA shooting that film with Sally Field. When I was in LA, Michael suggested that I make the move to California, but I knew no one was going to take me seriously as a director, having been the co-writer on that film. So I went back to New York and wrote something I knew could be produced easily, and the following summer shot the film “Fits and Starts” starring Wyatt Cenac and Greta Lee. That film premiered at SXSW the same week “Hello, My Name is Doris” was released in theatres. That’s when I moved to Hollywood and started my career in filmmaking.


What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a young woman in Hollywood, and how did you overcome them?


Perception is one of the biggest challenges we face as filmmakers in marginalized groups. Growing up, I didn’t even consider filmmaking a possible career path because the only images of directors I saw were of older white men wearing baseball caps and holding megaphones. After “Hello, My Name is Doris,” I was perceived as a writer even though I had worked on sets in countless other capacities. I knew I needed to independently produce my first feature in order to have the opportunity to direct. That image I had in my young head of what a director looks like is what many decision-makers in Hollywood also think of. So we must see more images of female directors at work to change the narrative and inspire younger generations to take up the craft.


What drew you to the story of Sebastian Maniscalco and his father, and how did you approach directing Robert De Niro in the role?


I’ve been a fan of Sebastian’s work for a while, and when my agent sent me the screenplay for “About My Father,” it was the first time I leapt up out of my seat and said, “I HAVE TO DIRECT THIS.” The film is about Sebastian’s relationship with his Sicilian immigrant father, and I happen to have a Sicilian immigrant mother. Both came to the U.S. in the 1960s. I immediately felt such a connection to the story and themes of the film. I pursued the project doggedly and am so grateful that I was able to helm this film that feels so personal while also being so universal. De Niro is a wonderful collaborator, and as soon as he understood my personal connection to the material, he trusted me, and we worked closely together to make sure the film was on the right path.


Lionsgate

Can you tell us about your creative process when working on a project like "About My Father"? How do you go about developing the script and bringing it to life on screen?


I actually started by conducting oral history interviews with Sebastian’s father, Salvo. I did four hours of Zooming with him and then incorporated some of what I learned into the screenplay. I always have a hand in rewriting every project I direct; in this case, I was fortunate to work closely with Sebastian’s co-writer, Austen Earl, on shaping the material. I also became a Sebastian Maniscalco expert, studying all of his standup and even his social media videos to make sure that we could include as much of his life and humor as possible into the film. He sent me so many videos of him and his dad so I could really get a sense of his style and their particular chemistry.


What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?


First and foremost, I want audiences to laugh and have a good time at the movies. I hope that people experience it as a humorous and heartfelt exploration of what it means to be an immigrant and what it means to be first-generation. It’s a film for the entire family, and I wanted to make the kind of movie that you could take your parents and grandparents to, and everyone can have a good time.


Lionsgate

What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers, particularly women who are looking to break into the industry?


Say yes to every opportunity because you’ll learn so much along the way. Working in a plethora of different capacities on film sets prepared me for a career in directing more than anything else. And don’t wait for permission to make art. Just do it with whatever tools you have available to you.


How has your own upbringing and background influenced your work as a filmmaker, and specifically in the making of "About My Father"?


As an Italian-American, my personal connection to the subject and the characters is what made me so passionate about directing “About My Father.” I always need to have some personal connection to the material I direct, even if it’s as simple as the theme or a character trait. That connection can come from unexpected places, but it helps me anchor my vision for the film.


How important is diversity and representation in the entertainment industry, and what steps can be taken to ensure that more underrepresented voices are heard?


Representation is vitally important. It’s so much harder to achieve something if you can’t see it, and we are still very far from any kind of gender parity in the field of directing. I think we need to change people’s perceptions of what a director looks like.


There is also more work to do to change this belief that men can tell any story, but women and minorities must be relegated to telling stories that directly impact them. There are so many ways a movie can be deeply personal to a director that has nothing to do with gender, race, identity, etc.


Who are some of your biggest female influences and inspirations in the film world, and why?


I’m a huge fan of Nancy Meyers. I love her work and have much respect for her, having started out at a time when you could count the number of female directors in Hollywood on one hand. I’m also a big fan of Tamara Jenkins – her films are comedic and yet so heartbreaking at the same time.


What do you think are the most important qualities for a director to have, and how do you work to cultivate those qualities in yourself?


Filmmaking is a craft, and it’s the most collaborative art form there is, so having a good grasp of the technical aspects (cinematography, lighting, sound, editing) has been very helpful to me in my ability to communicate with my collaborators. Beyond that, I think having a strongly honed sense of story and intuition is everything.


What's next for you in your career, and what are some of your long-term goals as a filmmaker?


I’m developing a few different projects – a miniseries based on a documentary I love with Norman Lear’s company, a TV idea with my friend Emily Hampshire and some film ideas. I also have a performance film I’m currently finishing called “No Midnight,” featuring the work of artist Joseph Keckler, that will be headed to festivals soon. While I specialize in the field of comedy, I want to continue exploring sub-genres within that category. For example, I would love to direct an action comedy!


Matt Kallish

“Laura Terruso, the director, was terrific. She’s an Italian American from Bensonhurst, New York, so she knew the world.” Robert De Niro


“Laura’s direction for ‘About My Father’ was fantastic. She's not only a talented filmmaker who knows the ins and outs of every role on a set, but we also share a special connection through our families’ shared immigrant stories. In our initial pitch meeting, Laura articulated her vision to me in a way that made me feel confident in her at the helm of this story that is so personal to me. I can’t wait for everyone to experience it in theaters.” Sebastian Maniscalco

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