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Mimi Leder Is the Best Director on Television

Just two years after Hollywood glory, the ‘Deep Impact’ director found herself struggling to get a movie made. But more recently, Leder’s vision has turned ‘The Leftovers’ into one of the most respected — and beautifully made — shows on TV. In 2017, that’s an upgrade.

Mimi Leder and Justin Theroux (HBO/Ringer illustration)
Mimi Leder and Justin Theroux (HBO/Ringer illustration)


The expression made famous by Annie Hall has been a saying of Mimi Leder’s ever since the morning of Monday, May 11, 1998. That’s when the weekend box office receipts for Deep Impact came in. The film, Leder’s second, had the biggest opening weekend ever for a movie directed by a woman. “Everybody was like, ‘Ahhhh!,’” she recalls. “And my assistant kept being like, ‘You’re so la-di-da about it.’”

It wasn’t that Leder didn’t care; she was just too busy to take a step back and consider how important a milestone the film’s $41.2 million opening was. “I didn’t really understand what a great impact that was in terms of box office for a woman director,” she tells me on the last morning of November, as we drink coffee at Little Dom’s in Los Feliz. “Because I look at myself as a director. I don’t make those comparisons.”

La-di-da: To Leder, it’s more of a joke than a mantra. Because you do not have to talk to her long before realizing that there is nothing la-di-da about her — at least not in the scatterbrained, Annie Hall sense. Leder is an excellent communicator, decisive and clear. (In a twist of fate so on-the-nose it’s like something out of Dickens, her last name is indeed pronounced “leader.”) She has basically directed our breakfast, picking the place, the time, the booth — and do they have berries? Yes, we’ll start with the berries. It makes sense: You do not get to shoot winding, chaotic (and Emmy-winning) long takes on ER or helm $80 million action movies or direct 10-plus hours of The Leftovers by being indecisively and inoffensively la-di-da. “She’s got a really strong forearm, in the best way,” Leftovers star Justin Theroux says. “She’s just that perfect. She’s exactly what I want a director to be.”

We meet in the middle of a bittersweet time for Leder: She’s putting the finishing postproduction touches on the series finale of the immersive HBO drama The Leftovers. (“I’m in the process of letting go,” she says.) The series returns Sunday night for its third and final season, ending a run on a show that is beloved by critics and has a modest though devoted fan base. The show’s boldly ambitious second season earned a spot on many top-10 lists in 2015; New York magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz called it “one of the great dramas in American television.” Its final batch of episodes will be its most narratively complex and visually expansive, moving between breathtaking landscapes in Jarden, Texas, and Melbourne, Australia. The season begins in Jarden shortly before the seventh anniversary of the “Sudden Departure” — a still-unexplained event in which 2 percent of the world’s population disappeared into thin air — where the approach of this date is evoking dread and inspiring conspiracy theories. Some believe a Bible-grade flood is on its way, others think a Second Departure is coming, and even those who don’t believe the rumors find themselves making cynical jokes about the apocalypse. Given the sense of catastrophe hanging over the current American political climate, this is a very good time for The Leftovers to come back.

The Leftovers was cocreated by former Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (who wrote the novel on which the first season is based), but its second season came to bear the marks of Leder’s signature style, which could be summed up as “epic yet intimately emotional.” She is attracted to stories about big catastrophes (asteroids, the Rapture, nuclear terrorism) and the small, everyday ways that normal people cope with them. When it ends its run in June, Leder will have directed 10 of The Leftovers’ 28 episodes — more than any other director — in addition to serving as an executive producer. “She just had my trust instantly,” Lindelof says of Leder’s arrival on the show, midway through the first season. “Mimi became the second showrunner of the show and remained in that role until we wrapped Season 3.”

