An actress known for roles in Mr. Robot and Good Girls Revolt, Frankie Shaw is one of the more surprising talents working in entertainment today. After all, who but Shaw could get a show called SMILF on the air?
Creating her own opportunities in recent years as a writer and director, Shaw took a short of the same name to Sundance in 2015. Based on Shaw’s personal experiences, the film followed single mother Bridgette Bird (Shaw), struggling to balance her role as a mother with a life of her own. Winning the festival’s Short Film Jury Prize, the short made waves, signaling the presence of an essential new voice.
Teaming with Showtime on her series adaptation of SMILF, Shaw fleshed eight episodes and a broader world out of the short’s conceit, empowered by executives at the premium cabler to make bold choices. Examining certain brutal realities of the female experience, within the context of an idiosyncratic, off-the-wall comedy, Shaw fused moments of bitter reality with surrealism and flights of fantasy. Tackling subjects like mental illness, sexual assault and abuse and the struggles of reentering the dating pool after giving birth, the creator took an unexpected tack in the midst of heavy dramatic territory, crafting a world that is unique amidst the current television landscape.
Seeing SMILF take a Golden Globe nomination as she received her own—in a significant vote of confidence for her singular series—Shaw has taken this feedback in, and is looking to dive deeper in Season 2.
Can you explain the path SMILF took from short film to Showtime series?
Basically, I was a really broke, struggling actress auditioning, so I wrote a pilot to try to get staffed as a writer. I started directing and making shorts, and I decided I would end up trying to develop this pilot as a show, so I directed a scene from it just as a proof of concept. It was me and some friends, a DP I knew; Thomas Middleditch played the guy, and we just shot it in a bedroom for $3,000.
It was never meant to be a short, but because the narrative worked as a self-contained piece, I ended up submitting to Sundance. Then, once it won the award, it ended up helping me then go ahead and sell it as a show.
So the positive feedback you received at Sundance was critical to the project’s new life as a series?
Yeah, completely—I think because it just gave people confidence. It’s one of those things: When someone likes something, it’s okay for other people to like it. I really do credit and owe Sundance for helping me get started.
SMILF is loosely autobiographical. How much of the series is coming from a directly personal place?
If you look at the optics of it, the fact that I was a single mom for a while who was struggling financially and otherwise, and then my son’s dad started a relationship with a beautiful blonde woman—that is all true. It really, on one hand, starts and ends there, but it’s very important when we’re writing the show to stay true to real experiences, and true stories, and issues that I care about, and the network cares about, and the other writers care about. It’s always rooted in truth.
Could you explain some aspects of what the series is exploring, in its depiction of contemporary women?
We’re a show that gets into the female experience. Almost everyone I know has an experience of sexual discrimination, harassment, abuse or violence on one level or another, so just by the fact that the show’s being made by a woman, it’s going to be talking about those things. It’s not like, “Hey, let’s go make a show about sexual violence,” but because this is a show about different women, it’s part of the fabric of the show.
For example, when Bridgette is struggling for money, and we’re going to go on Craigslist and meet a sugar daddy, we’re going to deal with what people think the fantasy of prostitution is, and then what it actually is. It’s important that her and Craig have a moment of true connection. There’s a fantasy there, and then in the next moment when she’s violated, she’s able to punch him in the face, which I think a lot of women always wish that they can do. But the reality is, you’re usually going to freeze because you’re in shock, with your face and body being violated like that. We got to have this wish-fulfillment experience, popping the guy in the nose.
Then, in the very next episode, she’s enacting in a grocery store where her violation happened. We’re acting out the male role of violent sex that you see in porn, experimenting with things, taking control back that way. It’s really staying in the truth of the character. But it’s just because she is this blue-collar woman who’s struggling, and we have this very intersectional, diverse story and cast, that we can go into these storylines that happen to be political. It is political, being any sort of woman who’s experienced whatever kind of oppression.
What informed this series’ tone? It swings from realistic moments to surrealism, or moments of fantasy. One moment, you’re sitting down in a grocery store, and the next, you’re dancing through the aisles as Belle from Beauty and the Beast.
