September 20, 2019

Making an Impact

In a world normally reserved for men, Mimi Lederhas achieved remarkable success. Chosen by Steven Spielberg to directtwo of his DreamWorks studio’s first features, she is making a namefor herself as a talented action-entertainment director.

So it seems reasonable to expect that, in person,she will be somewhat severe, aggressive even. How else is a woman tosucceed in what has been, until now, earmarked as male-onlyterritory?

This expectation, it turns out, could not befurther from the truth. With her latest film, “Deep Impact,”complete, life can revert somewhat to normal, she says, and therewill be time to spend with her family — husband Gary Werntz, actorand writer, and 11-year-old daughter Hannah — in their San FernandoValley home.

Leder’s calm, unassuming manner makes it all themore surprising that she’s found a niche directing fast-paced actionmovies, one of the few women in Hollywood to have done so.

But her gentleness belies a secureself-confidence, the foundation of which she attributes to herfather, independent filmmaker Paul Leder, who died in 1996 of lungcancer.

“He was very much, ‘Be your own person — you cando anything you want to. Just believe in it and don’t be afraid,'”Leder says during an interview in her sunny DreamWorks office. “Myfather never faltered; he just kept going. He made 23 low-budgetmovies in his lifetime — quite an achievement. And during hissix-year illness, he wrote two screenplays and directed twomovies.”

Left,Robert Duvall, center, as astronaut Spurgeon Tanner, confers with theshuttle crew in “Deep Impact.” Below, Tea Leoni, as a televisionreporter, talks with the president, played by Morgan Freeman.Photos by Myles Aronowitz

In “Deep Impact,” a massive comet hurtles towardEarth, threatening to destroy the human race. While a team ofscientists tries desperately to throw the comet off course, the worldstruggles to come to terms with its impending death sentence.

It is the second feature from the Emmy-winningdirector who brought us “The Peacemaker” last year (also a DreamWorksproduction) and first came to our attention with television’s”ER.”

“What drew me to this story,” says Leder, “is itsexploration of the choices that we would have to make in our liveswhen faced with a death sentence.”

With “Deep Impact” boasting names such as MorganFreeman, Vanessa Redgrave and Maximillian Schell, a healthy $75million budget, and a host of special effects, her second featurefrom DreamWorks (a co-production with Paramount) is set to do well atthe box office when it opens this week.

Leder has coped with the huge responsibility ofdirecting DreamWorks’ first features in a typically understatedfashion. Unfazed by the enormity of the task ahead, she simplyapproached the huge, multi-location projects frame by frame: “It’sthe only way,” she says. “You can’t function if you put yourselfunder high pressure; you’ve just got to be in the moment.”

And while critics have said that Leder has yet toprove herself on the big screen, she knows how to please heraudiences, producing finely crafted, superbly paced actionentertainment.

Her next project, “Sentimental Journey,” will tellthe extraordinary story of her parents’ love affair and will be afamily collaboration with brother Reuben, a writer, and sisterGeraldine, who will cast it.

Leder’s mother, Etyl, survived the Holocaust infour different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Paul, amedic in Gen. Patton’s army, was one of the liberatingsoldiers.

“It’s an epic love story,” says Leder. “And veryimportant because it speaks about the issues of love when you havelived through the devastation of war. It shows how even after thehorrors of the Holocaust, when people had been stripped of allfeeling and all humanity, they still had the ability to love.”

Paul wrote “Sentimental Journey” 20 years ago, andit was his life’s dream to see the film completed.

Leder first found out about her mother’s life whenshe saw the tattoo on Etyl’s arm. “I think I was 10 when I firstunderstood what it meant,” she says. “My mother did tell us about herexperiences, I think in doses. And as we got older, she told us more,and she managed to be communicative without burdening us with herpain. My mother’s marriage to my father meant that she didn’t liveher life in the past. Despite what had happened, they didn’t live indarkness.”

Leder came early to filmmaking. When she was inher teens, her father would say: “OK, I’m making a movie. C’mon,let’s get to work!” And they did, with Leder learning every job thefilm set had to offer.

In South Korea, where they traveled to do a KingKong movie called “Ape,” Leder was script supervisor, second unitcinematographer, runner and camera loader. All that and she taughtthe Korean crew how to work a three-dimensional camera. It was theperfect introduction to filmmaking.

Leder is known for her ability to bring emotionaldepth to the wooden characters normally seen in action drama.

“I think it’s always interesting to work with acharacter who’s being tested or has to find their voice in some way,”she says. “Like Dusan, the terrorist in ‘The Peacemaker,’ who wasvery important to me because, although he was a very moral person, hecommitted a very immoral act.

“I felt that Dusan was probably a very decent manwith a loving family before the war and all the hatred had begun. Thewar took away his humanity, his morality. I did not want to condoneterrorism in ‘The Peacemaker’ but to understand Dusan’s motivation,what had gone wrong for him and how this crazy world could let thathappen.

“I always want to make a movie that sayssomething, that gives over a message, a movie that makes you feelsomething. Because that is what I love about going to the movies –being made to feel. Hopefully, the audience will walk out of ‘DeepImpact,’ re-evaluating their lives and the choices they’vemade.”

Leder studied cinematography at the prestigiousAmerican Film Institute, which is known for encouraging unusual,creative talent. AFI had wanted her to come in as a director (she hadalready directed a short film), but Leder was uncertain. “I wasafraid, and I didn’t know whether I had it in me to direct. But Iknew that I wanted to paint pictures, and after I learnt the camera,I gained confidence and decided to be a director.”

But it was through her study of cinematography,learning the camera, that Leder understood how to be a director.”Knowing the power of the camera helped me to understand how to tella story,” she says.

“ER” is a testament to her visceral, dynamicdirecting style. The innovative use of steadicam, for which theseries became known, evolved as a response to the uninterruptedenergy generated by the script. “When we were shooting the first fourepisodes of ‘ER,’ we didn’t have any feedback,” she says. “We didn’tknow what anybody thought; we were just doing it. What we were doingjust felt right. It was a great way to tell the story of theemergency room with that moving camera.”

You can feel Leder’s films, touch them, as if theyhave a texture. She creates an immediacy that draws the viewer inclose. “I don’t really plan to move the camera,” she says. “I operateon an emotional level, not an intellectual one, when I’m working. Youneed a camera to help tell the story but not to see it. So I try notto make self-conscious moves — I move the camera by responding towhatever m
oves me within the scene we’re shooting.”

Like Spielberg in “Schindler’s List,” Leder nowfinds herself in the rare position of being able to explore seriousissues while working within a big-budget framework and having thepower to reach a wide audience. She readily acknowledges that this isa remarkable and privileged position to occupy.

It is a privilege that Leder is likely to respect.”Morality is very much a Jewish concern,” she says. “And I am verymuch a Jew. That is what I try to bring to my work — to be honestand fair and to tell the truth as I see it.”

“Deep Impact” is now playing at areatheaters.

Leila Segal is a free-lance writer who lives inLondon.