SXSW Interview: ‘Sequin Raze’ Director Sarah Gertrude Shapiro on How She Got Her Great Cast: “Psychotic luck”

SEQUIN-RAZE_Director_Sarah_Gertrude_ShapiroSequin Raze tells the behind the scenes story of what happens between a producer on her last nerve (Ashley Williams) and runner-up (Anna Camp) in the final moments of a reality show.

The short, which screen to great reaction at SXSW, was directed by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and paints a dark and depressing picture of life on-set of a reality show. The film is shot beautifully and I completely enjoyed it. Shapiro got great performances from Camp, Williams and co-star Francis Conroy and I’m definitely looking forward to her next project, whatever that might be.

I talked to her at SXSW and she was a bundle of energy, I loved it! In the interview, I asked her how she got the cast to work for free, getting the actors to see her vision and the future of Sequin Raze.

 For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes 

The movie is kinda like when you’re flipping the channels and you see the last 10, 15 minutes of a great movie and you’re like, “What the hell movie is that? I wanna see the rest of it.”

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Oh, we wanna make the rest of it!

So, the cast was fantastic.

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Yeah.

How did you manage to wrangle them?

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Psychotic luck. I mean, it wasn’t even… I don’t even know if it was luck. It was sheer perseverance, total gumption, and, I don’t know. I was like… I feel so incredibly blessed.

I had written the part of Jessica with Anna in mind. I had been obsessed with her since I saw her on True Blood. Really obsessed with her.

And then Frances, I had written that role for Frances as well. And that was a person that I was like, “There is no way I’m getting Frances Conroy, but I’m just gonna go ahead and have her in my mind while I write it.”

And then Ashley I actually found through this process and I… when I first met her I was like, “She’s too skinny, she’s too pretty. No way.” Because I’m sort of casting somebody based on myself and I was, like, hellbent on, like, “I’m not gonna cast the Hollywood version of myself. I’m not gonna cast somebody skinnier and prettier than me just to play me in this whole fantasy thing.” But what it came down to is it was, like, 20 pages of wall to wall dialogue and I 100% just needed the best actors I could get and she’s an incredible actor. My mentor and two other people that I know were like, “Ashley Williams is a phenomenal actor. She’s classically trained, she’s super hard working, you should totally give her a shot.” And so I just, yeah, she went out on a limb with me and I went out on a limb with her and we were like, “Ok.” Because she connected with the material really, really hard. She was really into the character and I actually gave her the option of either playing the contestant or the producer. Because I was like, “We can doll you up and you can be a contestant. Whatever you wanna do.” You know? And she was like, “No, I want the producer. 100%. “

So then she signed on and then I did have a casting director and she said, “Ok, I got a hold of Anna’s agent. It’s, like, 4:45 on a Friday in New York. Just send her a letter, send her an email.” And I was like, “Oh God. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say.” So I sent her this crazy stalker email that was like, “Dear Anna Camp,” I was like, “I’m obsessed with you. I know that everybody thinks you’re a pretty face, but I can tell inside your heart is full of blackness and there is something so wrong with you.” And I was like, “You’re just so fucked up and I wrote this part for you and I can tell you’re just fucked up and,” like, it was really off the rails because I was also really stressed out in preproduction. And then she was like, read the script and she wanted to do it and they all did it based on the script, which was incredible. They just said they loved the script, so that was great.

SEQUIN-RAZE_Anna-Camp-Ashley_WIlliams

That’s great. Wow.

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Yeah. And they ended up really having to trust me. I think I asked a lot of them and I pushed them way past where they usually wanna be as far as just sort of my process and how slowly we went and how many takes we did. And they’re so trained and such incredibly responsible, good actors and they were so prepared and I asked them to throw away all of their preparation. I mean, I really took them to a pretty uncomfortable place.

When you said to throw out all of their preparation, what do you mean by that?

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Well, they both are, like, incredibly professional. You know? They’re incredible. They’re both working actors.

