“Rare Birds of Fashion” is a new web series from writer and director Lily Hayes Kaufman and co-creator Jackie Schwartz. Bold and irreverent, the show focuses on two ambitious women launching a plus-size fashion line in New York City. Emphasizing the importance of friendship in a fast-paced and fickle world, the series offers a new spin on women-centered media. AWT spoke with Lily Hayes and Jackie about the development of the series and their hopes for its future.
Tell us a little bit about your background. When and how did you get into the film industry?
Lily Hayes Kaufman: My two sisters and I grew up on my dad’s film sets watching him direct movies like “The Toxic Avenger” or “Class of Nuke ‘Em High.’” My dad, Lloyd Kaufman, directs low-budget indie films, and let me just set the record straight—his movies are not glamorous Hollywood films. He makes cult films with lots of blood, low-budget special effects and tons of sexy ladies. I said to myself, “When I grow up, I’m going to do something ‘normal.’” I graduated from college and went after the most “normal” occupation you could imagine–I worked on Wall Street for six years in commodity derivatives. But I learned a big lesson. Normal is boring and I missed creativity in my career.
Jackie Schwartz: I grew up in a very cookie-cutter, Stepford-wife town in northern New Jersey. Everyone had straight hair and wore the same Juicy Couture tracksuits. Meanwhile, I had wild curly hair and couldn’t fit into those suits even if I wanted to. As a kid, I was very aware that I didn’t fit in, so naturally, I retreated to the safe world of books and movies. I never just felt a connection with the characters, but also with those creating the content. And I read “Anne of Green Gables” voraciously–she was really my first role model for a strong, imaginative female character. I loved that Lucy Maud Montgomery created such an outspoken female voice, especially in 1908. I ended up going to college for English/Creative Writing, and I had no idea what I wanted to do besides writing. Through some wonderful connections, I ended up landing an internship at a small independent film production company. I thought I would be getting coffee and making copies, but on my first day there I was thrown a 700+ page manuscript for a miniseries. My boss at the time asked for my opinion on it. It was at that moment that I realized I wanted to make films for people who were like me. It was a powerful feeling.
Lily Hayes, what are some of the challenges you faced when transitioning from finance into the creative field that you are now pursuing?
LHK: I was in my late 20s when I left banking to pursue a career in film. You know, who cared that I could price a crude oil option on a movie set? No one. So like many people in film, I offered to work for free as an assistant on the Dan Radcliffe film “Kill Your Darlings” (which is where I met Jackie) and it was worth it! This gave me the experience that producers cared about, so I could get to the next job (that did pay). My first legit paying job was on the show “Smash.” I started as an Office PA, “Production Assistant.” It’s about as low on the chain as you can go. I remember on my first day of work I was given a sheet that said “OFFICE PA DUTIES OF DOOM”–it was all in good humor of course, but it was serious: my initial duties included tasks like making copies, cleaning dishes, and obviously, getting coffee.
The challenge was making each of these tasks into something valuable for me. For example, making copies sounds like a crummy thing to do, but the copy machine was right by the Writers’ Room and I knew I wanted to write, so this was a great excuse to hang out in a part of the office where I could run into a writer and get to know them. PA “duties of doom” led me to being the Assistant to the Co-Executive Producer of “Smash,” Jim Chory, which led to working for two writers I had admired for years, Julie Rottenberg and Elisa Zuritsky, which led to working for Ted Melfi, the director of “St. Vincent,” which led to writing/directing “Rare Birds of Fashion” with Jackie Schwartz and my sister Charlotte Kaufman. Charlotte was our Cinematographer on “Rare Birds of Fashion.”
Who are your favorite female characters and why?
JS: I’m going to give you a television character. Hands down, Buffy Summers from the famed ’90s show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I’m a huge fan of the creator, Joss Whedon. In an interview I once read, he said he created Buffy because he wanted to dispel the stereotype that small, blonde females would be the first to die in a horror film. Joss is a true feminist at heart! I thought about that a lot when LH and I created the character of Brenda. Being a plus size woman, there are many stereotypes against me. For example, people think I’m unhappy being plus size or that I’m this way because I sit on a couch all day, eating a bag of Cheetos. We wanted to create this character that you wouldn’t normally see as the heroine, just like Buffy. And in a way, we do see Brenda as a superhero. And there’s also the element of true friendship–a driving force in “Rare Birds” between Alix and Brenda as well.
LHK: Most recently, I really loved Emma Stone in “Birdman.” She played Sam, the daughter to Michael Keaton’s character Riggan. I love how Sam leads a turning point in their father/daughter relationship where the daughter is now teaching the father. As the dynamic shifts, Sam pushes her father forward–she gives him advice, in a reversal of the typical parent/child dynamic. I love the tough character she plays. She has been through some rough times, and she is picking herself up and also picking up her dad’s career and driving his success forward.
How did you come up with the idea for “Rare Birds of Fashion?”
LHK: I starting thinking about this character, Brenda. She is awesome, ambitious, you want to be her best friend, and it just happens that she is also plus size. The character Brenda is inspired by my friend (and co-creator) Jackie Schwartz. She was my main inspiration for creating a show around this awesome ambitious woman who is funny, smart and hard-working. That is Jackie! I kept looking for scripts about ambitious women with healthy body image or women who go after career goals, but I just couldn’t find very many that were about the right kind of protagonist. I thought: What if I just write my own story? I mentioned my idea for Brenda to Jackie, and we started brainstorming ideas for “Rare Birds of Fashion” (then titled “Big City”).
