'UnReal' Co-Creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: How I Made It in Hollywood

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro - H 2015

The road to Hollywood has had many twists and turns for writer-director Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, 37. A lifelong storyteller, she has worked as an assistant to photographer David LaChapelle, a field producer on The Bachelor, directing short narratives and documentaries for the Wieden+Kennedy ad agency and also (briefly) planting kale. After first mining her Bachelor experiences for her award-winning 2013 short film Sequin Raze, Shapiro is once again digging into her reality past for her first series, UnReal, which premieres June 1 on Lifetime. Now that she's picking from her Bachelor past for her new show, Shapiro reflects on how she made it in Hollywood.

I wrote my first book when I was five. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. That was what I played when I was little. Then, I came to directing when I was 15 in a pretty corny way. I took a film appreciation class at the City College in Santa Barbara where I grew up. We watched and Blue Velvet and, to me, it was like a toddler being able to speak. It was the first time I could adequately express myself. Everything that I was trying to do with my writing was just made so much more clear. Since then I've never wavered.

I went to Sarah Lawrence College for fiction writing and filmmaking. I had been on that path completely while taking odd jobs in between. I was desperate to pay my rent when I graduated and was living in New York so a friend of a friend hooked me up with David LaChapelle. It was one of the craziest years of my life but it was an interesting fit for me because I have an absurdist sensibility, visually. I'm really maximal and that's something I think is reflected in UnReal and the short film that I did. There are sequins and evening gowns and ponies, but like with really grounded performances. I'm a little bit of a maniac and David is a complete maniac so it was crazy. It was a year of living in glitter and cocaine — I mean not for me (laughs) — and fashion and vanity.

It was also a really eye-opening job in New York because he has carte blanche to all the clubs and he is a celebrity everywhere he goes. Suddenly I could get into any club that I wanted. I was living in a shit hole in Brooklyn and had no money but I was living the high life. David taught me about being true to your creative version. He was absolutely unwavering.

September 11 happened and it just made a lot of people want to be closer to our families. There's that crazy feeling of knowing you're 3,000 miles away from the people you need to be close to and you have no physical way of getting there. A lot of people I knew felt like that, and my best friend and I moved to Los Angeles together in 2002. I intended to make important feminist films, that’s what I was coming here to do, and then I ended up working on The Bachelor.  I had some background in documentary filmmaking so I had an in with this reality TV production company, and they hooked me up with a job on one of their shows.

I was signed on to work on a show called High School Reunion. I just filled out my paperwork and I didn’t really think about it, but it turned out I had signed what kept me an indentured servant for many years. When they actually told me that they wanted me to work on The Bachelor, I said, "No. Oh my God, I'm a feminist. I promise you don’t even want me. It will be a nightmare." And they said, "Check your contract."

I always had the option to get fired, but I just wasn’t raised that way. I couldn’t bring myself to get fired so I literally just worked myself into horrible sickness. There were no labor laws back then, it was still un-unionized like most of reality was so I would sleep at work and not go home. I was absolutely dying inside and hating myself for what I was doing and hating what I was doing and hating what I was making and making the people around me miserable because I was miserable.

One day I finally just started hysterically crying and said, "I'm going to kill myself if I don’t leave Hollywood." I said, "What if I leave the state?" And they said, "If you leave the state, we're done." I was so on the verge of mental collapse that I just had to get away. I knew a couple of people in Portland who I had spent some time with there during a semester away from college. So I put all my stuff in my car and drove to Portland to drop out and be a kale farmer.

It took about two weeks before I started making films again. (Laughs) My need to create is pretty intense. Wieden+Kennedy had heard about me, and the next week, they approached me because they were doing a non-fiction show and there are not a lot of people in Portland who have experience with that. They called me and it was like a moth to the flame. Within three weeks, I was on a plane to New York to start shooting.

The difference with this job is I made really, really sure I was working on my own stuff on the side. They were really supportive of that and they ended up being the primary funders of my short film that turned into the show, so it was just a better balance for me. I had a really active career where I was learning stuff and meeting people and working all the time, but I also made sure I carved out time for myself.

I started thinking about all of the experiences that I had had, not only on The Bachelor but also with David and fashion in New York because body issues and female empowerment around body issues has always been a major thing for me. [For Sequin Raze] I was trying to locate a place and moments of conflicts where you're becoming an adult and you graduate from college, thinking you know exactly who you are and you've spent four years sharpening your ideals and really defining what you believe in and then almost as soon as you have to pay rent, that all goes out the window.

There is such a trend with indie filmmakers wanting to be in television now because there's such a golden age of television and Hollywood has kind of dropped out of indie film. If it had happened five years before, I would have been hell bent on turning it into a feature but because I made it when I did, I was already thinking about it as a TV series. That was my goal. Because it's behind-the scenes on a show, there's a show-within-a-show structure so it was really easy story-wise to hang each episode on an episode of the show-within-the-show.

The deal for UnReal all happened really, really fast. My pitch for UnReal to [Lifetime svp scripted series and development] Nina Lederman was literally the first pitch of my life. I sold it before I had an agent. I didn’t really know anyone around town. I had flown in for the day from Portland.

When I was thinking about where I wanted to sell it, I saw it on HBO or Amazon or Netflix and Lifetime was a big surprise to me. I definitely had some fear about the partnership because I was worried that they didn’t understand how dark and f---ed up I was and how weird I wanted to go with it. Nina just really assured me that, no, they really wanted [Sequin Raze], they wanted the tone of it. She got what it was, and so it was her taking a big leap of faith on me and me taking a big faith.

I think I had some time to mature and also just learn how to be the human that I want to be regardless of what industry I'm in. It's intense taking a story that is near and dear to your heart and translating that is a massive endeavor. But it’s a different experience because I'm super passionate about what we're working on. It's like making this beautiful feminist show that’s wrapped in a cotton candy exterior. It's my dream come true.

Personal: In a relationship. Lives in Los Angeles.
Reps: Dan Erlij, UTA; Jerry L. Dasti, Sloss Eckhouse LawCo
Hot Project: Co-creator, UnReal (Lifetime), debuts June 1.