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Producer Denise Di Novi says ‘why not?’ to directing

Lindsay Bahr
Associated Press

Men pick the movies. Women only go to movies that their husbands choose. And men definitely don’t see movies about women.

That was the prevailing line of thought at Hollywood studios not too long ago. Denise Di Novi, a prolific producer behind everything from “Batman Returns” to “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” heard it for years when she was starting out. Back then, she mostly felt lucky to be one of the few female producers around. Directing didn’t seem like a possibility. In fact, Di Novi said, it felt “insurmountable.”

Now, nearly 30 years after she made a name for herself as the producer of “Heathers,” Di Novi is making her directorial debut with the thriller “Unforgettable.” Out Friday, the film is about a woman driven to madness when her ex-husband brings a new fiancée home.

Starring Katherine Heigl as the Hitchcockian blonde unwilling to let her ex, Geoff Stults, move on, and Rosario Dawson as the girlfriend with a traumatic past, Di Novi had been developing the script to produce when Warner Bros. suggested that she direct.

“I’d been championing women directors for years and speaking about the need for more and thought, ‘I should put my money where my mouth is and direct a movie,’ ” Di Novi said.

She also loved the genre. In the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Adrian Lyne, Di Novi liked that the women were always especially interesting and layered.

“I love to see female characters put in really complex situations and overcome them. They make mistakes and they’re flawed and they’re crazy. I like the full spectrum, the messiness of the female experience,” Di Novi said. “I found it inspiring when I was young and I wanted to make a movie like that.”

Di Novi knew she didn’t want to mimic other directors, though. One thing she’s learned from producing is that bringing your authentic point of view to a project is always going to be better than homage.

“She was a natural,” said producer Ravi Mehta. “It felt as if she’d been directing her entire life.”

Di Novi found her way into producing almost by accident. She started out as a journalist in Toronto, but would get in trouble for personalizing every story, often ending up in tears. She laughs that she got fired from every job she’d ever had until she started working on movies. She tried out publicity and screenwriting, but it was producing that stuck.

Her work on the still shockingly dark high school comedy “Heathers” put her on the map and led to a fruitful meeting with Tim Burton. The bonded over feeling like outsiders in Hollywood, and went on to make films like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman Returns,” “Ed Wood” and “Nightmare Before Christmas.”

In her over 40 credits, Di Novi has dabbled in all genres, from superhero pics to classic literary adaptations like Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women,” modern rom-coms like “Crazy, Stupid Love,” and everything in between.

“I’m not snobby. I just love movies. I love every kind of movie. I respect every kind of movie. I don’t think one kind of movie is better than another and I love to produce every kind of movie,” Di Novi said. “I’m a ‘why not’ kind of person.”

Di Novi doesn’t bristle at the “female filmmaker” conversation either. She embraces the distinction and believes her chance to direct this film is the result of the heightened talk around the glaring disparity in the business.

“I wish I could have worked with more women directors. There was an assumption that women can only direct movies about women and if it’s not about women, they’re usually not on the list,” Di Novi said. “I want women coming up to see that there are female directors and it is possible and there is a path.

“There is still a stereotype that women will only go to women’s movies,” Di Novi said. Most expected “Unforgettable” to be in that category, but Di Novi happily reports that it’s tracking at 50/50.

“Some of that is the genre. It’s scary and thrilling. But I think that there’s a fascination with the female characters,” she said. “And men are just as fascinated as women.”

Read the review

Come back to Friday’s Detroit News On Screen section and read Adam Graham’s review of “Unforgettable.”