The AFI Interview: UNREAL Creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro – American Film Institute

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The AFI Interview: UNREAL Creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (AFI DWW, Class of 2012) continues to receive acclaim and accolades as co-creator of the Lifetime original series UNREAL, which grew from her AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women (AFI DWW) short SEQUIN RAZE. AFI spoke with Shapiro about her series’ meteoric success story, and how her AFI DWW experience shaped her career today.

Introduce yourself to the AFI Alumni community.

I went to the AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women in 2012. Before that I had been living in Portland, Oregon. I had a day job in advertising and was writing and directing music videos and experimental films — in all of my free time. I did my first narrative project as an application for AFI DWW, then made the film called SEQUIN RAZE with AFI DWW, and went to South By Southwest with it and sold it as a TV series.

Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images
Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images

What initially brought you to AFI? What attracted you to the AFI DWW program?

I was recommended for it and then as soon as I looked into it, I just knew it was the perfect thing for me. I was actually on a commercial production with Terrence David J Webb and he’s this great AD — he’s Kathryn Bigelow’s AD. Because he watched me working on set, he pulled me aside and said, “You got it, you know you really have it. You are a director.” And I said, “It’s funny because I’ve been directing since I was 16, and that’s what I want to do” and he recommended the AFI DWW program to me. As soon as I found out about it, I thought it was the perfect thing because it’s set up for women who are already working in the industry because they already have a lot of experience. And it’s not two years of grad school, it’s actually more of a professional program. And, for me, what was so incredible about it, was that it’s for just somebody like me, someone who is cordoning off a section of my life saying I’m not doing commercial jobs or anything else — I am only going to write and direct narrative this year. And with just the plan that I am setting aside that time to devote to the project was so incredible. The mentorship was really great, too.

Describe an important moment while you were at AFI.

I think a really important moment for me at AFI was our Directing Actors Workshop with Joan Darling, one of the first female television directors and a director for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. I have always been a writer. I have been writing since I was five, but it was a very hands-on actors experience and I think those are the kind of things that started making me feel like a real director. Another important workshop was one I had with Joan Scheckel, who works with Jill Soloway. I went to the workshop with a friend I made through AFI DWW. That was another really hands-on actor workshop. Those were the kind of things that crystallized for me as a director.

What was your breakthrough project after AFI?

SEQUIN RAZE was the film I made with the program, and then I developed that into a television show called UNREAL which now has been my breakthrough project.

How do you feel about all of the great critical and commercial success of UNREAL?

I think the critical success of UNREAL has been the most gratifying experience of my creative life by far. Not only the acclaim, but to feel eminently understood. People really understood what we were trying to do with the show. The New Yorker’s review on the show was so spot on in terms of the subtext that we were talking about, and all the messages we care about. I also feel like that’s the reason I make films and that’s the reason I write. It just feels more connected to other people. To be able to express ideas that are hard to express with words alone, and to feel like the idea landed in such a big way — that’s really gratifying.

Have you started planning the second season of the series?

We have been planning the second season a little bit but we haven’t locked down anything, so it’s all speculation at this point.

What kind of projects are you most attracted to?

For me it’s a project where my voice can really shine through. Because it’s sort of the only way I know how to work. The projects that are most interesting to me are ones with really strong points of view and have a strong voice.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

Yes, I am writing another television pilot and I decided to do a spec instead of developing because, after having gone through almost two years of the development process on UNREAL, I am really excited to write without notes for a little while. So I’m working on a pilot that I’ll be shopping around and I am also working on a feature.

Pictured above: UNREAL

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