At 65, Leder is at a new high point in her career, though it is possibly not the one she would have predicted 20 years ago. Only about two years after the success of Deep Impact, Leder found herself in “Movie Jail” (a place where female directors seem to end up much more often than male ones) for the small-time crimes of taking a year off to spend time with her family and then, in 2000, directing a single critical and commercial flop, Pay It Forward. “The experience of going to Movie Jail was deafening and painful,” she tells me. “But I remained in television. I didn’t stop working. I directed nine pilots, and six of them went to series. They’re not on the air anymore, but I didn’t stop working. I just stopped making films.”

A lot has changed in the intervening years. In the past decade especially, the TV world has transformed from directorial purgatory to a place of renewed prestige and creative freedom. (“Starting with The Sopranos,” Leder says, “life changed.”) It’s also now become a space where, as Leder has observed, “there’s a lot more opportunity for women — especially behind the scenes.” The cinematically shot and critically adored Leftovers just may have been the springboard Leder needed to get back into the film world’s good graces. It is rumored that she is in talks to direct On the Basis of Sex, the forthcoming Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, starring Natalie Portman. But as she charts the next phase of her career, success, to her, doesn’t look like an either/or between the film and TV worlds; it’s moving fluidly between both.

“I’ve had a long career, and I’m very fortunate that I’ve had this moment to reflect,” she says of the month or two she plans to take off once the Leftovers team is finished cutting the finale. “But you can’t really stay out too long. You’ve gotta keep moving. You’ve gotta keep exploring. That’s just part of being a filmmaker.”

To understand the difference between directing for movies and directing for TV — and why Mimi Leder is great at both — let’s talk about a bridge.

A specific bridge: the one that, on The Leftovers, separates the consecrated ground of Miracle, Texas (the only town in America that was left unaffected when 2 percent of the world’s population vanished), and the regular, unholy dirt of the next town over. Some of the show’s most harrowing scenes take place on this bridge. “In the movie world,” says Lindelof, “you just fucking build the bridge.” But in the TV world — or at least the prestige-TV world — there is not always time to build a bridge, because your job is essentially to shoot one hour-long feature film after another. The trick, then, is knowing the constraints you’re working in, and making the best of them. “She was like, ‘We have to rule out bridges that you can’t drive cars across,’” Lindelof recalls. Another kind of bridge might look better, he concedes, but “it has to be shot in 10 days.” This is one of those small, wise things that Leder has learned: There isn’t always time to create a new world. Sometimes you need to make the existing, imperfect world bend to you.

“She brings a feature director’s eye and visual sensibility,” says Perrotta, “but she also does have this TV director sense of ‘We have to do this fast.’ She was able to create unbelievable episodes of TV within the time frame. That’s the challenge: You have to do it quickly and you have to do it beautifully. Not everyone can do those two things, but Mimi sure did.” Every episode of The Leftovers is packed with about as much action as a film — but the finales of this show perform these feats in overdrive. It says a lot about Leder that she’s been called in to direct every one.

“With The Leftovers, there was just something that happened — the artist meets their perfect match,” says Leder’s 30-year-old daughter, Hannah. The show’s themes of grappling with loss, faith, and tragedy do feel like a culmination of the stories that Leder has been attracted to throughout her career. “Our show is about, I think, belief systems,” Leder says. “Everyone’s looking for one in life. Everyone’s looking for happiness and peace; everyone’s trying to figure it out. Then you kind of go through life and find out there’s not really a whole bunch of answers to the things that are mystifying and mysterious. And so, then, how do we get by? What’s the story we tell ourselves?”

The cast of ‘The Leftovers’ (HBO)
The cast of ‘The Leftovers’ (HBO)

In the last episode of the first season, there is a massive, chaotic riot, culminating in a neighborhood catching fire; the long sequence is almost operatic in its emotional choreography. “If you were making a Will Smith movie,” says Theroux, who plays the series’ antihero police chief, Kevin Garvey, “that [scene] would be two weeks.” Leder shot the sequence in a night.

