Interview by Rebecca RaymerCopy Edited and Posted by Naomi Johnson Ellie Wells, director of Eagle…
Congratulations on making the pilot for Couples Therapy. The show follows a therapist attempting to help couples repair their damaged relationships while dealing with the demise of her own marriage. How did the idea come to you?
Thank you so much! Couples Therapy is inspired by my own life and is loosely based on my own real life experiences. Around the time I wrote it, I was struggling to get out of a toxic relationship that had consumed me. One day I happened to have a conversation with a friend about her going to couples therapy with her ex-husband and whether it was helpful or not. That was when I got the idea for this couples therapist, who is helping other people with their relationships while struggling with her own and getting herself in situations where (as a therapist) she should have known not to get into. Writing Couples Therapy was a way for me to deal with my heartbreak and also make sense of relationships in general; figure out what really is the point of them and how people around me perceive them. As I was writing the script, the story started getting a life of its own and I soon realized it was so much bigger than my own experience. It was giving me the opportunity to tell the stories of so many types of modern relationship issues that have not been given enough of a voice on TV (polyamory, power struggles in professional couples, homosexual couples issues, etc.) and also portray a genuine female character with all her layers and complexities.
You are not only the lead actor in the series, but you created and wrote it as well. What made you take on so many parts of this project?
This project started very small in my head, but as I worked on it, it began getting bigger and bigger. When I got the idea initially, I thought this could be a fun, five-minute clip I could shoot to have some good footage as an actor and maybe even release it online. As I reached out to people to help me with the filming process, however, I started developing it more and I realized I wanted to tell the story of Natalia in full, through a twenty-minute pilot episode. So it all happened organically. It was a project I wrote for myself, so, by default, I was the writer and lead actor. I was also paying for it with my own money, so, in the same fashion, I became the executive producer. Wearing so many hats was a thrilling experience that taught me so much about myself as a person and an artist. I truly can’t wait to do it again and I am looking forward to acting and filming more episodes of the show.
How did it feel when you discovered your dreams of acting and of writing could be married and make you a stronger filmmaker?
It was immensely empowering and it also felt like I was finally home. I realized that this was where I was meant to be in the industry, not just on the acting side of things but also on the creative side. I discovered many talents I never knew I had and I witnessed firsthand how being an actor and a filmmaker compliment each other so well. Having experience in front and behind the camera helps you see things more holistically, be more in touch with how both the cast and the crew view things, and therefore help the filming process run more smoothly and efficiently.
You expertly weave comedy throughout Couples Therapy, which deals with very emotional topics. What made you decide to invite comedy into the script?
I really enjoy adding humor into emotionally heavy situations—I guess it’s something that I do in my own life as well. I believe that when serious issues are presented in a comedic fashion, it makes it easier to get through to the audience. When the audience expects to laugh and be entertained, their guard is down. They are more likely to process what you have to say because it happens in a funny and “painless” way. I am actually a big fan of drama, but as a writer I can’t escape my own voice, which inevitably embodies my philosophy about life; that you can’t get through it without a little bit of humor.
How important is it for the actors in your projects to be diverse? Do you also try to use diverse talent behind the camera?
It was really important for me that the show represents the world we live in, especially New York City, which is where the show takes place. You can’t accurately portray New York couples and not have people of all races and sexual orientations. We held auditions, reached out to friends and, at the end, we managed to assemble this amazing, uber-talented, diverse cast that you see on the show. I feel so lucky to have worked with every single one of the actors on the show.
As for the behind-the-camera talent, we had an awesome Latinx director, Randy Ramos Jr. When it comes to crew members, I must admit that as a first time filmmaker I didn’t have many connections in that department, so I trusted our director and our DP, Dominick Sivilli, to assemble a team that they trusted and knew they could work well with. That being said, I am definitely planning on being more hands-on in that department on future projects. I believe diversity and inclusivity are very important and as a female filmmaker, I am particularly excited to connect with more female behind-the-camera talent.
Tell us about your career as a screenwriter and as an actor. How did you come to choose these two paths and what have you learned from them?
