In the early episodes of Starz’s The Chair, which debuted OnDemand and on Starz Play today and makes its linear review at 11/10c, neither director making their own versions of the same script are intended to be experts. Anna Martemucci is as much of a first-time director as Shane Dawson (who I spoke with earlier this week), and so the cameras capture lost of the initial uncertainty that comes with stepping behind the camera for the first time for her film, Hollidaysburg.
At the same time, though, Martemucci is also positioned as the insider, whose existing relationship with Zachary Quinto’s production company and her Periods. Films collaboration with her husband Victor Quinaz and brother-in-law Philip Quinaz fit into more traditional models of how independent films get made. Her story is therefore less about shaking an existing professional identity in favor of a more legitimate one, as is the case with Dawson, and focuses more on her self-identification with the role of filmmaker within the context of this rather strange experiment that nonetheless offers a valuable opportunity.
I spoke with Martemucci about what made her take on this experience, how it made her reflect on her place in the industry, and how the series’ narratives fit her conception of her work and her goals as a filmmaker.
Cultural Learnings: When I spoke with Chris Moore he mentioned you had been working with him on some other projects before this came up—what made you ultimately agree to be a part of The Chair instead?
Anna Martemucci: If I remember correctly, I think I had about a month to think about it from the moment that Chris really looked me in the eye and was like “I’m serious, do you want to do this?” And I was like “Oh shit, okay.” [Laughs] I knew it would be an incredible opportunity, but I definitely took my time, and I remember telling my family on a trip—anyone I love and trusted, basically, I ran it by them, and it was funny because they all got the same kind of pained expression on their face when I said “reality show.” And they all said the same thing, which is “Don’t trust Chris Moore.” [Laughs] “He’s going to want to make a TV show and not a good movie, just remember you’re special, and blah blah blah blah blah. Don’t lose your mind and give them a good TV show and in the process ruin your life.” [Laughs]
So it was scary when people you love and trust are giving you stinkeye and being like “Maybe don’t do this,” but at the end of the day it was far too wonderful an opportunity to pass up. And I say it in the show, but I know so many people who have spent many, many years being frustrated in the business and wanting so badly to get their first movie made. And anyone, including people who aren’t trying to be directors like writers trying to get their first screenplay made, it’s not an easy business. So the fact that my creative dream had appeared, and I had the opportunity to make it come true, and the only thing I had to do was allow myself to be filmed? I was like “Well, alright.”
And it helped that Chris Moore wasn’t just a guy off the street. I had watched Project Greenlight, and I grew up following the story of Matt and Ben. I would say that’s probably the major Hollywood story that was happening all through my coming-of-age and getting interested in film, so it was kind of a no brainer since there was that legitimacy behind it.
Chris also mentioned that the competition element was something that turned off a lot of potential filmmakers early on—how did you approach the competition element, and how what was your response when you found out you were competing against Shane?
To be totally honest, I think my relationship to the competition from the get go was sort of amused confusion. [Laughs] Does that make sense? Because this entire thing has been—I credit Chris Moore with being one of those geniuses who throws his hat over the fence and then figures out how to deal with it later. “This is happening, everybody get on the boat.” He didn’t necessarily have everything worked out, because that wouldn’t be possible. So every time I’ve talked to Chris Moore throughout the process there’s different notions of how the voting’s going to go, and I’ve always of course—from the moment he told me who the other person on the show was—I was like “Uh, you do know how many Twitter followers I have, right? This is not a competition, because this guy has 2 million followers.” And he’s like “No no no, we’ll figure it out. You’ve got more fans than you think.” That was always his line, and I’m like “No. In fact, we live in an age where you can see exactly how many fans I have!” [Laughs] And it’s not 2 million.
So I’ve just always looked at it with good humor, because I know—I’m going to try my best to win, and I would love to win, but for me? Please—I got to direct a feature film, so that’s what I was in it for.
So whether or not you win doesn’t necessarily affect your understanding of whether or not this was a valuable experience?
I’m not using it as a barometer of how I feel I did as a filmmaker, because that’s pretty much over for me right now. I’ve locked the movie, and it’s done, and I’m thrilled with it. So I’m satisfied with the filmmaking journey. It was very different from Shane’s, and in many ways it has almost nothing to do with his—looking at it as a comparison is weird just because we as filmmakers are just so incredibly different. So it’s hard for me to look at it as a competition, but then it is a competition. So I’m just trying to figure out—like I always am with Periods. Films—how best to get the word out, but there’s a big difference between being a filmmaker and being a marketing genius. I wish I was a marketing genius—I remember all through Breakup At A Wedding, I just kept calling out ot the universe as a producer like “I need somebody who is a marketing genius, and who’s still sort of a kid so that we can ask them to help us because we don’t have any money.” [Laughs] But that was always the missing link, and I think it remains the missing link, because the Internet is the Wild West and you need an airhorn for someone to look at you.
But I’m definitely not using it as a barometer of whether or not I succeeded as a filmmaker and a storytelling, because the Internet’s crazy, you know?
Does anybody really have the answers for the Internet, do you think?
Who knows what’s going on? One of the reasons why this show is sort of fascinating for me is that this is the stuff I think about all the time. Having this short film series that lives online, we think about this stuff a lot, and how to reach people in this environment. And I’m concerned because there’s this person who’s more successful at it than anyone I’ve ever met, and I’m in a competition with him. And then there’s the whole other aspect of actual filmmaking, and in my mind they don’t have a lot to do with each other except that they do in terms of finding monetary success and notoriety. It’s all sort of tangled together, and I think this show really explores that, and explores content on the web and the nature of storytelling, and what it all means, and whether or not we all have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to define what we think is good. It raises a lot of issues in this context.
The series is very invested in you as an “NYU Person” compared to Shane as the YouTube person.