The second season finale was even more ambitious and — at 72 minutes — almost the length of a short feature. Perrotta says, “We’re making an hour of television with a budget that can carry an entire independent film. But we’re working fast. I talked to a director — a friend of mine who watched the Season 2 finale — who could not believe that Mimi had shot that in 10 to 12 days.”

Leder, though, seems to navigate on-set chaos as calmly as she has the ebbs and flows of her career. She tells me she often finds herself running through advice she got, long ago, from another filmmaker: her father, Paul Leder. “My father said, ‘Stand up. Keep going. Don’t give up. Never give up,’” she says. “So I never did.”

Leder was born in New York City on January 26, 1952; her parents — Etyl, a classical pianist and Auschwitz survivor, and Paul, a leftist activist with a creative streak — met at a “Communist Party party” in Greenwich Village. Six years after Mimi was born they moved to Los Angeles “for the sunsets and the rainbows,” as her father used to say. Paul Leder eventually became an independent filmmaker, who directed 23 hyper-low-budget movies, including grindhouse staples with names like A*P*E and I Dismember Mama. “Growing up with an independent filmmaker father was like going to school every day,” Leder says. (Both of her siblings went into similar careers: Reuben Leder is a writer, and her sister Geraldine is a casting director who won an Emmy for her work on Arrested Development.) Her father shot and produced some of his films out of their home. “He edited on a Moviola out of his office. My sister assisted him. I worked in [the] camera [department] — I worked in every department.” Leder pauses, then laughs, “Except hair and makeup.”

Leder inherited her parents’ antiestablishment politics; while still in high school, at Hollywood High, she was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War. “It was awesome,” she remembers. “L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s was an extraordinary time in film and protest.” She went to L.A. City College for two years (“We couldn’t afford anything else”) before applying, at age 20, to the American Film Institute’s AFI Conservatory. She was the first woman ever accepted to its cinematography program; Amy Heckerling was a year ahead of her. “I applied as a cinematographer because I wanted to shoot,” Leder says. “I loved filming. I loved the light.” She eventually switched her focus at AFI to directing, but her training as a cinematographer gave her a unique perspective. While at AFI, Leder got an opportunity to shoot a short film by Maya Angelou, who at the time was also enrolled in the Directing Women’s Workshop. When they wrapped, Angelou told Leder she had a gift for her: She handed Leder a scotch with milk, and then sang her a song. Recalls Leder, succinctly: “I was overwhelmed.”

After graduating, Leder supported herself throughout the ’70s by working as a script supervisor on various TV shows; she later got a gig on the groundbreaking cop series Hill Street Blues. In the meantime, she worked on a short film, hoping to show it around town as a calling card. It took years to finish, but her short turned out to be a sound investment: One day, after she showed it to her Hill Street bosses, Steven Bochco and Gregory Hoblit, they hired her to direct an episode in the show’s final season.

But then Bochco and Hoblit left the show to start work on a new project. “When the new regime took over, they fired me,” Leder recalls. “I said, on what basis are you releasing me from my contract? And they said, ‘On the basis that you’re not qualified to direct.’” A week later, according to Leder, they hired their first AD and location manager — neither of whom, she says, had any experience directing, but both of whom were men. “It was devastating, really devastating,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s it for me!’ My shot was gone.”

Turns out her shot was just delayed: Bochco and Hoblit’s next show was the hit L.A. Law, and in 1986 they hired Leder back and reextended their offer for her to direct. One slight complication: Leder had given birth to her daughter, Hannah, three weeks before. No big deal. “I basically brought Hannah when she was 3 weeks old to the set of L.A. Law,” she recalls. “I went into Greg’s office, I had my little daughter, and he said, ‘Well, you’re on. You’re directing Show 19.’ So there I was, and three months later I was on the set directing.” It would begin a long stretch of deftly balancing motherhood and career success — and thus becoming a living rebuttal to the idea that women must choose between family and work. To hear Leder tell it now, the only inconvenience was that she had to wean her daughter early, “which I really did not want to do, because breastfeeding was a great experience.”