We talk about some darker issues, so it was important to have levity and destigmatize some of the issues. Part of the way to do that is to really get inside a character’s head. So we’ll be really literal, but we’ll also want to be imaginative. I’ve always been a huge fan of surreal moments and absurdity. My favorite show when I was sort of forming my taste was Edgar Wright’s first show, called Spaced.
Just having the ability to go off and be inside a character’s head, or explain the complexity of, why does one fantasize about prostitution? And then juxtapose it with the reality of it. Like, what’s the best way to tell that narratively? It’s probably to have a pussy-worshiping temple, and then have some creep grab your pussy in a supermarket. It’s all about juxtaposition. The show wouldn’t exist—the absurdity and the fantasy wouldn’t exist—if we weren’t also grounding it with the rawer elements of the show.
You made an inspired choice in casting Rosie O’Donnell to play Bridgette’s mother. How did her casting come about?
I credit it to our casting director, Deanna Brigidi, who suggested her, because she wasn’t in my realm of focus in the beginning of who this character was. Then, we had a FaceTime meeting, and she comes from a big Irish Catholic family, and she grew up blue collar. She also really reacted positively to my early shorts that were very feminist leaning, so we just had this mutual trust right away. I could not have predicted what an emotional, grounded and moving performance she was going to give. I think we were all a little blown away by it.
What has Showtime been like as a collaborative partner on the series? SMILF is a series that has been allowed to take plenty of creative risks.
It’s truly collaborative. I have three people that work on the show with me over there—the CEO, the president, and the [SVP], Amy Israel. They are heavily involved, and they also have the lightest touch, so it’s not like any of their notes are mandates. It’s really just what’s best for the story.
Oftentimes, if they’re bumping on something, it’s not like, “Here’s a solution.” It’s like, “Figure out the best way to solve this story problem or this character issue.” I do feel like I’d be happy working there for my whole career because it’s really just a collaborative and empowering place to be, as a creator. They’re so creator-friendly.
Has it been a challenge to balance your various roles on this series, as creator, star, writer and director? Or did this balance come naturally to you?
I really feel like I’m my best self when I am multitasking, so that part of it was really fun and exciting for me. I really loved being at the center of all the creative decisions, it being a collaborative effort, because you’re not making TV in a bubble. I just really enjoy all of those elements. I really, truly feel most at home when I’m directing, so it was such a joy. I felt really lucky to be in that position, to be able to be doing it at that level.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced with SMILF so far?
I think every showrunner will say you’re fighting against time. I wish we had more time for episodes; I wish we had more time to write; I wish we had more time to edit. It’s the normal things, but that’s also the thrill of it. You just have to make a decision and go. Sometimes time can thwart creativity if you have too much time to obsess over a choice.
What are your feelings about the current state of representation for women in film and television, operating in front of the camera and behind the scenes?
We’re in this wonderful era of Peak TV, so there’s more opportunities for representation. I don’t think this show would have been made five or 10 years ago in the way that I’m making it.
So there is a certain methodology in mind in the way you’re making your series.
I’m really a huge advocate for representation. My writers’ room has four black writers. There were women and gay men, except for my husband, so it didn’t look like what a lot of rooms look like—and that’s important. We only hire women directors on the show, so being the one who is hiring people, I’m able to implement the [inclusion] rider that Frances McDormand was talking about.
Also, we wrote everything before the #MeToo hashtag was in, and before the Harvey Weinstein article broke, but it was in the air—it was in the zeitgeist. So it was sort of a kismet, perfect opportunity, that our show happens to really resonate with everything that’s going on right now, and this is all happening now for a reason. Now is the time.
Will you take this way of working with you as you develop future projects?
Oh, yeah. I feel like it’ll be in the next contract, that it’s actually mandated, in terms of inclusion. I don’t ever want to be a part of a show that doesn’t have optics, the way this show does. We don’t want to be part of that. So I’ll be part of the new way of looking at things.
SMILF has been renewed for a second season. Where are you in the process with that, and what can you share about where the series is headed?
We’ve broken all the stories and half are written. We’re really dealing with identity, and the masks people wear in order to either protect themselves or to present in a certain way. We go more into some of the supporting characters. I joke that we’re calling it SMILF: The Bad Year, even though the years are always kind of bad in SMILF. [laughs] But they’re still struggling.