In 2017, Quinn Shephard proved that she was a multifaceted threat as a filmmaker through her directorial debut feature "Blame". At the age of 20, she used her college fund to produce, star, edit, and star in her first feature from an original screenplay she wrote. Being hailed as 11 Great Indie Filmmakers 30 You Need To Know, Shephard has now jumped from a micro-budget to a larger indie picture with her sophomore feature as a writer/director, "Not Okay".
The dark comedy tells of social media-obsessed photo editor Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) who fakes a trip to France for clout and to win the attention of a Vice-esque influencer co-worker (Dylan O’Brien). As a real tragedy occurs in France, Sanders furthers her self-dug hole by faking being a survivor of the attack, catapulting her to a world of survivors she co-opted. She becomes close with a teenage activist/school shooting survivor (Mia Isaac) and goes on an Evan Hansen-like journey to the world of trauma.
RogerEbert.com spoke to Shephard about creating an unlikable protagonist, balancing trauma and comedy, and NYC becoming the perfect playground for telling a media satire.
What was the inspiration for making a chaotic protagonist like Danni Sanders? How did you craft his character?
Well, I definitely wanted Danni to feel like she represented a very current portrayal of like young, pretty privileged white women on the internet. Kind of like, what is that person if she completely disengages with any self-reflection or self-awareness? And so Danni, for me, is that character. She's sort of a satirical representation of that feeling. Everything about her from her hair to her clothes to the comments she makes are a product of her being chronically online, but also never engaging with the kind of content she could grow from.
What made you want to tackle the faux activism of our digital age that is so easy to manipulate today?
It's just something I've seen a lot of. And, unfortunately, I think there is a lot of performative activism. It's very much the cute infographics with like, the candy-colors of "click here for resources" and people posting things without meaning. Just to get accolades for it without doing anything. And I think that there's also a lot of co-opting trauma and trying to take credit for other people's trauma that a lot of young privileged people do on the internet. And those just felt like topics that while they are tricky to talk about, and I think kind of scary to touch on, they also felt really necessary to talk about because it's something that we're seeing so much of right now.
Since this is your sophomore feature, what was the production process like? And to go on a bigger budget, go to more locations than you did with "Blame"?
So this project was original with Makeready, who was still the production company on the film and set up as part of a blind feature deal that I had with them. And then we connected with Searchlight in I think it was 2020 or 2021. And they immediately really understood the vision for the project. We connected with Searchlight and Hulu, and it was one of the first films that they set up for their output deal with Hulu. So it allowed us to make something like this, that is for a younger audience that isn't necessarily like a classic theatrical audience. But with Searchlight, it was such an incredible legacy in the film industry. And it was exciting. It was a little daunting going in thinking that I wouldn't know how to run a set of this budget and scale. But as soon as I got into the process, I realized it wasn't so different playing with a micro-micro-budget film. And this wasn't, but yet being on set and managing schedule, and working with a crew is very similar at all different levels. So even though I was a little nervous coming in, it felt like riding a bike once I got back into it.
How long was the writing process to fully develop the screenplay?
It's a fairly long development. I wrote the first draft in 2018. And we shot the film in 2021. So it was a bit of a process in that we wrote the first draft, it kind of came out of me pretty quickly, I think some films are really hard to write the very first draft up and some are very hard to develop. I think this was more of I kind of knew what I wanted to say with the film early on and then it was a lot of fine-tuning. Largely, I think that's because ending Danni’s story is quite tricky because of what she does in the film, and also how to strike the tonal balance of critique of her character while also having her be human enough that the audience relates to her. And like not stepping over a line where you're putting the audience off of the film, but making sure you're putting them off of Danni enough that they understand that the film was not on her side. Walking that tightrope was always the game, in development. It was something that we drilled in on and once Zoey came on board, we honed even more. It was a bit of a process. But I'm really happy with how it turned out.
What kind of research did you do to make sure you found that authentic, fine line of depicting real trauma with survivors while balancing the satire?