JS: We still got to keep “Big City” somewhat–listen to our awesome theme song! What really drove creating “Rare Birds”, in my opinion, was the character of Brenda. Everything came after that. Both LH and I discussed that we were tired of seeing a woman’s end goal be the ring. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting marriage, but I can’t name one movie or television show where that’s the man’s central focus. I’m 27 and at least half of my friends are engaged and/or married, but the other half of us aren’t. We crave seeing strong women on screen. I always think back to the “Mary Tyler Moore” show and how she didn’t end up with a man at the end. And in the ’70s, that was almost unheard of. (Fun fact: when Rhoda got a spinoff, the ratings went down when she fell in love.)
And of course, the other part of creating Brenda was recognizing that our character is plus size and so what? We really wanted our audience, no matter what size, to connect with Brenda based upon the fact that she’s funny, smart and hard-working. I truly believe everyone can connect to the idea that you don’t have to be this “idealized” version of a woman in order to be successful.
The best part about creating “RBOF”–we didn’t just say we wanted to do it, we did it!
What’s the story behind the recognized need for women-piloted media?
LHK: I think that we can improve how society thinks about women, by how women are portrayed in popular media. I love romantic comedies as much as anyone! But what if the girl was chasing a career instead of a boy? What if she was ambitious and intelligent instead of boy crazy? I would love that movie just as much as I love “Love Actually” or “The Notebook,” and so would others! Why aren’t there more women playing ambitious, career-driven characters on TV? Wouldn’t it be awesome to see more healthy, on-camera role models for young women? These are all questions Jackie and I asked ourselves, over and over. Finally, we just decided to create our own heroine by writing our own story. We brainstormed ideas and turned these into eight short-form episodes.
JS: I think a lot about how outspoken, flawed females in film and television are constantly criticized. Characters like Jax Teller and Walter White are beloved, but we tear apart Skyler White and Gemma Teller for emulating the same characteristics. Why are women okay with this? That leads me to believe that Hollywood, with all its progressive musings, still holds the belief that women should be docile and dutiful homemakers.
Also something very important in “RBOF” is the relationship between Brenda and Alix. I find that many shows today still pit women against each other. I absolutely love Lena Dunham and “Girls,” but the friendships on the show are extremely catty. We created Brenda and Alix’s friendship because we want women to support each other. It’s tough enough being a woman in this world, so we really need to stick together. Alix and Brenda love each other and support each other’s goals. It’s really important to have friends like that in this world. I love working with such a smart and ambitious woman like LH because she really believes in the idea of teamwork. And that permeates through what we created within the show and the team we brought on.
Why did you choose fashion as the field to feature smart, ambitious women?
LHK: I would LOVE to write a show about women on Wall Street, or the world of finance in general, but I thought that writing about fashion would be more of a fun world to set our characters in.
JS: Besides being a more fun environment to set our show in, I think fashion is something everyone can relate to. We all have to wear clothing, and our style is ever-evolving and changing as a symbol of who we are at this place and time. Whether people recognize it or not, we consciously think about the fashion choices we make. When we see ads like the one Victoria’s Secret models did in lingerie with the tagline “The Perfect Body,” that affects women out there, no matter what age. That sets a standard as to what the “perfect body” is, when in reality over half of the women out there are above a size 12. By putting Brenda and co. in a fashion setting, we think everyone will be able to relate to what she’s trying to achieve. Everyone is entitled to fair and just fashion. I even like to say fashion is a right, not a privilege.
Many of the scenes are based on Jackie’s experiences. How do you develop scripts together?
LHK: She was my main inspiration for creating a show around this awesome, ambitious woman who is funny, smart and hard-working. Jackie has an amazing narrative voice and a fun unique stash of stories we run through for Brenda’s character. We often brainstorm ideas for Brenda based on one of these stories and then build a scene around it. For example, when we filmed the “Camp Flashback” scene at Steiner Studios–in this scene, Brenda (Jackie Zebrowski) has a flashback to a nasty “Fat Camp” counselor (Lloyd Kaufman) who tortured her. Jackie stepped in and said, “push this scene further, this happened to me. It was rough, it was mean at the time, but it was real.” And it was awesome that Jackie pushed us to do this. It was a tough scene to film.
JS: I was so happy to be able to pull from some of my personal experiences, especially the “Fat Camp Flashback.” I kept saying that my 13-year-old self feels vindicated. So yes, while a lot of the show is based on my personal stash of stories, I think LH and I truly make the perfect team. LH sees the world in a truly unique way and has such a strong, funny voice too. She’s also not afraid to push past a lot of the “politically correct” crap out in the media and write a storyline that may or may not receive some backlash. And she really inspired me to be open to share what it’s like to be living as a plus size girl in a not so plus size world.
What do you want to see come out of this?
JS: I’m hoping what comes out of this is a deeper conversation about women in film and television. Yes, I think in small ways the landscape is changing, but we’re not doing enough about it. It’s like we’re scared to change the formula or something. But I think women want more realistic, relatable women to look up to, even if they’re not ready to admit it. So filmmakers like us should be the ones to push the envelope and make it happen. And that’s why I love what LH and I did, because again, we didn’t just talk about it, we made it happen.
Do you have plans for a second season?
JS: We certainly have plans for a second season. I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, but we have some great ideas and hope to make it work!
To watch a preview of “Rare Birds of Fashion” and contribute to their fundraising campaign, visit their Indiegogo page. The campaign is open until December 25, 2014.
We can’t wait to see what they have in store for us!