Looking back at it now, I realize that it was inevitable for me to get into the industry—I felt the calling very early on. I’ve been drawn to storytelling since I was a little kid. I would watch one or two movies a day, even before I could read subtitles. I would also read books non-stop and I would always get praised for my writing skills in school. I started studying acting and working on stage as soon as I graduated high-school, and later, when I moved to New York from Greece, I discovered my love for screenwriting and filmmaking as well. I was lucky enough to stumble upon amazing actors who were also writers and filmmakers, such as Sonja O’Hara and Rob Alicea, who guided me along the way and to this day still inspire me with their work and dedication to their craft.
Both acting and writing have introduced new worlds to me and have changed me forever. They’ve helped me understand people, have empathy and realize we are all complicated beings driven by past trauma and the need to connect. Acting truly opens your mind about the world around you and helps you feel things you normally wouldn’t feel in your daily life. Writing, on the other hand, unfolds so many layers of your inner world and it can be a magical creative outlet that is available to you at any given moment. The wonderful thing is that storytelling can also do that for the audience. I truly believe in the power of storytelling and I’ve seen firsthand how it can change people’s perspectives and make them kinder and more accepting towards the unfamiliar.
How does writing a project influence your performance as an actor and vice versa—did the fact that you were acting in Couples Therapy change the way you wrote characters?
The fact that I already had the story in my head and had worked on the script for months definitely helped me go deep into the character. It gave me a leg up when it comes to character analysis and the homework an actor does when working on a new character. Also, the fact that I had creative control over the project gave me the freedom to play around with the lines and change anything that didn’t feel organic.
Being an actor absolutely influences my writing process. Whenever I write a script, I will often act the lines out, whether in my head or aloud. I find that it helps me write good dialogue and get rid of anything that doesn’t feel natural. Having an actor’s mentality when writing can elevate your script tremendously.
What surprises/ issues came up on the production side that you were not expecting?
We had to change our shoot days twice and the second time it was pretty last minute, and we had to check in with every single cast and crew member, so that was very stressful. But the biggest issue that came up was when one of our locations, a bar that we had a big scene in, cancelled a few hours before we started filming. Our producer, Rob Alicea, scouted the streets while we were filming on one of our locations to find a bar that was willing to let us film. In the end it all worked out for the best. We found a great location (Mulligan’s Pub in Hoboken) that was a lot closer than the original one and saved us precious shooting time. It truly was a blessing in disguise.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the series at all—its production or distribution? If so, how have you addressed it?
Couples Therapy has been doing really well on festivals and we had several screenings coming up in Los Angeles, New York, and Atlanta that were unfortunately postponed. That was definitely disappointing, as it placed the show’s festival run on hold. But at the same time, many festivals, like SeriesFest, are held virtually this year, which is really exciting. My experience with SeriesFest was wonderful and we were able to get many eyes on the show.
At the moment, I am trying to make the best of the amazing connections I made during SeriesFest and take the necessary steps to bring Couples Therapy to the next level, which is producing the first season. On top of that, I am trying to make use of the extra time on my hands, and have started developing new projects and ideas. It’s all about trying to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation, thinking outside the box to create opportunities for yourself while finding creative outlets to help yourself stay sane and motivated.
Which filmmakers influence and inspire you?
I adore Phoebe Waller-Bridge, her work is an infinite source of inspiration for me. I consider her my filmmaker/creator role model along with Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Tina Fey. These women are not only incredibly talented, but they also work towards portraying women in an authentic way, dismissing the female stereotypes that have been so vastly used by the industry, and have paved the way for female actors and filmmakers.
How do you feel being a woman filmmaker made Couples Therapy a better project than if someone else had created it?
Couples Therapy tells the story of a complicated, multi-layered woman. It wouldn’t be possible to tell that story accurately if it wasn’t written by a woman. Authenticity and accurate representation are crucial for great storytelling. Female roles in the film industry have a history of being one-dimensional and perpetuating stereotypes that have absolutely no base in reality. If you look into it, most (if not all) of these roles have been written by men. But when a woman writes about the female experience, she doesn’t do it to fulfill a fantasy or idealize her gender. She does it so as to give a voice to female characters that women can relate to and see themselves in, with all their flaws, strengths, and complexities.
You can watch the trailer for Couples Therapy on YouTube and learn more about the series on its website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To see what else Michaela Zannou has done, take a look at her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Learn more about Denise on her profile.