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37 Problems and a Quail Ain't One: An Interview with Lisa Ebersole
Interview by Valentina Steiner
Lisa Ebersole, an award-winning playwright and filmmaker, has had her plays “Mother” starring Buck Henry and Holland Taylor, “Baby” which won Best of The LA Fringe Festival, “Brother” published by Samuel French, and “People Die That Way” an Editor’s Choice for Time Out New York & Backstage, have been produced both off Broadway and regionally. Her films include “Brother”, and the short film “Puddin’”.
She has recently released ‘37 Problems’, a web series she directed, created, and starred in. The comedy takes us on a journey into the life of a 37 year-old screenwriter who is struggling between her career and her Mother’s wishes to have her one egg frozen.
Lisa Ebersole, the creator, writer, producer, and actor in ’37 Problems’ granted Quail Bell an interview to discuss more about the web series.
What was the hardest part about writing the script for this web series?
The hardest part was all the funny things I came up with that I had to leave out of it because it didn’t have anything to do with the character’s central journey. So, for me as a writer I had all these ideas for funny bits and things that had to do with being a woman my age, but it didn’t really relate to her journey of whether or not she’s going to become a Mom and so I ended up kind of leaving them in the wayside.
Did you save these for something else?
I don’t know, I would love it if there was some version of this where I could incorporate those. But I think the way I sort of got to the story was by journaling for three months about anything having to do with the baby question, or being 37, or whether I wanted to become a Mom and at the end of three months I just had all these journals and I just went through and highlighted the stuff that was funny and the most interesting to me and I started to hone it down from there. So, the stuff that got left behind is probably left behind for good.
In other interviews, you’ve mentioned that you like to watch TV in your leisure time. How does being a producer and an actress change the way you view television? Do you feel like you criticize it more?
Yeah, I think both. On the one hand, I am more delighted by it because I got really excited about Atlanta and Fleabag, like when you see something new, that’s doing something different, it’s inspirational. It makes me think, oh I need to try harder to think outside the box because these people are doing something really fresh. And on the other end, yeah you are more critical. I am always more critical of the directing and the acting if I am watching something that I don’t think is well directed I will redirect it in my head.
Is it hard to balance the three roles of directing, acting, and being the screenwriter all at the same time?
Yes, it is hard. For me, it is a big challenge, and the biggest challenge for me is the performance and not being able to watch yourself while you are acting. I actually found a way around that; I paid the actress who plays September in the series, she’s my best friend in real life, to be on set when she wasn’t acting so she could be a second pair of eyes for me.
Do you feel like that’s hard because you have a specific vision and you aren’t sure if she shares it with you?
No, I trust her and I trust that she knew what my vision was. Usually, it was just her telling me to have more fun with whatever I was doing because I have a tendency to get serious, so it’s just having that constant reminder, the person telling you, have more fun with it, this should be so fun, you are so excited right now. Just little things like that that really help in the moment.
In other interviews, you mention you would like this to become a 30min show in the future. How would this change/alter the storyline?
I feel like it would be different. You would find out about this one egg dilemma in the first episode and then she would be exploring what she’s going to do about it in the way she does in the web series. But it would go beyond that. For me, season one of the web series sort of ends with a hopeful note that where she thought she was pregnant, finds out that she is not, but in thinking she was pregnant realized, hey this is something that I want. The tv show would further into what happens next.
So it would be almost like a season two?
Yeah, it would cover everything we do in season one, but then also get into a season two.
If you got to make this a 30-minute show, is there anyone in particular that you would love to collaborate with?
I am a huge fan of Lena Dunham, and a huge fan of Louis C.K., and the women who made Fleabag and Catastrophe, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Sharon Corwin. I am a big fan of theirs too. Any of those people, I would love to team up with.
In other interviews, you mentioned you primarily act in shows and movies that you generate yourself. How is the process different when you are acting in something that you wrote, do you find that you have better insight?
I have acted in a few projects that haven’t been mine and that’s been really fun; to come at it just from a purely actor point of view and get into a character and get to know a character. It’s just that when I’m doing my own material, I feel like I hear it in my head when I’m writing it, so I know what the acting is going to be like pretty much. But even in this, because it was such a comedy, for me it was more comedic than things I have written in the past, so there’s a definite learning curve, with how I had to be to make this funny? And it was a lot more focus on what I’m doing with my eyes and reactions, and showing an expression on my face that tells you how I’m feeling in that moment. As a stage actor, I had never done anything like that and as a web series comedy actor, I had to learn to do that.
