Among the many meta moments on the set of Roar, the new Apple+ anthology series based on Cecelia Ahern’s short story collection of the same name, the night they shot the hospital corridor scene was one of the meta-est.
Each 30-minute episode tells a complete story in a heightened, fablelike way. In “The Woman Who Ate Photographs,” for example, an adult daughter (Nicole Kidman) faced with her mother’s (Judy Davis) escalating dementia swallows snapshots to preserve her memories. In “The Woman Who Was Kept on a Shelf,” a trophy wife (Betty Gilpin) spends her days on a padded mantle at the behest of her mogul husband (Daniel Dae Kim). In “The Woman Who Disappeared,” a successful Black author (Issa Rae) becomes literally invisible to those who see her as a commodity to exploit.
And in “The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on Her Skin,” a venture capitalist (Cynthia Erivo) is physically eaten alive by the conflicting demands of work and motherhood. Between takes during that evening shoot – Erivo staggering down a hospital corridor, desperate to relieve her condition – almost every woman on set used the break to phone or FaceTime her family, including Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the showrunners, who wrote that episode; Rashida Jones, who directed it; and Quyen (Q) Tran, the director of photography.
“We all took a moment to say, ‘We won’t be there for bedtime tonight, because we’re filming a story about how bad that feels – see you tomorrow!’” Flahive said, laughing, in a recent video interview. “Then we all went back to work. It was perfect. We all wanted to be there. No one was making us feel like garbage for it – if anyone was, it was ourselves – and that’s precisely what we want to talk about in the episode.”
That chance to turn the subtext into the main story, to make the metaphor literal, is what appealed to Flahive and Mensch, who, together and separately, have created and/or written for series that shed light on and help define modern womanhood: Glow, about women wrestlers and the entertainment industrial complex; Nurse Jackie, about a nurse addicted to oxycontin; Weeds, about a suburban mom who deals pot; Orange is the New Black, about the crimes that land women in prison; and Homeland, about a woman CIA agent. Their work finds the sweet spot where a singular woman (or women) smashes into an extraordinary circumstance. The drama propels us, and the meaty ideas underneath fuel us.
“Liz and Carly have a penchant for storytelling that is unique,” Erivo said in a separate interview. “There’s dark humour; it’s specific and clever.”
But instead of crafting an arc across a season of television, in Roar the showrunners had to achieve it within each half-hour. “The fun is the surreal, magical-realism craziness that you get to ride on, but you can’t do that until your feet are on the ground,” Flahive says. “We had to land with these women from the first scene, put forward a provocation, and then deliver on it – but in an open-ended way that allowed viewers to bring their own thoughts to the subject. Every woman who read the short stories had her favourites, and her own take on what they meant.”
To add more zest, several episodes are riffs on genres that women “traditionally aren’t included in, narratively,” Flahive says. In “The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on Her Skin,” that’s body horror. “Childbirth can be violent and even deadly. Postpartum depression is psychologically violent. Carly and I each have two young children; the idea of psychological horror about maternal guilt felt very accessible to us.”
Another episode, “The Woman Who Solved Her Own Murder,” starring Alison Brie as a dead hiker who’s irked by what the cops are saying about her, pokes at the many, many true-crime and murder stories that begin with an attractive female corpse, yet end up being about everyone else. “Sometimes people talk about so-called female shows existing only from here to here,” Flahive says, gesturing to her heart and head, “because it’s all feelings and dialogue. We love playing to the rafters, and having intimate scenes right up against over-the-top ones. I don’t mind making you uncomfortable, if it means you don’t get complacent.”
Talk about not complacent: The episode Flahive chose as her directorial debut, “The Woman Who Was Fed by a Duck,” stars Merritt Wever as a student who finds herself in a toxic relationship with … a talking duck, voiced by Justin Kirk, and played by a septet of live ducks. “I think it was what a lot of directing feels like, which is very high wire,” Flahive says. “You don’t know what you can pull off until you do.”
“Would the ducks crap on things? Yes,” Wever said in a separate video interview. “Would they sometimes waddle away, or quack when I was speaking? Yes. But strangely, it wasn’t an issue. I had to do the same thing I always do, which is try to tell an honest story. A lot of people are surprised to find themselves in abusive relationships. Halley Feiffer, who wrote the episode, said she felt the duck was talking directly to her.”
“It was really special, to be part of something made for and created by women, to help people understand the experiences we go through, taking these issues that are usually underlying conversations and making them real,” Erivo said. “That’s how you overcome things – by talking about them. Putting them in front of people so they can see them.”
Though each episode features a moment where a woman lets out a roar, it’s not a Helen Reddy, “I am woman” roar. “It’s not rah-rah empowerment,” Flahive says. “A woman making noise is messy and complicated. Being heard, or trying to be heard, or not being heard – they’re all a kind of provocation. We want to provoke more noise, more thought, more conversation.
“Everyone wants the sound bite, ‘It’s the universality of the female experience!’” she continues. “But we’re trying to show a kaleidoscope. It’s not, ‘Women are great and we triumph.’ Sometimes we triumph. And sometimes triumph is its own trap.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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