In 2013, she told the Director’s Guild of America about her first experience calling the shots on set: “My breasts would engorge and I had ice packs on them and my arms folded over them, trying to direct. It was hilarious.”

One of the things Leder is most grateful for is that her father was still alive when she won her first Emmy in 1995, for directing an episode in the first season of ER called “Love’s Labor Lost.” Paul Leder had lung cancer, so rather than attending the ceremony, he watched at home with 8-year-old Hannah. “I just remember him crying,” Hannah Leder recalls. “It was a super-emotional moment for him.”

Mimi Leder’s gigs at L.A. Law had led to directing work on China Beach, a network drama that focused on nurses stationed at a hospital during the Vietnam War. The show was ahead of its time, and so was Leder’s role in its production: Series cocreator John Sacret Young hired her as a producer-director, a more permanent position than the traditional episodic director model. China Beach was canceled after four seasons, but many of its crew moved on to producer John Wells’s next big project: ER. Leder used her cinematography background to great effect while directing foundational episodes of the first two seasons of ER; she was one of the people to pioneer its style of complicated, Steadicam-shot long takes, and she quickly gained a reputation for maintaining her cool under pressure.

One day, she was choreographing and shooting a “six-page oner” (one scene, one shot, six pages of action and dialogue; “there was always so much pressure on the actor who had the last line not to fuck it up,” she has said) when her DP whispered into her ear, “Steven Spielberg’s in the corner over there. He’s been watching you for an hour and a half.” Leder’s stomach dropped. Spielberg’s company produced ER, but it was rare that he’d be on set. A few months later, Spielberg called Leder and asked if she’d be interested in executive-producing a new show about cops. “This was in the heyday of ER,” Leder says, “when ratings were 44 share, bigger than football. It was quite a time. So I said, ‘Steven, with all due respect … why would I leave ER to do a cop show? Respectfully.’” Turning down the most successful filmmaker of all time turned out to be quite a power move: A few months later, Spielberg called Leder back and asked if she’d consider a bigger offer, directing DreamWorks’ first feature, the George Clooney–Nicole Kidman thriller The Peacemaker.

The cast of ‘ER’ (Getty Images)
The cast of ‘ER’ (Getty Images)

“And I said why would I do that?” Leder says, laughing about it now. “That’s an action movie. I don’t know anything about action.” As Leder recalls it, Spielberg said, “Well, you direct action every day on television.” She thought about it and realized he was right. She said yes.

Even as late as 1997, a woman helming a big-budget Hollywood action movie was virtually unheard of. Although Kathryn Bigelow had broken through with 1991’s Point Break, by the late ’90s she’d suffered the resounding flop that was the dystopian sci-fi flick Strange Days and was forced to wait five years before she would direct another movie. Leder, though, took the pressure in stride. “It was a great ride,” she says of the Peacemaker shoot, which took place in New York, Slovakia, and Macedonia. Hannah has great memories of it, too — it was shot during summer vacation and she got to come along. “There were 14 kids on that set, traveling around with us,” Mimi says. “It was like a party.”

An adrenaline-pumping caper about stolen Russian nuclear weapons, The Peacemaker is a standard-issue late-’90s political thriller, although its focus on terrorism has made it unsettlingly prescient. “I think Peacemaker is a very relevant film today,” Leder says. “Every five or ten years, when I’ve talked with Steven [Spielberg] since, we say, ‘Boy, if we could release that film now!’” Back in 1997, though, The Peacemaker performed middlingly, garnering mixed reviews and earning $110 million worldwide on a $50 million budget. But before it had even wrapped, Spielberg helped secure Leder an even higher-profile follow-up: helming the $80 million asteroid epic Deep Impact. “That was very hard, prepping one film while posting at the same time,” Leder recalls. “But I did it. Because that’s what we do.”

