Need an ‘Unlikable Female Protagonist’? Get Fearless ‘Not Okay’ Filmmaker Quinn Shephard
Searchlight Pictures’ internet satire “Not Okay” opens with a content warning, advising viewers that the film, starring Zoey Deutch, will contain “flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikable female protagonist.”
It might as well say, “This Is a Quinn Shephard Film.”
Shephard made a splash with her 2017 debut feature, “Blame,” a modern retelling of “The Crucible” — read: unlikable women — that she wrote, directed, starred in, edited, and produced at the tender age of 20, using part of her college fund to finance it. The film premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, where Shephard was nominated for both Best U.S. Narrative Feature and Best Actress (she was nominated alongside her co-star and now-fiancee Nadia Alexander, who went on to win the award). Samuel Goldwyn Films picked up the film and released it the following year, and Shephard (and her mother, Laurie Shephard) were nominated for an Indie Spirit for Best First Screenplay.
Five years later, Shephard is back with her second feature, “Not Okay,” a razor-sharp satire about internet notoriety, viral fame, and the price of being known. Debuting July 29 as a Hulu Original, her new film is funnier than “Blame,” but Shephard interrogates many of the same ideas and issues. While that opening content warning seems like a sly joke, Shephard said it was inspired by some very real concerns — the kind she hopes her film can crack open.
“The content warning was borne out of, to be honest, our test screenings,” she said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “We un-ironically and consistently got responses from — I’m not going to say what demographic, but you might be able to guess — people who were quite literally like, ‘Why would someone make a movie with an unlikable woman?’ It’s something I’ve repeatedly heard, and a lot of my other writer friends have as well. If you portray flawed women or women who reflect societal flaws, you get notes like, ‘I literally don’t understand why you tell a story about this character.'”
Shephard couldn’t wrap her head around that, mostly because films featuring unlikeable male protagonists are often hailed as modern masterpieces, from “American Psycho” to “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Audiences understood that those films were “a statement and not an endorsement,” Shephard said. Why can’t the same apply to “Not Okay”?
The film follows Deutch as Danni Sanders, a wannabe influencer and fledgling writer who lies about going to a fancy creative retreat in Paris while actually playing hooky in her Brooklyn apartment. After a terrorist attack hits the French city, she decides to pretend she was there, going totally viral in the process. Danni is indeed not likable, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel real.
“I am a big fan of the idea that you don’t have to tell films about people who make good choices to have a point,” Shephard said. “Telling really sanitized stories about people without flaws, who does that help? Because most people won’t see themselves in that. Danni is somebody who a lot of people should see themselves in, especially young white women who are on the internet all the time. She should poke at something in you that you think, ‘How can I be less of a Danni Sanders?'”
While the rest of the content warning is “very real” — Shephard wanted to provide a heads up about the themes of trauma and PTSD that run through the film — the “unlikable female protagonist” is intended to provoke. “It was interesting to me that a large chunk of the audience seemed genuinely upset by the fact that the film was about Danni, and so I just wanted to kind of poke at it a little,” she said.
When Shephard first debuted “Blame,” it wasn’t just the unlikable protagonist she played that caught people’s eye; it was that a young woman, practically fresh out of high school, crafted her. Shephard was smart enough to realize that she could use all that notoriety to keep her career moving forward, her way.
“When I did the press for ‘Blame,’ it felt like every single interview was like, ‘What are the particular struggles that you face as a woman doing this?,’ but [being a female filmmaker] did get me in a room,” she said. “I came into film right at a time where being a young woman was actually something that was helping and getting celebrated. That doesn’t mean that I don’t face sexism all the time. We all do. But at the same time, I’m really lucky to have entered the industry at a time where there has been so much activism and work for so many years by women in film so that I could be in a room.”