So I hadn’t, of course, I hadn’t auditioned them for a short. I wasn’t, you know, but we did have conversations, we did a couple table readings, and then I gave them benefit of the doubt on the first scene and I just said, “Show me what you prepared. Show me what you guys did. You know, out of respect, I’d love to see what you did.” And they came out of the gate with this full on, like, sitcom vaudeville routine. I mean, it was like physical comedy.

And all the crew was laughing out loud. They were, like, screwing up the take by laughing out loud. It was really funny. Ashley is super funny. She had even done the blocking before. She, like, tripped over a banana plant and was like, “Wocka wocka,” and she, like, fell into the thing. And I was sitting at the monitor and my heart just went cold and I was like, “Oh my God, this is not my movie.” So I looked at her and I was like, “You guys, thank you so much for your heart work.”

Was that difficult? Were you like, “Oh my God, what am I gonna say?”

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Yeah. It was… I mean, it just… I think with filming it’s so interesting because they’re so… everybody’s giving you so much and I actually was… I’ve been talking to a lot of people about being a female filmmaker and a female director as well, because you’re asking so much of people and we’re not really socialized, as women, to do that necessarily. There’s a lot of apology and a lot of, like, “I’m so sorry but could you…?” And having to just say, “No. This… thank you so much for your work. This is actually not my vision. We need to redirect, we need to stop, we need to do everything differently, we need to totally start over.”

And it was, like, we just did and they… you know, I said, “Ashley, I actually need to believe. I need to believe in my bones, like, I need everybody on this crew to think you’re actually gonna kill yourself at the end of this. I need it to be that crazy. And I need everybody to feel actually, genuinely concerned about you.”

And so that’s where it just got weird and slow and hard and we did so many takes. We shot that interview scene for 2 nights, 2 whole nights.

Wow.

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Yeah. And we just went and went and went and we just went slower and weirder and darker and harder and I think for Ashley, who’s been on TV sets since she was, like, 16, it was so crazy for her to do that because she’s like, “We’re just wasting time and is the audio even clean?” and all this stuff and I just asked them to take all these risks and they did. And so it was a huge… I mean, I think for all of us we’re so bonded through that and have so much respect for each other because I really took a leap with them and they really took a leap with me.

How did you come up with the idea with this?

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: It’s inspired by some things in my own life. The themes in it are themes that are sort of prevalent throughout all of my work, which is sort of women destroying other women and body image and sort of the media.

People who actually do the reality shows, people who watch watch it because they think, “Oh, these people are awful human beings,” or, “I can’t believe they’re doing this.” But the people behind the scenes seem to be even more horribler, if that’s a word. You know what I mean?

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Yeah. Yeah, well, what’s interesting to me is, like, you know, Burning Love is here this year. And so that was really interesting because it came out right when we were in pre-production and people were like, “Are you worried?” And I… you know, “Is that conflict?” And I said, “No, because it… Burning Love is about, like, people on the show. It’s a big, broad comedy spoof. And this is very much a psychological investigation and what the effects of doing this work on the people who do it. And the work family and sort of the ant farm and The Lord of the Flies ant farm behind the scenes on these shows.”

But I actually think that has meta-relevance for audiences at home too. Like, what’s the effect on us to consume this stuff? And what does it do to us when we objectify these people and just tear them down and wanna see them fail? And I think there’s a lot of… I think it’s really dark. I think it’s super, super dark. But I think there’s humor in it and there’s a lot of humanity in it too which is that people have to make a living.

So I kinda feel like anyone who’s at a job, you’re an interviewer, interviews are… you have to be effective that way. And anyone who’s ever had a job knows that, like, you know, as you become an adult and you actually have to make a living, your line of what you do and won’t do for your job gets…

Are you actually thinking about making this into a feature?

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: We’d love to.

That would be awesome. That would be great.

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Yeah. We really want to. Yeah. Yeah.

Where would this, what you have filmed, where would that fit?

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Well, one thing that we’ve talked about a lot too is doing a series because TV is in such a golden age. And I think it would make an amazing series.

Yeah, that would be a great.

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Yeah. So I think in that scenario this piece, Sequin Raze, would be, like, the last episode of the first season.

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