Sarah Gertrude Shapiro was relieved by the reception to her short “Sequin Raze” not only from an appreciative audience this past weekend at SXSW, but by those who helped make the film that were in attendance.
“I think that we all feel really proud of it,” said Shapiro. “It was a huge team effort, so it’s great to feel like my collaborators are all happy.”
A harmonious production comprised largely of women behind the camera might be the last thing you’d expect while watching “Sequin Raze,” a blistering black comedy that shows how they’re pitted to tear each other apart behind the scenes on a reality dating show where Goldberg (Ashley Williams), a slovenly producer, is dispatched by her boss to coax a teary breakdown from a recently dismissed and perfectly coiffed bachelorette named Jessica (Anna Camp).
While the premise is ripe for parody, that’s not where “Sequin Raze” goes. Instead, it defies easy characterizations for both of its strong-willed leads, performed in fierce, fiery turns from Camp and Williams, who match wits during an epic showdown far more interesting than the reaction shot Goldberg is sent to get, with each woman fighting to retain their dignity as the gradual wonder sets in of why their anger is aimed at each other rather than something larger and more sinister at work.
Shapiro legally can’t say exactly where the inspiration for the film came from, though some time spent in the trenches of the reality TV ranks certainly had influence. Yet the film surely was shaped by other forces, including her time at the ad agency Wieden + Kennedy where she worked with a number of brand name auteurs and the game cast and crew that were willing to work well into the night to get “Sequin Raze” just right. Shortly after the film made its world premiere in Austin, Shapiro, Camp and Williams spoke about their collaboration on an intense five-day shoot, the draconian contracts one needs to sign in order to work on reality TV and even Jungian theory.
How did this come about?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: I’ve done all kinds of different things, but this film was inspired by a moment in my own life, but very much developed from that moment. And I did it through the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, which is this awesome program where they pick eight of the top emerging female directors from around the country every summer and they bring you to L.A. to make a film for free. Then with my actors, these were actually the actors I wrote the parts for. I can’t believe they did it. We had no money. Literally they were eating cheetos for dinner. I did the best I could. I tried to get them like little gift baskets, but it was crazy, so…
Anna Camp: I just was kind of a fan of the…“Bachelor.” [laughs] I knew that Ashley was involved and I knew Frances Conroy was involved [as the on-set reality show therapist] and I read the script and thought it was really cool. It wasn’t making fun of the characters, but it was really getting to a deep emotional, psychological place and I was intrigued.
I heard you got to pick your role first, Ashley. So why did you choose Goldberg?
Ashley Williams: Actually, I think they’re both really amazing, dynamic, multi-layered characters and each would be really fun to play. We were actually joking at breakfast that we should do a follow-up to “Sequin Raze” where we switch roles…
AC: That’d be amazing.
AW: …Because they’re both really deeply disturbed women, which are the most fun women to play. A big part of it also was I don’t love wearing high heels. [laughs] I got to sloth around the set for five days in like a leopard-size sweatshirt. That was super appealing to me.
AC: Lucky! I was getting like microphones placed in… places and boobtape. I was like oh God, I wish I could’ve had your [outfit] right now so bad.
AW: [laughs] I got really lucky in the costume department. That’s basically how I choose all my roles.
AC: Comfort before art, you know? Comfort.
I know we have to tiptoe around the inspiration for the movie, but I have to admit I watch the same dating show Anna does…
SG: We all do. [laughs]
What’s in the film is exactly the reason I watch because I’m wondering what goes on behind the scenes. While I would imagine your work in reality TV was to pay the bills, was there an element of having that experience that was interesting to you as an observer?
SG: Making this film has actually made me really take a close look at myself because I’ve had a narrative about it that I’ve used for years — I got stuck in a contract, which is true. I actually was trapped. I was like an indentured servant and I couldn’t leave. Probably, I could’ve fled the state or I could’ve become a waitress. [laughs] If I had left the industry, they probably wouldn’t have sued me. But if I had worked on another show, they would’ve.
So I really had to unpack that narrative – like was there a sick fascination? Was I getting off on it somehow? I think there are a lot of layers to it, which is why I love Ashley’s character Rebecca so much. Anybody who’s had a job can relate to having to just do your job to keep a roof over your head. But then is she getting any pleasure off of destroying this prom queen when she’s like the nerdy tomboy? Like what was going on for me?
When I distill it, one of the things was just having a sense of place and a work family and being good at your job, even though your job sucks. It’s crazy knowing you’re an expert at something and that a team is relying on you. But then there’s a sicker level of it where I’m a dyed-in-the-wool feminist and I was doing this awful thing and it was almost like a trainwreck where I couldn’t look away, or I couldn’t believe how powerful I was in this really evil way.