Nicole Kidman, George Clooney, and Mimi Leder on the set of ‘The Peacemaker’ (Getty Images)
Nicole Kidman, George Clooney, and Mimi Leder on the set of ‘The Peacemaker’ (Getty Images)

The first phrase that comes to mind when someone says Deep Impact is probably not “Mimi Leder” — unfortunately, it’s “Armageddon.” The summer of 1998 saw one of the most infamous sets of twin films, movies with similar premises released by two different studios around the same time. Watch them today, though, and it’s clear that — aside from the whole massive-asteroid-approaching-Earth arc — Deep Impact and Michael Bay’s Armageddon are tonally quite different. Deep Impact, which was released first, is more adult, more diverse, and, most notably, a hell of a lot more depressing. Bruce Willis is essentially Armageddon’s only casualty; in Deep Impact, millions of people die, including most of the main characters. It’s not a perfect movie, but of the two it’s the more emotionally unnerving one — which, as far as disaster movies go, is a mark of its superiority. It also hinted at a theme she’d continue to explore almost two decades later with The Leftovers.

“Loss is a very big [theme for me]. I guess I’m attracted to those stories,” Leder says. “Deep Impact was about an asteroid coming to earth, but for me it was about, ‘If you had nine months to live, what would you do with your life?’” Loss was hanging heavily throughout the production of her first two films: The Peacemaker is dedicated to her father, Paul Leder, who died in April 1996; Deep Impact is dedicated to its own cinematographer, Dietrich Lohmann, who died of leukemia at age 54, six months before the movie was released in theaters.

Though it made less than Armageddon at the box office ($349 million worldwide to Bay’s $554 million), Deep Impact was significant in other ways. Leder easily set the aforementioned record for the biggest box office opening for a film directed by a woman (even without adjusting for inflation, its domestic gross is still in the top 15). And don’t forget that Deep Impact was one of the first Hollywood movies to cast a black president. While doing press for the film, Leder remembers a reporter saying to her, “You cast Morgan Freeman as the president — now that’s science fiction.” She rolls her eyes. But, she says, “I’ve heard from the Morgan camp that Obama has said, ‘Thanks to you, I got elected.’” She laughs. “I’m sure there’s some truth to that, I’d like to think.”

“After the success of Deep Impact … maybe I did a foolish thing, but it was the only thing to do,” Leder says, still sounding more resolute than regretful. “My daughter was 12. I’d been working nonstop — and I took a year off. I was offered many, many films … and I turned them all down because I just needed to be home. And hey, it may have hurt my career, but it didn’t hurt my family and it made my life better. It was the right thing for me to do.” During her downtime, Leder was still waiting for the right script: She didn’t want to make another action movie or a “tentpole,” she says. “I wanted to make something more intimate.”

Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey, and yes, even Haley Joel Osment all turned in strong performances in Pay It Forward, but the script (by Leslie Dixon, who’s since written Limitless and the Hairspray remake) was often cloyingly on-message. Critics weren’t kind, and perhaps the harshest review came from the critic at the Miami Herald: “Pay It Forward winds up making a very good case for never going out of your way to help anybody.”

Pay It Forward has become such a recognizable pop-cultural artifact that it’s easy to forget that the movie bombed. Or, at least, it didn’t turn the profit the studio had hoped: It made $33.5 million domestically and $55.7 million worldwide on a $40 million budget. Those certainly aren’t good numbers, but they’re not career enders either — at least not if you’re a man.

After Pay It Forward, “I did go to Movie Jail,” Leder says. “I didn’t get a movie until seven years later. I was offered lousy movies, but the point is, I know men who have made $250 million failures and they get three more films.”

Hannah, too, remembers this as a frustrating time. “It seemed to take such a long time to recover from that and to be able to have access to work that excited her,” she says. “It seems like everything came to a kind of halt.”

