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How to Run a TV Show Where Women Directors Can Thrive, According to the Producers of ‘UnREAL’

Executive producers Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Stacy Rukeyser discuss creating a female-friendly set and the words they refuse to use.

UnReal Season 3, Ep. 301/302, Day 06 of 14, February 8, 2017, Delta, BC, Canada

Bettina Strauss

The Lifetime series “UnREAL,” since the beginning, has tackled a number of issues while exploring life behind-the-scenes of a dating reality show, but one of its most important causes has always been that of what it’s like to be a woman working in Hollywood. That’s extended, on a meta level, to how the show operates during production: While on other shows, women struggle to find acceptance, showrunner Stacy Rukeyser and co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro feel that they’ve made sure that the sort of hazing and back-talking that they might experience on other sets is not an issue for them.

“Everyone on set knows that there are female creators, there is a female showrunner, there is a female line producer, there are female directors,” Rukeyser said. “You don’t try that stuff around us. Working with 200 people, stuff is going to come up, but we handle it immediately and it is just really known that this is not that world. This is the brave new world, and you better join us in it.”

IndieWire spoke with the pair at SCAD ATVfest, where Season 3 was premiering — meanwhile, they were already in production on Season 4, due to a delay in the release schedule. This meant they were able to reflect on two seasons’ worth of production, all mixed up in the #MeToo era that has unveiled so many tough stories about how men treat women during the filmmaking process.

For example, the revelation of what happened during a perilous stunt on the set of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” which had just come to light following an explosive Uma Thurman profile in the New York Times: “I can see a world in which that happens,” Rukeyser said, “when you’re the director and you’re trying to make things happen. What was interesting to me about what Uma was talking about is that she was talking about the pervasive mistreatment of women, the oppressive environment for women in the industry and how it affects everything. It affects the fact that they demand she do this stunt that frankly seems unsafe to me, that it’s harder to get your jobs, to get your stories told, to get your shows on the air, to get your scripts. And then it’s all repeated. ‘I can treat women this way at work,’ and these small ways also creates an environment where men think they can push the limits sexually and physically.”

UnReal Season 3, Ep. 301/302, Day 06 of 14, February 8, 2017, Delta, BC, Canada

“UnREAL” doesn’t have an all-female directing staff, though Shapiro did say that they were “very inspired by shows like ‘Queen Sugar’ that went all female.” Season 3, they say, was 50-50 women and men directing, including episodes directed by Shapiro, Shiri Appleby, and Constance Zimmer, while Season 4 was 40-60.

But while the show has been guided by three different showrunners, they’ve all been women. “The thing that I say when people ask me, ‘How is it different having a female showrunner?’ it really does depend on the female,” Rukeyser said. “Because women can be assholes, too. That’s the truth and it’s not necessarily a guarantee of a great working environment where you’re going to feel heard and valued.”

She then noted that yes, “These sort of instances of people masturbating in front of you or pulling out their dick: That’s probably going to happen a little bit less often. But what I care about so much more is that we have a fighting chance at least to tell our stories and to fight for the stories that we want to tell, because they are personal to us. The characters feel real, they feel like real women, real complicated messed up women who are the only kind of women I know. And if there’s any kind of hesitation, uncertainty or pushback along the way, you have someone who is willing to put her ass on the line and say, ‘Yes, this is real, this is relevant, this is the way that we need to tell this story.'”

And Shapiro added that as both the co-creator and a director on the show, “I just feel like the set itself is so much friendlier to women than any other sets I’ve been on in terms of being a director. I think it’s sort of known that we’re not going to tolerate the bullshit that happens a lot to other women. So even when I’m asking for a crane or a big shot and I feel the crew resist even a second, I sort of know, like, ‘Look, that doesn’t fly here. You can’t haze me. You can’t fuck with me in the way that crews do with other female directors.’ So I feel like we have a better set for female directors than a lot of other shows that I’ve heard about.”

Shapiro said that “being a female director, it’s a big thing to figure how to comport yourself in a way that feels authentic but also very commanding.” Which is why she has written a glossary of words she won’t use about other women — there are words that are off limits like, ‘she’s difficult’ or ‘she’s emotional’. It’s words that the way we’d describe those qualities in men it would be like ‘passionate, driven, he’s single-minded, he’s got a real clear vision’ where women often get called ‘inflexible, difficult, emotional, irrational.'”

It spoke to how she approached being a director in general. “The big thing is to never explain, never apologize, just ask for what you need. Which doesn’t mean being a dick, it just means being very clear about what you’re asking for. I think it’s important to have enough command of the technology that you sound confident. I think it’s important to state things clearly and plainly, to not put them in emotional terms, to not try and make your relationship with the crew emotional.”

UnReal Season 3, Ep. 301/302, Day 09 of 14, February 14, 2017, Surrey, BC, Canada

It’s a struggle Shapiro said was something she’d heard about from other colleagues: “I talk to a lot of my female director friends about the additional emotional work of having to worry about whether or not people like you and that is a conscious feat to walk on set every day and not give a fuck. You literally are just like, ‘Yeah, I assume some guy in electric is talking shit about me. It really doesn’t matter as long as the light gets moved. As long as I get my shot, it doesn’t matter.’ And what I’ve seen happen around other directors, and with myself as well, as long as you don’t care, it kinda stops. But it’s a lot of work on us to navigate it.”

But what that means is that because women are in control, any complaints based on gender don’t pass muster. “That’s a huge difference in having a female showrunner,” Shapiro said. “That is a tangible, measurable difference on our set: that it gets shut down. Also, the crew has a basic sense of just like, ‘You don’t really fuck with these women like that.’ At every turn, everyone you would go to is a woman, so there’s nobody who’s going to be like, ‘Yea, she’s a bitch. Don’t listen to her.'”

“And if they have those points of view, they know they better not say them,” Rukeyser added. “They need to leave those at home.”

Season 4 of “UnREAL” has no release date at this point, but the possibility of Season 5 still looms. “I hope it comes to us,” Rukeyser said. “I think we have plenty of stories that we can keep telling about the show. And it’s exciting that it seems to be even more in the zeitgeist now: these kinds of women and the issues that we’re looking at with women and women at work in particular that we’d love to keep telling.”

“UnREAL” Season 3 airs Mondays on Lifetime.

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