Was it interesting to quite literally reframe that experience visually? The film resembles reality television, but uses particular angles and camerawork that tweaks it in an interesting way.
SG: That was actually a really considered decision. We shot the reality footage on a different camera than we shot the film footage on – the camera we used for the reality footage is actually a camera they often shoot reality shows on and the film camera is an Alexa, which is very much a film camera. We wanted the perspective of the film camera to be much more physical and kinetic and connected to the actors and my [cinematographer] shot the whole thing handheld, so [she] was actually moving with the actors. It was very, very blocked, but also intuitive and so there’s the confusion of all of that, like wait, which camera are we shooting on? Where is this going?
You’ve said over the course of shooting, it was lighter when you began and darker by the end of it. Were you surprised by that shift?
SG: Yeah. The funniest thing is we actually had a stunt coordinator on this film because that’s how much physical comedy there was. We actually had like wakka wakka, crazy slapstick. That all got cut out. What I discovered is I think I’m scared of being as dark as I really am [in life], so I try to get laughs, so I just wrote in all these really hammy, crazy moments into the script and they’re all on the edit room floor. None of them made it in.
AW: It took a couple nights to figure out what the tone was. I’ve done so much comedy that my instinct is always to make bits out of things and when we first started, I had this whole brilliant bit about a palm tree hitting me in the face and I thought it was so funny and Sarah came up and was like, “Don’t do the palm tree bit.” [laughs]
AC: It was. It was really funny and it would’ve been really funny in a different short…
AW: In that sense, it was cool that we had the luxury of having five days for 20 minutes. Twelve pages over the course of five nights is such a luxury, so we got to take our time and figure out what the tone was.
AC: I was remembering today that the ending apparently was different from the one we actually went with. My character, I don’t think necessarily walked out or screamed at the camera or anything. We found that on the night [of shooting] because it’s such a triumph for Jessica to get up and be like, [lowering voice, revealing a spoiler] “I’m going to get fucking married.” But that was something we discovered because Sarah was very open to our journey and not locking anything in, so we were able to explore and play.
AW: The eating disorder thing wasn’t super-defined until we had talked about it a lot and been like okay, Rebecca decides to take her down when she hears about an eating disorder, right?
AC: That’s the trigger.
AW: That wasn’t clear until three nights into shooting.
AC: And we took out a lot of dialogue.
AW: We took out a lot. we put in a lot. It was definitely a collaboration with pretzels and coffee in the middle of the night.
Sarah, since this is your first foray into narrative film after compiling one of the most interesting resumes I’ve read – working on a fishing boat in Alaska, interning with David LaChapelle, etc. – how did you get interested in filmmaking?
SG: Actually, I’ve been obsessed with being a filmmaker since I was 16. I’ve been writing since I was five and studied writing at Sarah Lawrence, then when I discovered moving images at 16 and started making films, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. But I’ve just taken a really crazy road to get there and I’ve just done all kinds of other things. But it’s been my passion. I’ve done a lot of experimental filmmaking and I [feel like I’ve] been hiding in experimental filmmaking because I do have very narrative ideas, but I’ve just been scared to do it because I think it’s so hard to do. It’s so much harder than a doc and so much harder than experimental. It’s hard to get good actors. I think it’s hard to get good performances.
Finally, for Anna and Ashley, you’ve said you weren’t unfamiliar with “The Bachelor.” As acting, do you wonder how much acting is going on on those shows?
AW: I think any time you know that there’s a camera, there’s sort of this… I think it was a Jungian philosophy. Any time there’s another person there that you know is watching you, I think you’re acting. I think we’re all sort of acting. The theory is when you’re in a restaurant and you’re talking to somebody and a waiter comes up and the tail end of the last sentence is coming out of your mouth and you’re aware that he’s watching you, you’re completely different. Carl Jung came up with that theory and I think that would more than apply to reality stars. They’re fully aware that somebody’s watching and there’s something about it that feeds them. [pause, in mild disbelief] I just threw in a Carl Jung reference.
And it was awesome.
AC: The whole waiter thing? I do that!
AW: Right?!? That’s Carl Jung. It’s called being fore.
“Sequin Raze” will play SXSW twice more on Monday, March 11th at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center at 2 p.m. and Wednesday, March 13th at 4:30 p.m. at the Vimeo Theater. It will also premiere in New York later this month at New Directors/New Films on March 30th and 31st.