Sarah Gertrude Shapiro wrote and directed the short film Sequin Raze, which went on to win honors at SXSW in 2013. Following this huge win, Sarah met with Lifetime to discuss turning Sequin Raze into a TV series. Read our interview with Sarah below, and tune into the premiere of UnREAL tonight on Lifetime at 10/9c!
How did you come up with the concept for UnREAL?
“I wrote a short film (Sequin Raze) that was about that moment in your life when you realized you’ve sold your soul for a paycheck. I’ve worked in advertising and reality TV, and I’ve had that moment at all of my jobs. I thought the world of a reality show would be the perfect place to set this scene/moment. The short I made was one intense scene between the producer and a contestant on the show. Then I thought about developing the short into a TV show. UnREAL’s structure is so great, because every episode has an episode of the fake show “Everlasting” within it. The world of reality TV was the perfect fit for my idea.”
From your professional experience how realistic is UnREAL?
“All the writers in the writers room, Marti and myself included, have worked on sets a lot. What I can say is I think [UnREAL] is realistic because it’s about life. We are not an expose on reality TV. Some of the stuff [on UnREAL] is pretty common knowledge about how reality TV is made, and we realistically portray that. UnREAL is a fictional workplace drama, but it’s an awesome workplace drama!”
Did you consider following the reality style of filming for this show? We know reality shows film scenes in order, but scripted series can film any scene first. Which scene did you film first in the pilot?
“That’s a great question! I’m trying to remember and visualize opening night. We were outside. We shot the horse and carriage, the driveway, and the big opening shots! It was such a fun way to begin the UnREAL journey!”
Do you have a favorite reality show?
“I don’t. I’m not into reality TV. After working on it, I don’t enjoy watching it, because it just reminds me of work. It’s kind of like working in the fast food industry and not wanting to eat hot dogs. I do think the project based ones are cooler, like Project Runway. I also think The Voice is cool, because it gives people with talent the opportunity even though they don’t look a certain way. I don’t watch them, but I do think those types of reality TV shows are cool.”
Since you tell the story from the production side, even though the characters are manipulative, they’re still likable. Is there someone on the production team you’d be friends with?
“I’d be friends with ALL of them! They’re awesome. I would hang out with a Chet character a lot, like the stoner guy. I would love to be his best friend, or his life partner in crime [laughs]. Actually, I think I just want to be Chet.”
How did the team decide how each woman would be styled? Did the women have input into their character’s wardrobe choices.
“When we were casting the contestants parts, we wrote them as vigorously and carefully as we wrote every other part. The contestants have very developed back stories. The actors went through very vigorous auditions. It’s very accomplished actresses playing these girls. When any actor takes on a role, you have conversations with them, and discuss this and that, style included. We had our visions, but during fittings, we definitely focused on making sure these girls got into costumes they felt helped get them into character. Especially, Grace (Nathalie Kelley), who’s the sexy model. Nathalie had beautiful taste about what we/she showed on her body, and what made her feel sexy, since Grace was sexy all the time. Style was a fun part of character development.”
Is that actually Shiri’s shirt?
“That was a very specific costume choice. We wanted to put our characters inner conflict right on her chest. Just to make sure no one missed it [laughs].”
Did you know from the pilot who Adam would pick? Has the winner changed at all?
“It changed. It actually changed a few times. We didn’t know until the very end. We had an idea when we started, but that changed.”
Adam (Freddie) and Rachel (Shiri) have such great chemistry. Are you surprised fans might want them to get together?
“No! We’re not surprised, but we think it’s REALLY complicated! [Laughs]. We think Adam and Rachel together is probably a really bad idea, but we’re going to find out. UnREAL is partly about making these people we treat like paper dolls actually be real people, and become real people. There are two worlds on UnREAL. There’s the world of the beautiful butterfly people, who are sparkly and pretty and live under the light. Then, there’s the world of the creepy mole people, who like live in the walls. Sometimes the butterfly people and the mole people cross paths, and enter each others world, and that’s where we write from with Freddie and Shiri. They do have great chemistry, and I they’re trying to find out “Are you really a mole?”, “Are you really a butterfly?”, “Can I walk into the shadows?”, “Can I walk into the light?”. It’s super complicated! SUPER COMPLICATED!”
Was Lifetime were you always envisioned UnREAL’s home?“
“In my brain I wanted to sell it to HBO, Netflix, Showtime, some network like that. I had gotten into SXSW with my short. I’m a very indie film maker by nature. It felt really dark and complicated, and fucked up, and I like to cuss a lot [laughs]. What happened, was there was someone I knew who knew Nina Lederman at Lifetime and introduced me. We had such a phenomenal meeting! Nina and I were really on the same page. We were watching Sequin Raze (my short), and Nina said “I want exactly that! I want the tone, the feeling. I want how dark and strange it is. I want it to be gritty.” Nina looked me in the eye, and I really believed her. Nina took a huge leap of faith on me, because I was totally untested. And, I took a big leap of faith on her that she was telling the truth and really wanted to make this show the way the short was. I also took a leap that Lifetime was interested in doing something outside of their comfort zone. I love that a lot of women work at Lifetime, and I just love Nina! I didn’t even have an agent at the time, so I called a few people that I knew for advice. They said “if you really believe Nina’s passion for this project, then go for it. If you trust her, then trust your gut.” So, I made a gut decision and I’m SO glad I did! Nina hasn’t wavered once, and she’s been so supportive and protective of UnREAL. She gave us such a long leash that I almost thought is this just enough rope to hang ourselves? We did such weird stuff, that you wouldn’t expect from Lifetime. Nina kept pushing us further, she was always like “make it weirder!” I just found this great collaboration, and great home for UnREAL. I really do love our network!”
Is UnREAL your dream job?
“YES! I never meant to work in reality TV. I’ve been a writer since I was five. When I was little I had a typewriter and that’s what I’d play with. Reality TV was the random day job I had when I needed to support myself and write my indies. UnREAL is 100% my dream job!”
Finally, what’s something your fans don’t know about you (yet)?
“What do they not know yet? I really like horses, and I’m super into ponies! Yesterday, THR asked me about my relationship status, and I said “long time lesbian, currently in love with a man.” Maybe, people don’t know that!”