“She’s the last woman in the world,” the director Marielle Heller says of the character she conjured for the story in these pages. “She’s this feminist survivalist who’s just making her own way.” Cast in the role of intrepid warrior is Bel Powley, the British actress who starred in Heller’s 2015 directorial debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a coming-of-age tale set in 1970s San Francisco. “I was inspired by Bel’s image,” Heller says, pointing to Powley’s quality of seeming “a little bit out of place in time.” As Powell sees her, Heller’s heroine is “some girl running away from something, who stumbles across this crumbling mansion and decides she’s just gonna live there forever. She is completely fending for herself.”

That headstrong instinct is something Heller’s female characters have in common. The protagonist of Diary is a clever girl raising herself, with very occasional input from her lax mother; the ornery antiheroine of Heller’s 2018 follow-up, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, is an ingenious con artist named Lee Israel. Played by Melissa McCarthy, who scored an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the late American author, Lee is washed up when she begins forging correspondence attributed to greats, including Dorothy Parker and Cole Porter, in order to maintain her lonely existence as a drunken cat lady. Heller’s command of atmosphere is such that you can smell the desperation—and the cat pee—through the screen.

Bel Powley wears a Dior dress and fishnet jumpsuit; Tiffany & Co. bracelet.

Directed by Marielle Heller; Photograph by Collier Schorr; Styled by Elin Svahn. Produced by Lis Carney at One Thirty-Eight Productions; Production Coordinator: May Kielany; Photography Assistants: Max Dworkin, PJ Spaniol, Cal Christie; Retouching by Two Three Two; Digital Technician: Jarrod Turner; Set Assistants: Blas Bruce, Lyle Shanahan; Fashion Assistants: Kristina Koelle, Brittany Lovoi, Tom Kivell, Sophia Martin; Production Assistants: Luis Jaramillo, Rufus Barkley. Hair by Bob Recine for Rodin at the Wall Group; Makeup by Diane Kendal for Marc Jacobs Beauty at Julian Watson Agency; Manicure by Natalie Pavloski for Chanel at Bridge Artists. Set design by Jesse Kaufmann at Frank Reps.

“I always appreciate a subject who does what they have to do to survive,” Heller says. “I remember that at one point Melissa asked me, ‘Are you afraid at all about Lee being a tough character for people to relate to?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not afraid of that,’ and she went, ‘Oh, good, me too.’ We never spoke about it again. We both enjoyed this woman who, I think if she was a man, nobody would be worried about whether or not she was likable. She was just smart and fascinating and cranky and bitter, and had a huge chip on her shoulder, and didn’t give any fucks. She was refreshing, I think, for both of us.”

Prada dress and sweater. Beauty note: Easy does it. Nars Sheer Glow Foundation delivers lightweight, buildable coverage that lets natural complexions shine through.

Directed by Marielle Heller; Photograph by Collier Schorr; Styled by Elin Svahn.

Of course, the film industry’s double standards regarding sex and gender are an institution unto themselves. The recent successes of such directors as Ava DuVernay and Patty Jenkins may indicate that the landscape is changing, but landscapes do tend to be shaped at a glacial pace. This year at the Oscars, the five nominees for best director were, as usual, all men, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? was the only English-language feature by a woman director to earn any nominations—best actress for McCarthy, best supporting actor for Richard E. Grant (who plays the star’s partner in crime), and best adapted screenplay. “I’ve been very lucky,” Heller says. “There’s not that many of us who have that stamp of approval right now. Obviously, the statistics are horrible. It’s not fun to feel like you’re one of the few.”

Vetements trench; 4 Moncler Simone Rocha hooded raincoat; Simone Rocha scarf; vintage belt from Early Halloween; vintage boots from What Goes Around Comes Around, New York.

Directed by Marielle Heller; Photograph by Collier Schorr; Styled by Elin Svahn.

The cowriter of Can You Ever Forgive Me? happens to be Heller’s former advisor, the director Nicole Holofcener, whose 2001 classic Lovely & Amazing Heller cites as a particular inspiration. They first met in 2012, at the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs. Heller, a theater kid growing up in the Bay Area, studied acting at UCLA and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, but with time developed a frustrating sense of disconnection from the characters she played in fledgling television roles. She had already adapted Diary, originally a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, into an Off Broadway hit that frankly addressed underexplored aspects of young womanhood. As Heller worked to expand the stage show into a screenplay, the support of veteran female filmmakers, including Holofcener and Lisa Cholodenko, proved invaluable both to its progress and to Heller’s perspective on Hollywood patriarchy. “The truth of the matter is, I came into directing once change was already afoot,” she says, noting, however, that “every set that I’m on, somebody mistakes me for a PA or a second assistant director or something. But it’s not an obstacle to my career.”

