It was 2014, and director Anne Fletcher was busy at work in New Orleans on her Reese Witherspoon–Sofía Vergara two-hander, Hot Pursuit, when production designer Nelson Coates came flying onto the set to show her a trade publication touting Fletchers success as the top female director of studio films.
The news was deeply unsettling.
“I was working on my fifth movie. I had no clue that was a reality. It upset me tremendously,” said Fletcher, during a recent chat near her home in Burbank, California. “There are many more women that are so much more talented and smarter. There should be other women that are standing next to me—Nancy Meyers? Nora Ephron? It made no sense to me. It still doesnt.”
For Fletcher, her career has been nothing short of astonishing. In an industry where 80 percent of female directors only make one film in their career, Fletcher has made six since transitioning from choreographer to director with the 2006 dance movie Step Up. Fletcher has worked with talent as varied as Barbra Streisand (The Guilt Trip), Sandra Bullock (The Proposal), and Katherine Heigl (27 Dresses). Though her films are never box-office bonanzas—The Proposal was her highest-grossing movie with $164 million at the domestic box office—they are frothy, irresistible rom-coms that are perennials in the world of cable repeats, and have turned her into one of the most commercially viable directors working today. Yet, as a dancer who first came of age in Hollywood in the 80s and 90s dancing for various awards shows and movie sets, Fletcher never saw herself in terms of gender. She didnt get asked about lack of parity in the directors chair until The Proposal was debuting in 2009.
“I was so stumped, because it was that far away from my consciousness,” said Fletcher. “When you go to a set as a dancer/choreographer/whatever, there are men and women all doing their jobs and working toward [one goal] . . . I didnt know how to answer the question in the right way. I didnt want to alienate a gender. I didnt want to alienate people whove hired me. But there is a genuine thing that is going on, and Im interested in being a part of that.”
Fletchers solution has been to keep working, and putting positive images of women into the world. Her latest effort, Dumplin, stars Patti Cake$ lead Danielle MacDonald as the heavyset, Dolly Parton-loving 17-year-old daughter of a former beauty queen (Jennifer Aniston), who signs up for her mothers beauty pageant as a form of protest against her body-conforming ideals.
“The whole reason I did this movie was for girls,” said Fletcher. “When I was growing up, there were no movies telling us we were O.K. just the way we were. Girls, women, are so impressionable to societys narrative, whether its school, friends, the Internet—they influence us, and we take it on as our truth. Then we grow up with all these lies embedded in our bodies . . . If you feel like youre on the outside, this story is meant to reach you.”
The film also touches on subjects near and dear to Fletcher: drag queens, beauty pageants, and pop-star obsessions. Where MacDonalds protagonist Willowdean carries a torch for Parton, Fletcher still refers to the late musical icon Prince as her “husband.”
She also says shes “in love” with Anistons character, Rosie, a tightly wound ex-pageant queen struggling with her own body image in addition to her daughters. Fletcher reminisces about the first time she and Aniston, also a producer on the film, met to discuss the movie.
“We ended up crying, because we love her flaws and we identify with her,” Fletcher said. “Its our story as women trying to fit into the norms of society. [Rosie] was born like her sister, heavyset, and she didnt have the confidence, the security, to own it and to participate in the world as a big person. She got skinny and conformed to the norms, and then went a step further and entered a pageant to say, I made the right choice.”
Dumplin, based on the best-selling book by Julie Murphy, is a movie about female friendship and self-acceptance, but its also a Fletcher film, so including a romantic arc was essential. Yet the sweet relationship between Willowdean and Bo (How to Eat Fried Worms Luke Benward), the hunky cook at the diner where Willowdean works, was much more about affirming Willowdean than making it into a quest for her. According to Fletchers screenwriter and producer, Kristin Hahn, (Cake), no man was going to save Fletchers heroine.
“[Fletcher] is a perfectionist, and before prep she started asking a ton of questions about the script,” said Hahn. “We had seven story lines, and we were calibrating how much to give each one. In the book, Bos story line is given a lot of prominence. But Anne was adamant that the most important love story is Willowdeans love story with herself. Anything that took you too far out, we needed to pare back. I re-wrote the script a bunch of times, and finished the day before we started shooting.”
Netflix will release the independently made film Friday, marking Fletchers first foray into streaming and digital filmmaking, and the first film shes made without studio backing. (She was never more terrified than when she and her producers held buyers screenings earlier this year and Fletcher thought, “What if no one buys the film?”)
The skimpy $13 million-budget project required Fletcher to switch to digital from film, a format that, she says, “is not nice for us ladies.” But she didnt let it diminish her enthusiasm. According to Hahn, Fletchers real talent comes out on set, rallying her crew with silly dance moves in between takes, and ensuring that her young cast was always comfortable, especially with anything delicate or sensitive.
“What I learned about Anne is she has such a nurturing, maternal love for young people in general,” said Hahn. “She respects their vulnerability and takes care of you. She had the wherewithal when filming a kissing scene [between Bo and Willowdean] to not have everyone on the set and to be respectful. She really got it.”
Fletcher also gets Netflixs reach, especially when it comes to the streamers run of success earlier this past summer with romantic comedies like To All the Boys Ive Loved Before, and targeting the young-adult audience. Shes also enthused by the girl-power wave that swept through the midterm elections recently, and what it means for those usually on the outside.
“Ive never been more proud and excited about the future for us. And its not about, Oh, theyre going to change the story for women. Its not that,” she said. “Its—were now a part of the conversation.”
More Great Stories from Vanity Fair
— The supercalifragilistic Lin-Manuel Miranda
— The Golden Globes are quirky—and thats a good thing
— How The Sopranos gave us Trump training wheels
— Rockos Modern Life was even loonier than you thought
— The years best movies, according to our critic
Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hollywood newsletter and never miss a story.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Nicole SperlingNicole Sperling is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.