So I worked with a trauma consultant on the final drafts of the script. I wanted to make sure that we were being accurate and respectful to real trauma survivors. It was always so important to me that though the film has a lot of humor. It never pokes fun at or drives humor from real trauma because it is intended to shift the tone of the film when Rowan's character comes in, and we're faced with the realities of the trauma that Danny is co-opting in the film. I've always been fascinated by films that can do this. I think one of the best examples is "Do the Right Thing," where it's really funny, you're just with a cast of characters, and you're having a great time. And then like the film delves into much darker and deeper topics by the end. You go on a journey tonally. I was inspired by projects that were able to do that. You always knew when you were supposed to laugh and when you were not supposed to laugh. And talking about gun violence and real trauma, it's something I'm very politically passionate about. I'm extremely anti-gun and it is something I was very angry about when I was writing the script, just watching our country get brutalized by school shootings every day. It was crucial to me to be able to depict that with empathy. Honestly, a lot of my research was just reading up on trauma and watching interviews with and speeches from school shooting survivors, talking to people who really could understand and speak to that experience.
Why did you think NYC was the perfect playground for this particular story?
At the time when I was writing it, I sort of felt like New York was directly reflecting the exact cultural stuff that was happening online that I won't talk about. The fact that the internet was constantly showing real ingredient headlines next to the most glossy, ridiculous clickbait was something that I felt you could see just like walking down the street in New York. You'd be walking through a neighborhood that was in the middle of getting gentrified, and you would just see authentic, old school, New York next to, like, a selfie café or whatever. And you're just going, "ah," it was really weird. You're seeing New York change before your eyes. It felt like the perfect location for this because it reflected the world that Danni glamorized. I always imagined it was like she grew up watching "The Devil Wears Prada" and thinking, that's the New York she wants to live in, where she's like, this cool magazine girl, and she's gonna have a makeover and her life's gonna be amazing. But I also wanted to show that when we get to the support group with Rowan and her activism, that's a real side of New York. A side of New York that's not designed to be viewed on Instagram, but it's real and real people. And it's that cultural mashup that I think is very interesting about New York right now.
How did your cast come through and embody all this variety of characters?
Zoey was always on my mind for the role. I think she has a great resume of playing characters like this that are very daring, provocative, and sometimes unlikeable. And she's also very relatable and funny and has drama skills. So I immediately thought of her, she was so on board, and completely understood the vision for the character.
Mia Isaac, I cast her from an audition tape, and she was 17. She was relatively unknown. She had just done one film before this that hadn't come out yet. I saw her audition tape and immediately knew it was her. She blew us all away. I remember my first email back to casting was like "Mia Isaac!!!!" with a thousand exclamation points. And she just embodied everything I pictured about Rowan when I wrote the script.
Dylan, I met through our mutual agent. And I had never met him before. But we had this fantastic Zoom meeting, most of which we did just talk about his puppy. But there was a little chunk where we talked about Colin, and I immediately saw that we had a similar vision for the character. He wanted to do a full makeover. We were very onboard about that. He was deep diving and watching documentaries about hype houses, and influencer culture. And he also really got what the film was saying about privilege and trauma and the internet and fame on such a deep level. So we clicked immediately and I just had a gut instinct that he would knock it out of the park, which he did.
And then Nadia Alexander, who played Harper, who is my fiancée now, and was my partner at the time—she was the lead of my first film "Blame," which is how we met. And I wrote Harper for her because I was like, We need a great I've analytical, lesbian in this. She's fantastic and as I knew she would be. She had read it so many times as I was reading the drafts. Around the time she got to set she was like, "I don't even need to memorize my lines. I got it." And then we just have an incredible supporting cast around them including a lot of cameos from people I've loved for a long time like Karan Soni is like one of the funniest working actors ever, I think and just having him in like a little role in Depravity was such a joy. I was fangirling at first.
I love how the queer lens perspective in this was having the like, the queer character, like lay down the gavel for Dani.
Yeah, it's funny. I think I always imagined Harper as having a similar but not equal privilege to Danni if that makes sense. Somebody who is fairly successful working in New York at a magazine, who is a young white woman, but also as a queer woman and like understands experience a little differently than Danni, but just is not afraid to call her out for her shittiness. I liked the idea of her also being painted as a villain through Danni's eyes because we're in Danni's perspective for a lot of the film. And even though Danni is the villain, like in the one who's doing all the bad stuff, it's everyone around her who's critical of her that should feel like the villain in the story. So I wrote the role with Nadia in mind because she's so great at playing villains and likes suspicious characters. I wanted to have her character be suspicious of Danni almost purely just because she sees her bullshit and doesn't like her from the beginning, and isn't afraid to call her out and sniff her out for her bad behavior. That was sort of how I always imagined the character. You gotta love a good suspicious queer character.
"Not Okay" is on Hulu today, July 29th.