Did you have someone help you with that?
Yes, I did. My boyfriend at the time and Stephanie, the September actress, both helped me a lot with how do you have comedy register.
This web series is mostly based on a woman who is 37. Do you believe this web series can appeal to different age groups or was it more focused on older women as an audience?
No, I think it could[appeal to different age groups]. I mean I’ve had women in their twenties watch it, and guys in their twenties at film festivals come up to me afterwards and say how funny they thought it was and I’ve had alternately people in their seventies who were parents or women this age, who have come up to me and said how much they love it. So, I think it’s kind of a universal issue; of whether or not to become a parent and what that means. Everybody is going to deal with it at some point or they have dealt with it and so I think it can touch a wide range of people.
Is that something you had to think about when you were putting the web series together?
I didn’t think about the audience for this, I just thought about how I didn’t see any programming on tv or in movies that is tackling this specific issue from this angle, so why don’t I do that?
Since some of the events and characters are based on real-life events/characters, did this put pressure on how you wanted them portrayed? How is this different with fictional characters?
I think because I was collaborating with the actress who plays September, Stephanie Sanditz, the character was based on her, but she’s not either that superficial not hat ridiculous, so it was a very exaggerated version of an actress in LA of that age and sort of what they would be dealing with. And then my character, I’m not that neurotic and singularly focused as the character in the web series. For me it always helps[to base characters on real-life people], like I’m writing something new right now and I was just thinking to myself, who can I base this on kind of loosely. Even if it is a combination of people, I like to have real life touchstones for what I’m writing, because I just think it makes it more authentic.
I think I read somewhere that most fiction writers will base their work on something that happened in their life, even if they don’t realize it.
Yeah, or a combination of people, like it will be my ex-boyfriend and my brother and the guy I knew in fifth grade. I combine character traits and a new character emerges.
I also read that you actually went to a doctor to get your eggs counted to have the most accurate portrayal as possible. You also mentioned right now that you like to keep journals. Tell me a little more about your research process? How do you choose it and how long is it?
This one happened organically, I was going to be away from LA for a few months and I knew that I wanted to shoot the web series in LA so I wasn’t in a rush to write it and I really wanted it to shape organically, so that was the reason for journaling. Now the project I am working on now has been a faster process. I said okay I want to start writing something and so I’m kind of getting into it a little faster. So, I think it depends on the project; how much intuitive research I do ahead of time versus how much I dive right in.
Do you tend to do more research at home, or interviewing and watching people?
I think it’s a combination of the two. If you’re a writer, you have to always be engaging with the world, so I do like to talk to people and eavesdrop on conversations and just kind of be around people when I’m writing. I am not someone that likes to write in a quiet room alone.
Since you had to rely on crowdfunding money to produce most of this web series, what kind of struggles did this impose on the show?
The crowdfunding was stressful because I didn’t know if it was going work out and my hat is off to anyone that does that, because having done it, it takes so much chutzpah, and so much work, and so much belief in yourself to have this goal. I used one of the sites where you had to get to 80% of your goals, so it was a little bit all or nothing, so I definitely breathed a sigh of relief when I got to that number. But it was as much work as the production, doing the crowdfunding. It really takes hours a day if you are going to meet your goal and you have to do it in a way that is true to your project and true to yourself.
Was there a plan B?
No, I didn’t have a plan B for how to get that money and I needed all of that money. So it wasn’t like, oh if I got 20,000$ I could do it, I couldn’t have finished it for $20,000. So, I actually really needed all the 37,000$, I think we ended up with $34,000 after all the fees, and we used all of it.
Now that you have completed this project, would you say the process encouraged you to want to make more web series’ in the future?
Yes. I love making things and I would love to make a season two of the web series. At the very least, I would love to do that. So, hopefully, we will get people to watch season one and get a fan base and even if I had to do crowdfunding again to do it myself, I would love to do a season two.
The web series is free online, which is great. But do you hope to receive some revenue in the future?
I hope to have it distributed. I would love to have Amazon, or Netflix, or Hulu want to buy it and distribute it and then it would be something that would generate money. That would be great, but I think for now, with it being new and being my first series, and people not knowing me, I just thought, if I don’t put it out for free, who is going to watch it?
Click here to support Lisa Ebersole and watch the web series.