Director Sarah Gertrude Shapiro On Destroying Beautiful Women in Sequin Raze
Sequin Raze, a new short film from director Sarah Gertrude Shapiro showing this weekend at MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's New Directors/New Films series, follows a producer for a Bachelor-esque reality TV show who's tasked with getting a fragile contestant who's just been rejected by the show's male star to break down on camera. What follows is a desperate, riveting power struggle between producer (masterfully played by Ashley Williams) and contestant (played by the magnetic Anna Camp, one of Paper's 2013 Beautiful Pepole). The film, which also stars Frances Conroy and won an Honorable Mention jury award for narrative at this year's SXSW, screens today and tomorrow. (Watch the trailer above.) Below, we chat with Shapiro, who worked on a reality TV dating show herself, about the film.
Where did the idea for this movie come from?
The germ of the idea for Sequin Raze, I legally can't say a lot about ... but it was definitely inspired by a time in my life when I worked in reality TV. But 'legally' the idea came from nowhere.
But the viewer knows immediately it's set around a show like The Bachelor.
We only had to have really one or two shots of the show and the viewer knows exactly where they are.
Where did you film?
It was a mansion in Glendale, California.
One thing that I think you see more and more of in reality television, and what I thought your film touched on well, is our thirst to see people in pain and being broken down on camera. Was that something you struggled with while you were working in reality TV?
Oh yeah. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool feminist and I went to Sarah Lawrence. I definitely found myself in a strange situation working on a reality TV show. But what I also discovered in doing it is that there's sort of a perverse pleasure in destroying really beautiful women like Anna's character. There's the feeling that they have everything, they have it all. Her character is a blonde, size zero attorney. She checks all of the boxes of being the perfect Darwinian example of a prime specimen as a species. The part of my experience in TV that I related to, and I think this is so recognizable for all women, is that tearing someone like that down can feel really good. And I think there's a meta landscape for it too, which is that the people sitting at home can feel really satisfied watching someone be torn down. It's that feeling of being at home and being the viewer and feeling that power of having the objective gaze. Or watching a contestant on a show like The Bachelor and being like, "Oh my god, she's crazy" or "she's such a bitch." And the producer character in this movie who's hiding behind the camera has the power as well. She's invisible, she's not subject to being picked apart, and she has the power to train the camera's eye and put it wherever she wants it to go. And she has the power to rip this person apart in a really vulnerable way. But that whole system, the whole ecosystem of shows like that, is created by the objective male gaze. And if all of the women stopped participating in it and unplugged from it then we'd stop having to destroy each other.
The producer in the film cries while she's trying to get Anna Camp's character to crack in front of the camera. I loved that. You're not sure if she's trying to manipulate her, or if she's crying because she's just so frustrated and wants to get this woman to say humiliating things so she can call it a day, go home and go to bed.
The producer is supposed to be at war with herself. She probably has five different layers of personalities operating inside of herself at any one time. I think she's crying because she's trying to get Anna to cry. She puts herself into this state of empathy because it's how she knows how to connect with people and it's how she knows how to do her job. The other layer is that in those environments people are just so incredibly tired. The producer has no life, she's living at work, she's eating cold pizza and is super, super lonely and she feels like shit about herself. She's crying out of exhaustion and hating herself for what she's doing. But the film is supposed to be ambiguous, and that's one of my favorite things about it. Everyone who watches it takes a different side. Some people say, 'Oh my god, the producer is such a bitch. She's a horrible person.' And other people's takes are, 'The producer is just trying to do her job. Another day, another dollar.' I think how you perceive it has a lot to do with what your experience has been with jobs.
Above (L-R): Anna Camp and Sarah Shapiro on the set of Sequin Raze. Photo by Eleanor Stills.
And in one of the final scenes you see the producer unzip the hoodie she's been wearing the whole time and she has on a "keep George Bush out of my uterus" t-shirt. I think that scene speaks well to what you see with people who have double professional lives. Maybe they're working for a corporation, or they're working on Wall Street, or doing something 'uncool,' but by night they're in a band or an artist or doing something that's the antithesis of what makes them money.
And that's really normal for anyone who doesn't have a trust fund! It's a hard and inevitable part of maturing.
Do you think this short is something you eventually want to turn into a full-length film?
I think that because it's about 'a show within a show,' it would make a really great television series. TV is in such a golden age right now, that for me as a writer and director it feels like a really interesting place to be. We have a deal in place to make it into a TV show, but the deal is still being worked out. So if it doesn't come through, then I think a feature would be a great way to go with it.
How did Frances Conroy and Anna Camp get involved with the project? Had you worked with them before?
I hadn't worked with them and I still keep pinching myself. I can't believe they were in the movie. I wrote the part of Jessica with Anna in my mind, but I never thought I would get her to agree to do it. And I wrote the part of the therapist with Frances in my mind but also thought there was no way she would agree. But I just did not give up on trying to get them. I also did the film through AFI's Directing Workshop for Women, which I think helped put more of a stamp of legitimacy on it. I think that in this new world where filmmaking is so accessible, and everyone's making films, to call an actor with an idea for a short film is pretty sketchy. But mainly I was just rabid in my pursuits. I wrote Anna a crazy stalker email that I can't believe she responded to. I wrote something like, "I know everyone thinks you're a pretty face, but I can tell your heart is full of darkness. And there's something really wrong with you. I see through that blonde hair. You're just dark inside." And she called me and was like, "You know you're totally right, right?" Ever since I saw her playing this sadistic character on True Blood I've been obsessed with her. She's crazy-dark inside but also so genuine and kind. So, yeah, having Frances and Anna agree to do it and say they liked the idea for the film flattered my brains out of my head.
Do you have other projects you're working on?
I'm working on a feature and the script's already done. It's sort of The Devil Wears Prada meets Girls, but everyone has AIDS and is on drugs and doing mountains of cocaine and dying.
Everyone is dying?
Yeah. It's a very, very dark New York film.
When does it take place?
The late '90s. It's set around the fashion world in New York and everyone is gay and on drugs. So that's fun.
Before this you were working at Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency in Portland.
Yeah, I still work there. I'm technically on leave from my job but they've been so incredible. They're actually the main sponsor of the film. They've been so supportive.
Do you watch Portlandia?
Is there really a nest in the Wieden+Kennedy office?
Yes. There's a life-size nest that you can sit in and hang out. It's crazy.
And you were also in a band called The New England Roses with JD Samson from MEN and Le Tigre?
Yeah, that was amazing. We call it a friendship band because it was more about friendship than making music. Our friend Brendan Fowler who's also in the band BARR was in it too. We made an album and recorded it under JD's bunk bed -- we would just lie on the ground and play guitars and do George Michael covers. But we're all really neurotic, which makes things difficult. We went on tour and it was just the most neurotic, OCD experience. All of us have some form of OCD and we'd be running around all dealing with our different stuff. I'd be like,"'I need everything to smell like lavender!" and Brendan would be like, "I need to talk to every single person in this room!" and JD would be like, "come on, we're going to be late!" I'm also someone who likes to go to bed early, which did not combine well with playing in clubs. So we'd get to the venue and they would make me a little bed in the back room where I could go to sleep.
Do you think you'll ever reunite?
Maybe! We all have matching tattoos so we're pretty committed. Maybe we'll start playing again in like 30 years. Well be old and saggy.