In 2010 Sarah Gertrude Shapiro began working on “Sequin Raze”, her first short film project and disenchanted memoire of the six years she spent working as a producer for the reality-show “The Bachelor”. It went on to win the Honorable Mention at SXSW’s Short Film Jury Awards, and eventually inspired the dark Lifetime TV-series “UnReal”, which Shapiro created with veteran television writer Marti Noxon. It is a witty and diabolically entertaining portrait of the behind-the-scenes life of a TV producer who must manipulate female contestants to get good television for a reality dating show – a portrait that is both morally despicable and deliciously captivating.
Shapiro’s alter-ego is Rebecca Goldberg, a young producer dressed with a “George Bush Out of My Uterus” t-shirt whose moral compass is tested when she is asked to get usually composed contestant Jessica to cry after she gets rejected by her potential husband. Rebecca knows this is a show that demeans women, and yet she is exceedingly good at it, and the conflict between her values and her ability to manipulate others makes for an outstanding character study. There are moments when she cries as she interviews Jessica only to shortly thereafter trick her into talking about her eating disorder. The line between the fake and the real is constantly blurred, as Shapiro skilfully depicts a character who engages in some awful behaviour and yet never fully loses sight of her humanity. It is this perpetual tension between Rebecca’s values and the brutality of her job that makes “Sequin Raze” stand out as a truly remarkable work.
Interestingly, this conflict unfolds in a female-dominated world. “Sequin Raze” – and, to a different extent, “UnReal” too – are both women-centric shows. Men are not wiped off from the screen but are turned into mute corollaries of the universe that is supposedly built around them. The bachelor in “Sequin Raze” plays little or no significance in the producers’ grand scheme of things, nor does his choice to marry this or that contestant seem to matter too much except for the opportunity it provides Rebecca and her team to film the girl’s breakdown. Interestingly too, Shapiro somehow redeems the stereotypical image of the reality-show bachelorette, as Jessica is portrayed as a complex, multifaceted and morally strong woman with whom it is much easier to empathise than it is with the vicious, heartless people who run the show.
Shapiro does a great job at employing all the means at her disposal to reinforce the farcical aura of the TV programme Rebecca works for. The seemingly out-of-place opera-esque music one hears at the beginning of “Sequin Raze” sets the tone for what the reality-show is: an exaggerated, somewhat tacky and awkward few minutes of junk TV. And it works. It paints a picture of a standard dating TV-show which Shapiro then proceeds to ridicule and destroy with great wit and imagination. We see half a dozen cameramen running towards the bachelor as he proposes to his soon-to-be wife, we watch the bachelor bumping into one of them and hitting the camera as he kneels before the contestant, while another assistant adjusts a fake flowery tree so that it looks great behind Jessica’s face as she gives her last interview. It’s comical, it’s bitter, and smart. Shapiro chooses to shoot with a hand-held camera which she intelligently places behind trees, plants and benches so to elicit a voyeuristic feeling and give the audience the impression of being part of a panopticon that never stops filming.
“UnReal” and “Sequin Raze” turned out to be two successful stories, and Shapiro’s wit has been praised both by public and critics. Now that she has proven capable of excelling both with a short-film and a TV-series format, one can only hope she’ll revert to the big screen to direct a long feature with the same intelligence that shines through her 20 minute long directorial debut.
Production: USA 2013
Executive producers: David Allen Cress, Erin Donovan
Producers: Deniese Davis, Andrea Longacre-White, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro
Associate producer: Sumaiya Kaveh
Director: Sarah Gertrude Shapiro
Screenplay: Sarah Gertrude Shapiro
Cinematography: Ava Berkofsky
Production Design: Shaz Taylor
Editing: Kelly Lyon
Cast: Ashley Williams (Rebecca Goldberg), Anna Camp (Jessica), Frances Conroy (Dr. Wagerstein), Beay Bonness (Jonathan), Jenni-Kate Deshon (Catherine), Molly Haldemann (Giovanna), Lily Rains (Alicia), Robert Sanchez (Camera operator), Drew Whitlock (Cameraman)
Color – 20 min.
Premiere: 08/03/2013 (SXSW Film Festival)