Mrs America, the Cate Blanchett-fronted drama about the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and the unexpected backlash led by Phyllis Schlafly, was supposed to exist in a world where Hillary Clinton was President of the United States of America.
Stacey Sher, the producer behind Pulp Fiction and Erin Brockovich, had seen a PBS documentary about the women’s movement in the 1970s in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election and was interested in making a drama series from the point of view of Schlafly, the beauty queen-turned-conservative crusader.
Sher, who spoke to Deadline about the FX on Hulu drama as well being involved in pandemic flick Contagion and The Devil In The White City as well as plans for her production company Shiny Penny, says, “I grew up in the 1970s and was aware of Phyllis Schlafly and that the ERA hadn’t been ratified, but I was young enough that I couldn’t distinguish her from Anita Bryant at the time.”
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“I thought it would be really interesting to tell the story about the ERA and the fight about the ERA from the point of view from the spoiler. I often find that when you take on characters that you really admire, even though they’re complex characters like the second wave feminists, it boxes you in to a hero worship point of view. I thought coming at it from Phyllis’ point of view would really humanize it and would be a fresh way to tell the story.”
Working with Dahvi Waller, FX bought the pitch in the room and the Mad Men writer went off to pen a script. “We thought we were telling this story on the precipice of a historic moment of the first female President. Once Trump was elected – Phylliss’ last book was The Conservative Case For Trump, published after her death – we had to pivot and look at this in a different context and it became the story of the birth of the culture wars and how we got there,” says Sher (left).
Through the eyes of the women of that era, from Schlafly to second-wave feminists Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), the series explores how one of the toughest battlegrounds in the culture wars of the 1970s helped give rise to the Moral Majority and forever shift the political landscape.
“Schlafly’s great legacy was marshalling and uniting a Christian religious conservative moment but her original passion was for defence policy and tackling communism. She pivoted to women’s issues when she thought there was an attack on the U.S. family dynamic,” Sher says.
In addition to Blanchett, who exec produced alongside Sher, Waller, Coco Francini and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the cast included Jay Ellis, Ari Graynor, Melanie Lynskey, James Marsden, Niecy Nash, Sarah Paulson, John Slattery and Jeanne Tripplehorn. “We had murderer’s row of actors,” she adds.
Sher started her career as an intern on a sports show in Washington, DC but said that going into sports broadcasting was a “bridge too far, sexism-wise” in terms of going into male locker rooms to interview athletes. “The joke that goes along with that is that I then decided to join the incredibly inclusive entertainment industry,” laughs Sher.
She went on to work with a number of female mentors including Halloween producer Debra Hill and found a group of peers that looked out for each other as male agents and studio heads went river rafting together and referred to female execs as D-girls. “I remember an executive that I once worked with, used to tell what I thought was a flattering joke at the time, I don’t view it that way anymore. He said when given the chance to hire a man or a woman at the same level, he always chose the woman, because he knew that she had to be twice as smart and work twice as hard to get to the same level as a man.”
When asked how she views inclusivity in the entertainment industry now, she says the awareness is great but still thinks “we’re in flux”.
Elsewhere, Sher produced a slew of feature films including Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight, Garden State, Contagion (more on that later) and Reality Bites, before she worked on television series such as MTV’s Sweet/Vicious and AMC’s Into The Badlands.
A three-year stint at Activision Blizzard, where she oversaw Skylanders Academy for Netflix and development of the live-action Call of Duty feature film, ended in May 2019, just as production on Mrs America started up. She says that this move between film and television has been “seamless”. “The films I’ve always been drawn to, a lot of it would be on television now,” she says. “Garden State might have been a streaming film [if it came out today].”
Another high-profile project that was previously developed as a feature film before moving to television that Sher is involved in is The Devil In The White City. The project, which is based on Erik Larson’s 2003 about the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and H.H. Holmes the first modern serial killer, is being produced by Martin Scorsese and Leonard DiCaprio. It is currently in development with Hulu. “I’m really excited about it and I hope we’re going to make it. Sam Shaw has done a remarkable job crafting it. In that case, the challenges were how do you get it down to two-hours, so many enormously talented people have attempted to do that. We’re still in development and hopefully getting ready to get out of it soon,” she adds.
Since leaving Activision Blizzard Studios, she has resurrected her production company Shiny Penny – named after her father’s nickname for her daughter. She is currently working on Respect, the Liesl Tommy-directed biopic of Aretha Franklin starring Jennifer Hudson, and says that they have worked out a way to remotely finish the film, despite the Coronavirus outbreak, for its planned December 25 release.
After Mrs America, which debuts on FX on Hulu on April 15, and Respect, Sher’s next challenge is finding more great writers. I think there’s more access than ever before,” she says. “The key is finding people who are exploring characters or have a fresh voice or point of view. New voices are what renews the industry; that’s what is so exciting about Parasite or Fleabag. You need to look at the world through new eyes.”
Scott Z. Burns certainly looked at the world a bit differently when he teamed up with Steven Soderbergh for 2011’s prescient Contagion (right), which Sher produced. The 2011 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard and Laurence Fishburne tells the story of a deadly pandemic that spreads across the world. Sound familiar? Sher says it’s “surreal” seeing what’s going on right now. “We’re all so lucky to have these incredible heroes, the doctors and nurses, the army core of engineers, everyone working in the hospitals and the scientists. It’s surreal, you definitely feel like you’re having some weird dream from nine years ago.”
Burns consulted with a number of medical experts including W. Ian Lipkin and Lawrence Brilliant to write Contagion. Sher says that she has stayed close with the latter and her and Burns are now working with Brilliant to tell the story of how the epidemiologist and the World Health Organization eradicated smallpox. “That is an inspiring story,” Sher adds.
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