How ‘UnREAL’ Is Really Helping Female Filmmakers Break Into TV

Don't worry: Sarah Shapiro, Shiri Appleby and the rest of the "UnREAL" team are helping launch Hollywood careers the right way — not how it's done on the show.
UnREAL Ep. 207 - "Ambush" - Day 01 of 07, Mai 6, 2016, Burnaby, BC, Canada
Bettina Strauss/A&E Networks

UnREAL” may wildly chronicle the difficulties attached to working in TV — specifically for women — but Lifetime’s highly-touted drama is doing everything it can to help real-life female filmmakers realize their dreams.

In December 2015, Lifetime and AFI struck a deal to create and offer production jobs for each graduate of the AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women. That meant each member of the illustrious class would be getting hands on experience during production of Season 2, shadowing professional directors and creating behind-the-scenes projects of their own.

And, as if there was any doubt, it’s been a raging success.

READ MORE: ‘UnREAL’s’ Shiri Appleby is a Way Bigger Badass Than Rachel, and Here’s Why

Eight graduates were helped throughout production of Season 2, thanks to the efforts of AFI and co-creator Sarah Shapiro. Shapiro graduated from the AFI Director’s Workshop for Women in 2012 after directing a short film that became her first hit TV show. Now, she’s made it her mission to help fellow alumni break into the industry.

“I think it’s nice to have hope,” Shapiro told IndieWire in a recent interview. “[It’s nice] to feel like there are people looking after them — because there really are. One of the best things about it is graduating into this really supportive group of alumni. It’s sort of a sisterhood that’s out working in the industry, and it’s really nice to know that people have your back.”

UnREAL Ep. 207 - "Ambush" - Day 01 of 07, Mai 6, 2016, Burnaby, BC, Canada

This thinking led Shapiro to take an active role in hiring women for “UnREAL,” and Lifetime proved to be the perfect partner in her mission.

“When I got to Lifetime, I met [Senior Vice President of Publicity and Public Affairs] Danielle Carrig, and she and I talked about what would make a difference. I felt like there were a lot of diversity programs, but the only headline I would pay attention to would be the commitment to hire. What I’ve heard from a lot of my friends that have gone through the diversity programs at the studios is that they’ll have executives come in and it’s sort of this crazy conversation that goes around and around and around, but it’s all about, ‘Well. how do I get hired?’ And almost nobody’s willing to take a risk and just hire these women.

“So off of that conversation, Danielle started the Broad Focus Initiative, which I think she had been working on anyway, and she partnered with the AFI Directing Workshop for Women to guarantee all the graduates had jobs when they graduated.”

During the Season 2 shoot, “UnREAL” put all of the graduates to work on set, letting them shadow each episode’s director — including Shapiro herself, who directed Episode 7, “Ambush” (airing July 18) — and create interstitials, behind-the-scenes videos and more pertinent footage.

“The other good thing about the AFI program is that it’s really, really hard to get into,” Shapiro said. “It’s super competitive, so every woman that goes through that program is heavily vetted and wouldn’t have gotten in unless they were exceptional.”

UnREAL Ep. 206 - "Casualty" - Day 05 of 07, Mai 3, 2016, Burnaby, BC, Canada

One such pro became a favorite of star — and Season 2 director — Shiri Appleby. Mia Lidofsky had met Appleby earlier in her career, back when the actress-turned-director was studying from a professional herself.

“When I was shadowing, I shadowed Jesse Peretz on ‘Girls,'” Appleby said. “And she was his assistant at the time. Now she’s here shadowing [our directors] and making these behind-the-scenes videos. It just feels awesome to see familiar faces coming up.”

Appleby, who grew up on TV as a child actor, noted the importance of the initiative for everyone involved in the production.

“I think that’s a really powerful thing that I didn’t see a tremendous amount of when I was growing up in this business,” Appleby said. “It’s wonderful for everyone to see, ‘Hey listen, if you work really hard and play your cards right, there will be other opportunities for you.'”

AFI is currently accepting applications for the Women’s Directing Workshop. “UnREAL” airs new episodes every Monday at 10pm on Lifetime. 

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