For her second film, Shephard was intent on sticking to what made “Blame” such a breakout: It was something that appealed to her. “I started writing [‘Blame’] when I was in high school, and it was just exactly what my brain wanted and what I wanted to talk about,” she said. “It wasn’t something that I was writing to be marketable, or commercial, or something that I thought would really appeal to anyone but me. It was validating that I told such a deeply niche and personal story and it spoke to some people. From there, I have really tried to tell stories that were as specific and personal to myself and my interests as possible.”
That includes “Not Okay,” which she started working on in 2018. She was inspired by “the inundation of horrible news mixed with influencer ads” social media served her on a daily basis. “Every day, you wake up, and your eyes are barely open, and you go on your phone, and you’re like, ‘Oh, a horrible school shooting has happened, but also Kim Kardashian has a new perfume line’ and [those stories get] equal media coverage,” Shephard said. “I was feeling really angry and overwhelmed, but I also like to talk about those things through humor. I was interested in trying to do something that dealt with media culture but had a twist on it.”
Shephard always appreciated the pleasures of satire. Growing up, she loved films like “Heathers” and “American Beauty.” She thought “Not Okay” could fit into that mold, and when she asked Alexander (who also appears in the film) and their friends if the idea was “horrible or funny,” they all encouraged her to go for it.
“I wanted to see could I trick people into thinking that it was going to be a safe and funny watch, and then keep dialing down on what, at its core, this character is doing,” Shephard said. She already had a deal with producer Brad Weston and his Makeready shingle and when they told her to pitch “anything,” she arrived with “Not Okay.” She thought it was the “craziest possible concept,” but they dug it and announced the project with Searchlight in June 2021.
None of this would work without a leading lady who can take “unlikable” and run with it — even into spaces that are, dare we say, kind of sympathetic? Shephard already knew who she wanted and wrote the film with the “very brave” Deutch in mind.
“I think she’s super funny and she also has a very relatable quality,” Shephard said of her star. “We have to ground this character. Even though she’s larger than life and a satire, she also needs to feel like a real person. I wanted somebody who would make the character feel sympathetic and relatable, because then I think you’re more torn as the audience.”
Not everyone was as pumped as Deutch and Shephard. “When the script was first going around, there was a lot of agents and people who were like, ‘I like it, but it’s also a lot,'” Shephard said. “Zoey was really not scared. If anything, she was like, ‘If we’re really going to do this, we can’t hold back, because then we’re protecting her.’ I was so glad to hear that.”
While Shephard does appear in a small role (alongside other internet-famous names, more on that to come on IndieWire), she never considered taking the lead as she did with “Blame.” She’s not out of the acting game entirely (“I do think I’m strongest when I can just focus on being behind the camera,” Shephard said) and expects to pop up in “fun little cameos” in her own films, at least until she writes another role she “really wants to throw” herself into.
For now, she’s ready for a social media break. “I probably am due for a social media cleanse,” Shephard said. “It got way dialed up because of the movie, because I felt like my worst fear was having Gen-Z be like, ‘These are terrible references. This girl doesn’t spend any time online,’ so to accurately portray Danni and the world of the film, I was like, ‘I have to spend a lot of time online.”
Shephard went deep on TikTok and Instagram to research Danni’s milieu and admitted she “pulled way back” from social media once the film wrapped. But she wants to be clear: The film’s message is not “social media is the problem, or your phone is the problem,” she said. “It’s more about how social media becomes an echo chamber for our societal issues, and I think Danni is a product of a lot of societal issues that are just magnified and [how] the wrong things are rewarded by the internet.”
While making the film, Shephard and Deutch shared updates with their followers to illuminate the filmmaking process and drum up interest in the final product. They got personal, too, really personal: On the final day of shooting, Alexander proposed to Shephard in front of Lincoln Center, with assistance from the cast and crew.
It was, of course, posted on Shephard’s Instagram, and met with heartfelt, emoji-laced congrats.
A Searchlight Pictures release, “Not Okay” starts streaming on Hulu on Friday, July 29.
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