The Mary Sue Interview: UnREAL’s Creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro on Feminism, Gender, & Reality TV
One of the best reviewed new series of the summer comes from the mind of relative newcomer, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. The 2012 SXSW winner for the short film Sequin Daze (starring Anna Camp, Ashley Williams, and Frances Conroy) found herself in a bidding war when it came time to adapt that work into something larger. Rather than make it into a feature film, she turned her black comedy about reality TV dating shows into a pitch perfect satirical-drama series for Lifetime, which she co-created with TV veteran Marti Noxon.
Shapiro has first-hand experience working in the dehumanizing world of reality TV shows, having worked on the Bachelor/Bachelorette, and used these experiences to create a show which not only addresses some pretty heavy issues, but also showcases two of the most twisted and complicated characters on TV since Breaking Bad…who just so happen to be played by talented women (Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby). Shapiro spoke with me about the first three episodes and what’s still to come.
The Mary Sue: You introduced Rachel’s character (Appleby) with a pretty strong statement, by putting her in a shirt that states, “this is what a feminist looks like.” What did you want audiences to take away about her from that kind of statement?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: I think, to be totally frank, we wanted to put our character’s main conflict right on her chest, so nobody missed it. There is a delicious irony of her finding herself where she is, actually back where she is, even though she believes something very different. And we talked a lot about the fact that she’s probably been wearing that shirt since college and its thread bare because she’s washed it so much. And it’s just her toting around her last shred of morality, hanging to her body, even though it isn’t really the person she is anymore. And it was important to us to present Rachel that way, because this isn’t a spoof or comedy. It really is a drama that follows a main character and we wanted to ground this story about a person struggling to save her soul.
TMS: We see a little bit of Rachel’s backstory in the first episode, when you replay her meltdown from the previous season of the reality show. Did you and Shiri create a backstory about what brought Rachel to work on this kind of TV show in the first place?
Shapiro: We talked about it a lot actually. But it wasn’t much of a stretch for Shiri or I, or any of writers actually. Because it is such a common trajectory for people in their 20s to graduate from college with strong ideals, and as soon as they have to pay the rent, find their idealism has to be more flexible. And we all find ourselves in compromising situations because of our jobs. So it was really easy to understand how that would happen. And for a lot of people who’ve worked in Hollywood have had to work jobs they weren’t proud of later or found themselves in compromising situations.
TMS: Did your experiences working on The Bachelor inspire this show and Rachel’s character?
Shapiro: Somewhat. I’ve been writing since I was five, and a filmmaker since I was 19. And my stint in reality TV was a pretty quick day job, along side jobs in fashion and advertising. And all those struggles informed the stress Rachel feels at her job. But the decision to set it in this world of reality TV was primarily because it gave us the opportunity to ask a lot of questions. What is the cause and effect of these kinds of shows? What is it like to be a woman working on a show like this? And how is it be a woman in 2015 who is ambitious about her career, but also feels hot girls get everything? All the confusion around sexuality and gender wrapped in this crazy world of ponies and pearls and gowns, was pretty appealing.
TMS: I have to commend you for making the female contestants far more complex and one dimensional than we are used to seeing them, and not making them villains simply for being on a show like this. Were you talking about making sure those supporting characters as dimensional as Rachel or Quinn (Zimmer)?
Shapiro: 100%, it was a huge endeavor for us to turn these paper dolls into 3D human-beings. It was a huge aim of the show to do that. Of course, the world of UnREAL is a world we haven’t really seen before because it is the behind the scenes of a reality TV show. So we had an opportunity to make these girls, who are often flattened out on reality TV show, have a chance to come out of the shadows and become real-live people. Women with parents, history, brains, and feelings all their own.
TMS: Considering your experience in both reality and narrative TV, and awareness of the industry, do you think reality TV is potentially more dangerous because of the implied realness?
Shapiro: That’s a fascinating question! I think that is one of the questions we are asking, but I don’t know if I have an answer. I think we make the point that it has a bigger impact on the people making it, because sometimes the contestants are non-consensual actors. And one of things we explore with that is taking away all their agency; phones, internet, and just any connections to the outside world. So the producers can essentially become their puppet-masters. There is potentially some real cruelty to that part of it, and there can be a real effect on the human beings involved. In terms of the cultural effect though, I don’t know if I would say that reality is more damaging than scripted. Because scripted can be very potent. Well crafted, intelligently written TV can really change the hearts and minds of a nation. So I don’t know which one has a stronger effect on the audiences. But UnREAL is focused on the tangible, real-life effects on the participants.
TMS: From the beginning, I was really fascinated by the way you compare the buzz Rachel gets out of manipulating these women to a kind of addiction.
Shapiro: That is fascinating that you picked up on that. That was something we talked about a lot. And there is that last scene in the pilot, which I don’t think anyone has asked me about yet, when she’s in the control room, eating the mac and cheese and bread roll, and getting dopamine hits off of spying on them. That addiction comparison was very much what we were saying in that scene.
TMS: You hit on the addiction in the third episode as well, in the scenes with her mother. But in that episode you also imply, although you don’t show, that there was possibly a rape or sexual assault. Why did you feel it was important to address that topic in the show?