At the same time you have Periods.—you have this short form content that lives online, so do you—contrary to that binary—see a connection between your education and the web?
Well it’s interesting—the show has definitively created two characters, and it’s very surreal to see yourself turned into a character by a group of people whose job that is. Every time we see my set, there’s like acoustic guitar playing, and people wearing flannel shirts, with interesting hair! It’s very much like “It’s because they’re from NYU,” and it’s just like oh god! [Laughs] It’s very strange. And also the fact that we think of ourselves as being into comedy, that’s absolutely what we do, but I think the doc sort of paints us as the serious NYU people, and it’s funny.
I think there’s definitely an intersection—there’s a point they’re making that yes, I went to NYU and I got an education. I didn’t go to film school—a lot of people are writing that, but I went to Dramatic Writing school and majored in screenwriting—but there’s a major connection between the way I look at the world and the things that I want to discuss when I make a film. It just informs my view of the world—I took a race in the media class with Donald Bogle, a professor of mine at NYU, and it was just an entire semester of assessing the way that African Americans are portrayed in American TV and cinema. You’re a different person after you sit through a semester of that—you see the world through different eyes than if you don’t do that.
Just about anybody can have this in some ways, but this show has really highlighted how different that stuff can make your worldview, and how it can open you up to certain things, and close you down to certain things, and it’s really been fascinating to me to see how much the privilege of something like an education like that can make you who you are. And also it’s important to be sensitive that not everyone has had your experiences, you know what I mean? It’s been fascinating for me.
Do you feel then that when you went to do online video, you just brought that sensibility to that space?
There’s a bunch of stuff that I’m just really fascinated about in life. It’s basic stuff. We think that people should be equal, and that we should live in a world where all humans are treated with compassion, and I think I let passions like that inform that. With Periods., me and Phil and Victor, I think we’re always trying—with the Internet, people do whatever they want, and that’s what we’re realizing. We love using the Internet as a tool where we can tell whatever stories we want, we can make whatever weird jokes we want, and nobody can tell us otherwise. We have complete control over distribution, and the creation of it, and everything. So I think being able to make comedy about things that mean something to us, and raise questions about things. We like to skewer religion—our next film coming in November, Periods, tells the history of the world told by God—and we like to skewer gender differences; we like to talk about stuff that we think is relevant today. That definitely comes from steeping myself in all things film and otherwise.
The show’s kind of made me this poster child for NYU, which is…interesting. To be totally honest, I feel like my education was received through Periods. Films, through actually making films with my collaborators. That would be my advice for young people—the school will give you some things, but making stuff with people that you are excited by and you believe in, that’s the ultimate education. And that’s where I feel I got my education.
What would you say is the primary takeaway you expect people to get from the series as a whole?
My greatest hope for The Chair is that it fosters a conversation about the nature of storytelling, and the nature of the Internet, and where we are as a culture that is still acclimating to the ubiquitous nature of the Internet, and the question of responsibility in terms of the stories and storytellers Hollywood chooses to support. I love this shit. It’s fascinating. And I think the show captures a very specific moment in time where traditional entertainment culture and a new entertainment culture that’s emerged on the Internet over the past few years are finally merging. The people who have had the work ethic and savvy to mobilize massive personal fan bases online over the last 5 to 10 years are currently in tremendous positions of power. And the people trying to get their stories out into the world the traditional way are very much flailing in terms of reaching an audience. It’s interesting stuff. The landscape is constantly shifting beneath our feet. And I think The Chair captures that.
Has this been your experience in more traditional spaces?
When I say that people using traditional means—like film festivals or traditional distribution—are flailing, I mean that right now there is more quality content not being seen than probably ever before. We had a hell of a time getting Breakup At A Wedding out into the world despite the fact that we had a lot of great traditional industry support in Anonymous Content, Zachary Quinto and Oscilloscope behind us, and it was still very difficult to find the robust audience we felt the film deserved and that reflected the tremendous results from test audiences.
During Comic-Con, you tweeted a photo of you with a group of young women who wanted to talk about filmmaking. Is your potential influence on others who want to direct films something you are conscious of as you complete the project?
Absolutely. This whole thing has been a process of self-exploration, and there have been many interesting revelations on my part. When this opportunity came up, I realized how much I had pushed down the desire to direct in my own life: once I got the opportunity and once I directed, I was almost embarrassed by how hard I had made it for myself to get there. I should have been pursuing this when I realized I was a writer, but I went hard on just the writing and it kind of made me a miserable person. I was literally lying to myself, and I think the reason that it never quite occurred to me to really, really pursue directing from the get-go, and try to go to film school instead of writing school, and make short films when I was younger—I mean, I didn’t start making stuff until I was 27 or 28. So I wasted a lot of years and I think that was because I was socialized a woman instead of a man, which is a shitty revelation to have. I wasted a few years there because this is what I was meant to do, and I always wanted to do it, and I always knew I wanted to do it, and I didn’t let myself.
And so I’m passionate about meeting with young women and just in general letting them know that this is possible. I don’t want to sound so lofty to say that I want to be a role model, but I do! Because we need them. I cling so hard to Sarah Polley, and Sofia Coppola, and Kathryn Bigelow, and these women that are just awesome. There’s sadly way fewer of them than men, and I love my male filmmakers too, but I’m obsessed with this group that I kind of carry around with me in my heart. [Laughs] As cheesy as that sounds, it’s very, very helpful when you have this dream and see people living that dream in the way that you would. You can remind yourself that there are people like this, and they’re doing their stuff like you want to do your stuff, and they’ve got your back even if they don’t know you exist. To be able to represent—to happen to be a woman and doing this makes me happy, because I think there’s probably a lot of young women out there who are keeping themselves down without even realizing it. So I’m thrilled to kind of represent.