Miu Miu sweater and skirt; Zimmerli of Switzerland top; Falke socks; vintage belt from Early Halloween, New York.

Directed by Marielle Heller; Photograph by Collier Schorr; Styled by Elin Svahn.

The shoot for W is happening on a freezing day in ­January, at a Long Island estate built with robber-baron money. Its main house has caught the eye of many other directors, including Alfred Hitchcock (who used it in North by Northwest) and Martin Scorsese (The Age of Innocence). But Heller, with her instinctive evasion of the obvious, is working down the way from the mansion in and around a greenhouse. It’s a vision of a bunker as a private playground. Powell’s character, she says, “has found this spot, fashioned a little bedroom for herself, and she’s chopping wood and hunting for food. But she’s also found this trunk of clothes that she’s just layering—masculine and feminine things playing together.…What I love about Bel is that even if she wears something ­particularly feminine, she’s always strong.”

Loewe sweater; 4 Moncler Simone Rocha dress; Dior fishnet jumpsuit; Falke socks.

Directed by Marielle Heller; Photograph by Collier Schorr; Styled by Elin Svahn.

DSquared2 jacket; Fendi dress; Dior fishnet jumpsuit; vintage belt from Early Halloween, New York; vintage boots from What Goes Around Comes Around; Falke socks.

Directed by Marielle Heller; Photograph by Collier Schorr; Styled by Elin Svahn.

Gucci blouse.

Directed by Marielle Heller; Photograph by Collier Schorr; Styled by Elin Svahn.

Is this a postapocalyptic scenario? Heller turns coy. “Maybe—but in a different era, or something.” Heller’s work is distinguished by her skill at harmonizing tricky tones. In Diary, she balanced the liberating thrill of her heroine’s self-discovery with the oppressive terror of the dark corners it led her into. Today, crafting a narrative about a lone woman matching gauzy gowns with stout work boots, she juxtaposes isolation and independence. “There’s something about taking away the external world’s perception of you that I think makes for interesting pictures. She’s alone, know what I mean? Nobody’s there.”

Simone Rocha cape; 4 Moncler Simone Rocha dress; Dior fishnet jumpsuit; Versace panty; Falke socks; vintage boots from What Goes Around Comes Around, New York.

Directed by Marielle Heller; Photograph by Collier Schorr; Styled by Elin Svahn.

Her mode on set is mellow, patient, and casually contemplative. When she shows Powley how to grab an ax, she plants her feet in a powerful stance and takes a firm grip on the handle. Heller examines Powley striking a ­meditative pose—the actress gazes hard at her reflection in a window pane—and gently bubbles with pleasure. “That’s some deep shit,” she says, then chimes, in a singsong lilt, “Self-ex-am-i-na-tion!” The images are somehow simultaneously bleak and luscious. “The challenges that I like in movies,” Heller says, “are scenes that need to walk a really delicate line.” She points to an example from Can You Ever Forgive Me?—an interaction between Israel and a book dealer (played by Dolly Wells) that is ambiguously a date and unquestionably gut-wrenching—the prickly protagonist’s sole moment of tenderness. “It’s so much about what’s not being said.”

Vetements dress; 4 Moncler Simone Rocha gloves.

Directed by Marielle Heller; Photograph by Collier Schorr; Styled by Elin Svahn.

When their shoot wraps, Powley and Heller share a ride back to Brooklyn. The two grew close during Diary, and the actress is the director’s houseguest this weekend. ­Powley is a few weeks into shooting the first season of a hotly anticipated dark-comedy series set behind the scenes of a morning-television show—an ensemble piece that also stars Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Billy Crudup. “It’s about the relationship between work and sex in light of the #MeToo movement,” says Powley, who plays a production assistant “with a lot of ambition.” Heller, meanwhile, is halfway through editing the first cut of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, with Tom Hanks ­­playing Fred Rogers, the PBS legend and secular saint of children’s television. Her attraction to the project partly owes to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the animated spin-off from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the puppet world featured on Rogers’s program; it’s the first show she and her husband, the comedian and director Jorma ­Taccone, let their 4-year-old son watch. “It felt good, in this era, to be working on something about ­kindness,” she says. “Over and over, I learn how interpersonal relationships affect what’s onscreen.”

Dior dress and fishnet jumpsuit; Lee M. Hale earrings; Foundrae necklace; Tiffany & Co. bracelet; Falke socks; vintage boots from What Goes Around Comes Around, New York.

Directed by Marielle Heller; Photograph by Collier Schorr; Styled by Elin Svahn.

Vetements dress; Dior fishnet jumpsuit; Lee M. Hale earrings; Foundrae necklace; 4 Moncler Simone Rocha gloves; Falke socks; vintage boots from What Goes Around Comes Around, New York.

Directed by Marielle Heller; Photograph by Collier Schorr; Styled by Elin Svahn.