Shapiro: It was important for us to have that in the show, but it was also very controversial and we talked and debated how to deal with that a lot. It was actually very scary to ask to include that in the show, and they bravely gave us the space to do that. It was one of the those moments when you realize, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. The fact that these are real people and real things can and will happen to them can’t be overlooked. And we weren’t saying that she was necessarily raped, but something definitely happened in that episode. He went to far and she wasn’t safe on the show. But an important part of that interaction with the girl, Maya, and Rachel, which we’ve all probably been a part of, when Rachel says “we can do something about this” and Maya doesn’t want to because she’s humiliated. That kind of public shaming that keeps people from talking about it. So it was a really important moment for us, to show that there is real danger when women are put in these types of situations.
TMS: The two people with the most authority on the show, and accountability, are women. And we don’t often see women on TV who are as dark and potentially unlikable as Rachel and Quinn. Why was it important that the leads of a show like this be women?
Shapiro: In terms of the themes we are exploring, there is an aspect of women hurting and destroying other women. But we also felt we had an absolute priority to create female characters that can be as flawed and complicated as Don Draper or Walter White and Tony Sopranos. There was a great step in that direction with a show like Nurse Jackie, that show women who can be both heroic and flawed, terrible and wonderful, strong and scared. All the things male characters on TV are allowed to be. And then there is the fact that we had two female leads who talk all the time, and not about men, but about their fears, ambitions, morals, work. We are very proud that we clobbered the Bechdel Test. Our female characters rarely talk about men with each other, and are very much in control of their own lives. And one of the great things about being on Lifetime, even though tonally and stylistic the show seems a little new for them, is that we didn’t even need to have the conversation about having two female leads.
TMS: Shiri said in an interview that it was refreshing for her to not play a romantic character. Constance has been on TV for a long time, but rarely gotten to take on a leading role. How was she cast?
Shapiro: We couldn’t have found better actors to breath life into these roles. They just breath life into these characters. Constance actually turned us down a lot, because she didn’t want to do a Lifetime show. She just came out and said that. But Nina Lederman, who is the boss of Lifetime and has shepherded it since day one. She corner Constance in a school parking lot, because their kids go to school together. And literally begged her to take a meeting with us, and asked her to watch my short film. And Constance said, “if that’s what you’re going to make, I’ll consider it.” And Marti and I asked her a lot of question about what she needed and wanted from the character and show. Because Constance was one of my first choices, because I’d seen her do stuff on Entourage. There is a scene where Ari has just told her he’s not going to leave his wife, and gets up in her face “what, you’re mad? Are you mad?” and she says “no Ari, I’m sad.” And to see this really, really tough woman who is able to be that vulnerable, without melodrama. It was totally dry and straight ahead, but really vulnerable. And that was what we needed from Quinn. Someone whose heart you could just feel coming through on screen. And someone who has the ability to be vulnerable without being sappy, and maintain a sardonic tone, while being human. And honestly, we saw so many people for that role. And the easiest place for people to go is evil queen, and it can become a cartoon in the blink of an eye. And Constance never lets that happen. She’s always human.
TMS: And it’s actually surprising that after all the terrible things she said in the 1st episode, in the second and third episode, we can actually have some empathy for her as well.
Shapiro: Yeah. But she’s also just a person doing a job, and she’s kind of the only one being completely honest about what she’d doing. Which I find more and more admirable. She’s the only one telling it exactly like it is. Rachel is deluding herself into thinking that she’s a good person while doing this bad stuff. Quinn knows exactly what she’s doing, and why she’s doing it. And she’ not lying to herself about it at all.
TMS: Marti Noxon has been in the TV business for decades and is a real pro. How did you connect with her and bring her in as a co-creator and executive producer?
Shapiro: That was another Nina Lederman story. She’d actually been trying to find a project to work with Marti on for years. And she knew this was my first TV show and knew I needed and wanted some mentorship. And just knew that sensibility wise, Marti and I would be a good fit. So she begged Marti to come in a watch the short. And Marti had just gotten back in town and had a stomach virus, so she said “I can’t come in, just send me a link.” And Nina said “no, you have come in and watch with me.” So she waited like a week or more for Marti to come in and like Constance said “if you’re actually going to make this, I’m in.” But then Marti and I met and had a Vulcan mind meld over lunch and that was it. So Nina once again went to the mat for me.
TMS: Considering the success you had with the short film, why did you decide to do TV instead of making a feature film?
Shapiro: This is just the golden age of television, and I feel that a lot of indie filmmakers are feeling the way I was feeling and am feeling. The feature film market seems to only have giant tentpole movies or tiny mumble core movies, and there isn’t that middle ground film anymore, which has just kind of dried up. And television is great place to be in terms of collaborators and actors. I started out as an indie person, and now, I mostly watch great cable TV. As do most of the people I know. I think the industry has just shifted. Had I made the short 5 years earlier, there is no question that I would have tried to have made a feature. But the landscape has just shifted, which is why I was hell bent on turning it into a show.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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