When I ask Mimi to elaborate on why she thinks this happens to female directors more than their male counterparts, she muses, “Maybe it’s as simple as, ‘Hey, you look like me! You’re a white guy, you wear a baseball hat, come on in. Come join the club.’ I think there’s a safety [to that]. It’s insanity, but it still exists. Look at the numbers, still. … It’s certainly not because we [women] are less talented, or don’t have the ability to make big films, small films — all sizes. It’s obviously not true that we don’t work as hard.”

She adds, “The only way a director becomes really good is if they have access and the ability to do it, over and over again. You get better as you grow.”

In one of the first scenes Leder ever shot for The Leftovers, an older woman named Gladys is stoned to death. It’s a brutal sequence, shot in unflinching close-up. As soon as Damon Lindelof saw the dailies, he knew that, in Leder, the show’s missing puzzle piece had clicked into place.

“Mimi Leder saved the show by almost all accounts,” he says. He and Perrotta both admit that, after the pilot, they spent a few episodes struggling to figure out the tone and scope of the series. “Since the idea was so big, the Departure itself, we wanted to make sure that the show always felt scaled very intimate,” he says. But before Leder came along midway through Season 1, they were perhaps erring on the side of being too intimate. “The story lines would be, like, Kevin loses his bagel in the toaster,” Lindelof says. “That’s basically, like, the story of the second episode.”

Perrotta says that Leder signed on at “the moment of maximum anxiety about what the show would be.” Her presence was instantly stabilizing. “It’s one of those mysterious things; around the time when she came on, the show found its voice,” he says. “You could see it in the episodes that Mimi directed, that there was something distinctive about her visual style. What she was able to do behind this big, cinematic spectacle was really intimate, domestic material. The show works in those two zones, and I think not every director can do that. Partly, she was the right person to realize the two poles of the show, which are pretty far apart.”

Leder doesn’t see it in such grand terms. “I didn’t come on trying to fix anything,” she says. “I just tried to tell a story that was already great in a very meaningful way.” She does admit, though, that she found the style of the first season to be “claustrophobic.” “I felt I needed to open up the canvas and the scope,” she says of the second season. “[I needed to] bring in more color and bring in more hope to these characters.”

Or, as Justin Theroux puts it, “She was like, ‘Look, we’re in fucking Texas … let’s fucking see this place!’”

Theroux, in particular, cannot gush enough about Leder. “She’s one of the best directors I’ve worked with. She’s just incredibly focused. Her compass is pretty true, but in the times when it goes a little off, which is rare, she completely owns it, pivots, and makes the best of it. She’s stone when you want her to be stone, she’s sand when you want her to be sand, she’s water when you need her to be water.”

They shot the third season in Australia last summer. Leder recalls what an odd time it was to be outside the United States, especially because in the Outback, they didn’t get MSNBC. “We were all like, no way is that happening,” she says of the threat of a Trump presidency. But she does admit that now the mood of the country has made The Leftovers’ sense of imminent apocalypse that much more relatable. “When Tom wrote the book, it was in response to 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008,” she says. “Those events produced a humongous amount of uncertainty and anxiety. … The world no longer was able to follow the usual rules. … And I think Trump’s election was one of those earth-shattering events that also created a collective sense of fear, anxiety, and dread. … So, yeah, I think there’s definitely a parallel. It’s a scary time, and a scary time for our characters.”

Between seasons 1 and 2 of The Leftovers, when Leder was trying to hire some additional directors, she had a wonderfully frustrating experience. “When I start a show, I make a list of women directors,” she says. “And this [past] year, a lot of the women I wanted to hire — they weren’t available! And that was exciting. That was terribly exciting.”

Is TV more welcoming than the film industry for female directors? Well, yes, but that’s still not saying much. According to a Director’s Guild of America report, 17 percent of episodic American TV shows were directed by women during the 2015–16 season, which is a one-percentage-point increase from the prior year. (Nonwhite directors helmed just 19 percent of TV’s total episodes last year, also a percentage-point increase from the year before.) These numbers become slightly less depressing when you remember how much more depressing the film statistics are: Women directed 7 percent of the top-250 grossing films in 2016. It’s not that TV is a feminist utopia so much as it is … slightly less sexist. But it’s a start.

