On the surface, "Sequin Raze" might seem like just another short film playing at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. What separates the project from the pack, however, is its pedigree (the film was produced through the American Film Institute Directing Workshop for Women) and cast: actresses Anna Camp, Frances Conroy and Ashley Williams all star.
"It's an uphill battle," director Sarah Gertrude Shapiro said in an interview with HuffPost Entertainment. "It's like, 'Why would anyone do a short? Why were they in my short? What's a short?'"
In this case, it's a compact drama focusing on the losing contestant on a reality dating show (Camp) and the producer (Williams) trying to break her spirit. Shapiro, who had directed a short film before, was once a producer herself on a reality dating show.
"It was very much based on the moment that I sort of decided that I couldn't take it anymore," she said. Shapiro is not allowed to discuss the show she worked for, but did offer that the Williams' character, Goldberg, is based on her.
"What was so funny was that I did it through the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, so I had to workshop the script. I was like up against all this resistance because multiple people said, 'She's totally unlikeable, she's a total bitch,'" Shapiro said about her onscreen alter-ego. "I was like, 'She's not a bitch.' It's interesting, because she's based on me and I had to divorce that."
The trick of "Sequin Raze," however, is that by the end, Goldberg has almost become sympathetic -- this despite the psychological warfare she wages on Camp's vulnerable contestant throughout. "I think the ambiguity is my favorite part about it," Shapiro said. "Everyone who watches takes different sides. Pretty much anybody who has ever worked in production takes Goldberg's side: 'Another day, another dollar, that's what you have to do.' Anybody who hasn't is like, 'She's a horrible human being.'"
Count Williams, perhaps best known for playing Ted's girlfriend Victoria on "How I Met Your Mother," on the pro-Goldberg side of things. The actress -- who gives a revelatory performance in the short film -- told HuffPost Entertainment that her character's situation was understandable.
"That's the only way that I could play her: if I figured out why does she stay in this job. How does this serve her? The truth is, I think, it's really hard to leave a job that you know you're good at, you know that you're making a lot of money in, and is steady," Williams said. "I, too, have been stuck on shows that I didn't love, but I couldn't leave because of the money or because I knew that I knew how to do it. It was feeding me. Did I respect the work? Did I love the writing? No, but you stay because you've committed and it's your job."
Camp also had to figure out motivations for her character, the type of person who goes on a reality show ostensibly to find love.
"I'm fascinated by people who would go on and think about finding the man of their dreams," she said. "It's a competition. It's not about finding love. Maybe it is for some of them, but to me it's just a popularity contest."
As for Shapiro, the filmmaker hopes to expand "Sequin Raze" into a television series, or perhaps grow the short film into a feature-length one. That might be easier said than done, however, if only judging by the fact that there are just three major studio releases on the calendar this year that were directed by women.
"I think we have to look at the ratio and be appalled at the numbers," Shapiro said. "It's really inspiring for me to watch female directors who have cracked the code on how to do it. […] With directing, you can go to grad school, but nobody is going to give you a medal and say you're a director. You have to take that space. You have to come in and say, 'I'm claiming that space, this is mine and my idea is this important.'"
"Sequin Raze" screens this week at the SXSW Film Festival. More information can be found here.