Jada Pinkett Smith had written her script, raised a budget of a few million dollars and assembled a strong cast, so when she arrived for her first day of shooting on The Human Contract, she was as confident as she’d been at any point in her career.

“I felt really empowered,” she says. “When I got on the set my first day, I was ready. That’s my world, I know what that is.”

Pinkett Smith’s self-assurance is derived from spending half her life as an actress. But this differed from her previous movie work. This time, in addition to starring alongside Paz Vega, Idris Elba and Ted Danson, she would also be the director—a job she’s thought about for a while now.

“This is my passion,” Pinkett Smith says. “This is the first time I’ve been so engaged in years. I love acting, but unfortunately there aren’t a lot of challenging roles out there for women. You get complacent and when I get complacent, I get bored. This is a great challenge for me. It’s something that I feel like I can do well, and something I’m willing to learn.”

Pinkett Smith, who has had starring roles in The Matrix films, Collateral and opposite her husband, Will Smith, in Ali, is among a growing number of well-known actresses who’ve found their way into the male-dominated world of feature film directing.

Two of last year’s more critically acclaimed films—Sarah Polley’s Away from Her and Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris—were directed by women who first gained renown for their on-screen performances. Now, a pair of films scheduled to arrive in theaters this spring also happen to be made by actress-turned-directors.

Like Pinkett Smith, whose first big break came on the sitcom “A Different World,” Helen Hunt began making her name on TV, most notably as the co-star of the long-running NBC series “Mad About You.” Each has since carved out a career in a series of high-profile Hollywood films and each makes her big-screen directorial debut in 2008.

Pinkett Smith’s The Human Contract focuses on a successful but troubled captain of industry who, as she says, has to “create his own rules and have an understanding of what he needs to be in order to be happy.” Then She Found Me, which Hunt directs and appears in alongside Matthew Broderick, Colin Firth and Bette Midler, deals with a woman reunited with the mother who gave her up for adoption.

That Hunt and Pinkett Smith have decided to direct is notable for a couple of reasons. For one, both women have the intellect and vision that lead to a fruitful directing career. They’ll make good movies—and for anyone who cares about quality cinema, that’s a good thing. Just as important, the fact that Pinkett Smith and Hunt are behind the camera means that the ranks of female directors are growing, if ever so slowly.

Still, the statistics on the male/female breakdown of the directing profession are astounding. In a story published in 2002, Salon.com posed the question: “Why are 96 percent of films directed by men?” Two years later CNN noted that Sofia Coppola’s Oscar candidacy for Lost in Translation was “only the third time a woman has been nominated for Best Director.”

The fact that female directors are far outnumbered by their male peers would seem to be a regrettable relic from an era when women were rarely, if at all, in charge of studios and production companies. Women have since begun to wield greater power within the industry—but men are still doing most of the directing.

Hunt, who worked on and off for years on her upcoming movie, says she’s not sure why the disparity lingers.

“I will never know—I’m lucky enough to never know,” she says, noting that it wasn’t so long ago that American women were denied more basic privileges, like the right to vote. “I’m lucky enough to say that I don’t know why, and I just have to hope that we are all moving toward a gender-blind, colorblind world.”

Pinkett Smith suggests that tradition plays a part in the shortage of women working behind the camera. “It’s a man’s game,” she says. “The DPs are usually men, your ADs are usually men. It’s just men all over the place.

“I feel we have to work 10 times as hard because of the whole gender bias thing. But I definitely learned how to get over some big humps. I had a fantastic crew, I really did, and we just made it happen. I just made sure that I kept my woman game up!” she adds with a laugh.
Hunt’s journey from actress to director took her on what she describes as “a 10-year odyssey,” in part because she spent so much time making sure she was ready. “I prepared on every level I could possibly imagine, as hard as I could, forever,” she says.

Over the years she showed the evolving script, based on a novel by Elinor Lipman, to a series of people, including Academy Award winners James L. Brooks (who directed Hunt to her own Oscar in 1997’s As Good As It Gets) and Warren Beatty. She also sought advice from a host of moviemakers at varying stages of their careers.

“I asked everybody’s opinion,” Hunt admits. “As interested as I was in very experienced filmmakers, I was equally wanting to hear from people who’d only made one or two movies, so they still remembered what it felt like without so much experience.”

Pinkett Smith says she picked up pointers over the years by observing moviemakers like Michael Mann, who directed her in Collateral and Ali.

“You just kind of have to figure it out as you go along, because each project is different and each actor reacts to different techniques,” she says. “So it’s really a process that you have to learn in the ‘doing-ness’ of it.”

Among the things Pinkett Smith learned while making the film, she says, is that “you really have to be very careful in how you handle your actors, because they’re very vulnerable and very open. For me, I think that was probably the most important aspect—making sure that I was handling my actors properly and that my actors were taken care of. It was very, very, very intense work, and we didn’t have a lot of time, so it was a matter of making sure that they could produce what they needed to produce within the timeframe that we had.

“For me as a director I had to make sure that I was keeping up with my schedule,” she continues, while “also making sure that they were getting what they needed and I was getting what I needed as far as the film was concerned. There were times where we had to shoot a 20-hour day because we had to get it done.”

Hunt, likewise, says she came to understand through her work as a director, “what a psychotropic experience it is to deal with that many personalities at once, to be the person working with such different kinds of personalities. The actors on this movie were all as different as they could possibly be.

“Your job is to make sure that the movie that you want has the best chance of being made. The only way to do that is to be the guy who is able to hold onto someone’s hysteria or someone’s introversion or someone’s panic or someone’s rage or someone’s great idea. You just have to be bigger than all of that.”

Like Pinkett Smith, Hunt also learned by observing other directors at work over the years. For example, she says, if the person in charge of props has something to say, make sure you’re listening.

“This no one told me,” she says, “but I saw it from being an actress on so many movie sets for so long: The best directors I have worked with are smart enough and they know the movie they want to make well enough and they’re prepared enough that they can take a suggestion from whoever it comes from.”

Pinkett Smith, who also wrote the script for The Human Contract, worked fast when she decided she wanted to direct.

“I really had my mind set,” she says. “I went out, I got financing—I wanted to do it independently. I didn’t want to have the studios in my ear, I just wasn’t ready for that. I went and I found $5 million and we were shooting within about six to eight months.”

Pinkett Smith wants to direct more films, and as she grows in her newfound role, she says she realizes that “I just have to make sure I keep my studies up.” To that end, she says she plans to spend some time observing Mann on the set of his upcoming crime movie, Public Enemies.

“It’s just a new interaction with my art that I really enjoy,” she says of the transition from actress to actress-director. “It’s just a whole different viewpoint and perspective.”

Hunt also plans more work as a director, and she plans to get to it in the near future. “I’ve already written another movie that I want to make,” she says.

The Human Contract will premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Then She Found Me, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, will be released by THINKFilm on April 25th.