Having seen both sides of the divide, Leder tells me she does believe “TV is a more welcoming space. … There’s been a greater push by the DGA and they’ve done a lot of great work in promoting women directors [in TV]. I think the more women work, the people see their work and go, ‘Oh! She can do it.’ But I’ve had the experience of calling agents and saying, ‘Who are your great directors?’ And first and foremost, it’s always men. Then I’ll say, ‘What about your female directors?’ Then, of course, they do the list.”

Though she mercifully resists making any “pay it forward” jokes, the idea is at the heart of her hiring philosophy. “As I was coming up in television,” she says, “there were very few of us directing. Very few. I was always the only woman. And then people came up. I got into a position where I would become an executive producer on shows, and I would hire women. I would hire as many as I could … trying to give them their start. … You have to give back.”

Last year, in an op-ed for The Guardian, the Oscar-winning Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier contrasted her experiences working in film and TV; she was the sole director of the BBC limited series The Night Manager. “I believe that [there] is this desire to explore new ways of telling stories that accounts for why there are more female directors in television,” she wrote. “It’s a simple case of economic logic. In order to stand out in a crowded marketplace, TV producers are compelled to take more risks than their film counterparts.”

When we speak, Lindelof mentions that he’s just seen the trailer for David Fincher’s forthcoming Netflix series, Mindhunter. “No one says, ‘Is David Fincher gonna go back to movie-making?’ It’s just become a more porous membrane between the two worlds. Martin Scorsese directs the Boardwalk Empire pilot and then goes and makes Silence. So I think in a perfect world, Mimi will do both.”

A few days before my last phone call with Mimi Leder, she sends me a proud email about a project Hannah has been working on for the past year. Along with her longtime friend and creative partner Alexandra Kotcheff (the daughter of Ted Kotcheff, director of, among other things, Weekend at Bernie’s), Hannah is filming an indie feature called The Planters. “They wrote/directed/co-starred and are the only on-set crew,” Mimi writes with palpable delight. “TWO WOMEN. It’s an awesome film.”

When I speak with an understandably exhausted Hannah a few weeks before her film wraps (“I [feel] a little bit like a spinning cup at Disneyland”), she admits that her inclination to take on such an ambitious project has something to do with having Mimi Leder as a mom. “It’s never felt impossible,” she says of directing, “and I don’t know if that would be true without having that role model in my life.” She also expresses admiration for her mother’s continued creative growth. “My favorite work she’s done is on The Leftovers,” Hannah says. “It’s really cool to see that at this point in her very lengthy career she’s still growing as an artist and making probably her most interesting and provocative work.”

Hannah grew up on sets, but even when her mother was directing, she appreciated that Mimi didn’t completely shut her out. “On set or off set, she does these weird things, like she snorts in my ear, or brushes my eyebrows the wrong way. She’s done that since I was little,” Hannah says. “No matter what, she always has time to do that. I remember that then, and I remember it now. She’s always impressed me with her balance of motherhood and her ability to work. I’m 30 now, and I still get texts like, ‘Did you remember to call the dentist?’ She’s in Australia, shooting.”

Stories have the power to liberate, but if we keep repeating the same stories, they can also limit the way we see the world. There are certain narratives our culture has told itself about work, assertiveness, and power that have kept many women out of the director’s chair. But Mimi Leder’s career is a refreshing corrective to plenty of those stereotypes: that women can’t handle action, that they must choose between career and family, that once they’re cast into “Movie Jail” they can never find a way back. Ever a woman with an eye for the perfect bridge, Leder has found her own, winding path that connects so many of the things we often see as separate. “It’s a Gypsy life,” she says. “But you have to replenish your life, your insides, your heart, in order to tell good stories. You really do.”

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.